Ever since late 2001, SEGA’s obsession with trapping cute little monkeys in translucent Pokéballs and rolling them around on floating platforms has evolved from being a GameCube exclusive to a mainstream SEGA franchise. After venturing across the lands of PS2 and Xbox, and traveling the handheld worlds of everything from the PSP to the N-Gage, it’s Apple’s turn to receive the latest outing of monkey madness with the iPhone’s rendition of Super Monkey Ball.
The concept of the game is quite simple; take a hearty scoop of Marble Madness and throw in a dash of simian primate in a three-dimensional space and you’ve got the Monkey Ball experience, in a nutshell. Getting from the starting point in each level to the end goal is always the clear-cut objective for each stage, but the complexity of the level varies. So early levels will only have mild twists and turns, while the final stages are going to kick your monkey ass with fast-moving platforms, tricky obstacles and devious platforms, all while working against the clock. If you run out of time or fall off the edge, you lose a life, but snagging scattered bananas on each stage will give you a few more tries.
In previous versions, the ball on screen was controlled using analog sticks, which made rolling around easy and natural. The iPhone version takes advantage of the accelerometer in the device, forcing you to physically tilt your phone left, right, up, and down to make that little guy move properly. Unfortunately, this sounds much better on paper than in execution (much like Communism). Everything feels sloppy and unintuitive, making your monkey impossible to control off the bat. The main problem is that there’s no physical, tangible object like the analog stick that allows you to feel exactly how far you’re pushing in a certain direction.
What’s worse is when you need to put the brakes on your monkey. In previous versions, simply letting go of the analog stick stops all direction influence on the ball, but this concept is difficult to execute since there’s no physical “center” with the iPhone’s accelerometer. This leads to what I like to call the “Monkey Ball Wobble,” which is when you need to make a quick turn but make it a bit too sharp, and end up grossly overcompensating in the other direction, which leads you to wobbling your phone back in forth until you inevitably fall off the stage. Fortunately, if you are a true Monkey Ball fanatic, with some concentration and practice, mastering the controls is definitely possible. (And to be honest, it helps you master other accelerometer-based App Store games.)
With 100 different stages spanned across 5 different worlds, it is a lengthy adventure. However, for the first time in a Monkey Ball title, there are no mini-games available. Monkey Ball has been all about the mini-games since the original title, and it would have been nice to have a portable version of Monkey Bowling or even Monkey Target. At fractions of the price of the console versions, though, it’s hard to complain.
Super Monkey Ball has always been a very lively series, and the iPhone version is no different. Featuring bright and vivid colors with simplistic, yet aesthetically pleasing 3D environments, this is easily one of the nicest looking titles available on the App Store. SEGA even preserved the catchy tunes and classic announcer, so you never feel like you’re playing a downgraded version. In terms of core gameplay, there’s a lot to love here. Casual gamers might not grasp the controls as quickly as your average Monkey Ball enthusiast, but with a healthy difficulty curve, anyone can become a master with enough practice.