Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania – A Nostalgic Juggling Act
Switch, Xbox Series/X, PS4/5
Despite being exactly the right age to get way the hell into Super Monkey Ball when it first came out on the Gamecube in the early 2000s, I somehow managed to skip the series entirely. So for me, the release of Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania, which has neatly collected all the best stages from the Super Monkey Ball, Super Monkey Ball 2, and Super Monkey Ball Deluxe, gave me exactly the excuse I needed to live my childhood dreams and check out the series that has eluded me for so long. The result? I wish I had discovered it when I was young – which is both a good thing and a bad thing.
For those who played the original games, this is going to be pure nostalgia. Over 300 stages have been collected and remastered, ready for you to jump back in and feel that same joy and/or frustration that you felt the first time you played. For those like me who are new, you are in for an interesting ride. Super Monkey Ball may look fun and innocent, but even though the concept is simple, it’s also one of the most difficult games I have played in a long time. At its core, this game is just about guiding a monkey inside a ball through a course – almost like those Labyrinth marble mazes where you tilt a wooden plane and try to avoid sinking your ball in a hole. Only, in the case of Super Monkey Ball, sometimes the plane tilts on its own, occasionally disappears into the abyss, or also includes giant objects that are trying to kill you. What seems simple at first quickly becomes devilishly difficult.
There are several game modes to choose from in the ‘main game’ section alone, each with its own difficulty levels. There’s a ‘story mode’, which sees classic Super Monkey Ball heroes AiAi, MeeMee, YanYan, GonGon, Baby, and Doctor, trying to stop the evil Dr. Bad-Boon from doing… evil things? I want to use the term ‘story’ here loosely because while technically the game is telling some kind of narrative through its short comic-book-style videos, I couldn’t pick up much nuance beyond ‘evil guy is here doing evil things’. But it’s fine – it isn’t the focus of this game at all. Story Mode will be your main go-to for progressing through the levels in a linear way, allowing you to go in and out and pick up where you last left off. The two other ‘main modes’, SMB 1 and 2 Challenges, won’t let you drop in and out. They’re each designed to be played in one marathon run (with the option to pause your Switch, of course, but you can’t save your progress), and if you get so frustrated you want to frisbee the Switch out the window during the last level, you’ll just have to start from the beginning again next time you want to have a try. You can use dedicated practice modes to train up in the different levels, which is helpful, but some of the levels are so hard that it feels like no amount of training will help.
Thankfully, if you need a break from the main story, there are other activities to keep you busy. Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania is really trying to do a lot of things. There are missions you can complete for each level, all of which will earn you bananas, which act as currency. These bananas can be used to purchase extra characters, customisation options for existing characters, and new game modes entirely. Most of them are based around bananas, which are also collected during regular gameplay, with modes like Golden Banana requiring you to collect all the bananas in a level, or Dark Banana encouraging you to avoid them. These bananas might seem at first like they are plentiful, and like you can splash your cash around without worrying about running out, but there’s a catch – you also need to spend these bananas if you want to skip a level, and if you’re me, that happens fairly often. If you have any skill at this game, you may not have that problem. If you find yourself struggling with the difficulty, the game does offer assists that allow you to slow the level down, add extra time, or see the optimal path mapped out for you. But in some cases, no amount of hand-holding will make these levels feel less impossible.
If you don’t find yourself struggling, or you’re happy to persevere and fail over and over again to attempt to clear the levels, you’ll have plenty of bananas free to spend on special characters like Sonic and Tails, whose presence changes all the bananas in a level to rings, complete with their trademark ding sound. They can’t be customised, but other characters can, and you may instead prefer to buy sunglasses or ball patterns to jazz up the core monkey crew. It’s not groundbreaking customisation, but it is a bit of fun. And if you’re going to play couch co-op, it can be a good way to really make a character your own.
Which brings me to the other big part of this game – the party games. In trying to do so many things, I’m not entirely sure that this game excels at any of them, but it certainly offers variety. There are 12 mini-games in total, (ten that can be played by up to four players), all coming from previous games in the series and providing even more nostalgia. Some are more fast-paced, like racing or punch-ups, and some are a little slower, like billiards or golf, but all are certainly distinct and unique, if not necessarily the best of their kind. As a collection they’re fun, but mechanically some of them definitely feel like they’re Gamecube games in prettier wrapping, which makes it a little hard to want to go back to them. Again, nostalgia is going to play a big role here, I suspect.
I feel like I’m being a little critical here, but honestly, I had fun with this game. I’ll probably continue to have fun with it. I wish I’d discovered the series when I was ten and had all the patience in the world so that I could play this now with a little nostalgia boost, but I’m still glad I finally got to experience it after all these years. It feels like a good way to catch up on what I’ve missed over the years, and experience the absolute highlights and favourites of what the games have to offer. It is hard. Very hard. And yes – part of that is because I’m terrible, but part of it is because the controls somehow feel too sensitive, and yet not responsive enough to really make me feel like I’m ever in full control of what I’m doing, and this is a game that requires you to have control and execute everything with precision. Maybe it’ll come with practice. There were definitely moments where I finally completed a level I’d been stuck on for days, and the feeling of absolute triumph made it almost worth it – so I’m not giving up on getting good at this game.
Which is probably good, because I think I’m going to have the soundtrack stuck in my head until the end of time. So at least it’ll be on my mind.
Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch with code kindly supplied by 5 Star Games Australia