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[Review] Super Monkey Ball: Banana Rumble

Posted on June 24, 2024 by in Reviews, Switch

Super Monkey Ball Banana Rumble review

System: Switch
Release date: June 25, 2024
Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios
Publisher: SEGA

Considering it’s been twelve years since the last original Super Monkey Ball game released, I half-expected that Super Monkey Ball: Banana Rumble might try and and take some big risks, maybe try and swing for the fences with some crazy new single-player modes or some sort of other significant mechanical shakeup. Instead of reinventing the wheel – or indeed, the ball – Super Monkey Ball: Banana Rumble is more focused on just being a really well-crafted Super Monkey Ball game, one that seems to understand the importance of executing its few core gameplay modes as tightly as possible while cutting out most of the extraneous distractions from other games in the series. With a robust and challenging single-player Adventure Mode, a smattering of simple yet well-designed Battle Mode activities, and robust multiplayer support across the whole package, Banana Rumble is exactly what I had hoped it would be: an a-peel-ing blast from start to finish.

Upon booting up Super Monkey Ball: Banana Rumble for the first time, I’ll admit I was a bit nervous. In part, this was because I knew that despite my love for SEGA’s long-running series of deceptively challenging physics-based platformers, I’ve never been particularly great at them, and I knew that I was, inevitably, about to spend the next 8-10 hours falling off the boundaries of stages thanks to my personal “need for speed.” This, of course, is part of the game’s masochistic appeal, the delightful dichotomy that comes from navigating an adorable monkey in a ball through a relentless series of trials that can bring even the most seasoned gamer to their knees in defeat. This is the core of what Super Monkey Ball is all about, and I think Banana Rumble does an excellent job in replicating the type of experience that longtime fans of the franchise enjoyed all the way back at the peak of the series’ success.

Super Monkey Ball Banana Rumble review

Banana Rumble’s main attraction is it’s Adventure Mode, which begins with a 100-stage story-driven campaign, and is followed by an additional 100 challenge levels called “EX Stages.” The story is a light and whimsical romp that follows AiAi, MeeMee, and the rest of the troop as they help new character, Palette, track down her lost father. She thinks he went searching for a treasure called the Legendary Banana, which has been split into seven horcrux- er, I mean “out-of-place artifacts” – that have been scattered across the world. There’s also group of animal thieves called the Gala Family who are hot on the monkeys’ tails, and occasionally they find ways to mildly inconvenience the protagonists like (oh no!) trapping them in a cage for a few seconds. That’s just about the extent of the plot, which is completely constrained to cutscenes that play at the start and end of each new world the player reaches and has no gameplay ramifications whatsoever. It’s a very barebones tale that isn’t particularly interesting or notable in any way, other than being cute – and to be honest, I’m totally fine with it. I’m sure an argument could be made that a more fleshed-out narrative would help strengthen the package as a whole, but storytelling has never been why I enjoyed the Super Monkey Ball games so I don’t think the execution here will bother anyone. At the very least, watching the cutscenes – which I’ll concede do a great job at highlighting the new character designs and their over-the-top animations – is a nice reprieve after beating a set of stages.

Of course, the main focus of Adventure mode is the stages themselves. They follow the series tradition of being a set of floating platforms filled with so many hazards and questionable paths that they make the television show Wipeout look like amateur hour. Each world contains ten stages, and as players progress through the game, the level of challenge will rise accordingly. By the time the players reach the end of the story – which, again, is technically only the halfway point when it comes the game’s total stage count – they’ll be asked to do things like navigate through fast-spinning platforms, launch themselves into the air to hit a narrow target, and balance on increasingly precarious beams that seem to get thinner and more curved with each passing set.

Super Monkey Ball Banana Rumble review

The only new move in our monkeys’ moveset is the Spin Dash, which replaces the jump ability that appeared in some of the previous games. Instead, this new skill lets players essentially activate a speed boost at any time by holding the B button to charge up its strength. It’s a very powerful move, one that can backfire – there’s absolutely a right and wrong time to use it, and misjudging that balance will inevitably result in the player speeding off the edge of the stage completely out of control. When used tactfully, it can be a great way to compensate for a turn that you just undershot, or to help edge up a steep stretch, or to use a ramp to gain some additional distance in mid-air. Few stages actually require it to reach the end, but I found that the more I played around with it, the more I began appreciating its utility and finding fun ways to utilize it.

Banana Rumble definitely isn’t what most players would consider an easy game, but importantly, it doesn’t typically feel unfair, either. Each stage begins with a flythrough that gives players a chance to quickly get a lay of the land, but there’s also the option to pause the game and swing the camera around the place – helpful, especially when it comes to the game’s larger or multi-layered maps. There’s also a very helpful minimap that can be zoomed in or out of during gameplay, and perhaps most importantly, full camera control. I also was really impressed with the amount of options that can let players tune the controls to their liking, which includes standard tweaks like camera sensitivity all the way to features like button-remapping and dead-zone compensation. Those are the sorts of choices that can make a meaningful difference to speedrunners, seasoned players, or even just those who value flexibility, and I really appreciated their inclusion.

The stages also are visually easy to parse – despite this being the most colorful and detailed Super Monkey Ball yet, the skyboxes and backgrounds don’t distract from the actual layout of the environment itself. It’s easy to spot elements like boost pads and springs from a distance, even on the Switch’s small screen, and there are very few unexpected twists or turns that might have risked feeling like a cheap trick. As a result, all my failures (of which there were very, very many) as well as all of my victories felt wholly my own, which resulted in a moment-to-moment experience that remains fun and engaging even when it’s challenging. My favorite moments – those handful of occasions when I managed to pull off something impressive, like creating a shortcut for myself and completing a stage in a matter of seconds – were only possible because of this type of tight, intentional level design. There’s part of me that would have liked to see some environmental hazards that aligned with the theme of each world – for example, some type of water-based hazard would fit well for the stages in the “Aquarius” region – but that’s just a personal preference.

Unlike other entries in the series, Banana Rumble doesn’t really punish the player for falling off a stage – there’s no lives to lose, so the game just returns the player to the start of the map. Really, the biggest reason to avoid failing is so that you don’t have to hear the boisterous narrator say “Fall Out!” over and over again (I ended up muting the in-game voices by the end of my playthrough.) This encourages trial-and-error, which is critical for a game like this – especially once the player unlocks the EX stages. That latter set of 100 stages apes the difficulty curve of the first set, starting off manageable before slowly ramping up in challenge. If things ever get too frustrating, players can turn on Helper Mode for individual stages. This suite of accessibility features adds checkpoints to most levels, embeds a guide into the level that highlights a safe path to the goal, and enables players to rewind time if they’re about to fall off a stage. If that’s not enough, players can even skip any stages they wish, albeit at the cost of doing so not counting towards their score. I have zero shame about needing these Helper functions to get through a few tricky stages, and it’s great that they’re here to allow more players to enjoy the game.

Super Monkey Ball Banana Rumble review

I also enjoyed experimenting with the various playable characters, who all have a different weight balance to accommodate different playstyles. AiAi is, of course, your standard all-rounder, and is perfectly suited to beat all the levels in the game, but there were definitely situations in which I had an easier time getting through a tough spot by swapping characters. GonGon was a frequent go-to for me, because his slower speed and less twitchy turns make him a good fit for stages that need a lot of precision. Alternatively, I recall a few levels in which an ultra-light character like Baby was definitely the best choice, letting me launch my monkey into the sky and bypass certain hazards altogether.

Something very cool about Adventure Mode is that all of the stages are playable in multiplayer, both locally and online, for up to four players. I actually had the opportunity to test the online features before launch, and from what I played, they seem to work great. When playing Adventure Mode with others, it’s possible to turn off collision, meaning each player still gets to enjoy their own race to the goal – or, I suppose, you could turn it on to try and sabotage your friends. It’s also cooperative, so any bananas collected contribute to a total point tally. Players can either play with friends online by creating a room, or join a session with random players, and I didn’t notice any major drop in performance during my testing, which is great news. The only downside to multiplayer play is that if a player falls of the stage, there’s no option for them to re-attempt the level immediately like in single-player as long as other players are also still alive. I’m sure this is probably a design choice to prevent griefing or something, but when playing with friends, I would have appreciated the option to retry a stage rather than just spectate.

Outside of Adventure Mode, the second main component of Banana Rumble is Battle Mode – playable in multiplayer as well, or against bots while playing single-player. This mode essentially acts as a replacement for the party games present in previous entries in the series, and in my opinion, is a vast improvement in terms of both quality and substance. In the past, Super Monkey Ball’s party games typically consisted of ten or so brief, pick-up-and-play minigames with very little variety to them, meaning for a lot of players they were pretty inconsequential. Replacing them in Banana Rumble are five experiences that are all a bit more freeform and skill-based – and while there aren’t nearly as many maps as I would like, I still had a lot of fun with the new additions.

Race is perhaps the most straightforward, and has players, as you’d expect, racing to the finish line. Stages have plenty of hazards and harrowing turns, and can often have a lot of verticality, meaning that things can get delightfully chaotic quite quickly. There are also item boxes scattered about (across this Battle mode game and the four others) that provide opportunities to launch attacks at nearby racers. Some are straightforward, like the classic banana peel – us Nintendo kids all know what that one does – but also quite a few wacky ones, like a baseball bat to swipe other monkeys off the course, or a disco ball that stops nearby competitors in their tracks and makes them dance. Some characters will be more likely to get certain powerups than others, too, so there’s a good reason to play around with different characters. There are only five tracks, though, and although they’re decently lengthy, the game would really benefit from a few more to increase replayability.

Super Monkey Ball Banana Rumble review

The other four Battle Mode games are more arena-focused, and just as fun. Banana Hunt is simple game of trying to collect the most bananas, and keeping an eye out for special clouds that will pop up and rain bananas on portions of the map. Ba-Boom plays like a game of tag – certain players will have a bomb placed on their monkey (yes, really) and the goal is to pass it off to another player before it explodes by chasing them around the arena. Goal Rush is a target-based game, and tasks two teams with trying to accumulate the most points by racing down a slope and trying to hit the highest-scoring targets, which required a surprising amount of skill. The final Battle Mode game, Robot Smash, is all about picking up speed and launching your monkey at destructible robots across the map, trying to build momentum and aim for certain parts to destroy them as quickly as possible. I had a great time with all of these modes – again, they could all really use a few more maps – but there’s a lot of fun to be had here both in online play and against bots.

There are a few other goodies sprinkled across the package, like a photo mode and unlockable clothes and accessories to decorate your monkeys. But that’s about as extraneous as the game’s other features get, and frankly, it was the right move. While I loved some of the modes present in most recent remake in the series, Banana Mania, I don’t think in the long run I’m going to miss their absence – not when Banana Rumble is such a polished, satisfying and challenging experience. This game is a great model for what I hope the Super Monkey Ball series can continue to be, and I think longtime fans in particular will love what they play.

The Verdict

Super Monkey Ball: Banana Rumble may not be the most experimental game in the franchise, but its choice to focus on nailing the fundamentals – tight physics, great stage design and compelling, substantial multiplayer modes – was the perfect fit for series after such a long wait between new entries. Despite the often challenging difficulty, I had a ton of fun trying to push the limits of my own skills and find ways to optimize my route through each stage, and the boundless charm of AiAi and friends helps keep things light and fun throughout. Fully-featured online co-op play is an awesome addition, and Battle Mode – while not perfect – is perhaps the fullest realization of the franchise’s multiplayer potential so far. Banana Rumble is the return to form that fans have been waiting for, and I hope this is just the start of the series’ newest chapter.

Super Monkey Ball: Banana Rumble copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.

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