An enjoyable anniversary celebration that is good enough.
Super Monkey Ball is a series that has a checkered history. The GameCube originals were beloved when they came out, but from there, the magic and charm was lost along the way, reaching a sad nadir with Super Monkey Ball 3D. The 2019 Switch release of Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD was a lukewarm step in the right direction, but the latest release, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania, is a much more confident return to form. It bakes in a lot of the content from Super Monkey Ball 1, 2, and Deluxe, but this is not a straightforward remake. Banana Mania is a celebration of the series’ best games that, for better or worse, changes things enough to possibly turn off those desiring a true return to form, but is largely a great game with a lot of depth and variety.
The centerpiece is the dozens and dozens of ball-rolling stages spread across a world-based story mode as well as challenge modes based on Monkey Ball 1 and 2’s stages. The challenge ramps up fast, but the levels are generally all clever and fun to play. It’s hard for the game to truly evoke the nostalgia I have for the GameCube games, but this clearly feels better than any Monkey Ball game I’ve played since the first two even if it’s not identical to how the GameCube games felt. It has a lot of assist options baked in as well. Helper mode lets you slow down time and shows an optimal route through the stage. You can even mark difficult levels as completed and move on. The friendliness and leniency is felt throughout, earnestly feeling like a celebration of Monkey Ball’s early days.
That extends to the unlockable characters, which include Sonic, Tails, Kazuma Kiryu (from Yakuza), and Beat (from Jet Set Radio) and many more as paid DLC. The characters are cosmetic, but it’s incredibly amusing to see Sonic and Tails roll around collecting rings instead of bananas. A variety of other unlockables are present too, all earned by accumulating in-game currency. More cosmetics to dress up the monkeys are the most prevalent unlocks, but a few modes are found here, usually offering up a steeper challenge or, if you want, adding a jump button. The unlocks by themselves are just okay, but as pieces of a whole, it provides a lot to strive for and play with.
Complementing the core experience are 12 party games, all pulled from earlier titles. However, it’s worth specifying that these are not straight ports of those old mini-games. They’re all “reimagined,” which for most of them are totally fine. Monkey Baseball, a game I played a lot back in the day, feels a lot different but it’s still fun. Monkey Target, one of the enduring favorites of the franchise, does not feel right. I can’t totally put my finger on it, but it does seem like there’s less manual control of how you launch off the ramp. That combined with the slightly different physics just made it a non-starter for me. I have, however, found a lot of joy in baseball, billiards, and soccer. Not every mode is a winner, but enough of them are good for game nights. They also feature some degree of single-player tournament modes so it even has something to do for the solo player.
Where Banana Mania thrives is in how varied it is. Do you want to race through stages, competing for a spot on a time trial online leaderboards? Go for it. Are you getting frustrated with some of the harder stages? Use helper mode for an assist. Do you want to plow through single-player content as the star of Yakuza grabbing power-up drinks? Do it up. Want to punch your friends in local multiplayer with a big boxing glove? Monkey Fight is right there, pal. This is not the straight port or remake of the original GameCube Monkey Ball I might have asked for, but it’s a great game in its own right that brings to light a lot of what I loved about those earlier entries in the franchise. This is a lively, amusing video game that is stuffed with challenging marble-rolling stages, good-natured multiplayer games, and a lot of charm.