It executes the necessary transformations to make its arcade-born experience worthy of a console, constructing a solid solo adventure and one of the system’s best multiplayer offerings while also paying homage to its origins
Efforts that try to bring the simplicity and immediacy of arcade gaming to a home console context tend to have a bit of a hard time delivering enough content to satisfy players. After all, not only are titles of the sort often basic by design, a characteristic that makes the experience they contain approachable and appealing to anyone who walks by the cabinets that house them, but they are also built to extract length, as well as money out of gamers’ pockets, by kicking users back to the start over and over again every time they run out of lives.
Yet, that obstacle has not stopped numerous studios from trying to take the joyful and loose vibe of arcades into the houses of players around the world. It is a type of stubbornness that has certainly had a lot of bad consequences, for not many avid gamers can claim to have never bought a work sold at full price whose worth would have been far more suitable for a machine that operates on quarters or dimes. At the same time, it is an attitude that has also produced charming little packages of sheer gaming goodness that, constructed around the silliest of premises, have been responsible for countless hours of fun.
Super Monkey Ball 2, published by Sega for the GameCube in 2002, absolutely falls into the last of those two categories. Differently from many home console games whose simplicity and gameplay format were merely inspired by those of arcades, though, the franchise starred by a cuddly team of simians was actually born inside a cabinet in 2001, being ported to Nintendo’s system that very same year with the addition of an engaging multiplayer mode and under the name of Super Monkey Ball.
Although undeniably good, that original installment fell somewhat victim to the curse of lack of content, as the option to tackle a bunch of wacky party-like activities alongside other friends did not quite do enough to cover up the fact its single-player experience was both too thin and excessively grounded on the mannerisms of arcades. Super Monkey Ball 2, on the other hand, aware of the shortcomings that held back its predecessor despite the very short time that separated their release, puts a lot of effort into giving muscular flesh to the lovable bones of its gameplay. And it by all means succeeds in that task.
Super Monkey Ball is ridiculously simple. So much, in fact, that one does not employ any buttons to tackle its core gameplay format. All players really need to do is use the control stick. In the franchise, gamers are put in the role of a group of monkeys that – for some very odd reason – spend a good portion of their time inside balls. And, thanks to that spherical habitat, by tilting the floor of the level where the simian of choice stands, one must guide them through an assortment of crazy obstacles (decorated with collectible bananas, naturally) all the way to the ending of the course before the sixty-second timer runs out.
It is a control scheme that is so basic to get that a toddler could possibly grasp it in a few second; and it is a concept so alluringly straightforward that Super Monkey Ball 2 works as one of those party titles that, a few minutes after being inserted into the system, will have both gamers and non-gamers flocking towards the television screen to watch others give the stages a try while they secretly wait for their own chance to have a go at it. It is just that hard to resist it.
The fact Super Monkey Ball 2 sports simplicity and accessibility, though, does not necessarily mean it does not bite. The game has, actually, a nicely sharp set of teeth, and it gets to use them pretty quickly, because although the first dozen or so of its levels can be cleared without major trouble by pretty much anyone, the difficulty escalates. It, however, never truly gets unfair or infuriating. Firstly, because the challenge rises at a steady pace, and even if there are a few punctual courses that are points out of the curve, there are not any outrageous leaps to be found. Secondly, and most importantly, as the sixty-second time limit players have to reach the goal indicates, stages are just not very large.
Therefore, when a monkey falls towards their doom, not a lot of progress is lost, and gamers are bound to feel pretty excited about the perspective of trying again. Furthermore, the interval between failing and restarting is minimal, as such, there is no need to wait through loading screens, unnecessary animations, or any empty delays that have the potential to generate frustration when they appear repeatedly. Super Monkey Ball 2 is, as it turns out, exclusively dedicated to delivering fun.
Fun, however, could not really be achieved without variety. And Super Monkey Ball 2 squeezes an impressively diverse array of levels out of its simple premise. It has mazes, half-pipes, steps, tilting tiles, moving platforms, floors with as many holes as a fishing net, insane jumps, tracks that twist like wild roller coasters and send the monkeys bursting at crazy speeds, courses whose turns are devilishly tight and narrow, stages that move around so much and in so many different directions that it feels like they are alive, and killing devices that – standing in the middle of plain checkered surfaces – seem to have come out of some sort of psychedelic dream, like a carousel, floating rings, a comb, and a tennis racket.
All of those assets, amidst many others, appear over platforms that have a complete absence of railings, a nature that – needless to say – leads to a whole lot of sweaty palms and uncomfortably close encounters with death. With a whopping 150 courses available, Super Monkey Ball 2 rarely touches the same ground. It always finds a way to surprise, and thanks to both quantity and quality, it paves the road to the assembling of a mountain of content that makes its existence outside of arcades justifiable.
Smartly, as a great strategy to preserve its arcade goodness while also adapting its format to a console setting, Super Monkey Ball 2 has two distinct core single-player options. The first one, akin to the kind of experience one would expect to have at home, is a Story Mode. In it, the evil Dr. Bad-Boon takes a page from King K. Rool’s book on how to annoy simians and steals all the bananas from Jungle Island, where the monkeys live. And that evil deed prompts a chase through ten worlds, each with ten levels.
The cutscenes that introduce each world, portraying the encounters between the heroes and the villain via silly dialogues that will only appeal to very young children, are poor. However, not only can they be skipped, but their uninspired nature – like that of the title’s character models, scenarios and music – is also relatively unimportant in a game like Super Monkey Ball 2, where the focus lies on gameplay. What is interesting about the very good Story Mode is that it gives gamers a chance to play the levels individually, because as soon as they get to a world, players are allowed to choose any of the ten stages contained in it, opening up the door for one to try other courses in case they are stuck in one that is particularly troublesome to them. Clearing all challenges, though, is mandatory, for it is only possible to advance to the next set of levels once the current group of ten is finished.
Truer to the arcade origins of Super Monkey Ball, there is Challenge Mode, which can be undertaken alone or with friends. It is divided into four different difficulties, each one with a certain number of levels: Beginner, with ten; Advanced, with thirty; Expert, with fifty; and the unlockable Master, with ten. Although those stages, save for the ones in Master, are all featured in Story Mode, the appeal of Challenge Mode lies in the distinct format in which they must be tackled, because gamers start each run with a certain number of lives and continues, and they must make it to the end of each set – in a fixed order – without running out of those.
It goes without saying that such an approach boosts not only the thrill of the experience, but also the challenge itself, and the appeal of the mode is further augmented because surviving the gauntlet of each difficulty without using a continue will unlock additional groups of ten levels that are not available anywhere else and that will test players considerably, coming off as the ultimate quest of Super Monkey Ball 2.
Challenge Mode also has the positive feature of giving a slightly greater importance to the bananas that are scattered around the courses than Story Mode does. Although they are present in the latter, they do not serve much of a purpose there, because in spite of adding a bit to players’ total score, they also have the side-effect of making the monkeys spend more time in the stages, and given timer-related points are far more valuable than those yielded by bananas, there is not much to be gained from going after them other than bragging rights. In Challenge Mode, meanwhile, their value increases a bit, because every one hundred bananas that are picked up will grant gamers an extra life.
Nevertheless, since many pieces of the fruit, and especially the alluring bunches, are found in rather dangerous positions, it is easier to ignore them and buy extra lives at the in-menu store by using Play Points, which – as their name implies – are produced by simply playing the game. Consequently, the bananas end up being the greatest missed opportunity of Super Monkey Ball 2, since there would be quite an interesting challenge in getting to some of them if they were more appealing, something that could be achieved via a mode that made banana-collection vital by, for instance, only opening up access to the finish line after a certain number of fruits have been gathered.
The final piece that gives console-strength to the arcade ways of Super Monkey Ball 2 is borrowed straight from its predecessor: a Party Mode. However, containing a pleasant amount of twelve games, with six being available from the get go and the other six being purchasable via Play Points, it considerably expands on the deck of options of its prequel. The monkeys cover a bit of everything. Tightly tucked in their balls, they play sports like soccer, golf, tennis, baseball, bowling, boxing, billiards, and racing either on the ground or on the water. Charmingly, sometimes the little creatures put their own crazy spin on the activity, as it happens with baseball and boxing, and at times they go for a somewhat more straightforward approach. Additionally, they also tackle other sorts of competitions. In Monkey Dogfight, using the two halves of their balls as wings, they try to gun down each other; in Monkey Shot, the game turns into an on-rails shooter; and, finally, in Monkey Target, they jump from ramp, fly over the ocean, and try to land on the highest-scoring portion of weirdly shaped targets floating amidst the water.
With such a large quantity of games, it is utterly surprising how many options each one of them has, as they offer a handful of adjustable attributes as well as differently designed levels. And although it is unquestionable that many of the competitions seen in Party Mode can be found in much more full-fledged and technically proficient forms in other games, it is equally undeniable that besides being very fun in their simplicity, it is amazing how Super Monkey Ball 2 unites all of them under the same roof.
It is through such means that Super Monkey Ball 2 is able to write the book on how it is possible to successfully transport a simple gameplay format from arcades to homes. The game does not forget its origins; in fact, it thrives so deeply in those roots that it dedicates one of its three main modes to a progression style that is strongly based on an arcade staple: having to clear a long chain of challenges with a limited number of lives.
At the same time, however, it executes the necessary transformations to make its experience worthy of a console, constructing a solid solo adventure and one of the system’s best multiplayer offerings, which achieves variety by looking away from the franchise’s traditional spectrum of monkeys in balls rolling through crazy stages. And like that, with its core always firmly centered on gameplay that is so ridiculously simple it shuns the use of buttons, Super Monkey Ball 2 manages to be challenging, flexible, fun, addictive, and packed with fantastic content.