Super Monkey Ball Preview

Read all about Sega's first GameCube game.

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Super Monkey Ball
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Monkey Bowling: a proud tradition.
Monkey Bowling: a proud tradition.

With Sega's new multiplatform development plans, it looks as though the company's fixation with monkeys will now be spreading to even more outlets. The first next-generation console to catch the company's fever will be Nintendo's GameCube, courtesy of the upcoming Super Monkey Ball. An enhanced port of Monkey Ball--an arcade title developed on Sega's Naomi board--the game challenges players to manipulate a large playing board to guide a monkey housed in a plastic ball to a goal while collecting bananas. While this latest monkey-centric offering isn't much of a surprise given Sega's obvious penchant for the little guys, it does mark quite a departure for developer Amusement Vision. Best known for arcade titles such as Daytona, Virtua Striker, Virtua NBA, and Spikeout, there was little indication that Amusement Vision could pull off a game that was as addicting and playable as it was loopy.

Monkeys glide.
Monkeys glide.

As mentioned, Super Monkey Ball is more than just a straight port of the Monkey Ball arcade game. For the GameCube version, Amusement Vision revisited the arcade game and enhanced nearly every aspect of it in some way. To begin with, SMB will offer a new face--the stern Gongon will join happy-go-lucky Aiai, chipper Meemee, and precocious Baby in the plastic balls. In terms of gameplay, SMB tops the original by adding two new modes. The arcade mode of the game that had you madly tilting platforms to get your monkey to the goal with as many bananas as possible before time ran out is perfectly re-created. However, in addition to the arcade version of the game, SMB will also offer party game and minigame modes. Party game, which is immediately selectable, will allow up to four players to compete in three multiplayer games: monkey race, monkey fight, and monkey target. Monkey race is a race around a track complete with power-ups. Besides the expected speed boosts, some of the power-ups featured actually change the shape of an opponent's monkey ball into a cube or dodecahedron to slow him or her down. Monkey fight is a battle to knock opponents off of a floating platform. Each monkey ball is equipped with a telescoping fist that can be shot out at opponents. Power-ups in the ring allow you to increase the size of your fist or perform a 360-degree attack. Finally, monkey target offers an interesting departure, with its Pilotwings-esque style of gameplay. After selecting a monkey, you'll find yourself on a platform overlooking an ocean. You must first stop a roulette wheel, with a variety of hazard icons, from spinning. Lucky players will stop it on a plain square. However, if the wheel stops on air mines, bombs, or visibility reducing clouds, those items will appear in the sky ahead, which will make your next task more difficult. You must then roll down the platform, building up momentum, and take flight by having your monkey open up the plastic ball and use the two halves as glider wings. The goal is to fly out as far as possible and land as close to the bull's-eye as you can on targets floating in the ocean. Success rewards you with points you can use to earn enhancements, such as better grip or point multipliers for your monkey.

Teetering on the edge of no return.
Teetering on the edge of no return.

While party game is available from the outset of the Super Monkey Ball, the minigame mode must have its games unlocked. Each time you complete SMB with a score of 2,500 points or higher, you will unlock one of the mode's three games: monkey billiards, monkey golf, and monkey bowling. Monkey billiards is essentially a pool game. Instead of hitting pool balls, though, you'll find yourself hitting plastic monkey balls. An onscreen cursor and dotted line help you line up your shots. Monkey golf will have you trying to sink your monkey in as few strokes as possible. The challenge here is that the "greens" are patterned after boards from the game and require careful shooting and aiming to keep your monkey from falling into oblivion. Finally, monkey bowling has you pitching your monkey down a bowling lane to take down pins. The various minigames are very well done technically, offering very tight and accessible gameplay, and they have quite a bit of personality thanks to some amusing monkey animation. During monkey billiards, for example, the monkey in your cue ball is less than pleased before he's sent careening across the table, and the various monkeys' victory dances during monkey bowling are pretty funny as well.

While SMB has significantly improved on its arcade counterpart, the game's tight and intuitive control remains the one constant in all the new modes. For the most part, the action revolves around the analog stick. The A button is used to select strength levels during the minigames that require power bars to be charged or to shoot out your fist in monkey fight. The triggers are used to put spin on a ball in the minigames. The C stick can be used to manipulate the game camera, which is most useful when playing pool and golf.

Monkey attack.
Monkey attack.

Besides the various gameplay elements that have been enhanced, Super Monkey Ball makes very good use out of the GameCube hardware, with its clean, effects-laden graphics. While the various monkey models and the levels themselves are simple in design, they are generously modeled with well-textured and shaded polygons for a very rich appearance. The backgrounds and sky feature more detail, while the boards have been significantly beefed up. Reflective chrome, particle effects, and a host of other graphical bells and whistles are being thrown in, with the game maintaining a high frame rate even in multiplayer, to give SMB an extremely polished look.

After spending some time with the game, we can definitely say that it plays as good as it looks. The arcade mode calls to mind the addictive feel of old-school classics such as Marble Madness and Crystal Castles. The absence of enemies to avoid is more than made up for by the presence of moving platforms and the need to gain enough momentum to clear gaps without falling. While playing, we found ourselves twisting in our seat in the vain hope it would make our monkey turn a bit faster and keep it from plunging to its death. The minigame modes were extremely fun to play and look to give the game some legs. Hopefully, Amusement Vision's excellent additions to the title will set a precedent that other developers converting arcade titles to home consoles will follow. Gamers eager to get their banana collecting on can look for Super Monkey Ball, recently announced as GameCube launch title, this November.

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