Super Monkey Ball Banana Splitz (PS Vita) – The PS3 Attitude Review
Putting a monkey in a ball and rolling it across narrow, precarious platforms is a pretty cruel idea for a game, but gamers have struggled to resist Super Monkey Ball’s irresistible charms since it arrived way back in 2001.
It’s hard not to love the series’ trademark colourful cartoon style, which looks better than ever on PS Vita’s fabulous 5-inch OLED screen. The gameplay is familiar too, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Most developers are dazzled by Vita’s numerous control options, leading them to shoehorn touchscreen and gyro gestures into unsuitable games. However, SEGA has shown remarkable restraint. The touchscreen, the rear trackpad, the gyros and even the cameras are all used in the mini-games, but the trusted left analogue stick is all you need for the core game. Motion control is also available – and it’s an excellent way to play – but it’s entirely optional.
For this reason, Banana Splitz stays faithful to the original. It’s just you, your monkey ball, one perfectly tuned analogue stick and a labyrinth of platforms. It’s simple and well thought out – an excellent example of less is more.
For those not familiar with the series, Super Monkey Ball is a skill-based platformer in which you roll a monkey in a ball across a short stage towards a goal. You’re not allowed to fall, but that’s easier said than done because the stages are littered with pitfalls. You are given an allotted time and points are awarded based on your performance. You’re also encouraged to traverse more dangerous paths in order to collect bananas. Get 30 and you’ll gain a much-needed extra life.
Super Monkey Ball is famously cute, but underneath the cheerful music and cheeky monkeys lies an unforgiving arcade platformer. To master the advanced stages, you need Zen-like composure, laser-targeted precision and Felix Baumgartner’s iron nerve.
The Advanced route has you charging through 50 straight stages split across five worlds, themed on jungle, clay, wood, metal and cardboard. If you run out of the limited continues on the 49th stage, tough; you’ll be sent straight back to stage one. It’s unforgiving, but it’s all the more rewarding for it. You’ll unlock the Master stages if you get by these. Lucky you!
Banana Splitz’s challenging Advanced stages look after the committed Super Monkey Ball players, but the game is not as welcoming for the average gamer. Both the Beginner (10 stages) and Normal (30 stages) routes are very easy. This is fine for newcomers, but there is a conspicuous lack of middle ground for those looking for just a modest challenge. There is a risk that the steep jump will put off some players, but those who keep at will feel rewarded.
It seems churlish to pick apart the small faults in the gameplay because it really is excellent. There are however some issues in the periphery which cause some frustrations. To name two: it takes too long to restart after failing a stage, and SEGA really should have implemented a decent auto-save system. The flow between levels is regularly broken as SEGA continually asks your permission to save for minor things
The whole user interface is generally a mess. The menus are slow and awkward; it’s even tricky to find simple things like leaderboards. It is completely uninspiring. You even have to register your high score because it doesn’t sync them automatically. There also appears to be no easy way to compare your scores with friends. These are simple features.
There are no obvious ways that SEGA could have evolved Super Monkey Ball’s gameplay. It’s as refined as it’s going to get. However, a simple autologue-style system would have significantly enhanced the experience by injecting a sense of competition. This has none of that. It feels disconnected.
The overall package is still very good nonetheless. For a budget title, it’s packed with content with over 100 stages, 8 mini-games, multiplayer and even the ability to create and share your own stages – well, sort of.
The mini-games offer a break from the intensity of the main game. Included are familiar mini-games from past titles such as Monkey Target (ping a monkey through the air and land on a target) and Monkey Bowling (that one’s obvious). Monkey Target is stripped down compared to past versions but it is fun. The pick of the bunch however is the Love Maze. For this, you use the dual analogue sticks to simultaneously race two monkeys through parallel mazes without breaking the love bond.
The best of the rest include Monkey Bingo and Monkey Rodeo. In Monkey Rodeo you use the rear trackpad to prod your horse-riding Monkey around the rodeo to collect bananas. You can bash into your three rivals and steal their bananas by doing a Little Deviants-style pinch. Monkey Bingo is a little like Connect 5 with four players trying to fill the slots on a platform.
Elsewhere there’s a small augmented reality game in which you are tasked with finding specific colours in your surroundings; there’s a fiddly billiards game in which you have shoot your monkey towards a flag and then to a hole; and there’s an addictive number game which has you tapping numbers in sequence.
The mini-games are welcome, some more than others, but it’s unlikely they’ll keep you away from the main game for too long.
Banana Splitz also boasts an edit stage mode, but it isn’t as revolutionary as you’d think. You can’t design your own horrible mazes, instead you take a picture of something using the camera and the game will then randomly generate a level. You have to then shake Vita to decide on the difficulty level.
These stages can be uploaded and shared among friends, but once again, it’s not in the least bit user friendly. It doesn’t tell you who has uploaded a level, nor does it even tell you who has the game. So you need to work your way through your PSN list in the hope that one friend has uploaded something. It’s really not worth the effort.
The good news is that all of this is peripheral stuff. The main Monkey Ball mode is still tremendous and certain to please many old and new fans, and the mini-games are mostly fun even if they are fairly inconsequential. Nevertheless, we are left with this nagging feeling that this has been a missed opportunity. Had SEGA nailed the social side, created a friendlier interface and included an edit/create mode that actually had a chance of kickstarting some kind of a community, this would likely be a must have Vita purchase. Instead it’s just a good version of an old classic that you can take or leave.
Beware, this game contains comic mischief. It should also be noted that the absence of a multiplayer review here is down to us being unable to find anyone online. Banana Splitz supports Ad-Hoc and Infrastructure modes. The turn-based mini-games can also be played on a single Vita with the console just being passed around. It sounds like the multiplayer portion has plenty of promise, but it’s probably best you badger a couple of mates into getting a copy as well if you really want to sample it. We may revisit this later.