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Thursday, 18 February 2010

'Super Monkey Ball Step & Roll' review: Monkey Balls...

I am quite conscious that, so far, I have reviewed two “mature” games, both of which involve a lot of shooting in dimly lit corridors (I am of course referring to Bioshock 2 and Mass Effect 2). I therefore thought that it would be a good idea to make my next review a Wii game, with a more casual (less bloodthirsty) audience in mind. I am also aware that I’ve been giving SEGA a rather easy time of it lately. First I talked up their new 2D Sonic game, then I charitably compared one of their biggest flops (Shenmue) with one of this year’s most anticipated titles (Heavy Rain), before going on to praise the demo of (what is sure to be) a fairly average Mario Kart-clone in the form of Sonic and SEGA All-Stars Racing. In the interest of balance, it seems only fair that I now take SEGA to task over their most recent release: Super Monkey Ball Step & Roll, on the Wii.

For those unfamiliar with this particular franchise, the original Super Monkey Ball was a rather brilliant Arcade cabinet game which became a successful and well-received Gamecube launch title back in 2001. The game basically sees the player take control of a monkey in a gumball. You must guide this monkey to the end of each level within the time limit whilst avoiding falling off the stage. Effectively you were not so much in control of the monkey itself, but of the level, tilting it so as to cause the monkey to follow your chosen path. It was good fun and was a decent party game as you could easily pass the controller around upon failing and give somebody else a go. Since then, SEGA has released a number of sequels to varying degrees of success.

I was relatively excited by the prospect of this new Wii iteration of the series as it employs the Balance Board peripheral (hence the word “Step” in the title) and whilst a few mediocre titles have so far tried to incorporate Nintendo’s fitness controller, Monkey Ball is arguably the first respectable games franchise to give it a try. In theory it is a good fit. As anyone who has played Wii Fit knows, the Balance Board is sensitive at detecting changes in weight distribution and this should lend itself to Monkey Ball well, as you tilt your body to tilt the level onscreen. But whilst this works in theory, in practice it is far too sensitive for its own good, rendering the game’s harder stages impossible. I was able to struggle through and complete the game’s two easiest “worlds” (sets of 10 levels) using this control method, but as the game progressed it became clear that I would need to switch to the Wii Remote.

It is a great shame that the Balance Board option doesn’t work as hoped. However, when played with the Wii Remote, Step & Roll handles fairly well after a bit of practice, and the difficult later stages become much easier. This is another problem with Step & Roll. It is too easy. With only 70 levels in the main mode (compared with around 300 in 2005’s Super Monkey Ball Deluxe on the XBOX/PS2) the game is far too short and even the hardest of the levels are quite simple to beat. Furthermore, losing all your lives results in being given the option to continue from the same point... which is completely pointless. Why bother with having lives when they are so meaningless? And when you (inevitably) complete each 10-level world, you are treated to an unskipable end credit sequence, each with it's own delightful J-Pop song (including lyrics about “living your dream” and “following your heart” like every piece of J-Pop ever recorded) which has nothing to do with guiding a monkey to the end of an obstacle course, whatsoever. The first time this happened, after world one, I thought I had completed the game within ten minutes.

Not only are Step & Roll's levels much easier than those in earlier instalments, they are also less fun to play. Whereas the original games were focussed purely on remaining on the level by avoiding holes, often building up a lot of speed, Step & Roll is mainly about the finesse required to roll around obstacles planted over every inch of each stage. Totems, rocks and blocks of ice are scattered throughout the levels and buffeting off them is not fun and just breaks any hope of building momentum. The game is best in the few levels where speeding from one end to the other is still possible and when this is possible, the game is still quite brilliant fun.

Whilst the main mode is unreasonably short (I completed it within a couple of hours), there is the option of co-operative play to add a little replay value to those courses, as well as the allure of besting your score from last time around. There are also around 20 multiplayer mini-games to keep you and your friends entertained. At least that is the intention. Bizarrely none of these mini-games employ the Super Monkey Ball gameplay mechanics at all, instead requiring you to: shake the Wii Remote to knock your friend off a pedestal; hold the Wii Remote like a steering wheel for a terrible Mario Kart-style game; waggle the remote to pump air into a balloon and so on. None of the mini-games have anything to do with Super Monkey Ball, or the concept of "fun". Take a look at the video (below) to get an idea about just how fun these mini-games are for yourself.

All in all, Step & Roll is not a bad game. It just isn't as good as it should/could have been, especially with regards to use of the Balance Board, which seemed like a match made in heaven. The originals were superior games and people who haven't played either of the first two instalments in the series would do better to utilise the Wii's Gamecube disc compatibility and find an old copy of one of those instead. However, if you can't find those games or if you have played them and are hungry for more Monkey Ball, the single player is fun (if short) when played with the Wii Remote. People looking for a fun multiplayer experience should probably stick to Wii Sports or buy a more polished dedicated mini-games collection (Raving Rabbids or WarioWare for example) and avoid what's on offer here.

Super Monkey Ball Step & Roll is out now on Wii and is rated '3' by PEGI. For another piece of SEGA-related news, check out the latest news on Sonic 4 at IQGamer.

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