Can you believe the Super Monkey Ball series is 20 years old? We can't either, but 2021 is the year of the monkey and SEGA is celebrating its iconic hero AiAi and friends with Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania, a completely remastered collection of three fan-favourite titles in the franchise. Whether you're a series veteran or a newcomer, the latest instalment aims to compact 20 years of bouncing, tilting history into one package. While it occasionally feels stuck in the past, Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania is mostly a love letter to the cult classic.
If you've never played Super Monkey Ball before then fear not. The simple premise is easy to grasp, but challenging to master. All you have to do is tilt the maps in such a way that your loveable monkey rolls to the goal, collecting bananas along the way. While it initially seems to be an extremely basic premise, it's not long before you're engaging in a series of challenging gauntlets that will have you tearing your hair out. Packing in Super Monkey Ball, Super Monkey Ball 2 and Super Monkey Ball Deluxe, there are over 300 stages to test your mantle on, each with unique challenges such as collecting a certain amount of bananas or finding a secret exit.
Bundling all this together is a very, very flimsy narrative that plays out in the style of a comic book style TV show. The term 'Story Mode' is used very loosely with little narrative weight pushing you from one seemingly random world to the next, but that's not what we're here for. That being said, it would have been nice to see the team conjure a celebratory way to tie all these titles together, especially considering it's the series' anniversary.
What it lacks in story, it makes up for in content. Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania packs hundreds of levels on top of 12 mini-games, challenge modes and variants of stages in the form of mirror modes. Tying this all together is a series of missions to complete, which are used to earn coins to purchase new cosmetic items and other extras such as the ability to jump (which we recommend saving up for and grabbing early on). Not every piece of content is a winner, with some pretty weak and cumbersome versions of mini-games such as Monkey Target, but others like the on-rails shooter Monkey Shot are addictive time sinks.
Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania also attempts to bring some quality of life improvements. Most notable is the inclusion of a helper function, which allows you to slow down time and shows you a suitable path to completing the stage. It does feel as though a lot more could have been done to make the experience smoother and more seamless though. At times, the camera can be pretty troublesome, especially when trying to nail tricky jumps, and the loading screens when swapping between stages go on for just a tad too long. For a game that prides itself in speedrunning and replaying multiple stages over and over again, it would have been nice to see a bit more optimisation pushed into speeding everything up - this was on Xbox Series X too.
Another point worth mentioning is the predatory inclusion of microtransactions. Up until release, a big marketing tactic for the game has been around the inclusion of popular SEGA characters such as Morgana from Persona 5 and even the ability to play as a SEGA Dreamcast. These have been a huge talking point up until the game's release, but half of them need to be purchased separately to unlock them in the game. Even the classic soundtracks are locked behind the Digital Deluxe Edition. For a game that's aiming to be a celebration of the series, we couldn't help but be left with a sour taste in our mouths.
Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania isn't going to win any game of the year awards, but it's undeniably fun. While it's perhaps not the entry that will put the series back into the mainstream, fans of the original will likely have a good time and newcomers will see what the fuss is all about. While there are some questionable design choices, such as a finicky camera and microtransactions that feel out of place, this is an enjoyable adventure with AiAi and his friends.