The sunshine aesthetic of the Super Monkey Ball world looks superb already, even though the game’s code is at pre-alpha stage (ie. 'not even slightly finished'). The shades of green used for sunlit leaves are spot-on, and the glistening blue water looks cool and refreshing. And when you see the surging whirlpool looming at the end of the track and realise you're going to have to navigate around it, the drama is palpable.
There will be a total of 16 different tracks, each themed around a different classic Sega game. We know Super Monkey Ball and Panzer Dragoon are in, plus we get the inkling from talking to the devs that there will be a Space Channel 5 stage set in space. We also know that Bug and Space Harrier will not be present, although we couldn't get an answer either way on Burning Rangers or Shenmue. Still, Vyse from Skies of Arcadia is a playable character, as is Gilius from Golden Axe, so it makes sense that they'll have their own tracks. A 3D Death Adder was also mentioned by the devs…
But for all the impressive new water tech and lovingly detailed audio-visual fan service, the most important question is about how the actual racing feels. The answer in a nutshell is ‘very enjoyable’. While a new game engine has been built from the ground up, a definite effort has been made to replicate the basic feel of the first game. And it works, although there have been a few important and welcome tweaks.
For instance, the drift mechanic has been loosened slightly in order to avoid the first game's habit of causing unexpectedly tight turns to collide with the barrier on the inside of the corner. Also, when you're hurtling towards a track divide, this game would much rather let you keep moving forwards if you accidentally hit the split dead-on than stop you dead in an embarrassing crunching halt. It wants you to get round the track. It wants you to have fun.
A kart racer wouldn't be a kart racer without weapons, and this is no exception. This time round, a lot more work seems to have gone into the weapons, arguably one of the weakest areas of the last game. For starters, the powerful All-Star moves aren’t simply handed out for being at the back of the pack now, which is great for keeping things exciting for players at the front. If you were good at the first game, you hardly ever saw your All-Star move because the original approach to game balance meant that you simply never had gained the ability to use it.
This time round, you have to earn your move by collecting All-Star tokens that are littered around the track in hard-to-reach areas. They can be anywhere, from the apex of very tight turns to the more devious, less accessible short-cuts. Sadly, while the coins were present the build we played, the All-Star moves themselves weren't, as they're still being made.
What were available however, were super versions of the game’s standard weapons, earned by driving particularly skilfully in designated areas.On the Super Monkey Ball track for instance, this involves finding a route that ends in a ramp, that in turn carries you over the barriers of suspended walkways and down onto – and we love this bit – a Monkey Target landing area. Hit the middle and you get to pick up the special bonus weapon. These are currently triple-powered versions of the game’s existing arsenal, but could well be entirely bespoke pain-tools by the time the final game arrives.