Super Monkey Ball has been one of Sega's strongest original franchises since the series debuted on the GameCube in 2001. Following two successful games on the GameCube, the franchise expanded to portable systems last year with Super Monkey Ball Jr., a pint-size version of the puzzler. This year's incarnation of the franchise, simply called Super Monkey Ball, will appear on Nokia's upcoming N-Gage system. We tested a preview version of the game to find out how the fledgling system handles being crammed full of monkeys.
For those unfamiliar with the Super Monkey Ball franchise, the game is an arcade-style puzzler that charges you with guiding one of four monkeys--Aiai, Meemee, Baby, or Gongon--to an exit on progressively more challenging stages. The trick is that you actually control the environment rather than the monkey, who is encased in a large plastic, presumably ventilated, ball. It's like a 3D version of the children's toy where the goal was to guide a ball bearing through a maze by tilting the whole maze. Controlling Super Monkey Ball is breeze--you simply use the D pad to tilt the environment, thus moving your monkey wherever you want. The simple mechanic and challenging stage designs give Monkey Ball an addictive but accessible appeal.
You'll find two main modes in the game: main game and minigames. Main game will offer two types of play: normal mode and practice. Normal mode will let you play through a series of stages on one of three difficulties: beginner, advanced, and expert. The number of boards you'll have to go through will vary depending on your selected difficulty. You'll have 10 stages to clear in beginner, 15 in advanced, and 20 on expert. Practice mode will let you hone your skills on any stage you've already cleared. Monkey Ball aficionados will notice that some of the stages have been tweaked a bit from the Game Boy Advance version. The minigame mode features three game types you'll have to unlock by using points earned in the main game. You'll be able to open up monkey race, monkey fight, and monkey target. Unfortunately, the game's mode selection lacks one of the Monkey Ball franchise's most appealing elements--a multiplayer component. While the single-player modes are solid and offer quite a bit to enjoy, the multiplayer modes have played a large part in the game's appeal, and it's disappointing that the N-Gage version won't include any, especially given the system's capabilities.
The game's presentation is quite solid and manages to outshine its Game Boy Advance cousin in a few spots. The game offers up some solid polygonal environments that are clean but a bit crude. The actual monkeys look quite a bit better though, thanks to the use of rendered art on the character select screen and in the game. The only rough spots are an inconsistent frame rate and slightly chunky bitmap backgrounds. The audio is strong and makes use of sound samples and effects from the GameCube games. Fans of the series will appreciate the stamp of authenticity, while newcomers will cringe as they hear the clean samples of monkey screams as the little guys tumble off into space.
Based on what we've seen so far, Monkey Ball is shaping up pretty well on the N-Gage. The game is fun and challenging, and it looks good. Our only real gripes are the minor graphical issues and the lack of multiplayer support. Super Monkey Ball is slated to ship this October for the N-Gage.