"Soon you'll be swearing as loudly as ever as your monkey takes countless dives off the edge of a stage. Since there are around 150 stages in all, and since many of them will require at least 5 or 6 efforts, you're looking at a realistic minimum of 8 to 10 hours if you want to finish the game. Truth be told, you'll probably be at it much longer."
A gamer's life is sometimes difficult, as we all know. Every once in a while, though, there's a glimmer of hope, a new game that comes from nowhere and reminds us why we got into gaming in the first place. One such game in recent history was Super Monkey Ball, the first Sega title to grace the GameCube, and one of the company's first on a non-Sega console. Filled with clever mini-games and an addictive single-player experience, the title went on to sell nearly a million copies...and of course all but guaranteed the sequel. Now the sequel is here. The obvious question: does it stack up to the same great experience the first offered?
In a word, yes. But that's a tentative 'yes'. Although Super Monkey Ball 2 is nearly everything the first one was and then some, the one piece that is missing this time around is perhaps the most important: real heart.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, Super Monkey Ball introduced gameplay similar to what Marble Madness might look like if it were brought to the next-generation systems. Players control a monkey in a spinning bubble. They tilt the level and the ball rolls in the appropriate direction, toward a goal gate. In the sequel, that much remains the same. Goal gates can now be trickier than ever to find, but ultimately they're still what every good little monkey dreams of.
What monkeys don't dream of is Dr. Bad-Boon, the game's villain. Yes, there's a villain. The first in the series was devoid of any story, and some might argue it was better that way. This time around, things have changed. You still have the option to go through without the ridiculous narrative, but that's not going to let you see all the stages. So brace yourself and go into story mode. You soon find a thrilling--or not so thrilling--tale of treachery, as the evil baboon steals all the bananas and challenges the monkeys to retrieve them from his labyrinth. The rest of the game is just a series of exchanges between the monkeys as they follow their nemesis through around 100 stages. You don't see the monkey in the actual mazes, thankfully, just the cutscenes. Amusingly enough, this story is about as cheesy as you can imagine it being, and somehow that makes it okay. If the developer took it seriously for even a minute, the whole thing would've imploded. What gamers end up with, then, is an insanely cute and cheesy story spurring them through some of the most difficult levels in gaming.
Levels are difficult for any number of reasons, but mostly they are because each stage is hanging over space. In the original Super Monkey Ball, this was true to an extreme degree. And technically, nothing has changed this time around. But there are cool backgrounds and such this time. Cliffs. The inside of a giant creature. Water. Forest. They're all just very pretty window dressing that you probably won't notice while you're playing, only when you watch someone else play and laugh at his mistakes. There are plenty of opportunities for mistakes too, just like there were last time around. Things start out simple again, but in no time at all you'll see the familiar elements making their return. Lots of pits, rounded edges that can send you spinning, bumpers, narrow catwalks, and now things like control buttons similar to what you might find on a VCR, as well as portals and various other oddities. The game eases you into all of this rather gently, then all hell breaks loose. Soon you'll be swearing as loudly as ever as your monkey takes countless dives off the edge of a stage. Since there are around 150 stages in all, and since many of them will require at least 5 or 6 efforts, you're looking at a realistic minimum of 8 to 10 hours if you want to finish the game. Truth be told, you'll probably be at it much longer.
On a more positive note, you have more control about the order in which you enter a stage. In story mode, each world consists of 10 stages, which can be completed in any order. The developers implemented a banana rating system, but it's mostly useless. Stages that according to the rating system should be hard are often easier than some with half the rating. It's really hit or miss. Also nice is the fact that in story mode, your lives aren't counted. You can keep trying a level as many hundreds of times as you can tolerate. This is a huge relief. Kudos to Amusement Vision for being reasonable. The thought of having to repeat early levels a few million times just for another few cracks at the later ones is likely enough to intimidate even the best of us.
Perhaps all this has you feeling sick. Maybe you remember Super Monkey Ball not for the main game, but for those slick mini-games you played with your friends? If so, fear not. They have returned with a vengeance. In fact, this time around there are several new ones, besides the old favorites that are for the most part untouched except for facelifts. The new games range from somewhat interesting to inspired. Play tennis with a friend or against the computer (it's actually quite similar to Mario Tennis, believe it or not), or soccer, or an odd variation of baseball, or paddle a boat...the possibilities are virtually endless. Of course, you will have to unlock each and every one of the new party games by playing that dreaded single-player mode, but it's okay. The effort is often worth it. While the boat game is an aimless disappointment, the shooting game actually manages to be quite enjoyable. And the soccer game is simple enough that friends might have a good time.
Whether you have friends or not, in fact, this is likely a purchase you'll want to make. There's the insane number of single-player stages, mini games old and new, and the improved graphics and music. My only real complaint is that somehow, things don't feel quite the same.
Perhaps the problem is that the developers used up all the good level designs the first time around. I was hoping for larger stages this time through, but the wish wasn't granted. Instead, you're faced repeatedly with more of those small little levels. This is good if you're forced to retrace old ground as much as you're likely to be, but there's nothing here that really feels like a level. That was true of Super Monkey Ball, too, but I rather expected the developers to take care of it. Instead, they worried about the total number of stages. While some of the new areas are quite cool, others just leave you scratching your head, wondering why anyone even bothered to include them. Honestly, this game would almost have been better without many of those levels.
Ultimately, however, none of these gripes amount to a whole lot of anything. Super Monkey Ball 2 is more of the same, is mostly improved, and is likely to last you even longer than its predecessor did. Graphics are better, sound is greatly improved, there's a story for the kid in you, double the mini games make an appearance, and the list goes on in numerous tiny ways that don't warrant specific mention, but nonetheless add up to something cool. If you're expecting a revolution, go elsewhere. If you'd like to see more of what you loved the first time around, you're probably save buying. If in doubt, rent first.
I'd close this review by saying I'm looking forward to Super Monkey Ball 3, but I really can't. Amusement Vision did a fine job with this second outing, but play long enough and you'll likely agree the franchise is running out of steam. Buy this title, love it, and remember that in the end, it's likely the last monkey hoorah. Ah, well. At least if it ends now, the franchise will do so with a bang.
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Staff review by Jason Venter (September 13, 2002)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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