"Flinging Balls Like Monkeys Fling...You Know"
SEGA's Monkey Ball was one of the few new franchises with which the company found success following the demise of their hardware business. The game had a simple yet effective hook, steering the ball-enclosed monkeys across elaborate passages with a surprisingly brutal challenge level. It also effectively lent itself to mini-games and multiplayer, thanks to the myriad ways the spherical simians could be used.
As such, SEGA has spent over a decade milking Monkey Ball for all its worth, making sure the franchise leaves its mark on each and every platform. Super Monkey Ball: Banana Splitz is the requisite entry for the PS Vita, and while it has some clever uses of the handheld's more exotic features, it's still not enough to elevate the concept past its uninteresting familiarity.
The main solo mode in Super Monkey Ball: Banana Splitz at least offers an effective example of the usual Monkey Ball gameplay. Using the left analog stick (or the Vita's internal gyroscope, if you want a much more tedious experience), you tilt the level itself, so the stationary monkey ball rolls towards the finish. In characteristic Monkey Ball fashion, this gets harder and harder as you progress, with split-second movements being the difference between success and failure.
The Monkey Ball game owes clear inspiration to games like Marble Madness (and before it, the physical game of Labyrinth), so the notion of steering a ball through a maze wasn't novel to begin with, but it's done effectively in Super Monkey Ball: Banana Splitz. The only downside is that there are no save points in the main story mode, forcing players to complete all the levels in one sitting without losing all their continues. However, given the arcade origins of the series, this conscious design choice seems appropriate.
Far less successful, however, are the mini-games. Super Monkey Ball: Banana Splitz contains several smaller diversions designed to take advantage of the Vita's unique characteristics. A few of them are actually clever and entertaining, most notably Love Mode, which has players controlling two simultaneous Monkey Ball tables (each assigned to a different analog stick). Most are more superficial, such as a mode that uses the camera and has players take as many photos of specific colors as they can within a short time, or a mode that tilts the Vita vertically and has players tap Monkey Balls in numerical order. These are interesting uses of the system, but they don't have enough depth or lasting appeal to rank as much more than gimmicks.
The most interesting of Super Monkey Ball: Banana Splitz's innovations is the AR Level Design mode, which scans photos to create courses based on the topography of the real-world surroundings. Unfortunately, that ultimately demonstrates the problem with the vast majority of Augmented Reality games, in that the technology isn't sophisticated enough to acquire anything meaningful from the real world. The levels you get from your photos are quite simple, and while it's impressive that the designs are playable, the AR cameras don't draw enough for any lasting appeal.
None of this is meant as a slight against Super Monkey Ball: Banana Splitz, which is still a worthwhile package. If you enjoy Monkey Ball or similar balancing games, you'll find a lot to enjoy here. The main game is impressive and lengthy, and the mini-games can be safely ignored if they aren't interesting. It's just unfortunate that SEGA's attempts to design this game specifically for Vita didn't manifest as much more than parlor tricks.
GameDynamo's Score for Super Monkey Ball: Banana Splitz (PS Vita)
Neil Kapit is a freelance writer, cartoonist, and "La Li Lu Le Lo" agent based in Los Angeles. His work can be seen on www.therubynation.com.
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