Something that started off as an obscure arcade game, AmusementVision's Monkey Ball series probably would have slipped under most people's radars had Super Monkey Ball not been one of the launch titles for the GameCube. Though it may not have made as big of a splash with gamers as games like Luigi's Mansion or Rogue Leader, the original Super Monkey Ball quickly garnered a strong following, and the game's unique style and wealth of addictive gameplay modes kept people playing long after interest had waned in many of the higher-profile GameCube launch games. Super Monkey Ball 2 simply cranks up the volume on the Monkey Ball formula, offering up fully twice the number of playable four-player party games as the original and wrapping the single-player experience in an appropriately cute and slightly deranged story.
The game's story mode begins with the sinister Dr. Bad-Boon rolling up on Monkey Island and using a giant vacuum to steal all the bananas on the island. Our heroic quartet of Ai Ai, Mee Mee, Gon Gon, and Baby perform a breathtakingly weird dance to summon their supersized hamster balls and quickly give chase to Dr. Bad-Boon, who has, of course, lined their path with a series of puzzles. That's where you come in.
The easiest way to describe Super Monkey Ball is to call it a fully three-dimensional version of the classic Marble Madness, but even this compliment would not do justice to the game's constantly inventive and challenging course design. The objective of each level is as simple as it gets--using nothing but the rolling power of your monkey ball, you must get from one end of a course to the other before time runs out. Actually doing so, however, is where the simplicity ends, as the levels themselves are fraught with moving platforms, big drops, and an assortment of other dangerous obstacles whose sole purpose is to knock you off the platform. The level design has unquestionably become much bolder since the original Super Monkey Ball. While sheer steady-handedness is still a very necessary skill, Super Monkey Ball 2 puts a slightly greater emphasis on puzzle-solving, forcing you to extrapolate the best course of action rather than just trying to power through. Make no mistake, Super Monkey Ball 2 is every bit as challenging as its predecessor, and fans of the original will surely appreciate the 100 new levels the game has to offer.
As you play through both the story mode and the challenge mode, which is essentially the story mode with a limited number of lives and without the story, you'll be rewarded with play points along the way that can be used to unlock the game's six new party games. All the party games from the original Super Monkey Ball--monkey race, monkey fight, monkey target, monkey billiards, monkey bowling, and monkey golf--have returned for the sequel in an enhanced form, and all are playable right from the get-go. The enhancements that have been made to these games are generally minor and seem designed specifically to make the proceedings more enjoyable for novice players, though they shouldn't really keep monkey ball veterans from continuing to enjoy them.
The six new unlockable party games are all worth unlocking, though some have greater lasting appeal than others. Monkey boat is a race mode where the monkeys have converted their balls into tiny plastic kayaks. This mode can prove to be physically draining, as forward motion and directional control are determined by the left and right strokes of your paddle, which are handled by the left and right trigger buttons, respectively, and you'll have to pump like mad to keep ahead of the pack. In monkey dogfight the simians are given weapons and the ability of flight, and they do battle in an aerial arena. Monkey shoot is essentially a cutesy version of Virtua Cop, or any other rail-based shooter where you use a targeting reticle to shoot down moving targets. The other three party games, monkey baseball, monkey soccer, and monkey tennis, pretty much play as simplified versions of those sports. They will not give the likes of High Heat Baseball or FIFA Soccer a run for their money, but the easy-to-learn mechanics and fast pacing make them perfectly fit for quality multiplayer action.
The presentation of Super Monkey Ball 2 is head and shoulders above the original, with every single aspect of the game's visuals receiving at least a slight upgrade. The ethereal nothingness that surrounded the original Super Monkey Ball is a distant memory, and the single-player game is divided into 10 different themed areas ranging from the banal Jungle Island levels to the more outrageous Inside a Whale and Bubbly Washing Machine levels. The platforms themselves are constructed of the same distinct checkerboard material, but the background teems with action as volcanoes, space stations, and the machinations of a clock tower go about their business. The monkeys themselves have been given a greater level of detail and more animation. Lighting and particle effects are used more liberally, and to especially good effect in the Volcanic Magma levels, where you'll see the hot embers from the burning pit below flying up and around the track. Aside from the very rare occasion of slowdown, it's hard to complain about the graphics here.
The aural presentation hasn't changed as radically since the original Super Monkey Ball, using the same throbbing, impossibly upbeat techno soundtrack accompanied by the same announcer with the same unsure speech patterns. During the story mode, you'll hear the characters speak in their own gibberish dialects, which consist mostly of lots of eeks and other generic monkey sounds, except for Dr. Bad-Boon, who sounds as if he's talking backward--whether this was intended to make him seem even more sinister or if AmusementVision is using subliminal marketing to sell more copies of Super Monkey Ball 2 remains to be seen.
With so many so-called party games out there trying so hard to create a frenetic multiplayer experience, it's almost amazing how Super Monkey Ball 2 makes it all seem so effortless and manages to include a compelling single-player game to boot. Fans of the series will find more to love here than in the original Super Monkey Ball, and beginners will find this to be a much easier game to get into.