Super Monkey Ball on PlayStation Vita is one of those games that you just want to shake up and down for a minute to get rid of all the bad stuff that’s managed to congeal itself around the good stuff. The brilliant – precise controls, pin sharp visuals, solid level design – is hamstrung by the incredibly poor – fat loading times, bloated menus, dumb saving, and it’s frustrating because none of the bad, none of it, needed to have happened.
If you’ve never played Super Monkey Ball before (it’s been going since the heady days of the GameCube) then you’ve missed one of gaming’s most persistent diversions. Cute little monkeys, naturally trapped in clear plastic balls, need your help with collecting bananas over a series of increasingly difficult to navigate levels, and are normally found teetering on the edge of whatever they make those fancy floating platforms from.
The controls have always been dead simple, until SEGA started to introduce motion control. The left stick tilts the platform (and thus enabling you to move, via the magic of physics) and that’s really about it. Sensibly, this Vita version offers up the choice between physical analog control and the slightly-at-an-angle waving about of your console, and thankfully the stick offers up quick, nimble changes of direction, even if it doesn’t have quite enough play for the gentler subtle movements.[videoyoutube]So, collect bananas, reach the goal before the time runs out – win – and move onto the next course. Banana Splitz, as the Vita version is inexplicably titled, presents a series of levels starting at the most basic (and oddly familiar) and moving towards the trickier. For reasons I can’t quite establish the game requires you to beat an entire section in one go (and can be comprised of multiple worlds of multiple levels) despite being a mobile game – saving and quitting bombs you back to the start.
Ah, saving. Unless there’s an options menu I’ve missed somewhere Splitz seems happy enough to require a prompt – two prompts, in fact – after you do anything. It’s saving data, and it’s nice to know it is, but the default Vita black screen pop-up is ugly and intrusive, and should really happen in the background and be accompanied by a little spinning banana, perhaps.
So whilst the single player’s actually perfectly alright, it’s affected by the need to dedicate a good chunk of time to it in a single sitting (or at least by making liberal use of the console’s standby function), eschewing the fact that it’s a mobile game and therefore should allow the player to dip in and out of it at will. I get that it’s meant to be a challenge (with the fewer continues used the better) but I don’t care about that when I’m trying to fit in a game between bus stops.
What does work better in small chunks though is the other half of the game – the Party mode. Here, away from the rigid formula of the main single player, Splitz draws from the multiple previous Monkey Balls and presents a ‘best of’ compilation of minigames. Ranging from the used-to-be brilliant but now not-so-much Monkey Target through to a couple of new ideas like Monkey Rodeo and Love Test, which work nicely with other like-minded players and somehow manage to feel fresh.
Monkey Target’s an interesting one, though. The original GameCube version was sublime, offering up a substantial challenge and mastery curve that has, over the years since, been diluted into a much simpler, watered down experience. On the Vita, it’s almost insultingly so, with barely any challenge left and precious little variety. What was once a tense, tactical and yet delicate battle between mates is now a simple case of flinging yourself down a ramp and hitting the spot every time.[drop]It’s hard to be too tough on this section of the game though, because it’s so generous in its content. There’s loads of stuff to try out, and whilst some of it’s better than other bits, there’s some neat ideas to play with – like the ninety degree rotated Monkey Bowling, which (like the rest of the Party mode, sadly) chucks away the cool visuals of old but retains the fun factor, with the Vita’s tilt sensor acting like after-touch on the ball. A lot of games can be played ad-hoc or online, too, and leaderboards are present.
But then there’s the menu system – too clunky, slightly unpredictable and needlessly slow. Touch screen interfaces should be slick, fast and intuitive, but this one really isn’t. It might seem pointless to pick up on a game’s UI but when it gets in the way as much as Splitz’s does it’s worthy of discussion – it’s not offensively bad, but it could have been a lot neater. It’s also in contrast to the main game’s graphics, which are frequently gorgeous, running at 60fps and the Vita’s native resolution, something that’s alarmingly rare these days.
There’s a lot of game here in Monkey Ball, and if this is your first then you’ll no doubt find stacks to really get your teeth into and you’ll get your money’s worth (especially as it can be picked up for £15 online, don’t buy it from the PSN Store). For seasoned old-timers, whilst there’s definitely challenge in the game and some nice multiplayer content, a few interface issues spoil the party and – yes, it’s nice to have such a good looking portable version but it’s still not a patch on the original.
- Lots of single player levels
- Lovely graphics
- Some decent minigames
- Poor UI, with badly designed and unresponsive menus
- Awkward saving system
- Monkey Target has been butchered further