Super Monkey Ball: Banana Rumble Didn’t Make Me Feel As Old As I Thought It Would

Super Monkey Ball: Banana Rumble Didn’t Make Me Feel As Old As I Thought It Would

In 2021, Sega released Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania, a remake of the first two Super Monkey Ball games. I’d picked up the first game back in 2002 on the GameCube’s Australian launch day, taking it home alongside the console and a copy of Star Wars Rogue Squadron II. I picked up Banana Mania excited to both revisit the original and finally play the sequel’s levels.

But as good as Banana Mania was – a generous package, quelled slightly by an imperfect adaptation of the original game’s physics – it was hard to play it without thinking about how much time had passed since the early 2000s. As a teenager, I could afford to spend months, even years, struggling through the Expert difficulty levels of the first game. I could trust in my reflexes. I was not embarrassed by my own frustration when I failed repeatedly at the same course.

Things are different now! As much as I admired Banana Mania, I found that it wasn’t an experience that fit into my life as neatly as the original had – especially since Monkey Target, the all-time great party game, was annoyingly different from the basically perfect GameCube original. Perhaps I’d changed, I thought – but also, in my 30s, had I reached the point where my reflexes were atrophying, even slightly? Is Monkey Ball a young person’s game? It certainly looks like it is.

So it was that I came to Banana Rumble thinking that I’d be writing a review about my own mortality, and what it feels like to see a thing you loved slip from your grasp, and how the relentless march of age had withered my ability to enjoy this weird series about tilting monkeys in balls across various stages. But what I found was a game that felt willing to meet me halfway, without making me feel bad for having aged so much between games. On top of that, this is the best Monkey Ball sequel since the GameCube.

Super Monkey Ball: Banana Rumble‘s Adventure mode, the main meat of the game, hasn’t changed things too dramatically from earlier entries in the series. You pick from several monkeys, each with different stats, and then roll them through increasingly challenging levels with the analogue stick. You control the tilt of the world rather than the ball itself, and guiding your monkey to the goal in each world requires increased precision the deeper you go. It’s a simple game – you really are just tilting the stick – but thanks to excellent level design and a tweaked difficulty curve, it’s all very satisfying (you can also safely ignore the brief story cutscenes, although it’s pretty cute and harmless – and, weirdly, built heavily around a Persona reference).

Each level begins with a short intro in which the camera pans across the maze, showing you the rough layout you’re about to deal with. I was continually delighted as new levels unveiled themselves, seeing their layouts, their gimmicks, the instances where the designers were trying something I’d not seen in one of these games before. There’s a creativity on display here, in the levels that take on different shapes and patterns, that throw moving parts together in interesting ways, that transform Monkey Ball, sometimes, into something that feels more like a racing game. And then there are other levels that are simply very satisfying to navigate properly.

I was consistently pleased with the levels in this game, which felt fresh and creative and fun – especially after the last two games in the series were both remakes. There’s a focus and intent here – the play and pause buttons from Super Monkey Ball 2 return, but are used sparingly. There are a few levels that feel more like puzzles than tests of skill, but for the most part, it’s really all about control and the satisfying feeling of calmly navigating a narrow beam as the timer ticks down, knowing that you’ll make it if you just keep your head.

The monkeys in this game have a new ability, too, a fact that might immediately set long-term fans on edge after the annoying jump controls of Banana Blitz – but actually, this one’s a good addition. By holding down “A”, the monkeys can charge up a forward dash, giving them a speed boost that can be used to gain speed before ramps or to make difficult shortcuts. The dash fits well into the mechanics of Monkey Ball: it’s clear that speedrunning the game will be dependent on the dash, but you only occasionally need to use it to complete a level. On some levels, a well-placed dash will let you bounce through the level just right and hit the goal extremely fast, which is always very satisfying. The physics also feel improved compared to Banana Mania and the disappointing Wii remake Banana Blitz HD, both of which felt just a little off. 99 times out of 100, when I fell off the edge, it felt like my own fault, whether it was because I slipped at the last moment or because my plan for getting to the final goal was inherently silly or risky.

But my favourite new feature in Banana Rumble is an option in the pause menu: “Mark As Cleared”. If you’ve been butting your head against a stage that’s giving you grief, and you want to step away, you can. The difficulty ramps up steadily in this game, and around 80 levels in, I found myself, more and more often, wanting to move on from levels that were giving me grief – and having that option felt great. Despite the cutesy graphics, Super Monkey Ball has always had a hardcore streak, and the worst games in the series have either ramped this up too much or neutered it entirely. Banana Rumble finds a happy medium.

Marking a level as cleared means you won’t unlock any currency from it and that the whole world won’t be marked as cleared on the level select screen – which, if you’re already inclined to Monkey Ball‘s charms, is more than enough to encourage you to return in the future to try and clear the levels you skipped. The next level is not always harder than the one you just skipped, and often coming back later, with a clear head and a different monkey, is enough to make things click. It’s the same principle that made Elden Ring feel more accessible without dropping the difficulty – if you hit a wall, go elsewhere and come back to it when you’re ready.

On top of this, the optional “helper” functions allow you to activate a guiding ghost to show you how to complete a level, and rewind your attempts so that if you fall right before the goal you can have another shot. Turning these on doesn’t automatically make the level a cinch – you still need to be able to actually complete every part of the level, and the game does not record it as a full-and-proper complete. These tools give you ways of tackling the game’s numerous huge challenges, while still incentivising going back and doing them “properly”. It’s a great system, one that makes the game far more accessible without compromising on difficulty.

The game promises 200 levels, and as I came close to the end of the story – which wraps up after the first 100 – I started to wonder if the game was about to throw a technicality at me, giving me plussed-up or mirrored versions of the first 100. To my delight, completing the game essentially unlocks a whole new campaign, with completely original levels, that starts out much more difficult than the first one did. Every level has tracked goals, including a golden banana to collect, and each set of ten has a time trial option, too. If you’re a fan of Monkey Ball, there’s a lot of it to enjoy here. 

Super Monkey Ball has, traditionally, been a game of two halves – the rolling-through-levels section, and the party games. Banana Rumble instead has “Battle Mode”, so there’s no Monkey Target, no Monkey Bowling, no pool or soccer or tennis or anything like that. Instead, the game focuses on online competitive modes for up to sixteen players, which feels like an odd fit for the series.

I don’t think Battle Mode is bad – indeed, it’s a pretty fine suite of extra competitive games, and I can imagine it being fun online during the initial weeks if there’s enough of a player base. I played each mode with bots and had a decent time, especially with the races and Banana Hunt modes, where each player tries to collect as many bananas as they can in an arena filled with competitors. But as much as it’s never wise to judge an online component too harshly before anyone’s playing it, I don’t think anything here is so strong that it’s likely to build a following. The absence of the traditional party games means that Super Monkey Ball: Banana Rumble is only really half of the game I wanted it to be, but it’s still easily the best that the series has been in a very long time.

According to the time trial leaderboards attached to each world, I’m actually not very good at Super Monkey Ball anymore. Even in pre-release when the list of names is small, I’m routinely getting smoked by other reviewers. But as much as I struggled sometimes, and occasionally had to skip courses, Banana Rumble never made me feel useless. Part of the fun of reviewing a game like this is wondering what will happen once the really talented players get their hands on it – the folks who will speedrun the levels and take the tricky shortcuts that I often found myself avoiding. But Banana Rumble makes me feel good enough just being able to complete the levels I’ve been able to complete so far – so good that I haven’t given up on beating all of them just yet.

Review conducted on Nintendo Switch.

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