This is about breathing new life into a series via an expanded, developed one-player experience.
Multimedia: Super Monkey Ball Adventure
Platforms: GameCube, PSP, PlayStation 2
Number of players: 1-4
ESRB rating: Everyone
Developer: Traveller's Tales
US release date: 2006-07
In the wake of the near-death of my second PlayStation 2 console (seriously, I think the innards of those things might just be held together by chewed bubble gum and old rubber bands, making me wonder just how long the $600 PS3 is going to last), it occurred to me that the old Nintendo Entertainment System sure was durable. I mean, I had that thing for years, and in all that time I had the same console, the same two rectangular controllers (with a few variations along the way), the same TV hookups, the same everything. And I wasn't nice to my NES -- surely, gamers around my age remember the infuriation inherent in games like Ghosts 'n Goblins, Castlevania, and that old bastion of supreme levels of difficulty, Gradius. More often than I'd like to admit, my infuriation resulted in a thrown controller. Sometimes, the scolding my parents gave me when they saw one of my fits would curb my throwing habits; I'd make like I was going to throw the thing, but never let go. However, when they weren't looking, the things would fly right out of their oversized, vaguely trapezoidal sockets.
In a particularly regrettable move, I once punted the poor NES (seriously -- picked it up, dropped it, and kicked it across the room) after a particularly distressing episode of Ninja Gaiden torment. It still worked after that, but, I must say, it was never quite the same.
There is a point to all of this: I've become pretty levelheaded over the years, and video games don't affect me the way they used to. Controller tossing is a thing of the past (though, having seen my four-year-old daughter play a few of her kid-games, it's apparently genetic), and if a game frustrates me too much, I know enough to turn it off. At least, I did, until now. Super Monkey Ball Adventure may just mark the return of the punt-based console stress test.
Super Monkey Ball Adventure features, at its heart, a complete overhaul of the whole Super Monkey Ball formula, placing its prime emphasis on the one-player "adventure mode", where it could have been argued that the emphasis of the former games was on four-player mayhem. This could be a boon or a curse, depending on how many other Monkey Ball fans a given gamer has readily available at any given time. Regardless of whether you're for or against such a development, the execution here is actually rather extraordinary.
You see, the "Adventure" in Super Monkey Ball Adventure is just that -- an adventure game very much in the vein of Jak and Daxter, but with a whole bunch of cute monkeys. All you do is choose your player, and you're off on a rather humongous mission that involves going to five very distinct worlds, navigating the landscapes and bringing "joy" to their inhabitants. Yes, "joy" -- side quests are in major abundance on this adventure, and by talking to and performing tasks for the other inhabitants of these Monkey Islands (which sadly feature, to my knowledge, no cameos from Guybrush Threepwood), you can increase the amount of "joy" you bring to them. Which is good, because apparently rolling around in a Monkey Ball is all about bringing joy... and helping the monkey equivalents of Romeo and Juliet establish their cute monkey relationship.
But oh, the difficulty. Simply rolling around on the islands is a precarious task, as these islands are peppered with narrow bridges, ramps that require plenty of inertia, and tiny little ledges that tease the user mercilessly via the lack of a jump mechanism. In fact, the difficulty level is so high and incredibly frustrating, that most of the advance press on the game has been of the "it's too damn hard" variety. To which I say, damn it, this is Super Monkey Ball! The entire essence of the single-player version of any Super Monkey Ball title has been one of extreme repetition and immense frustration. Why shouldn't that carry over to the simian land of Jungle Island or the twisted theme park that is Zootopia? At the very least, the design of each level is unique and well-thought-out enough that there's never a feeling of "have I been here before?" The levels evolve as you play them, each area having a unique vibe and interesting challenges. Abilities that heretofore have been trapped in party game purgatory now have actual uses, such as splitting the ball and using the halves like wings. This flying mechanic is incredibly easy to get used to, but difficult to master.
Yes, it seems that all those hours spent figuring out how to beat your buddies in the Monkey Target mini-game were put to good use, as landing on tiny strips of land is at a premium here.
For the purists, the game even incorporates the puzzle world, which is Adventure's version of the classic game -- a Monkey Ball drops on a short (but usually difficult to traverse) track, and if you get through the finish gate, you beat the puzzle. Used in the main game, you beat these levels to unlock doors. If you miss the old Super Monkey Ball, however, you can just play these self-contained levels by using the Challenge Mode in the main menu -- you don't have to unlock them, and they're always available, so there's no need to complain about needing to traverse the perilous Adventure Mode to play the game. The Party Mode brings back the Monkey Target, Monkey Fight, and Monkey Race games, and augments them with three new games: Monkey Bounce (knew those Othello skills from grade school would come in handy someday), Monkey Cannon (which, truth told, is pretty awesome in its unconventionality), and the fairly simple-but-somehow-still-confusing Monkey Tag (which involves popping balloons). You do need to play through the adventure to unlock levels and playable characters for these games, so there is a little room for griping there, I suppose.
Really, though, this is about breathing new life into a series via an expanded, developed one-player experience, and the game does just that quite admirably. If the game had simply been another series of self-contained levels, we would have been complaining that no evolution has taken place -- now that evolution has taken place, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" has become the new mantra. Yet, somehow, playing through the game has managed to make delivering a monkey's lunch or performing a magic trick feel like major accomplishments. In my own memory, the experience of being so invested in a game that I was frustrated enough to toss those poor, defenseless controllers was part of the fun, but I could never adequately explain why. Playing Super Monkey Ball Adventure helps to fill in that "why", if years of spoon-fed, all-too-easy gaming experiences haven't completely ripped the desire for a challenge from your body. If you're really upset about the fact that there's no more Monkey Bowling or Golf, I feel for you. If, however, you're ready to hate the entire Monkey World and their menial little tasks with every fiber of your being, even as you're constantly drawn back toward completing those little tasks, this is your game.
Just make sure someone's around to help curb your desire to take a sledgehammer to your 'Cube.