One of Sega's first games for a home console of former rival Nintendo was Super Monkey Ball on the Gamecube. It quickly became a favourite among many with its simple arcade gameplay and irrepressibly cute characters. Reception for the first Wii installment, Banana Blitz, was a bit mixed due to a shift to motion controls for tilting the platforms to roll the titular monkey balls about. This latest entry in the franchise, Step and Roll, takes a literal step away from the joystick-controlled arcade original by focusing on gameplay using the Wii Balance Board. Whilst this control scheme works pretty well, the game suffers from a rather steep difficulty curve and an uneven selection of mini-games.
If you aren't familiar with the Monkey Ball series, the object is to guide one of a selection of adorable little monkeys inside a ball through a course to a goal. It bears a passing similarity to another marble-rolling game on the Wii: Kororinpa. As with that game your actions tilt a suspended playfield with the camera fixed on your monkey. It seems counter-intuitive because your monkey appears to be running inside the ball, creating the impression that you should really be controlling the monkey directly, but the effect is pretty much the same. Unlike Kororinpa, there's no objective beyond reaching the goal within the time limit. There are bananas to pick up for bonus points and earning extra lives, but those are optional, allowing players to focus on reaching the goal in time.
There are dozens of stages to complete divided into six themed worlds. The Balance Board controls work pretty well, though they can take a little getting used to initially. Thankfully the trainer monkey, Jam, is there to give you some instruction through the beginning levels that introduce you to some basic game concepts and level designs. There's also a graphic in the lower right corner of the screen that shows you where your centre of gravity is in relation to the board – a helpful indicator of whether or not you need to recalibrate in case you're having problems that aren't skill-related.
Whilst things start out well, it's towards the end of the 3rd world that the difficulty spikes rather sharply with a stage that sees players trying to navigate a series of mirrored portals to try to find the goal. Hitting these portals at too slow a speed means bouncing off of them, so going downhill is your best bet; unfortunately you only have 60 seconds to complete any given level so there's not too much margin for error in finding your path. As you progress through the first three worlds you'll unlock access to the remaining three, revealing a rather large gulf in difficulty between the two groups of stages. The same time limit applies, but the level of challenge increases to the point of frustration with the introduction of various uneven surfaces, high speed downhills, tilting half-pipes and levels without any barriers on the sides of the platforms. On stages with channels or defined paths the time limit isn't a big problem, but on the upper stages with more open playfields it's far too easy to take a wrong turn; attempts to correct your direction often make things worse, thanks to your monkey's direction of travel reversing every time you shift your weight to the rear of the Balance Board.
Using the Remote's tilt sensors instead of the Balance Board makes things a bit easier, but the developers recognised that and have added barriers to navigate around which end up making play with the remote even more difficult than using the Board. Simply being able to stop and reorient yourself would have been a big help with either control method; even better would have been some kind of adjustable difficulty setting to increase the time on the clock (or do away with time limits altogether) to allow for more mistakes. There are unlimited continues, but that doesn't change the underlying difficulty of the harder stages. We find it hard to imagine younger players having much luck with anything beyond the first two worlds and expect more than a couple of broken Balance Boards to result from jumping up in down in frustration following repeat Game Overs due to repeatedly plummeting into oblivion or simply running out of time.
If you like you can add a second player (or just hold the remote yourself) to shoot added obstacles with the pointer and . It won't make the game any easier, but it's a nice extra feature. You can also play through stages you've unlocked in sequence via different Marathon modes. You can play through either the first three worlds or second three worlds or attempt to play through all of them in one sitting. Since Marathon modes only give you one life to play through the chosen stages, it's likely only professional tightrope walkers are going to have much luck with these.
Interestingly enough, each world is self-contained: once you complete a world's last stage you're taken to an end credits sequence where you play through a little game trying to roll marbles bearing the names of staff members through holes in a platform. The high score from this game is recorded and it can actually be played on its own via a menu option if you desire. Whilst we fully support the creators of games being honoured, it's a bit annoying that you cannot interrupt the credit sequence with anything other than the Home button – though the 80s-style easy listening music and simple tilt game that accompanies it is soothing.
The graphics are truly excellent with colourful animated backdrops and imaginative (though eventually overly fiendish) level designs - it's certainly not a game you'll get bored looking at any time soon. The characters are incredibly cute and the monkeys have some wonderful over-the-top reactions to winning the mini-games that are truly a delight to behold. Kids will appreciate the slapstick game intros featuring Jam running into the screen and the like. Sound effects match the visuals in quality with "boings" for bouncing balls and monkeys squeaking when you hit a barrier. The musical soundtrack is quite excellent on its own, and we hope Sega will make songs available for download in the future.
Mini-games have long been a part of the Monkey Ball franchise on home consoles and Step & Roll has gone far beyond previous entries by featuring more than a score of games in addition to the main ball-rolling event. Unfortunately the old quantity vs. quality question comes up and whilst there are definitely some fun games on offer, a few of them could have used a bit more work or would have been better left out completely. Multiplayer matches will obviously use the Wii Remote – although in most cases one player can use the Balance Board with the caveat that those games requiring the remote become 1-3 player matches due to the Balance Board taking the player 4 slot.
It's an interesting collection of games, featuring some that work better with the Balance Board (luge, balloon racing, fire fighting, formation sky diving), some that work better with the remote (jump rope skipping, hover tank racing, red light-green light) and some that just don't work well at all (ladder climbing, top spinning). You'll definitely find some fun games on offer with highlights being grabbing stars whilst swinging your monkey back-and-forth on a pendulum, a four-way pinball match, the aforementioned formation skydiving and ball gliding through rings and bananas before landing on a target. Some of the games are far too short (we really enjoyed the Lunar Landar-style game, but it's over after only one landing) and there's no prompt to replay any of them upon completion, meaning you have to re-select them and skip past the instructions every single time you want to play them again. Given the obvious "party" potential it feels like a missed opportunity to not have built a stronger framework for enjoying the mini-games via tournament modes or some kind of "play list" option. Simply picking a game off a list, playing it a single time and then having to reselect it or another game from the menu is a bit disappointing given this is probably going to end up the most-used part of Step & Roll in many households.
Super Monkey Ball Step & Roll is a decent addition to the Monkey Ball franchise, but it simply sets the bar too high in the difficulty stakes to have long-lasting appeal. We think that families that enjoy playing games together will get a good amount of enjoyment from the variety of mini-games on offer, though there are a few duds and games that would have benefited from being a bit more fleshed-out.
For the solo, more experienced gamer, we'd have to recommend sticking with your trusty copy of Super Monkey Ball for the Gamecube – Sega has clearly moved on into the expanded marketplace with this franchise and it seems to be a pretty good fit. If you do want to make the leap into motion-controlled monkey balling (that didn't come out right) then be sure you've checked your blood pressure and practice some zen meditation first.