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Super Monkey Ball: Step & Roll

19:2703/03/2010Posted by D+PAD StaffNo Comments

The Super Monkey Ball series is perhaps one of today’s most puzzlingly prolific games series. Not puzzling in a sense that it lacks quality, puzzling in how developer SEGA have once again managed to re-invent gameplay that literally amounts to rolling an encased monkey towards a goal. In the wake of stylus control (Super Monkey Ball Touch & Roll – Nintendo DS) and Smartphone accelerometers (Super Monkey Ball iPhone), SEGA are hoping its second Wii installment give gamers a reason to (literally) dust off your Balance Board and control Aiai and friends in a much more embarrassing fashion. In theory, it’s a fantastic concept and sounds like one the most natural applications for Nintendo’s oft-maligned bathroom scales. In practice… well let’s just say Tony Hawk’s: Ride will be delighted it has company in the ever-growing graveyard of poor motion titles.

For newcomers, Super Monkey Ball was originally an arcade hit (Monkey Ball) and rewards co-ordination and endless patience to guide your chosen simian through a maze-like course without falling off the edge, marble-madness style.. Bananas can be collected for extra lives and all courses operate under strict time limits. It’s staggeringly simple in concept but has earned its success with simple “just one more go…” addictive gameplay. Step & Roll is the Wii follow-up to the 2006 launch title, Banana Blitz, which not only implemented motion controls, but tweaked the formula with mini-games, bosses and a new jump function, with modest success. If anything Step & Roll is a back to basics approach – boss battles, jumping and nunchuk controls are out whereas balance board implementation is in. The mini-game total has even been cut in half – sound like a fair trade?

First impressions don’t help. Simply moving in a straight line on the the Balance Board is an excruciating challenge. The player controls are far too imprecise and overly-sensitive to calculate. What’s more, the awful in-game camera will work against you, constantly shifting position for no discernible reasons and causing flailing of limbs in attempts to re-align yourself. Thus frustration sets in very quickly. On switching back to your standard Wii Remote controls, you will notice a slight change in the level layout – suddenly obstacles have appeared to block your way. It’s hard to tell which the original course was although I’d wager that the obstacles were created first, until SEGA realised they’d rather have an easy but broken game than a challenging but broken game. To be fair Remote controls are perfectly fine to see out the rest of the 70 courses, but once you realize you didn’t need the board at all you’ll wonder if you should’ve bought Banana Blitz for half the price.

Mini-games don’t fare much better. With the surprising omission of Monkey Bowling (!) there are not many events that hold up to scrutiny after a couple of playthroughs. If there is one trump card for Step & Roll over its forbears, it’s in its delightful presentation. With bold, colourful graphics (running at 60fps), and an infectious soundtrack (admittedly with monkey squeals), it’s easy to see why gamers first fell in love with the franchise.

With Wii Balance Boards around the country propped up in attics or utility rooms, it is pretty admirable though that SEGA have attempted to take its series in a new direction, as well as a reason for its owners to try something different than various yoga poses for a change. And with Wii Fit’s incredible sales, there was also sound business motivation in doing so. However what Step & Roll proves is that perhaps the Balance Board itself is only suited for fitness titles. With two control schemes (Remote or Board), the developers surely hoped to mimic the dual controls and universal appeal of Mario Kart Wii. However this is exactly where the title falters – levels have been designed with fewer intricacies for casual gamers to navigate, which will alienate longtime fans hoping for a challenge. Considering the unique selling point of Step & Roll and the default control scheme for casual gamers is a complete failure, where exactly is the appeal?

If anything Super Monkey Ball: Step & Roll is the simplest in the series if played with a Wii Remote and possibly the most difficult if using the Board, for all the wrong reasons. Even if you have fun playing with the Remote you’re still playing a stripped-down and easier version of a title released four years ago. In all, Step & Roll can only be seen as a missed opportunity but one presumes SEGA can still return to the drawing board and wow us with future simian antics, as this has always been one series that refuses to ape its predecessors.

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