The appeal of Super Monkey Ball is immediately apparent as soon as you boot up the game. The game's goal can be distilled down into a single sentence; get to the goal and avoid falling off the course. The simple control scheme, utilizing only the analog stick, complements the simple goal presented. That said, in execution, reaching that goal is often far more difficult than it may first appear. As players continue to progress through the various stages of this 2001 GameCube game, players will need to learn the ins and outs of the game's physics and controls, or game over trying.
The game's difficulty demands precise movement on the part of the player, which is elegantly accomplished using the GameCube's primary analog stick. Many 3D games allow for slower movement if you don't push the analog stick all the way to the edge, but Super Monkey Ball almost requires this in order to maintain your balance. In some ways, I'd argue it's a better showcase for the analog stick than Super Mario 64 was five years prior.
Despite the game's infamous difficulty, the game's stages don't utilize many assets. In most cases, stages consist of a goal, some bananas, and platforms of various shapes and sizes, each of which may or may not be moving. Some stages contain pinball-esque bumpers, but the game rarely introduces mechanics beyond the basic three. There are no enemies to be seen on any of the courses; the only thing standing between you and the goal are the bottomless pits surrounding each course.
A good example of the rather minimalist level design at work is the deceptively complex Advanced 15, pictured above. In most platform games, this sort of level design would be absolutely trivial to complete. The slopes on the edges of the platform get steeper and steeper as you progress through the level, requiring the player to control their speed so that they don't go flying off the course. The last turn before the goal is especially brutal, requiring players to start slowing down well in advance to avoid slipping off the edge.
The simple gameplay combined with the challenging level design make for an addictive game that can easily be played for hours on end. Adding to the game's high replay value are a light dosage of risk versus reward elements in various levels. Some stages feature an additional green goal, or the more uncommon red goal. Reaching the green goal will allow the player to skip levels, and the red goal skips even more. That said, reaching these goals is even more challenging than the simple blue goal, often requiring even more precise play. The aforementioned bananas are often placed in difficult to reach spots; collecting 100 earns the player an extra life, so players are incentivized to collect as many as they can.
Speaking of lives, some may be turned off by the game's arcade-like structure. Upon starting the game, players are provided with 3 lives on each try, along with 5 continues. While I think that playing the game over and over again to beat the final stage of Advanced allowed me to better appreciate my victory, others may not want to put so much time into the game. Eventually, the game does offer infinite continues as an unlock, but this takes quite a bit of time.
That said, I do think that once infinite continues are unlocked, the game takes a surprisingly smart approach to difficulty. The average player can retry as much as they'd like, and still feel a sense of satisfaction once they complete the final stage. However, for experienced players, the game offers extra stages for those who complete a certain difficulty's stage without losing a life (or a continue, in the case of Expert). This allows for less skilled players complete the game, while still offering a reward for those who want to push the game to its limit. If nothing else, I think Super Monkey Ball demonstrates that the concept of lives deserves to be recontextualized for modern games.
Super Monkey Ball continues to engage its players with its challenging, yet easy-to-understand gameplay, even nearly two decades later. A sizable speedrunning community has developed around the game, thanks in large part to its strong core design.
Screenshots are taken by me, game is published by Sega and not owned by me.
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