My friends, I’ve done it: I’ve escaped Monkey Ball Hell. The incendiary depths of Volcanic Pools no longer haunt me, as do the other monkey torture chambers lined up within SEGA’s Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD. This remaster — or “remake“, as the developers would prefer — of the 2006 Wii entry evoked a familiar frustration I experienced in a previous life with the GameCube Super Monkey Ball games. Be it nasty turns, unguarded pathways, perilous slopes, or the thinnest of balance beams, I’ve watched many a capsule-enclosed monkey tumble down into the endless abysses below, forcing careful strategy in overcoming traps, navigating speed boosters and performing leaps of faith.
And yet, I can’t find myself compelled to forge ahead into the post-game worlds. As mentioned in my preview, SEGA’s decision to remaster Banana Blitz as opposed to Super Monkey Ball or Super Monkey Ball 2 — enduring arcade/party classics in their own right — produced much monkey-esque head-scratching, what with the series’ point of decline often pinpointed here. While the honeymoon period initially validated my hopes of a second chance, I’ve found little incentive to continue — maybe it’s me recognizing the innate problems surrounding the controversial Jump button, or that despite the developer’s best efforts to redeem Banana Blitz‘s ill-received party games, they remain irredeemable duds best left forgotten. For all the infectious ambition and passion elaborated pre-launch, we’re still left with a heavily flawed, albeit still entertaining, game that I fear won’t convert skeptics or newcomers.
But first, a summary: Banana Blitz HD generally plays like any other game in the series, wherein a monkey of your choosing (AiAi, MeeMee, Baby, GonGon, YanYan, and Doctor) is trapped within a see-through ball ball and wobbles about on suspended platforms to reach the goal, obstacles impeding us and enticing bananas testing our point-hungry appetites. In truth, direct control is an illusion — thanks to some clever camera perspective, we’re actually tilting the accompanying platforms to carefully guide our hapless monkeys to victory, although Banana Blitz furthers our engagement via a jump button. Said hopping paves new avenues into level design, be it manipulating momentum, hurdling over hazards, or trouncing bosses. With each of the six monkeys adorned with varied stats, Banana Blitz promises fertile experimentation in its manic playgrounds.
Question is: does all this come together? Many disgruntled Monkey Ball fans felt jumping — particularly in the context of Wii’s motion controls — simplified or perhaps even broke the tried-and-true Monkey Ball formula, which rewarded precise momentum above all else. While my faulty memory fails to provide a direct comparison, it’s worth noting that with the motion controls stripped, SEGA did indeed re-balance the levels to account for motion control’s absence. (A quick peek at this No-Death Volcanic Pools run from the Wii game proves as much, not the least in the 7-2 level that gave me so much trouble.) Said renovation has its ups and downs — while I did note the game took too long to introduce the trademark ball-busting difficulty, I did find myself challenged by jump-intensive levels: I think of one level near the end, wherein after descending a spiral slope I found myself in a malformed pinball shooting lane and carefully timed my jumps to dodge incoming balls. (Harder than it sounds!)
Regardless, even a rusty veteran like me could deduce flaws; for one thing, in a game where you’re constantly teetering on the edge, gauging our jumping distance is already a hefty task even if we’ve halted to a complete stand-still. Some may say that’s part of the challenge, but with how much the camera swirls about — sometimes to a dizzying degree — players may find themselves frustrated more than necessary. Much as I may’ve enjoyed my monkey masochism, I can’t help but wonder if this contributed to my late-game Monkey Purgatory; point is, I can’t speak to this remaster’s difficulty curve relative to the original release, but I suspect fans who previously disapproved still won’t care much for jumping, if only for the camera — the wonky angles alone render boss battles a bust, often blindsiding us with unforeseen projectiles. (Pirate’s Ocean’s octopus alone is a nightmare unto itself.)
Still, I’d be remiss to ignore the HD remastering — whether or not we disagree with SEGA’s insistence on labeling Banana Blitz HD‘s a remake, they certainly commit to it — the game’s menus and UIs are completely revamped, the former accompanied by a cheesy (yet ear-wormy!) new theme setting the stage for the game’s replacement soundtrack. Yes, it’s disappointing the original track-list — often cited even by detractors as Banana Blitz‘s sole vindicating factor — was mostly axed, but the blend of new songs and recycled tracks work well enough for what they are. Alas, while the graphics are cleaned up to a presentable modern standard, I still care little for Banana Blitz‘s ultra-cutesy aesthetics — it’s certainly endearing, yes, but the prior juxtaposition between cartoonish monkeys and detailed environments were a wondrous complement to the games’ abstract concept. (That, and no amount of polish could fix up the game’s awkward cutscenes — what with all the sluggish pan-outs and zoom-outs?)
Oh, yeah, Sonic’s in it, too.
So, alright, the main mode’s just okay — not Monkey Ball at its best, but at least we have the series’ famous multiplayer to fall back upon, right? Yeah, I’m just gonna dash your hopes and dreams: if you walk into Banana Blitz HD expecting to relieve late-night Monkey Target fests, you’re going to walk away sorely disappointed. Fans who played the original are likely familiar with Banana Blitz‘s 50 ill-received mini-games — while thankfully most were ditched (be it incompatibility with traditional controls or just being irredeemably terrible), SEGA’s culled selection of ten games still aren’t very good. Either they’re average (Monkey Snowboarding’s impeded by stiff controls and uninteresting course design), incremental affairs (to varied results: Whack-a-Mole is disposable, basic entertainment, whereas Sling Shot’s uneven aiming is a quick turn-off), still plagued by bad controls (if you can figure out whatever’s going on in Hovercraft Race, you’re a stronger person than I), or just flat-out inferior takes on beloved classics. (Poor Monkey Target!)
I can’t stress this enough — it’s one thing to include simple time-wasters to offset intensive party games, but how many of these stinkers possess the depth necessary for said offset? Sure, the familiar Monkey Target may feature four-players, but who cares? There’s nothing present echoing the scale, skill, and chaos that hilariously permeated the original games, leaving us with yet another one-and-done affair. This isn’t to say they’re completely without merit — Dangerous Route and Seesaw Ball are interesting in that they echo the main game’s sense of balance, the former especially in how you’ll meticulously plan out out your route — but this insufficiency’s only further highlighted in the new Decathlon mode. I’m not about to play all ten games in a row knowing I still have to wrestle with the controls in Hammer Toss or Hovercraft Race, and that it’s always in the same sequential order tires quickly.
Make no mistake, I wanted to appreciate Banana Blitz HD — my childhood fascination with Super Monkey Ball 2 already guaranteed my support, yet even then a stark contrast manifests: whereas I never left SEGA’s 2002 masterpiece wanting more, I’ve already had my fill here despite knowing there’s more awaiting me. For all of SEGA’s eagerness in granting Banana Blitz another chance via leaderboards and refurbished levels, that means nothing if the ensuing product feels as bare-bones as this. Thankfully, I doubt any middling reception on mine or anyone’s end will deter SEGA’s interest in making a new Monkey Ball — perhaps they can port over the first two classics in the meantime? If not, know that while one can settle for far worse than Banana Blitz HD, our ol’ GameCube discs still endure.
We’re waiting, SEGA!
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One; Publisher: SEGA; Developer: SEGA/Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio; Players: 1-4; Released: October 29, 2019; ESRB: E10+; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a PlayStation 4 review copy of Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD provided by SEGA.