Super Monkey Ball, the once great franchise that kept gamers up at night perfecting their scores and mastering levels, was dealt a serious blow when Step & Roll came out on the Wii. Gone was the challenge, along with any originality in the level design, and the fans and success were lost with it. The original two games sold over a million copies on the GameCube, praised for their challenging, refined gameplay. Then Banana Blitz made things even more intense with the addition of the jump button and precise Wii motion controls, and sold two million copies.
Step & Roll was next, and Sega decided to change things up. The game was designed to be as easy as possible, in an effort to attract new “casual” players. It completely bombed and didn’t even make a dent in the sales charts. After comparing the reception of these two approaches, you would think Sega would go back to the old, successful approach for Super Monkey Ball 3D. You’d be wrong.
Firstly, I’ll start with the good. The graphics are good enough. You can see the levels, the ball, the bananas, and it’s quite clean and crisp. The music is also fantastic, there’s some really catchy tunes in this, which is one feature of the series that’s remained in tact. The 3D effect is very good as well, it has a good sense of depth and nice effects. Things in the background look distant and huge, and the 3D is stable even when constantly changing angles. It makes the mere act of rolling around the level a fun, engaging experience. Which is good, because rolling around comfortably is all you’ll be doing.
There isn’t one legitimately hard level in the entire game. The platforms are as thick as the brains at Sega who thought this was a good approach. The approach to get more “casual” gamers on board has killed any appeal the game had in the first place. The levels are basically on rails, any danger you have of falling off the edge of the games wide platforms is negated by thick barriers surrounding the levels. Sega attempted to spice up these levels by including “hidden” items: getting them usually just involves moving slightly to the left, or taking an alternate path then heading back. It’s a tad insulting. The rewarding shortcuts seen in previous Monkey Balls are gone too, only about 3 or 4 levels even allow you to improvise and skip bits of the stage, it makes setting high scores rather boring. The most creative level in the game is a bonus stage, which will net you a few extra lives you won’t need.
The terrible Sega decisions don’t end there: the bottom screen is useless in the main game. It’s dedicated to showing you a list of 1-10 of the levels in the world, with the one you’re in highlighted. As if seeing “2-2” wasn’t enough, we have to know that 2 comes after 1 and before 3. Of all the things Sega could have put here, such as a top down map, maybe a banana counter or heck even a ball rolling animation, they picked this. Fuck you.
Besides the main game there’s two additional modes: Monkey Race and Monkey Fight. Both are horrible, but Monkey Race is somewhat salvageable and worth playing. It’s basically Mario Kart, but with more annoying weapons, stiff controls, and a poor framerate. The items include typical bombs, banana peels and boosts. The best item is the “Super Monkey Ball” which takes you out of the kart and puts you in a much faster ball, as if the development team themselves are making fun of how crappy the karts control. There’s also hilariously oversized 3D Glasses, which act like the squid in Mario Kart and cover the screen, obscuring your view of the track ahead. There’s 9 tracks in total in 3 different areas, and some of the later tracks are surprisingly good. They have shortcuts that require a bit of skill; one has a platform much thinner than any seen in the main game.
The controls aren’t horrible; the handling of the karts is just very uninspired and lacking momentum and any kind of physical connection to the ground. Turning is very robotic and unsatisfying, but drifting is a bit more fun. Drifting is done by pressing R to start spinning around, and releasing it gets a huge boost. The speed boost is pretty significant, and makes driving on long simple corners a big boost wankfest sometimes. The angle you can drift at is very sharp too, you can easily turn 90 degrees once you start spinning; the skillful part is not engaging the boost until you’re heading in the right direction. Thankfully you can’t do the drift boost on a straight, so there’s no repetitive “snaking” needed to be competitive. While spinning you can knock other players out by running into them – this stops them completely in their tracks. Items have the same effect, when hit by something you don’t just slow down, you also come to a complete stop and can’t move for 5 seconds.
For some bizarre reason Sega thought this game had depth, and included 16 different Monkeys to use and 16 different vehicles with different stats. This gives the Time Trial mode a decent bit of replay value. The new roster is littered with inspirational ideas such as Pirate AiAi and Princess YanYan, who dreams of going on a date with AiAi on a flying carpet. That might make a more interesting mini-game. Overall, Monkey Race is very flawed but a good distraction from the main game.
Monkey Fight… isn’t really worth talking about or playing ever. The 3D is good, but the controls are bad, every mode in it sucks, and movement is slow and glitchy. It feels like you’re jumping around in goo and punching underwater, and there’s barely any impact made when you do punches. It has a good concept and presentation, but the terribly glitchy controls make it unplayable. It’s one of the worst games I’ve ever played.
Super Monkey Ball 3D‘s main mode is still fun, it’s cool to roll around the levels just looking at stuff and enjoying the rolling sensation, and the controls are superb. This is the best Super Monkey Ball has ever controlled: the analog nub on 3DS has a great “pulling back” sensation that allows for a precise degree of control and correction. This just makes it all the more disappointing that Sega didn’t bother making any actual levels for the game. It’s like for each world they shat on the floor in a different place and drew the pattern that came up. The random bumps along the tracks that serve no real purpose could definitely be explained by corn. Lack of StreetPass or SpotPass is also disappointing; sharing scores or replays might give people a reason to actually improve them.
Overall, Super Monkey Ball 3D is a good game, with 10 levels in each of the 8 worlds, great controls, good immersive 3D graphics and nice music. It’s just a poor Super Monkey Ball game.