Super Monkey Ball
tells you a lot about itself right there in its name. Not only is it all about a monkey in a ball, it's also super - as in, Super Nintendo. It's simple, bright, fast, and fun - core tenets which, despite the odd pitfall, the series has done pretty well to stick by.
If you're not familiar with the franchise, the concept is simple: much like a giant game of Labyrinth, your goal is to get your monkey-in-a-ball to the finish line, by tilting the world to make your beglobed primate roll. The levels start off super simple, with fences to prevent you falling to your demise. Of course they quickly escalate to moving precipices which you must somehow navigate - all the while collecting elusive bananas - on your way to the goal at the end.
It does get rather hard.
Much has been added to this solid core over the years, with many party games and modes jockeying for your time. Banana Splitz, exclusive to the Vita, is no different; there's loads of stuff to do here and some of it's even quite good. Some of it, however...
The good stuff, outside of the core puzzle levels, includes the return of fan favourites like Monkey Target, in which you must launch your chimp champ from a big ramp, before gliding (by opening your ball) with great skill in order to score big points. It's fun, if on the simple side - successful, perhaps, because it sticks to those core Monkey Ball tenets.
Less successful is Monkey Rodeo, a game that challenges you to guide your bumbling baboon through bareback combat (on inflatable horses) by touching the back screen. If that sounds clumsy, be warned; it's even less fun in practice.
Still, for its highs and lows, the party mode has plenty of distractions on offer for those times when the main challenge mode gets too hard (and that will happen, a lot). You can also play it online, should you choose to, with ad-hoc and even single-system multiplayer options that will let anyone enjoy a game with a mate (so long as you have one, of course).
The game also sports a level creation system, which sounds good... but really isn't. All it does is generate a random level based on a photo you take with the Vita. If that sounds odd, you also have to shake your console during the process - much like developing an old Polaroid photo, perhaps. It's quirky, sure, but not in a good way; the chances of you stumbling into a level that's actually fun to play (or even resembles your subject) are pretty remote.
If you do find a level you like, you can share it online; but again, as has been the theme with the game, don't get carried away. You can only download levels made by people you're already PSN friends with (or know the IDs of), completely eliminating the chance that any LittleBigPlanet-like community will emerge. The same goes for the ability to save and share replays; it sounds cool but is quite underwhelming to actually use, and will almost certainly be resigned to the "ah well" corner of your game collection.
Visually, the puzzle levels are the most successful, but even there it can be somewhat lacklustre to look at. The colours are vibrant and really pop, thanks largely to the outstanding Vita screen perhaps, but the levels lack detail - especially in the area surrounding the bits you actually play on. Still, it all moves at a good clip (it feels like 60fps - silky smooth, all the time), which is super important for a reaction-based game such as this.
The worst part of the visuals are to be found in the interface; it looks fine, but for some reason the transition between each part of the complex structure has an associated (and slow) animation. It gets old very quickly, and you'll soon be longing for a snappy way to choose how you want to play today.
Structure is another part of the experience that seems to be sticking to tradition regardless of the practicalities afforded by the platform. The Vita, you see, is a portable device; used largely in bursts, for a few minutes here and there, as and when you have some time to play a game. Super Monkey Ball's core mode, however, is made up of 10-level segments; aborting one in the middle will mean you'll have to restart it next time from the beginning. Being able to pick and choose any level you'd unlocked would have worked better, perhaps.
On the controls front, you have the option of tilting your console to move your monkey around, or you can use the analog stick. It's nice to have the choice as, while I found the tilt controls to be pretty good, that method would often lead to difficulty actually seeing the screen in most situations.
If you've read this far, you'll have noticed a lot of negative comments, and you might be wondering how this text could be associated with the score I've given the game. It all makes sense; my gripes almost entirely fall outside of the core part of the game: the puzzles. While they're not implemented perfectly, with the camera in particular a challenge in some situations, this is very definitely where the real genius of the game is to be found.
The difficulty ramp is well designed, with occasional spikes to tease you with what the designers have planned for you later, and to a level, the game is fun to play. It's occasionally infuriating, but never frustrating; if you fail, you know it's because you need to perfect your technique, not because there's something fundamentally wrong with the game.
It's just a pity that the rest of it feels so rushed and poorly thought out. With a decent budget and some time, the core of Super Monkey Ball could still support a brilliant package.
Platform: PlayStation Vita