Review: Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD

29 Oct 2019

Let’s get this out of the way straight out of the gate: The Wii and the motion controls that came with it was and still is a strange implementation in the gaming space. While the implementation of this method has had mixed results with consoles and anything sporting an accelerometer, there have been some developers and games that use the technology efficiently and in a way that makes it a useful tool instead of a tacked-on gimmick because every other game has to have it. Most of this implementation centered around casual player aesthetics, but it worked.

The popularity of the Wii put SEGA in a slight conundrum. Naturally, they want to put out games that not only used motion controls effectively, but also used IPs that gamers quickly recognized. After two successful entries on the GameCube, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz rolled onto the Wii in 2006 with waggle, jumping mechanics, boss battles, and stage design centered around said waggle. Also, it included 50 party games where a fair amount of them centered around motion controls.

Jumping to present day, SEGA has done quite a bit of re-releasing of classics spanning from Master System all the way up to their third-party days as of late. While I do find it weird that they chose to give Banana Blitz the HD treatment over its predecessors, redesigning levels around the more traditional controls included in this version seemed like an opportunity to concurrently improve the game and assimilate it for multiplatform release.

Developed by SEGA and Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio and published by SEGA, Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz HD will be made available for PS4, Xbox One, and Switch on October 29th 2019 at $39.99. The Switch version was played for this review.

AiAi Like to Jump Around

When your entire gameplay concept is using the terrain you traverse to move a monkey in a ball, going for any sort of story has to remain simple. Thankfully, that’s one thing that wasn’t messed with in this release. AiAi and the rest of his crew witness their coveted bunch of eight golden bananas being stolen from Captain Crabuchin, and it’s up to them to go retrieve each of them being held by eight bosses of the individual worlds they choose to inhabit. It’s a simple “villain steals the important thing/person and we have to recover it/them” plot, and I’m okay with it. It doesn’t need to be all that complicated when the game is known for its lighthearted tone.

Going through story mode is classic Monkey Ball gameplay, but with the motion controls completely removed in the Switch version. It’s the classic eight regular stages and bonus round formula, but with the aforementioned boss battles at the end of each world. There are a couple unlockable worlds for you to tackle if you desire to do that, but the story mode is generally wrapped up in the first eight worlds.

While I’m okay with good implementation of motion controls in the right game, having more control in the midst of gameplay is something I will never shy away from. Thumbstick controls are generally tight, and Banana Blitz HD’s early level design is pretty forgiving as perhaps a way for new players to adapt to the challenges found in the late game. Speaking of challenges, the game tasks you with obtaining medals for completing the world and completing without continuing (they’re called Champion medals for the latter).

Call the Doctor

While it’s quite casual-friendly early on with a plethora of bananas to rack up your lives, the latter part of the game ratchets up the difficulty to a level seen and appreciated by hardcore fans. I can’t personally put myself in the Monkey Ball savant category, but I was able to overcome most of the challenges the game puts forth. It will take considerable skill to clear this short game, make no mistake, but the replayability factor is definitely high here. Throw in the fact that each monkey has their own stats that better fit your playstyle, and you get some room for experimentation.

This version is something of an odd bird when compared to the first two Monkey Ball games, as the jumping mechanic introduced here remains in place. While I will say that jumping feels weird in this game, the mechanic shines brightest when there’s leeway to recover from your mistakes by way of level design.

It’s light, casual-friendly, and gives you a chance to get used to it for the most part. Once you start inching into later stages, that’s when the ambitious (and crushingly difficult) level design starts to show some cracks. Making precise and tricky jumps onto razor-thin rails can be a crapshoot, and the difficult platforming found in later stages really makes you want to over correct when there’s no need to. Some stages require some very precise timing to complete, as one would expect from the first two games, but sometimes it just doesn’t connect (or I just lack the sweet precision skills that the game asks of me). However, you do get unlockable costumes (and a character) as you play to completion, which is nice.

Another missed opportunity here was definitely how clunky the boss battles still are in this version. For the most part, bosses function in a way you’d expect in a platformer or a full-on action game; it’s classic-style boss battles save for a gauntlet-type boss of sorts. They have patterns and weak spots, sure, but they also have the unfortunate design choice of unfairly flinging you off the small arena you’ll often find yourself in, as many of the arenas give you less leeway the farther in you play. Sometimes you’ll be unable to avoid it despite desperately trying to do so, and other times you’ll be able to cheese your way through it as well. This is by far the weakest aspect, and not improving on them all that much is a disappointment. I found myself dreading each boss encounter as a result.

Fans may be surprised to see that the party games seen in the original release have been pared down to ten in total, and thankfully they chose the minigames that made the most sense from a control standpoint (obviously Monkey Target made the cut), as many of the games that were cut relied on the Wii Remote’s capabilities, and don’t quite cross over to more traditional controls. While they play well and are still a hoot with friends, SEGA thought it would be a good idea to throw in a single player option for these games called Decathlon Mode.

It’s exactly what it sounds like. You start a run through all 10 minigames as best as you possibly can in one go. While it is nice to have this option, it’s not something I would go out of my way to say is the reason you should go out and pick this up. It’s nice that there’s also online leaderboards at all here, but I’m also not surprised that online play is nowhere to be seen aside from that. Even if they did, it’d probably just be stage races or the same concept for Decathlon.

Baby, I Dig the Look and Feel

One of the few good things about any HD remake that was lifted from a console that didn’t support the visuals needed is the chance to clean it up to look better than it did originally. Banana Blitz HD is no exception in this department. The simplistic and soft-touch graphical style found in the original is still here, and it looks quite nice in handheld mode and on TV in the 16:9 resolution that modern displays sport.

Environments aren’t super complicated, are thematically appropriate, and are as colorful as you’d expect for a game such as this. While the level design does make for some interesting visuals, traversing it can be a bit distracting at times when all you wanna do is just finish the stage. The camera can also be a bit of a pain in a few situations, but generally behaves itself for the most part.

When it comes to music, though, I much prefer when it either commands your attention or is a good accompaniment to gameplay. This soundtrack is relatively chill and easy to listen to, which is good because repetitive soundtracks are the one thing that will stick out the most and can be super distracting. The rest of the sound design is pretty solid, though I will say that jumping can be a tad annoying because of how sharp each character’s yelping can be. Aside from that, most other sound effects don’t get in the way.

Gon Baby Gon

The amount of experimentation seen in the Monkey Ball franchise has spanned across a number of control schemes. Personally, I find it best when you have as much control as possible. This is why I’m quite happy to see that SEGA and Ryu Ga Gotoku went back to the well and (for the most part) pulled off a solid re-release of a game that absolutely benefits from having a traditional control scheme at all.

Boss battles are a low point, jumping isn’t always the best in execution, and some may be disheartened that their favorite party game was cut. Regardless, Banana Blitz HD is the definitive version of an era of Monkey Ball that desperately needs to make a comeback by either remaking the original two games or a creating new entry altogether. This is one of those instances where the quality of life improvements are noticeable, and it’s worth your money being able to play it on the go at all.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by SEGA for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.