Sega's inimitable chirping monkeys are back at it again, this time in portable form for the Nintendo DS in Super Monkey Ball Touch & Roll. The game rolls over very familiar territory for those who are familiar with the earlier games, released on various consoles. Unfortunately, the game may feel a little too familiar as many of the stages are lifted right out of previous games, and the touch-screen control can be a little awkward to adjust to, so you'll likely find yourself falling back on the D pad to control your monkey.
For those unfamiliar with the Monkey Ball series, you control a cute monkey rolling around in a clear ball, much like the clear plastic balls that hamster owners use to exercise their rodent pets. Super Monkey Ball Touch & Roll has you navigating through 100 different stages, collecting bananas for points as you try and roll yourself to the goal before time runs out. The stages are pretty varied, offering ramps, narrow bridges, stairs, moving platforms, and other tricky hazards that test your ability to roll your monkey safely along without falling off an edge. While many of the levels are quite easy, you'll run into some that are maddeningly difficult. Touch & Roll differs from previous games in that you can use the DS's touch screen to move the ball around. Holding the stylus toward the upper half of the screen rolls you forward, while the bottom half will roll backward--left and right steer accordingly. It's an intuitive scheme, but in practice, controlling the game with the touch screen is much more awkward than just using the D pad. It's difficult to get the level of precision with the touch pad that you can get from just using the standard control input. As in previous Monkey Ball games, you can collect bananas in each stage to earn extra lives. Timed bonus stages are also available, and they let you roll around and collect dozens of bananas. The stages are split up into groups of 10 and beating these groupings will unlock additional levels.
There are also six party games included in Touch & Roll, including race, fight, bowling, golf, and two new games, hockey and wars. These are all available for multiplayer action for up to four players, with race, hockey, and wars playable through game sharing. Race is, as you'd expect, a lap race between all four Monkey Ball characters, around six different tracks. This mode takes a few cues from classic arcade racers with zip pads and weapon pickups but doesn't really establish itself as anything special, thanks to the bland track design. Fight is the classic game mode that has all the monkeys on platforms of varying shapes, trying to punch each other off with massive boxing gloves. This one's probably one of the more fun games, but it's nothing you haven't played before, and the lack of platform designs to play on limits its value. Bowling is pretty decent. You can set your ball positioning and spin before making the toss, which is done by simply dragging the stylus in an upward motion on the touch pad. Unfortunately, you can't adjust spin on the fly (there is a live monkey in the ball, is there not?), so there's nothing unique about monkey bowling that's different from any other bowling minigame. Golf plays out like a match of minigolf, where you must ply through twisting greens, ramps, and the dreaded mole-hill-style holes over an 18-hole course. Control is pretty basic as you set your direction and then power up by dragging the stylus around a circular meter. There's only one course though, so you'll probably tire of this one pretty quickly, too.
The two brand-new minigames, hockey and wars, are unique, but they don't seem like they belong in a Monkey Ball game. Stretched vertically across the two screens on the DS, hockey plays a lot like a regular game of air hockey--the kind you've played at an arcade or in your rich uncle's basement. There are a couple of twists here, though. One version of Monkey Hockey lets you draw your own paddle and hit with it, with sections of the paddle coming off after each hit. There are also target-switches in each corner of the rink that do crazy things if you can hit those. You can shrink the size of your own goal or expand your opponent's goal. The switches can also trigger extra pucks to come out on the surface or change the size of your opponent's paddle. This requires you to defend not only your goal, but the switches in the corners, lest you let your opponent activate too many power-ups. At one point, we found ourselves with a "paddle" that had an approximate diameter of five pixels, defending a goal mouth that stretched the width of the screen, while the computer had a paddle larger than a UFO and a goal mouth narrower than a drinking straw. It's pretty fun, but the computer is an unmerciful opponent.
Wars is basically a primitive first-person shooter and is reminiscent of Faceball 2000 for the original Game Boy. You use the D pad to move forward, backward, and around three different maps. Shooting is accomplished by tapping on the screen and turning is done slowly and awkwardly by holding down on the arrow buttons displayed on the touch screen. There are weapon pickups on the levels, some of which have unique powers such as the ability to slow opponents. But otherwise, this is a pretty unremarkable minigame. Southpaws will be annoyed to find that the D pad control is not mirrored on the buttons, so you've got no recourse but to play this particular minigame right-handed.
As far as presentation goes, Super Monkey Ball Touch & Roll delivers a vibrant, colorful experience. There isn't a whole lot of detail in the backgrounds, but the levels still look pretty decent, and the monkeys are as cute as ever. Most importantly for a game like this, there's never any slowdown, so you're never struggling against the graphics for full control of your monkey. The sound-scape is dominated by some whimsical, upbeat tunes, though you'll also hear the squealing and cooing of the monkeys, depending on how well you are doing. It's all solid stuff but nothing especially remarkable.
Super Monkey Ball Touch & Roll for the DS is basically everything you'd expect from a portable version of Monkey Ball. You've got dozens of stages to roll through and a handful of minigames that you can challenge your friends with. Unfortunately, that familiar formula is part of the problem. Chances are, you've basically played this game before. Unless you feel like you really need a portable version of Monkey Ball, there's nothing truly compelling about this version of the game compared with its predecessors. Perhaps a larger variety of minigames or better use of the DS's unique properties might have made Touch & Roll easier to recommend. As it is, the game is just another merely decent Monkey Ball game, shrunken down into a smaller format.