Magical spell is “I’ll kick your ass if you don’t read my macho review about cute monkeys trapped in mysteriously air-permeable, translucent plastic spheres”.
It’s probably more different from its predecessor than hardcore fans would like, but Super Monkey Ball 2 is a pretty faithful and definitely massive follow-up to last year’s biggest sleeper hit this side of Ico. The core gameplay is still about tilting levels around to reach a goal, and the multiplayer modes have been significantly upgraded and multiplied.
Super Monkey Ball 2 (SMB2 from here on) is marginally prettier than its predecessor, although the improvements aren’t immediately noticeable. The level themselves are still very flat (for good reason) with very basic texture schemes that sometimes change depending on what mode you’re in. The backgrounds, however, are far more lush and complex than before. The game even gets to show off the gorgeous environments in a couple of the multiplayer games. Newly added cut-scenes are very average-looking, in line with the game’s style but somewhere in the Dreamcast’s visual quality range.
There’s not much to say about the sound. If you enjoyed listening to the first Super Monkey Ball, you won’t have any problems with this one, because the music, sound effects, and voiceovers are almost all lifted directly from the previous game. If there’s any new music, it sounds so much like the old that I can’t tell the difference. It’s all quite cheerful and pleasant, of course, but some chipper new tracks would have been nice. The announcer is still very much an acquired taste, but I give him props for obviously enjoying his occupation...to a somewhat frightening degree.
Of course, control is the most important part of Super Monkey Ball’s gameplay, so it’s worth mentioning here in the main review text. Just like before, the single-player joystick control is probably the most responsive you’ll find on GameCube...and it has to be. Multiplayer controls are usually more complicated and not always very intuitive, so you’ll want to check the “Lesson” screens for the new mini-games.
Now to the controversial part: level design. SMB2 employs several new mechanics in its levels, most notably the VCR-style buttons that control various moving objects. Are the platforms moving too fast for you? Look around and maybe you can find a “Play” or “Pause” button to help out. These elements add a puzzle-like aspect to the game, so that many stages require you to first figure out how to reach the goal, and then you use your skills to actually execute the plan. Often it is as simple as finding a switch and then traversing a few nasty curves, but some levels take the gimmick way too far. “Switch Inferno” has already become infamous, and it deserves to be...it’s easily the worst level in the game. Basically you just wade through a huge field of switches, looking for the one that raises the goal. All the rest will result in death or near-death. There’s no skill required here, it’s just dumb luck and patience. Luckily, there are very few levels that get anywhere near this gimmicky. Most are slightly fancier versions of the simple, evil, genius level design we all love so much in the first game.
The new Story Mode is a great way to learn the levels and unlock the mini-games. Since you have infinite lives, you can spend all the time you want on each level until you get it right. And once you clear it, you won’t have to play it again if you don’t want to. The actual story part of Story Mode is just a handful of incredibly cheesy cut-scenes. They’re sort of funny, if you like camp humor, but don’t expect a real plot. Most of the dialogue doesn’t even make sense. Challenge Mode is exactly like the main game of the original Super Monkey Ball, and it contains all of the Story Mode levels (in a different order) plus some new ones, mostly locked away in the Extra sections, which normal people like you and me will never see.
Finally, the multiplayer modes. I’ll just tackle these one at a time, since they're all entirely separate experiences.
Monkey Race 2 – Significantly better than the original. Better tracks, better items, more racers. It’s still pretty dull for a racing game though, and there are only five tracks.
Monkey Fight 2 – Not appreciably better than the original, but still a hell of a good time. The new charge-up punch adds a bit of strategy, and the new levels are all cool. Three levels is still way too few for such a cool party game. Also, you can’t punch the camera after being declared winner. A cruel, cruel omission.
Monkey Target 2 – Incredible. The original was a fan favorite, but Amusement Vision has totally revamped it for a much faster, more friendly multiplayer experience. Formation flying is a nice touch, especially if you’re playing alone. The fact that four players now play simultaneously is a huge improvement that adds tons of new strategies, not to mention a much faster game flow. No more waiting around for five minutes while everyone else takes a turn. On the other hand, the Wheel of Danger is sadly missing, and hardcore fans will probably be upset about the simpler course layouts. For the casual player though, and especially for your casual friends, Monkey Target 2 is arguably the most multiplayer fun to be had on this entire disc.
Monkey Billiards 2 – AV included several more game formats that really should have been in the original, especially standard Eight-Ball. Because there’s still no dedicated multiplayer format (like my favorite, Cutthroat), and pool is such a slow, complex game to begin with, this one doesn’t really stack up to the other party games for sheer playability. It’s a pretty good simulation though, if you and/or another friend are really into billiards.
Monkey Bowling 2 – Finally, crazy lanes! And boy are they tough. The spin control is still the best part about Monkey Bowling, but the new lanes spice up the formula enough to make this version far more enjoyable than the boring original. Could probably benefit from power-ups or something though, if there’s another future installment.
Monkey Golf 2 – Another big update, now featuring “real” golf. It’s still extremely difficult, too much so to be a casual multiplayer game in my opinion. But, if you’ve got some golfer friends who don’t mind the monkeys, the holes are well designed and the physics are of course top-notch. If only they’d added taunts a la Mario Golf...
And the new games:
Monkey Boat – I don’t care what anyone says, this game is just way too difficult to control to be truly fun. Even if you finally get the hang of it, your friends are just going to be frustrated. It’s a shame too, because the courses and power-ups are very interesting. Boat is probably not a bad game if you can get together four people of equal suckiness, but the CPU will win every time.
Monkey Shot – This is a very simple cursor-shooting game that I found to be surprisingly enjoyable. With three or four players, the action just starts to get confusing, but it’s a lot of fun by yourself or with one friend. There are some interesting power-ups, an oddly deep ammo conservation theme, and excellent bosses. Plus, you get to fly all over the beautiful environments from the main game.
Monkey Dogfight – Not as much fun as it should be. The concept is great, but just like Monkey Boat, the controls are too daunting to be intuitive, especially for people who don’t own the game. It’s tough to control your speed (with the shoulder buttons), steer in three dimensions, and fight the wind all while trying to shoot down other people. My half-drunk buddy from across town isn’t going to be able to dodge missiles at 2:00 AM. There’s a lot of potential here if the gameplay can be simplified a little bit.
Monkey Tennis – Plays just like Mario Tennis, but with fewer characters and looser control. Tennis is too straightforward, too tame to be interesting next to the likes of Monkey Fight 2 or Target 2.
Monkey Baseball – A very pleasant surprise. I pretty much despise real baseball, but this is far from a simulation anyway. It plays like some old arcade pinball-like games I’ve seen, but with variable home-run ramps and a controllable defense. You even get the Wheel of Danger! Loads of strategy on both offense and defense. This is one of the few party games I can enjoy by myself, and it’s perfect for multiplayer too. It’s a shame only two people at a time can play.
Monkey Soccer – Don’t waste your time unless you’re drunk or stoned enough to not notice the awful controls. This idea of “mini-soccer” could be fun, but since you have no control over which monkey you’re in control of, the whole thing just becomes a chaotic mess. A total waste of disc space if you ask me.
Despite a couple of misses, SMB2 comes out as one of the very best multiplayer games you can own for GameCube. The four-player Challenge Mode is no slouch either, although David Trammell pointed out to me that AV ditched the simultaneous feature. I still don’t understand why you can’t earn Play Points while playing multiplayer Challenge Mode...it’s like the game tries to force you into playing single-player, which is just silly. Both halves of the game are excellent, and you’d be a fool to ignore either one. Whether you’re looking for a great single-player experience or something to put in when friends are over, Super Monkey Ball 2 is one of the best games – and best values – available. Highly recommended, and worth every penny.