A nice anniversary celebration that is good enough.
Super Monkey Ball is a series with a checkered history. The GameCube originals were popular when they came out, but from then on the magic and charm were lost and hit a sad low point with Super Monkey Ball 3D. The 2019 Switch release of Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD was a lukewarm step in the right direction, but the latest release, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania, is a much more confident return to form. It bakes a lot of content from Super Monkey Ball 1, 2, and Deluxe, but this isn’t an easy remake. Banana Mania is a celebration of the best games in the series that changes things for better or worse enough to potentially discourage those who want a real return to form, but for the most part, it’s a great game with lots of depth and variety.
At the heart of it all are the dozens and dozen of ball rolling levels spread across a world-based story mode, as well as challenge modes based on the levels of Monkey Ball 1 and 2. The challenge increases quickly, but the levels are generally all clever and fun. It’s hard for the game to really evoke the nostalgia I have for the GameCube games, but it clearly feels better than any Monkey Ball game I’ve played since the first two, even if it’s not identical with what the GameCube games feel like. It also has a lot of assist options. The helper mode lets you slow down time and show an optimal route through the stage. You can even mark difficult levels as completed and move on. The kindness and forbearance is felt everywhere, seriously like a celebration of the early days of Monkey Ball.
This also applies to the unlockable characters, which include Sonic, Tails, Kazuma Kiryu (from Yakuza) and Beat (from Jet Set Radio) and many more as paid DLC. The characters are cosmetic, but watching Sonic and Tails roll around collecting rings instead of bananas is incredibly fun. There are also a variety of other unlockable items, all of which are earned by collecting in-game currency. More cosmetics to dress up the monkeys are the most widely used unlocks, but there are a few modes here that usually offer a steeper challenge or add a jump button if you want. The unlocks themselves are just fine, but as part of a whole it offers a lot to strive for and play with.
The core experience is complemented by 12 party games, all of which come from previous titles. It’s worth noting, however, that these aren’t direct ports on these old mini-games. They are all “reinvented” which is perfectly fine for most. Monkey baseball, a game I used to play a lot, feels very different but is still fun. One of the franchise’s all-time favorites, Monkey Target doesn’t feel right. I can’t quite tell, but it seems like there is less manual control over how you take off from the ramp. That in combination with the slightly different physics made it a non-starter for me. However, I have found a lot of fun in baseball, billiards, and soccer. Not every mode is a winner, but enough of them are good for game nights. They also offer a degree of single player tournament modes so there is something to do even for the solo player.
Where Banana Mania thrives is how diverse it is. Would you like to race through stages and compete for a place in an online time trial leaderboard? Do it. Are you frustrated with some of the more difficult stages? Use the helper mode for assistance. As the star of Yakuza, do you want to plow through single player content and grab power-up drinks? Open it Would you like to beat your friends with a big boxing glove in local multiplayer? Monkey Fight is about to be there, buddy. This isn’t the direct port or remake of the original GameCube Monkey Ball that I might have asked about, but it’s a great game in itself that brings to light much of what I loved about those earlier entries in the franchise. This is a vibrant, amusing video game that is filled with challenging marble roles, good-natured multiplayer games, and loads of charm.