It’s not a stretch to think that if you put an actual monkey in a ball, they’d react pretty terribly. Despite this, Sega has found fairly consistent success with Super Monkey Ball, a party platformer series that involves ushering monkeys in balls through obstacle courses, since the Nintendo GameCube days.
This year is the franchise’s 20th anniversary, and to celebrate, the publisher is releasing Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania, an HD remaster of Super Monkey Ball, Super Monkey Ball 2, and Super Monkey Ball Deluxe, the first three games in the series. Banana Mania‘s big selling point is that it contains every world and stage from those three games, along with 12 different minigames from series history, online leaderboards, and a variety of new playable characters from Sega’s back catalog.
It should be the total package, but something feels off about the experience. During my preview time, I frequently found myself wishing that I could just go play the original Super Monkey Ball instead, which is something I ended up doing after I dug my Wii out from storage at my parents’ house. Banana Mania is undoubtedly full of content, much of which I enjoyed, but the devil is in the details — and that’s what I’m worried about so far
Rough waters ahead
The game looks almost exactly as I remember it, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. The first thing I did upon receiving my preview copy was jump into a game of Monkey Race, one of the minigames (Monkey Ball calls them “Party Games”) from the original title. The race courses had all the twists and turns that I remember, and the environments around them do look marginally nicer (RIP the AV-shaped Speed Desert course, which was shaped like the logo of then-developer Amusement Vision; it’s been changed to a more generic shape). Monkey Billiards also looks good, with a crisp UI and sharp, bright colors. The monkey models have been tweaked, and in some cases, redesigned, although they did my girl MeeMee dirty with a butt-shaped nose. Models in general are a lot more high-resolution than the fuzzy faces I remember from childhood.
Monkey Race and Monkey Billiards are two of the better-looking minigames; others aren’t so lucky. Monkey Boat from Super Monkey Ball 2 has not aged well, and Banana Mania does little to help it look better. The water texture has that early 2000s transparency to it, and there’s just … nothing in the background.
A remaster should be an opportunity to add little details to an old title and show off how much better it can look with more powerful technology. Instead, Banana Mania restores Monkey Boat’s original looks to a fault and simply sharpens them to the point where it’s hard to tell the difference between the two besides the inherent fuzziness of the original upscaled on an HD television.
Ultimately, the game’s looks range from serviceable to downright rough. Sega shared that the game is optimized to run at 60 frames per second (fps) and 4K on PC and capable consoles, but I doubt that’s really going to change the quality of the environments.
The original Super Monkey Ball didn’t have a story besides a quick intro cutscene that showed the four main characters — AiAi, MeeMee, GonGon, and Baby — desperately searching for bananas. Banana Mania instead decides to impart a story that gives a little structure to the game’s worlds and levels. The between-worlds cutscenes are cute and fun, and they’re good for breaking up the soul-crushing difficulty of many of the levels.
The main story worlds and levels are pulled from Super Monkey Ball Deluxe, but the game’s main mode also encompasses two challenge modes, which include all of the courses from Monkey Ball and Monkey Ball 2. I tried out the original Monkey Ball courses, which I’ve played so many times on GameCube that I could probably get through them blindfolded using only muscle memory.
Unfortunately, my muscle memory failed me. The courses’ physics have been tweaked ever so slightly, but it’s enough that it feels different to a longtime player. The controls feel both too stiff and too touchy, making certain segments a nightmare. I played with a wired Pro Controller, and it was still frustrating; I can’t imagine what playing Banana Mania with a drift-afflicted Joy-Con would feel like. There were also a few strange elements, like the lack of sound effects when your monkey is traveling very fast.
One thing I did enjoy was Helper Mode, which grants a variety of assists to make frustrating stages easier. While you won’t get as many points for using Helper Mode, it grants you double the time to complete a stage and shows you the right path to take. Many of the stages that have moving or time-based elements can also be slowed down, reducing the reliance on luck. You can also mark any stage as completed in the main story mode, even if you don’t make it to the goal. As someone who gets irked very easily at timing-based games, I found Helper Mode to be a lifesaver.
At the end of the day, it’s cool to see a big piece of my childhood restored in HD. If you’re looking for a pure restoration of Super Monkey Ball that will look great on your HD or 4K TV, you’ll love Banana Mania. Those who prefer true graphical enhancements, like an increase in detail or prettier environments, might be a little disappointed. Previewing Banana Mania was like seeing my childhood across the uncanny valley: close, but not quite there.