[Review] Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD
Posted on October 29, 2019 by Campbell(@CampbellSGill) in Reviews, Switch
Release date: October 29, 2019
The Super Monkey Ball franchise naturally yields many questions. For instance: why are these monkeys locked in see-through balls? Why do they roll around at hundreds of miles per hour? Why do they live in hellscapes made up of floating physics-based obstacle courses? And perhaps most importantly, why would SEGA decide to remaster Banana Blitz, one of the series’ less popular entries, instead of the much more beloved titles on GameCube? Yet SEGA has indeed brought Banana Blitz back onto modern platforms with this new HD re-release after its first appearance more than a decade ago on the Wii. So now that everyone’s favorite primate-rolling franchise has finally debuted on current-gen hardware, the most pertinent question remains to be answered: does this new edition address the issues that plagued Banana Blitz’ first release, or does it merely monkey around?
The Monkey Ball games have never been the most complex games around, and that element is fully present in Banana Blitz. Its story keeps it simple – when the monkeys’ banana collection is stolen by an evil pirate monkey, it’s up to our gang of heroic rolling primates to recover their potassium-packed treasure and save the day. The gameplay is likewise basic. As per Monkey Ball tradition, it drops your captive primate into massive, floating obstacle courses, tasking you with rotating the world to try and roll your monkey to the end goal.
It’s a simple formula, but across the game’s 100 single player stages, there’s plenty of variety in level design. Each new crash course features its own gimmicks that set it apart from the 99 others. Some focus on keeping up speed across lengthy ramps and speedways, while others force you into delicate balancing acts to keep your imprisoned primate from falling off the edge of the world. Each world ends with a gargantuan boss battle, and although these battles might not be too exemplary in their own right (they’re often more tedious than anything), they do serve to break up the pace from the typical obstacle courses. Likewise, the gimmicks of the level design probably aren’t anything that you haven’t seen in other Monkey Ball games – or other puzzle-platformers, too – but as always, variety is the spice of level design, and that’s something that Banana Blitz truly does take to heart.
But such varied levels are useless if the underlying controls aren’t reliable. Having originally debuted exclusively on the Wii eleven years ago, Banana Blitz’s courses were built with motion controls in mind. Now, however, this HD remake is bringing the game to all modern platforms, which means that the controls have had to be completely reworked for traditional gamepads. Simply put, the new control scheme might feel fine in its own right, but it is completely at odds the level design. The courses were created based around motion controls, and the quirks of each level often revolve around balancing past narrow ledges or rolling down steep ramps full of sharp turns. Such gameplay concepts rely on the twitch reflexes and precision that are only possible with motion or gyro controls. Analog controls are simply too jerky and imprecise by comparison – pair that with the fairly wonky physics of the monkey balls themselves, and it’s easy to attempt minute corrections and actually end up hurling yourself offstage.
The camera falls prey to these frustrations as well. It automatically follows your monkey throughout each level, with no way to manually adjust it. This made sense back on the Wii, where buttons were a much more limited resource, but with traditional gamepads, it would have been ideal to at least allow the camera to be re-centered behind your character with a click of the shoulder buttons. As it is now, the camera can flail wildly around your monkey, often settling at angles that make it difficult, if not impossible to know where you’re going and to avoid rolling into the great unknown. It’s extremely frustrating to try and methodically navigate the many hectic obstacle courses, only to inadvertently fall off the edge of the world.
The control issues are perhaps at their worst in the multiplayer mini-games. Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz was initially a Wii exclusive, and if the single-player levels didn’t already make that abundantly clear, then these mini-games will certainly show their age. They are all effectively cheap imitations of Wii Sports, but this time without motion controls. The controls have been reworked to fit modern control pads, but their solutions feel hopelessly contrived compared to the simple elegance of motion. Most of these mini-games would have been merely passable with motion controls, but without them, they feel awkward, bland, and joyless. Rest assured, your grandparents won’t find as much joy in these minigames as they would with Wii Sports.
The truly frustrating thing about the controls is that the game itself is decent. Its levels aren’t quite as memorable as those from the first two Monkey Balls on GameCube, but they’re still fun enough in their own right. However, whatever enjoyment might have been had from them is completely lost thanks to the controls. This issue was completely preventable: simply incorporate the original control scheme on Switch (because the Switch does have motion controls, contrary to popular belief) along with the new controls, and it could have been avoided, also making the Switch version the definitive release in the process. Instead, we have complete parity between platforms, meaning that Switch players receive the same frustrating experience that other console players get. It’s great that SEGA has gone the extra mile and added a few new modes to this re-release, including online leaderboards and a mini-game marathon mode, but when the controls make the moment-to-moment gameplay so tedious, this new content doesn’t really add much enjoyment.
At least there’s pretty visuals to look at while you’re screaming at your monkeys. Banana Blitz was already a visually appealing title back on the Wii thanks to its cartoonish art direction, and with a coat of high definition paint, it looks all the better. The colors really pop, and the graphical rough edges have been smoothed out. The menus and general UI have also been touched up for this re-release, bringing them up to date with the 2019’s standards for graphic design.
Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD is a polished version of a solid base game that slips up on the banana peel of its controls. It simply does not feel good to play, and for a game all about delicately rolling your monkeys to safety, that’s unacceptable. That being said, it remains largely the same game that appeared on Wii eleven years ago; if you enjoyed it then, you’ll likely still enjoy it today, as long as you can get used to the controls. For everyone else, however, it’s a poor first impression for the series on modern hardware, making this banana blitz a difficult order to recommend.
Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz HD review copy provided by SEGA for the purposes of this review.