Super Monkey Ball is an incredibly simple idea: poor little monkeys are trapped in air-tight balls. They can probably breathe but it isn't specified, and all you have to do is roll them to the goal. Yet somehow the original two games and the expanded Deluxe compilation managed to take that premise and mould it into one of the greatest games we've ever played. Everything was polished to a shimmering gleam. The stage design, the visual and audio feedback and most importantly how it feels to move in 3D space. Every single one of those points is something the series has severely struggled with since. It's come close to hitting the beats of greatness but more often than not it's hitting incredibly low lows.
How is such a simple idea repeatedly executed so poorly? It all comes down to the engine. Everything worked exactly as you'd expect on GameCube, so much so that finishing the game in a linear fashion is more like the tutorial. The meta of Monkey Ball is exploiting the stages — moving the Monkey in ways the developer likely never even intended. Check out a few speed runs if you haven't before, the things people can do in these games is bananas. This also extends to the party games which may seem like completely different experiences but whether you're playing Billiards or flying through the sky in Monkey Target, the importance of physics and momentum is still at the forefront of the experience.
It's been 19 years since Super Monkey Ball 2 and we've gone on to finish every release out of admiration for what we loved in the past, even though we've had bad experiences with most of them, but the future has never looked so promising. Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania is here and it aims to bring everything we loved about the originals back but remade in the modern artstyle with a ton of quality of life improvements. The heart is clearly here, everything looks right... and that's why it hurts so much to say this isn't quite the return to form we were hoping it would be.
Banana Mania is a good game and if this is your first time diving into the series you'll probably still have a fun time. Unfortunately, it's remaking something we hold to an incredibly high standard and it needs to be judged by those standards.
Our first impressions were positive. The game greets you with an earworm of a main theme and as you jump into the story or challenge modes you'll be taken straight back to days of the GameCube launch. They've recreated all 300 stages across Monkey Ball 1, 2, and even the new stages of Deluxe as faithfully as possible with only a few minor changes — and if you don't want any changes there's even an unlockable level pack that presents the adapted ones in their original state. Content-wise they've thought of everything.
The original game only had four playable characters but the base roster of Banana Mania has been tripled to 12. Yan Yan & Doctor are obvious inclusions but less obvious are Beat from Jet Set Radio and Kiryu from Yakuza — what's more, they feel strangely at home rolling around in balls. Remember Jam & Jet? Of course you don't, they debuted in Super Monkey Ball 3D and they aren't even fully playable in their own game, just a few party games no one played because they were bad. We'd be surprised if anyone has love for these characters but the fact they're here is amazing. This truly feels like a passion-filled celebration of Monkey Ball's 20-year legacy.
This clearly isn't some cheap cash-in to make the most of assets lying around from Banana Blitz HD and it is undoubtedly the best Monkey Ball has been since it left GameCube, but it all comes back to the engine. The original's physics were so precise and as soon as you boot up Monkey Target in Banana Mania it's clear something is very wrong. You still roll off the ramp and use your ball as a set of wings as you glide your way towards the target but it simply doesn't feel right.
The movement is no longer an extension of the main game, it's loose and messy. Worst of all, the game doesn't rely 100% on physics and momentum. If you simply walk off the ramp as slowly as possible the game will play a launch animation as if you ran at full speed — you won't get very far but that animation is part of the problem. Even when running at full speed the jump off the ramp feels scripted, there's a moment where you have next to no control and it just doesn't feel good. The satisfying momentum is gone.
If you're a fan of the series, you'll know how important Monkey Target is. I'm sure plenty of us have played it more than the main game and it's incredibly disappointing to say this version isn't good enough. It's better than that found in Banana Blitz or Banana Splitz but it's not one of the best multiplayer games of all time — a high standard to meet, for sure, but whether it's fair or not that is the standard.
Other party games fare a little better. Monkey Bowling can still be a lot of fun with its wacky special lanes and while Monkey Fight doesn't feel quite as good, it can be decent fun. Almost all of them come with little caveats. They are fine, and when playing with friends you're bound to have a good time, but they no longer feel like they're cut from the same cloth as the main game which is what made them so fun in the first place.
That's a shame because in comparison the main game actually holds up very well. The stage design is as well crafted as it's ever been and while the engine isn't flexible enough to pull off every outrageous skip possible in the original, you can still exploit them in some fun and chaotic ways. Treated as a fun romp, Banana Mania can be very enjoyable and there's plenty it does better than even the originals.
In Super Monkey Ball 2's story mode AiAi was the only playable character even though the rest of the cast appeared in cutscenes, but now you can play as anyone you want. When you fall off a stage it takes mere moments until you're back in the action whereas the original can take more than double the time. The accessibility features like being able to slow down the game speed, double the timer and display arrows highlighting your way to the goal are entirely optional but greatly appreciated for players who need them. This is far from a waste of a remake — it's filled with great ideas to improve the surrounding pillars of Super Monkey Ball, and if anything it's just great to have a game that isn't Banana Blitz on Switch.
We especially appreciated the added camera control. We've all had moments where we find ourselves in a tough position without enough room to physically turn around but now we can rotate the camera freely in full 360 degrees. The default sensitivity is a little low but you can crank that thing up — although we actually found cranking it down to be helpful in one instance. A particular path was a little too narrow to cross but bringing the camera sensitivity all the way to the bottom allowed us to line ourselves up perfectly. There are more options than ever and they all make the experience more pleasant.
To be honest we were initially excited for the absence of lives but it does impact the enjoyment of challenge mode. The extra floors used to be a challenging reward for those who made their way through without a continue, but now they're a jarring difficulty spike awarded to everyone no matter how much they master the courses. In a sense, it robs it of purpose. Not completely, however; the game features leaderboards and they completely change the competitive dynamic.
We're proud to say that, as of this review, we are officially the greatest Monkey Ball players in the world! Suddenly challenge mode makes far more sense when attempting to perfect each stage as fast as possible and competing with the world for the fastest time. The skill ceiling is bound to be high but we're sure it will enable some heated competition between friends. Online ranking might even be Banana Mania at its best, the developers are truly encouraging you to break stages as best as you can.
It absolutely has its plus points, but there are still elements where the main game feels considerably lesser than what came before. Sound design is a key one, We actually really like the new tracks and the original score is available via the Deluxe Edition or DLC (groan), but it's the sound effects themselves that feel stagnant. The original conveyed a feeling of friction and speed when rolling around at a high velocity but Banana Mania sounds much more bubbly and safe. Worst of all, the rolling sounds completely stop when you reach a certain speed which eradicates any sense of high stakes movement.
There's a few hints of visual charm missing too - in the original Monkey Ball the next stage would always appear above the player and you could see the Monkey fly towards it as they clear the goal but now you just fly into an empty void in the sky. The camera also no longer follows the monkey as it dives further into the depths of the ocean in Monkey Target.
The elaborate cutscenes from Super Monkey Ball 2 have been reimagined in fairly cheap skits with floating cutouts for characters that only last a couple of seconds. And look, we're not saying these were ever cinematic masterpieces but this new interpretation feels like nothing.
Also weirdly missing is multiplayer in the main game. Granted it wasn't simultaneous in the original but this was one mode we played for hours and hours back on GameCube and we were hoping to see it return with splitscreen — instead it's missing entirely.
It's disappointing when a package that gets so many surrounding elements right stumbles with its core pillars. Moving AiAi around just doesn't look, sound or feel as good as it used to, and even though what's here is serviceable in its own right, we've experienced better. There's still plenty to like; if you've managed to enjoy any Monkey Ball post-Deluxe, rest assured this is better than any of them. But it's like remaking Donkey Kong Country without the rhythmic flow of chaining bounces — probably still fun but surely not as good.
It may not be saying much but Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania is the best the series has been in almost two decades and newcomers are bound to find a lot to love. It wears its heart on its sleeve and clearly the team has true passion for the franchise. It's packed full of content, new ways to play and there are so many extras and improvements that never existed in the original. Unfortunately, the engine beneath it all isn't quite up to the job. What they've achieved with Unity simply isn't on par with the originals and while the main game is still enjoyable, many of the party games are severely hindered. Until Monkey Target returns to its former glory, we cannot truly say Super Monkey Ball is back.