My introduction to Sega's Super Monkey Ball franchise came in perhaps the best possible environment; alongside a room full of friends, four controllers and an unnecessarily large television set. This is a party game in every sense of the word, assimilating the best elements of nearly every multiplayer title in video game history and defecating upon the bad. Then again, it's also a unique, imaginative one-player puzzle game that's eerily reminiscent of Tetris in its horrifyingly addictive gameplay. It functions marvelously, whether you're surrounded by friends or stuck alone on a Friday night.
Despite varying wildly in theme, each aspect of the game comes down to one consistent factor; you're in control of a tiny monkey, inexplicably captured within the confines of a translucent hamster ball. The world is yours to explore freely, so long as you remain within this plastic cage at all times. It's ingeniously ridiculous, mixing our comedic love of monkeys with our natural fascination with those big, American Gladiator-esque hamster balls (and, perhaps, the end result of smacking one across the room while something is still trapped inside.) No matter how frustrating the later levels of this game may become, it's easy to just glance at the screen and burst into laughter at the sheer bizarre nature of what you're trying to do. It's an instant throwback to the days when games didn't need to make sense, when they made their own rules and you obeyed them without a second thought.
In the one-player "story mode" you portray Aiai, the leader of a pack of four magical monkey warriors. Yeah, I know. Just bear with me... it hasn't even begun to get weird yet. When the evil Dr. BAD-Boon (The "BAD" is capitalized, to ensure the players realize that he is EVIL) steals a nearby village's entire stock of bananas, the four primate warriors leap into action. They activate their mysterious superpowers, which consist of glitter effects, blinding lights, the aforementioned hamster balls, and the ability to fly, and confront the fleeing villain. Giving chase in their magical, glowing, flying plastic balls, the four sail off into the afternoon sky.
If you can swallow a plot that stupid, you're pretty much over the hump. From then on, things move forward quite linearly. When the storyline reaches a standstill (for example, the four monkeys and Dr. BAD-Boon are swallowed by a whale), the four heroes perform a horrendous song and dance number, signifying their understanding of what must be done, and the screen shifts to a stage select menu. Each stage carries with it ten maps, all of which must be completed before the story can move forward. You don't have to complete them in any sort of order, so if you're having trouble with one particular map you can concentrate on one of the other boards, and take a break from the difficult level.
It's at this point that the game puts on the first of its many hats, acting as a sort of messed up, first person, 3-D version of the old board game "Labyrinth." Never are you actually in complete control of Aiai himself, instead you're tilting the entire plane of the level itself, and his hamster ball is merely succumbing to the forces of gravity. A giant clock counts down on each stage, usually giving you sixty seconds to complete the level, but occasionally dropping down to an extremely difficult thirty. In addition, bananas are strewn about each stage in difficult-to-reach positions, either alone or in bunches of ten. In the end, it's all about the acquisition of points, as you're given a score for each level based on your speed, your ability (as some levels have a 'difficult' and 'easy' goal), and the number of bananas you picked up. When you've finished playing, these scores are translated into play points, which are used later to unlock mini-games and movies.
Though the first couple sets of stages are almost insultingly easy, as you progress toward the tenth and final set, the difficulty becomes unrelenting. The learning curve is almost flawless, as each progressive level builds upon the skills you discovered in earlier conquests. You must learn to use the little monkey's momentum to climb steep embankments, to compensate for the ricochet effect of bouncing off a wall, to precisely aim the little guy in the midst of a freefall, and to expertly balance your way along a narrow walkway, as well as literally hundreds more unrelated abilities. It's frustrating to find yourself stuck without a clue, as you'll find out time and time again over the course of this game, but the feeling of satisfaction that fills you when the solution finally, suddenly becomes clear is worth every bit of it.
Truly, the only real problem I have with the single player mode's gameplay is the terrible, automatically controlled camera angles. For a game that requires such absolute precision at times, it's almost unheard of to overlook the option of a player-controlled camera angle, and it's something that terrible wounds the enjoyment factor of Super Monkey Ball 2. You watch the action from a slight angle, several feet above Aiai's head, which isn't really a problem until you attempt to turn in one direction or the other. The computer takes upwards of two seconds to realize it's no longer directly behind the ball, and even then slugglishly slides its way around in a circle until it's nearly in the correct spot, by which time you've likely turned in yet another direction. The entire experience resembles a sickly, drunken dance, as you struggle to both reach the goal in time and maintain a course that won't confuse the camera.
In all honesty, I'm probably making the camera angles sound a lot worse than they are, but it's notable enough of an issue to have cost me victory dozens of times, and as a result became the bane of my existence for a short while. Fortunately enough, this problem is exclusive to the puzzle section of the title, and doesn't affect any of the available party games. Yes, there's more to the game than this immensely enjoyable rethinking of "Labyrinth." In addition to the single player and multi player versions of the puzzle game, Super Monkey Ball 2 includes twelve distinct mini games, each of which can be played alone or with three friends. Players may choose to control any of the four heroic monkeys portrayed in the story, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Aiai is well balanced, but doesn't exceed in any one area. Gon Gon is powerful, but tends to be slower and more sluggish than the others. Mimi is generally easy to control, but lacks strength and speed, and Baby is light, speedy, and nearly impossible to control. Each mini game is merely a rehashing of a title you've likely played before, yet slightly tweaked and respun so as to provide a fresh, new experience.
In "Monkey Race," you compete with seven other monkey balls in a Mario Kart-esque jaunt around a series of race tracks, complete with power-ups and speed boosts. In "Monkey Fight 2," you're attempting to knock your friends off the edge of a raised platform with the aid of a spring-loaded boxing glove, inexplicably attached to the outside of your hamster ball. "Monkey Target 2" is an ingenius little game, in which all four monkeys roll down a giant ski ramp, crack open their balls in mid-air and use the two halves as a pair of wings, sailing towards a floating series of targets in the middle of the ocean. Very reminiscent of Pilotwings. "Monkey Billiards 2" is pretty much self-explanatory, as you're merely playing pool with monkey balls in the place of the traditional balls. "Monkey Bowling 2," my current favorite, treats you to an insane game of bowling, either on a regular lane or on one of the title's unique challenge lanes, which twist and turn in an attempt to throw you into the gutter. "Monkey Golf 2" is just about every major golfing game rolled into one, with the only notable exception being the inclusion of bottomless pits at random points throughout the course.
Perhaps the worst mini game of the lot is "Monkey Boat," in which you brave the rapids in a split monkey ball, racing kayak-style against unforgiving computer opponents. "Monkey Shot," easily enough, is your basic track-based shooter in the same vein as The House of the Dead. "Monkey Dogfight" is an arcade-style air combat simulation, "Monkey Soccer" is, obviously, a simple game of soccer, and "Monkey Baseball" is a strange amalgamation of video baseball and pinball. The pitcher throws himself (encased in a hamster ball, 'natch) towards the plate, and the batter attempts to connect with his bat, angling the ball toward one of the rotating "jump spots," which are basically ramps that shoot the pitcher into the stands for a home run. Easier to understand in person than through an online review, trust me. Finally, there's "Monkey Tennis," which is like a sickened version of Mario Tennis; difficult to control and not all that much fun.
On the whole, the mini games are very well done, and boost the replay value of the disc exponentially. I completed the single player mode in roughly seven hours, but I don't think my fiance and I will ever get sick of competing with one another in a quick game of arcade-style golf, baseball, bowling or billiards. It's a tremendous addition to a game that would otherwise be forgotten after the first completion.
As far as the music goes, I'll say this; you won't be rushing out to pick up the official soundtrack. It's a collection of mindlessly looped tunes, ranging from surreal ambience to bouncy cartoon themes. It fades into the background easily enough, which is all you can really ask for in a puzzle game, and at the very least fits in with the theme of each particular level. In addition, each monkey has his or her own unique voice, along with a small set of phrases, all of which are just different arrangements and intonations of the word "monkey." No, I'm serious. To hear a sentence along the lines of "Unkey, monkey MONkeeyy! Monkey monkeymonk EE" is to play Super Monkey Ball 2.
The graphics do their job... not breaking new ground with their beauty, but at the same time not spoiling the entire game with their horror. Chances are, if you're buying a puzzle game for its graphics, you're buying it for the wrong reason. This is a next-gen title, of that there's no mistake, but it's not going to give Metroid Prime much of a run for its money. Some of the GameCube's cheesier special effects see the light of day here, as lens flares, glittery particles and obscenely colorful explosions of light are everywhere. The stages are colorful, almost to a flaw, but remain simple enough to refrain from confusing players altogether. Visually, this is a title that could've flown just as easily on the PlayStation One or N64, but the depth and mini games that really make it such a success would've had to take a pretty significant cut. In short, the graphics neither help nor hinder.
Put cleanly and plainly, if you're the kind of person with even a passing interest in puzzle games, this is worth a peek. It successfully matches the uniquely addictive atmosphere that surrounded standbys like Chu Chu Rocket and Tetris, all the while blazing a path all its own. It's remarkably easy to learn, yet the early stages never really seem to border on redundancy. The single player mode can be controlled with just one finger, as you'll do nothing but tilt the level with the left analog stick, and even the slightly more advanced controls of the mini games stick to three or four buttons at most. It's a nice reminder of where the industry has been, and where many of its greatest strengths still lie: in ingenuity, creativity, simplicity and enjoyability. I'm proud to admit this game's in my collection, and I'd be more than comfortable with recommending it to my friends, despite its misleading exterior.
Overall Score: 9.2