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Review: Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD

I ’m something of a Super Monkey Ball novice. Make no mistake, I’ve dabbled with the series here and there going all the way back to the original* console release on the GameCube (*but sadly not the original banana-handled arcade release – someday, maybe), but never really had an opportunity to really sit down and make a proper go of it.

So when I found out a new release was coming to the current generation of platforms in Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD, I leaped at the opportunity to give it a go.

A Wii Look Back

Ah, but it isn’t an entirely new release, now is it? Indeed, as the suffix to the title implies, this is a remastering of Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz, an early Wii title which shook things up a bit through the addition of motion-based controls, which was the style at the time. The new version plays with traditional controls, but I decided to take it upon myself to track down a copy of the Wii version before blitzing the HD release.

To say that the Wii release was divisive would be to put it kindly. It seems to have its fans and its detractors in equal measure, and reviewed well upon its release. But in the time since, fans have spoken ill of this entry, even lamenting that SEGA would choose this instead of a previous entry to remaster.

Upon playing the Wii version, I kind of get where fans are coming from. I found the game overall clunky to control, and even just pausing the game felt unintuitive (you have to hold the button down a few seconds – hope whatever is interrupting you isn’t urgent). I had my fill by around 2-2 of the main story mode, and the mini-games weren’t anything to write home about, much less keep me around.

But hey, that’s what an HD remaster is for, right? To iron out the imperfections while keeping what was good about the initial release, yeah? Well, let’s see.

HD for You and Me

I suppose the first place to start is the graphics. While the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were proudly paving the way for high-definition visuals, the Wii decided to hang back and stick with standard definition and overall lower power for that generation. As a result, while the HD version is definitely a visual improvement over the original, at the same time, it’s perhaps not on the same level of visuals that one might expect of an HD port of a game from that era. For instance, you’ll still notice some of the corners of polygons in the cutscenes if you look closely enough, but they aren’t quite as apparent as before.

Prior to that, though, the most immediate change one is likely to pick up on between the two versions is that the interface is much easier to navigate now. The original leaned heavily into the whole motion thing, meaning that you would have to twist and turn the Wii Remote in different ways in order to simply choose options, select characters, and so on.

In HD, you press a direction with the stick, and the highlight/cursor moves to whatever is next in sequence from where it was when you pressed the button. Clean, simple, and effective.

That simplicity and effectiveness extends to controlling your chosen character in their respective ball during the game, too. While I found the motion controls to be manageable for the portion of the original game I played, the newly-added standard controls just felt altogether more natural to me. One example which stands out in my mind is in the early going, one stage features birds who flap their wings, potentially blowing you off the course if you’re not careful. While these were troublesome for me in the Wii version, they were much more easily handled in HD; it felt less like I was fighting the controls and more like I was navigating the actual stage design, which was ultimately more satisfying.

That isn’t to say that it was a breeze, though. Some trial and error did take place, part of which involved picking which monkey (each possessing different stats) would be best suited for the challenges of the course ahead. Or maybe some monkeys are simply better suited to certain playstyles. Perhaps both? In any case, I felt well covered.

Plus, as you may already know, the “Classic” version of Sonic the Hedgehog also appears as a playable character in this version of the title. Unfortunately, I never got to take him for a spin, though we’ll get into why that was probably the case in just a bit.

Something more and more games are discarding these days is a lives system, but Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD hangs on to that aspect of its previous incarnation. It feels like a mostly pointless inclusion, only seeming to serve to let you replay a stage without having to collect the bananas within a second time. Other than points, bananas mostly serve to… get you more lives, and you can continue where you left off after a game over. What’s more, you can’t save your stockpile of lives, making the inclusion of the system seem like a pointless holdover from an earlier era in gaming.

Mind, this doesn’t really detract from the game, nor does it add anything to it. It’s just kind of there.

Screw the Boss(es)

What does detract for me, though your mileage may vary, is the camera movement. It tends to really bob every which way while you play, and is probably not a good thing for those who suffer from motion sickness. I’m not normally bothered by this, but even I found it to be mildly unpleasant after playing for a while.

Fortunately, you are able to adjust the sensitivity from the default 5 to either 1 (less movement) or 10 (LOTS of movement), and it does make quite a difference (I even checked it with my wife, who does have to deal with motion sickness in games like this), but it would be nice if maybe you could just turn that movement off entirely and simply focus on rolling the ball.

Then we come to the worst part of Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz, be it past or present: The bosses.

For some reason, it was decided to introduce bosses in the Wii iteration of the game – a huge mistake, in the opinion of myself and others. All enjoyment the game provides hits a 10-meter thick concrete wall when you enter a boss arena at the end of one of the game’s eight worlds, and all that’s left is anger and misery.

Somehow, the bosses feel so very out of place in the game. I wonder if they weren’t some sort of way for the original developers to justify another of BB Wii’s innovations to the series, the jump button, which I’ve found to be mostly unintrusive and not really bothersome in the normal stages.

Either way, the bosses I’ve encountered (well, save maybe the first) feel completely out of sorts with the

rest of the game, as you have to not only fight the boss and defend against attacks, but the camera as well. This was a particular bother in the second battle, where you have to keep track of the boss (which the camera focuses on) and his projectiles, which tend to come up behind you.

By some miracle (and going through three different monkeys), I somehow managed to get through it. I’m sure it was by luck. I certainly don’t feel accomplished after beating that. Relieved that it was over, maybe, but not accomplished.

And I don’t even want to imagine trying to do that using the Wii’s motion controls.

I had hoped that boss was a one-off, a case of one lousy design amidst a sea of good fun, but it wasn’t to be. Things went smoothly and I was enjoying myself again, even in ice levels, until I reached the boss at the end of the third world. Fighting him was every bit as bad, maybe worse, than the one before it.

Unfortunately, to my great regret, that’s where I had to throw in the towel. Put simply: The bosses ruin this otherwise (as much as I can tell) terrific game, effectively gating the 80 percent of good stuff after the first world behind the 10 percent that’s pure rubbish. It feels like instead of a Marble Madness-esque platformer of sorts, these parts want to be more like an action game, like Sonic, and it just doesn’t work here.

Also, speaking of, I’m betting that beating the main story is how you unlock Sonic. I’m certainly not finding out before anyone else, that’s for sure.

Banana Blitzed

I don’t really want to offer a score here, given I haven’t completed the game (and, at the moment, doubt I ever will), but that’s sort of how these things go.

With that said, I’m giving it a 3, as that image of Sonic and Shadow blitzing each other’s, er, “Super Monkey Spheres” — seems evocative of how I felt by the time I was done, but there’s a caveat or two.

I dare say that if, somehow, the bosses aren’t an issue for you, then you can bump that score up to a good, solid 4. And if SEGA decides to offer a patch that removes the bosses as a requirement for progression (seriously, they’d be just fine off in their own little Boss Rush mode as an optional thing), I’d probably be able to get through the rest, and if what I’ve played outside of the bosses is any indication, it might even be a 5.

But hey, dreams are for special events in Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 (my salvation during this review), and all I’ve got to work with is what I’ve been dealt.

Pros:

  • Improved graphics.
  • Normal controls for those who don’t want to deal with the finickiness of motion controls.
  • Sonic is a playable character.
  • Stages are fun to get through, and provide just the right amount of challenge.
  • Adjustable camera sensitivity.
  • New modes for online ranking, decathlon, and time attack.

Cons:

  • The bosses feel like they have no place here.
  • Still uses a lives system, which seems to serve little real purpose overall, and you can’t save those you’ve stockpiled.
  • Bosses get in the way of a fun game.
  • Even at the lightest sensitivity, the camera movement may pose a problem for those who deal with motion sickness.
  • Fighting the camera and the bosses at the same time can be utterly infuriating.
  • No motion control option for those who enjoyed it before.
  • Did I mention the bosses?
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