Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz HD is, incredibly, the first Super Monkey Ball game to use a full-size analog stick since the GameCube era. The 3DS and Vita games in the series were beholden to smaller, less precise sticks, but playing with a DualShock 4 is like a homecoming. The original Super Monkey Ball felt designed to take advantage of the precision and range of motion, which the Gamecube controller offered, but only now has the series returned to the purity of the original game's design.
Because of this, the opening moments of Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz HD, a remake of a Wii launch title with the motion controls ripped out, are lovely. Guiding your monkey through those first few goals is immediately familiar if you've played either of the series' GameCube outings, but even if you're not, there's an inherent pleasure to the precision of the controls here. By tilting the stick you shift the level itself, rather than controlling the ball directly, and having analog control allows for a greater level of finesse than has been possible for a long time--at least at first. At its best, Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz HD feels like the series' latest love letter to the analog stick--you need to be sensitive and subtle with your movements, and being able to make tiny adjustments on the move is satisfying on a level that you might not expect from a game about rolling monkeys around in balls.
Unfortunately, Banana Blitz HD retains some of the original Wii game's problems--terrible boss fights, unimaginative level designs, the questionable addition of a jump button--and adds in a few of its own. It makes for a Monkey Ball game that shows the promise of the series, and reminds you of just how much control an analog stick can give you, but fails to live up to it.
Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz HD gives you 100 levels to roll your monkey through--the same 100 featured in the original, updated with a half-hearted graphical upgrade that still makes the game look a little dated. After choosing your preferred primate (each of which have different stats that impact how fast they go and how high they can jump), you're tasked with tackling all 10 worlds, made up of 10 levels each, in order. In each level, you need to roll and jump your way through a treacherous stage to the goal at the end without falling off the edge, and the first 60 or so are easy. This was a game originally designed with motion controls in mind, and it's clear, playing with an analog stick, where concessions were made.
The extra precision afforded in this version makes the game more enjoyable to control, but it also means that I was able to blaze through these stages quickly. Super Monkey Ball was a series praised for its challenge back in the day, and it's hard not to feel disappointed at how easily you can rush through so much of it. There are worse things for a game to be than easy, of course, and I still had some fun with a few of the more imaginative levels, but there's little incentive to go back and try to collect more of the bananas scattered around each level or record a better time. The time trial leaderboards are bizarrely split so that you can't simply go back and record your best time on a single world except for the first, so there's little reason to really become an expert.
But then, for a brief, shining run--around the game's sixth 10-level world--Banana Blitz HD's difficulty curve hits a sweet spot. It's trickier without being obscene or seeming unfair, and the level designs start to get more inventive. You find yourself navigating your monkey through huge rolling wheels, up towers, through moderate maze-like levels, and across other stages that feel like they have a clear sense of purpose and design. The best levels in the series are literal and metaphorical balancing acts--you need to be very careful with your movements, and the level needs to be designed so that you'll keep playing, believing that you can right your own mistakes. Banana Blitz briefly hits that balance and feels like a proper classic Monkey Ball experience, one that pushes your skills and patience but rewards your efforts with the satisfaction of having mastered a difficult task. Unfortunately, the fun doesn't last.
Changes made for this version, and the ease of breezing through the less challenging levels, result in a severe difficulty spike in the game's final third. In the original Wii release, several levels featured parallel rails that you could slot your monkey into and roll along. This meant that while you had to make subtle movements and adjustments to ensure that you didn't fall off, there was some protection from plummeting. This design helped to compensate for the added difficulty of motion controls; the HD version replaces these rails with thin beams to roll across, which beefs up the challenge dramatically.
There were a few stages that stopped me dead in my tracks and forced me to retry repeatedly, and it was often levels that had been redesigned since the original Wii release. While I prefer stick controls to motion controls for this series, the fact that these levels were originally meant to be played with motion controls in mind makes for a less satisfying experience--the Wii version had a more refined difficulty curve. Early on the game doesn't beef up its challenges enough for the change in controls, whereas later it feels like it has overcorrected, and it also means that the difficulty can fluctuate--some later levels still feel very simple and a lot easier with stick controls. In other instances, levels simply feel like they lack finesse in their design or clear lines through them, especially the ones where making jumps is a necessity.
It also becomes clear in the later levels just how much of a burden the jump button is. In the Wii version you could control the camera with the Wii Nunchuk stick, since you weren't using it to steer; this option has been excised from the HD release. Jumping in a 3D space without total camera control leads to headaches, especially since you're not actually controlling the monkey, but rather the level below them. Jumping feels like an imprecise act in a game that is all about the pleasures of precise movement, and it makes the game far more frustrating than other, comparably difficult entries in the series.
Every 10 levels you hit a boss fight, which feel uniformly out of place. Boss fights usually take place in small arenas and pit your monkey against an enemy with a glaring weak spot that you need to jump into. The difficulty curve is, again, way off here; the second boss is much more difficult than most that follow, as it fires rockets that you must hop on top of to redirect, which is an extremely fiddly process. Tellingly, the best boss fight plays like a standard level with a "weak point" at the end of it instead of a goal; otherwise, these fights feel completely at odds with what Monkey Ball is all about.
The multiplayer mini-games have been cut back, too. Part of the Wii version's appeal was that the 50 mini-games included showed off the many things the Wii remote was capable of. Banana Blitz HD trims the collection down to 10 games that are all mapped to a controller, and they range from okay to atrocious. The best ones are Dangerous Route (an okay three-level top-down reinterpretation of the series' standard rolling gameplay) and Monkey Target, a hang-gliding game that tasks you with landing on a distant target (which was perfected in the original GameCube Super Monkey Ball and is greatly simplified here, but still enjoyable). None of them are particularly deep, and much of the control mapping from a Wii remote to a controller is terrible. You can compete in the single-player 'Decathlon' mode, which strings all ten games together and lets you place on an online leaderboard, but personally, I never want to play the awful Hovercraft Race or Whack-A-Mole events--both of which control horribly--again.
It's lovely to have Super Monkey Ball back, but Banana Blitz HD is not a good showcase of what made the series work. It's a remake of a game that was originally designed for a very different, specific purpose and control scheme, and the efforts made to update it for 2019 have made for a lesser game. It's a shame, because a glimmer of what made the series great remains, and it's enough to make us hope that someday we get a new entry that properly returns the series to its roots.