I can’t believe I’m still playing Super monkey ball 20 years later, but here I am.
Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania (Nintendo Switch, PC, PS4, PS5 [reviewed], Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Released: October 5, 2021
Testimony monkey ball for the very first time was a surreal experience.
I went down to my friend’s basement, and on my way down I heard a combination of loud noises, monkey sounds, and my eyes were immediately drawn to its bright color scheme. “Are you watching play?” “Monkey Ball”, said his little brother so simply. I ended up staying the night after playing all day.
It was part of that magical era of GameCube where basically everything was fair game and nothing was too weird. Yakuza Sega boss and legend Toshihiro Nagoshi was definitely onto something when he threw ball-rolling monkeys as a game hook, and that’s pretty much the gist of the entire series. You roll into a ball in a somewhat labyrinthine format a few hundred times; sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. It’s timeless.
2021 banana mania is a bundle and remaster of Super Monkey Ball 1, Monkey Ball 2, and Monkey Ball Deluxe (which itself was a set of the first two games with exclusive stages). It’s 300 levels in all, with a few extra twists, more accessibility features (including an assist feature), and a few board games.
Before we unpack all the ancillary stuff, let’s talk about why monkey ball still works. The basic formula is still so accessible after all these years because it is inherently self-explanatory. You manipulate the stage to coax the ball (which is filled with a cute animated monkey or cameo character) towards an objective, and pick up bananas along the way, which function as points/an additional challenge feature . That’s it. Even at 100 steps deep, your goal is the same: hit the target, and if you’re looking to stunt/high score, get the bananas. It’s brilliantly simple, easy to teach, and incredibly difficult to master.
Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania does a good job of maintaining that tightrope of balance. Some stages are brutal to the point where getting every banana is going to feel like a gargantuan task. Mastering the game’s physics system to the point where you have to do jumps without jumping (although there’s an optional unlockable jump rocker) can be daunting. But by the same token, the assist function is there, and you can make it happen. Or, wistfully, just aim for the goal and ignore the banana layer: your decision.
The assist mechanic is really key, as I can’t tell you how many people have been seduced by the promise of cuteness only to smash their controller against the wall in practice. The toggle offers more time to clear a step (so you’re not racing against the clock or cutting it so close to get all the bananas), but it also adds a slow motion button and provides guided arrows.
If all else fails, you can spend points (which are used to unlock new modes, options, characters, and costumes) to skip a stage entirely. And there will be at least one of those times when you’re about to throw away your remote out of frustration, but get that second wind with a painless jump. Guidance arrows are a secret weapon for teaching monkey ball, and that can’t really be underestimated. It helps you understand the angles and nuances required for certain movement tricks, and it’s completely optional if you want to go at it with just your skills.
Not every stage is a win, and there are some very frustrating banana placements if you want to 100% try the game. Eliminating lives ensures things don’t get out of hand, but all bets in-page that pissed you off before will return in all their glory – so be warned if you don’t want to use stage skips or assist options at all.
Beyond the main mode’s roughly 300 stages, there’s also a party game type for 1-4 players, with 12 mini-games in tow. The best part is that they’re all playable solo: either through a high score/time trial challenge or through bots. All of them have at least one stage selection option or screen to mix things up. Here is the complete list: fighting, golf, running, shooting, football, target, tennis, baseball, billiards, boating, bowling and aerial combat, all with the prefix “Monkey”.
It’s a good mini-game dump, as it has something for everyone. While a few of them are self-explanatory (bowling is literally bowling your monkey ball), several are extremely mario party-esque (combat just smashes into each other until everyone falls). One of my personal favorites is Shot, which is a take on small arms (and co-op) games, but all of them are fun on their own. It is really crucial to note that your long-time mileage on banana mania will vary depending on how many people are in your playgroup. Eventually your thirst for high scores or a clear critical path will be sated, so you’ll need to rely on friends to really push the game long term. Considering how many mini-games there are (and the co-op option), it’s easy to keep playing, or maybe fit it into your rotation for game night.
Almost everything you do earns you points, which unlock the aforementioned content/cosmetic options above (in addition to some paid DLC to come). While points can be slow as you dig deeper into the game (and things get harder and progression gets harder), I was able to unlock a few camera filters and two characters in about 30 minutes. So if there’s someone you really want, you can have them. The only downside is that you can’t use unlockable characters like Beat or Sonic and Tails in party mode.
Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania was a pleasant surprise, in that it doesn’t mess around too much with a formula that works and is making progress in welcoming newcomers into the fold. Not all of its scenes are created equal, but it’s a great entry point into a series that has long been lacking on modern platforms.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]