The appeal of Monkey Ball, I’ve found, is based in its simplicity. All you do is move from point A to point B and avoid the obstacles along the way. The fact that you’re playing as a cute little monkey inside a ball is more or less the hook to suck you in, and it’s the fun and engaging gameplay that keeps you invested. That’s what made Super Monkey Ball and Super Monkey Ball 2, originally released for the GameCube, so beloved. They are simple games at their core, but they pack in just enough content to milk what they can from the idea before it turns stale.
I’ve been a lover of the series since I first played SMB2 back in the day (I also played the GBA game Super Monkey Ball Jr. but let’s pretend that one doesn’t exist). So I, like many people, was ecstatic when SEGA announced that SMB, SMB2, and Super Monkey Ball Deluxe, an enhanced Xbox port of the first game, were getting remastered in a brand-new HD collection as Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania.
Two years ago, SEGA gave the same treatment to the Wii title Banana Blitz as Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD — a game which, in my opinion, was a good port of a middling, frustrating experience. While it was not my (or anyone else’s) top choice for a Monkey Ball remaster, it gave me hope that SEGA would soon apply the same polish to the classic titles.
That intuition was correct, and now Banana Mania is rolling out to consoles and PC. And let me tell you, it felt amazing to delve into these nostalgic games again.
Getting the ball rolling
Super Monkey Ball has always been a dead simple game at its foundation, and that’s no different here. Your task is to guide your monkey through mazes and obstacle courses and reach the goal at the end before time runs out. It takes only a few seconds to understand the basics, and just about anyone can grasp the fundamentals quickly. The courses are all compiled from the first three games, bringing the total number of stages to over 300 total. Granted, these courses take a few seconds to beat, but it isn’t long before they get longer and more complicated.
One of the most important aspects of any Monkey Ball game is how it controls, and seeing as how this was recreating two classic titles, I was keeping a sharp eye on this front in particular. Thankfully, the game hits the mark on this more often than not. I didn’t have time to boot up my GameCube copies for a comparison, but from memory, Banana Mania controls just a tad more rigid than the originals, though the difference is minor at best.
The game’s physics mostly felt accurate to the original, although it felt harder to go faster in this version. I can’t tell if I’m just playing more cautiously now that I’m older or something in the monkeys’ animations made this a more prominent issue, but that feeling never went away as I kept playing. Collisions also feel notably weaker, lacking the impact they did on the GameCube with the sound effects in Banana Mania sounding dry and limp. But that’s all nitpicky stuff; even if the translation isn’t 1:1, it’s still tight and responsive enough to be worthy of the Monkey Ball name.
Rising from chimp to champ
Do not let the cute exterior fool you: Banana Mania is not going to hold your hand. Navigating each course requires a level of concentration and dexterity that can almost feel like performing complex surgery. Sometimes, you need to be so precise that just looking at your monkey wrong will cause you to fall. This was true of the originals as well, and if nothing else, the remake keeps the “if at first you don’t succeed, try again” mentality of the GameCube versions intact.
That’s why it’s such a relief that there’s some quality-of-life changes to help make the experience more comfortable. Lives and continues have been eliminated with completely, so you’ll have infinite chances to reach the end of each stage. You can also activate Helper Mode which allows you to slow down time and shows you where to navigate. What I found interesting is how these tools do help you out quite a bit, but they’re not instant-win mechanics; you’ll still have to perform the right inputs to make it to the end. The precise movements required can take a toll on you, and even with Helper Mode, the final stages can still give you trouble.
Getting down to monkey business
Banana Mania doesn’t so much have a difficulty curve so much as it has difficulty waves. The game naturally gets harder over time, but you’re dealing with levels that take so little time to complete. You move onto new challenges fairly quickly, meaning that it takes less time for a daunting stage to hit you. Difficulty can bounce back and forth frequently, and you’ll likely find a stage that’s gonna knock you down hard. Looking at you, 3D Maze.
Some stages have been altered to make them less frustrating overall, adding or removing elements to reduce the challenge. If that statement turns you away, keep in mind that only 23 of the game’s stages are altered and for most levels, the changes are fairly small and cut out the more poorly-designed elements from the originals. For content that makes up less than 10 percent of the game’s main stages, the fact that they’ve been made less annoying is certainly a welcome one. But if you’re still not convinced, fret not: you can play the unchanged levels by unlocking a special game mode.
A barrel full of content
Speaking of game modes, Banana Mania has plenty to offer beyond the main courses. As I mentioned, you can play unmodified levels through Original Stage Mode or travel through stages backwards in Reverse Mode. You can also try Golden Banana Mode to unlock Golden AiAi by collecting all the golden bananas in each stage. Or if you want a challenge, there’s always Dark Banana Mode where you must avoid all the bananas placed on the course — this one will beat you up, I’m sure.
But these modes are all locked to start, so how do you get them? The game has a checklist that tracks your progress, giving you points if you complete each one. Those points can be traded in to unlock new game modes, but there’s plenty of other goodies as well. Want to play as Sonic and Tails, Kiryu from Yakuza, or Beat from Jet Set Radio? Maybe dress them up in cute cosmetics and spruce up their balls? (Wait, that sounds weird out of context.) Or get some new filters for the game’s Photo Mode? It’s all here, and let me tell you: putting a little hat on these cute little monkeys instantly makes this a must-buy no matter what the rest of this review says.
And I haven’t even mentioned the mini-games yet. You can play the 12 Party Games from SMB2 with a few additions such as new courses for Monkey Race. Unfortunately, it took this playthrough for me to realize that these mini-games are a pretty mixed bag. Monkey Race, Monkey Target, and Monkey Billiards remain a good time, but games like Monkey Golf and Monkey Shot are boring and only fun for a few fleeting minutes.
So if you glanced at Banana Mania and thought “heck, that game probably doesn’t take long to beat, why bother?” — that couldn’t be further from the truth. By the time I stopped playing, I managed to clock a good twelve hours going through all the modes, meaning there’s plenty for you to sink your teeth into.
Monkey see again, monkey do again
The thing with Banana Mania is that what you see is basically what you get. The game is more or less a faithful remake without a ton of added frills that aren’t purely optional content. Monkey Ball veterans likely aren’t coming back to this title for that stuff anyway; it’s all about reliving the old stuff with a fresh coat of paint. But if you’re looking for a totally different spin on the classic formula, Banana Mania doesn’t deliver it.
The only places where the remake completely diverges from its source are the new soundtrack and the removal of the SMB2 story cutscenes and the new soundtrack. Banana Mania replaces the classic soundtracks of the GameCube titles with a new OST comprised of original tracks and remixes. I won’t lie: the SMB2 soundtrack is near and dear to my heart, so I was apprehensive in hearing the new selection to say the least. But it is a satisfying replacement and it does still capture the Monkey Ball vibe. The remix of Space Colony is such a soothing remix that I actually love it as much as the original.
Instead of the full-fledged cutscenes of the original, we’re treated to a cute yet ultimately shallow comic-book style of storytelling that condenses the narrative to its barest elements and even strips away all the dialogue. While it does remove some of the more… questionable elements of the original (dare I mention the bath scene?), it offers a poor substitute for communicating its plot.
Not that you need a story for Monkey Ball anyway, because the focus is where it should be: the stages. Even then, an observation I made is just how different the designs of SMB1 and SMB2 are regarding the levels. SMB1 has flatter, elongated courses with linear pathways that center around endurance while SMB2 requires more dexterity with its diverse but compact level geometry and emphasis on physics. Neither style is necessarily better than the other, but it’s certainly interesting looking at these two side-by-side and seeing how they compare.
Banana Mania made a monkey out of me
There was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to love Banana Mania. Whether or not you will is a little trickier to decide. This is the definitive way to experience these titles, but it also reveals the areas where those titles have started to show their age. The quality-of-life improvements and additional content (not to mention the visual upgrade) make this an excellent version of the base games. Yet the slightly-off gameplay, lack of polish for Party Games, and mediocre story presentation knock it down a few pegs. Still, for the price you’re paying and the sheer quality of these courses, Banana Mania looks as fresh as ever despite a few brown spots.
Played on Nintendo Switch. Thanks to SEGA for providing a review code for this title.