Super Monkey Ball 3D

Super Monkey Ball 3D

Regardless of whether or not you had the chance to enjoy the torturous monster that was the original Monkey Ball, you have to appreciate its design. It’s basic Labyrinth-esque gameplay with a twist—you simply tilt the board to move the monkey in the ball, guiding him around endless hazards toward each level’s goal before time expires. But while the concept is simple, the layers of environmental hazards (moving lifts, bumps in the road, switches) quickly contribute to a sense of chaos that makes every subtle flick of the thumb a tense and precise procedure.

At least, that’s how it was in previous games. See, as punishing as they were in their difficulty, much of the appeal of the classic Monkey Ball games (two on the GameCube, one on the Wii) was the almost insurmountable challenge. In many ways, the series’ M.O. could be likened to that of other such scathing trials in game form as Super Meat Boy (which coincidentally shares the same initials). Unlocking Master Mode in the original Monkey Ball or Ultra Heaven in Banana Blitz was something very few gamers (including myself) would ever accomplish.

But Super Monkey Ball 3D retreats from this strategy, instead sporting 80 levels of lukewarm difficulty, most of which will be completed by veteran players in probably under a couple dozen lives. That equates to around 90 minutes of actual gameplay, a sorely disappointing statistic to anyone hoping for a redux of the franchise’s classic experience.

It's Monkey Ball, minus the challenge
It’s Monkey Ball minus the challenge

Losing yourself in a handheld experience

If there’s one thing SMB 3D has going for it, it’s the power of the 3DS experience. Not everyone will love the simulated 3D, but if you choose to indulge, it’s a heck of a ride. Personally, I found that the effect was most digestible when the slider was halfway up while playing Super Monkey Ball 3D, but your mileage may vary. One thing’s for certain: Monkey Ball is even more disorienting and intense in 3D.

Graphically, apart from the obvious addition of perceived depth, the game looks quite good. The action is smooth and the environments, while plain, are colorful and attractive. Musically, it’s a mixed bag; there are some annoying tunes (such as the menu music) and a few surprisingly great ones (such as the unconventional techno-funk theme for the unlockable final world). Nevertheless, the presentation is generally a positive thing, even if primarily it’s thanks to the glow of the new platform.

In terms of gameplay, you have a choice: either use the new 3DS “circle pad” (you know, the nub-like analog stick similar to that of the PSP) or choose tilt control instead. Tilt control works about as well as you’d expect—that is to say, not well at all. Although the Wii’s Banana Blitz already offended me enough (and abused my wrist) by forcing me along a steep learning curve of wonky tilt precision in the Monkey Ball universe, matters are even worse when the screen moves with the controller you are tilting (which is obviously the case with a handheld). Plus, it’s mutually exclusive of the 3D features, since moving the screen to and fro distorts the effect.

A monkey chasing bananas on a monkey
A monkey chasing bananas on a monkey

The circle pad, on the other hand, is legitimately great. It’s the closest thing to console-grade analog precision that I’ve experienced to date on a handheld. And really, what better game to test its proficiency than Super Monkey Ball, the ultimate test of precision? After a few short minutes of acclimation, I quickly transitioned into God Mode, conquering nearly all of the levels without even losing a single monkey. That is, up until the final world, where the challenge finally began to rise to levels comparable to that of the previous Monkey Ball games. Ultimately, it would have been nice to see at least a few more worlds of this type—the creativity and complexity of these last several stages is head and shoulders above that of nearly all of the rest of the game.

The game is sort of marketed as a 3-in-1 package, with three actual main modes of play: Challenge, Race, and Fight. Of these three, Challenge is still not only the most content-rich, but it’s also by far the best (and that’s sad considering its aforementioned lack of the very quality after which the mode is named). The other two game modes are really little more than mini-games with added content for good measure. The gameplay, meanwhile, doesn’t hold up. Monkey Race is much like a Mario Kart title (practically a carbon-copy kart racer, in fact) with questionable control and an even greater imbalance in the items-to-skill ratio. It’s not really much fun at all—drifting feels partially broken, and the track designs are tellingly pedestrian. The third game, Monkey Fight, could be most likened to Super Smash Bros., but again, it’s nowhere in the same league.

The mini-games feature plenty of unlockable bonuses, including characters (16 total) and vehicles (also 16). But when they aren’t any fun to play, unlockables don’t amount to much.