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Having started out as a very original arcade game that then mutated, via an astonishingly difficult sequel, into a fairly gimmicky collection of multiplayer minigames and – surprise! – the odd bit of monkey balling, it’s always interesting to see just how far Sega’s simple, classic Super Monkey Ball has rolled from its hardcore gaming roots.
As anyone who ever tried rolling down the thinnest guitar string on Advanced 11 in the first game will attest, Monkey Ball had a level of brutality reminiscent of the most unforgiving coin-ops of the 8-bit era. Even ten years ago, it was a throwback to a time when pure gameplay ruled over visual thrills.
Lately, though, it feels like a different sort of thing altogether. Whether it’s the failure of repeated sequels to add anything that makes a genuine improvement to the original formula, or simply over-familiarity with the Monkey Ball ‘brand’ in general, it’s been a while since one of these games was a genuinely exciting prospect.
The first Wii version – Banana Blitz, released in 2006 – featured wider paths through the levels to compensate for its comparatively imprecise controls. It was a necessary design decision, since nobody was likely to be able to roll down something like those guitar strings by tilting the remote.
In Step & Roll the courses are even wider. This would make it the easiest Monkey Ball ever if you could play it with the Nunchuk’s analogue stick, but that isn’t an option. The main control method uses the balance board, which is great for doing yoga exercises and the least accurate controller ever devised for arcade games.
The tiny movements that would ease your wobbling ape around a treacherous hairpin bend in Monkey Balls of old simply can’t be achieved when you have to shift your entire body weight. Instead, when you make a correction to stop the monkey veering off to one side, you may be surprised to find you’re applying too much force, making the ball steer too sharply, or not enough, at which point it’s far too easy to overcompensate and lose all semblance of control.
The traditional Monkey Ball camera is at its least helpful in Step & Roll: the close-up viewpoint and steadfast refusal to switch angles when you need to change direction until – cheers, Monkey Ball – it flips around mid-maneuver and leaves you completely disoriented. Every issue we’ve experienced with it in the past is compounded when you’re trying to coax at least a small measure of predictability from a control system that offers no feedback.
The game’s designers must be aware of this, as many levels have small rails at the edges of the difficult bits, or even deep grooves in the middle where you can position the ball and guide it most of the way simply by leaning forwards. Lame, it is.
It says a lot about the failure of the balance board controls when reverting to the plain old remote suddenly makes it 100% more playable. That’s the same remote that was 100% less precise than an analogue stick in Banana Blitz.
The game knows if you’ve given up struggling with the board in an attempt to remote-trundle through its wide open courses with no trouble at all, so it sticks a load of statues in the middle of the path to give you something to steer around. It strikes us as more than a little bit sad that a game once famed for its fiendish level design has started serving up flat surfaces littered with identical blocks.
Depending on your choice of control set-up, Step & Roll is either a hugely frustrating balance board game or a rather dull experience with the remote. A few levels did manage to get the blend right, offering a sufficient degree of challenge without making us want to smash something, but those are the exceptions. After a while we just wanted the whole thing to end.
The multiplayer side of things isn’t a great deal better. The Step & Roll implementation of Monkey Target isn’t as good as the original GameCube one, and few of the minigames are of the kind of standard you’d find in Wii Play or Wii Fit Plus. Also, there’s no Monkey Bowling. That was always our favourite one, and we’ve no idea why it would be deemed surplus to requirements in a minigame collection of such thoroughly pedestrian quality. It’s a much poorer game in every respect than the original, which is a decade old.
Feb 11, 2010