Vita owners can now put their monkeys in balls…
Hamsters I can understand. But Monkeys placed in clear, plastic balls and forced to roll around after bananas that they will never be able to get their little monkey paws on? Surely animal rights would have something to say about this?
But thankfully, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Splitz is only a videogame. It is part of a reasonably successful series from SEGA which has made an appearance on pretty much every console since the first game arrived back in 2001. Not all games are made equal and the Super Monkey Ball series has had its fair share of less impressive games, which mostly involved diluting the core, addictive gameplay with other features, or unresponsive controls. But that hasn’t stopped AiAi and his companions from entertaining gamers with their own brand of physics-based, reaction-testing puzzle gameplay and ultra cute visuals.
Which brings us to this latest version on the PlayStation Vita handheld. The objective in Super Monkey Ball: Banana Splitz is the same as most of the previous games in the series, in that the player simply has to negotiate a course within a time limit, whilst collecting bananas along the way. The player doesn’t control the monkey in a ball, but rather is able to tilt the landscape itself to make the ball roll in whichever direction. So they tilt the landscape and the monkey ball rolls, hopefully through the level finish gate before the time runs out.
Things are made more difficult by the level design. On this Vita version, the levels are particularly well designed, with plenty of twists, turns, lips, ramps and moving objects to challenge even the most experienced player. The fact that these courses are suspended in the air means only bad things for any monkey that happens to roll off the edge, making the high speeds that one can reach as they are rolling, and the sudden turns in the track without any kind of safety fence, incredibly treacherous. Precision rolling is the order of the day when playing Monkey Ball.
Which is why decent controls are so important. Being that the Vita is a new-fangled console with fancy gyroscopic controls, it makes sense that the player can tilt the landscape by tilting the Vita itself. But aside from the obvious problem of having to tilt the screen away from the eyes at times, this type of control simply isn’t precise enough for some of the levels in the game. However, SEGA thankfully included the option to use the handheld’s analog stick for a much more precise experience.
There are a huge number of levels to complete in the games’ Challenge mode, and the difficulty goes up and down much like some of the levels. Whilst patience will always allow the player to progress, frustration will be raised when silly mistakes result in another life lost. There are also bananas littered throughout the levels, tempting the player to push that little bit harder to collect. Collecting the bananas results in a higher score and more lives, making them essential to collect, at least on the easier levels. Along with the multitude of bananas, there are also special shortcuts to be found and even secret exits for the player that wants to push their monkey ball skills to the limit.
To compliment the enjoyably challenging Challenge mode, the game also includes some Monkey Ball mini-games in the Party mode. These mini-games may only be a novelty, a fact that is emphasised by the frequent use of the Vita’s other functions, but they are still great fun and a good way to waste some time. Whether the player is using the camera to match a colour, or fiddling with the rear touchpad, the new games don’t hold a candle to the returning classics – Monkey Target, in which the player launches their monkey at a target, and Monkey Bowling, which uses Monkey Balls instead of bowling balls.
Then there is the handy multiplayer option which allows players to compete locally, online and even by simply passing one Vita around amongst friends. Perhaps the most gimicky addition to this version of Monkey Ball is the option to take a photograph and have it turned into a level to share with your friends. An impressive idea, but the reality feels a little more random than anything else, and the fact that you can only share with friends and not the gaming community on the whole is a disappointment.
Visually, the levels in Banana Splitz are a brightly coloured mass of cuteness. The monkeys are, as always, adorable, and the levels are themed in keeping with the incredibly loose story, involving such distractions as prehistoric or Aztec themes. The menu, on the other hand, is easily the games weakest point. Compared with the rest of the game, it is both ugly and ungainly, causing confusion in the first moments of playing the game.
Super Monkey Ball: Banana Splitz is a challenging title that seems to have captured at least some of the addictive qualities from the original titles. The menu could use some work, but is quickly forgotten once the ball is rolling. The gimmicks that have been thrown in for the Vita mostly need to be ignored, but strip them away and what remains is pure gaming fun.