Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania review

By Luke Albigés,
In an era ruled by games so complex that they struggle to fit all of their inputs onto a controller, and dominated by live service titles with like 18 different currencies, the return of Super Monkey Ball is the breath of fresh air we need. Where we're going, we don't need buttons — a single analog stick is all we require to be able to tilt the world and guide our brave monkeys through hundreds of gruelling platforming stages, mazes, obstacle courses, and seemingly impossible gauntlets. To be fair, Super Monkey Ball was refreshingly simple even on its first release on GameCube 20 years ago, and it's every bit as challenging and entertaining today. Banana Mania is a ground-up remake of Super Monkey Ball Deluxe — a compilation of the first two games in the series with some extra content thrown in — and despite a few foibles, it's generally a faithful recreation of the unique and beloved Super Monkey Ball experience, and these classics scrub up wonderfully.

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Banana Mania's new engine provides a largely authentic framework for the core game, bar a few ever-so-minor physics changes that only the most hardcore Monkey Ball fanatic is likely to notice. Faster acceleration is the most prominent, and some have put this down to the new tilt plane perhaps being a different shape to the original, resulting in slightly quicker movement. Super Monkey Ball speedrunners often use pause buffering to start their runs at a specific point on the timer in order to perfectly catch cycles, and using any stage guide to try this in Banana Mania, you'll see it doesn't work — the difference, while barely detectable to the untrained eye, means the old timings are just off, and there'll be new ones (likely both timing changes and strategies that weren't quite possible before on some stages) for this new version. The other place you may notice this is in the more difficult Expert and Master stages, where minute control is essential in crossing hair-wide tightropes. With Banana Mania feeling ever-so-slightly more sensitive than before (and the auto-camera exacerbating this by being a little twitchier itself), some of these high-level challenges can feel overly tough initially, but these difficulties can be overcome either with a little menu fiddling (camera sensitivity appears to affect both auto and manual camera movement) or controller adjustment where possible — certain special controller users may find that altering deadzones, using fine aim functions, increasing resistance, and extending the stick shaft can all help with accuracy.

For those unaware, you don't take direct control of the characters in Super Monkey Ball's main game — instead, you tilt the stage itself to guide the path of your chosen sphere-bound monkey pal. This can cause the on-screen action to look a little unusual and even uncomfortable at times, more so when watching rather than playing and particularly in fast-moving levels where the world swings rapidly as you make quick adjustments to try and keep the careening ball on course. There's an awesome variety to the 300+ stages on offer here, and as you reach the trickier ones, expect to encounter plenty of frustration as your poor monkey takes tumble after tumble, but then trade that for elation after finally crossing the goal line on a level that has been kicking your ass for ages. The original game's lives system has been stripped out and optional assists added to help further in getting to the end of each of the many playlists, which also allows you to go for ballsy tough routes or risk massive shortcuts without penalty, and do those ever feel great when you stick the landing. It also makes reaching the Master stages viable for most players — the original unlock condition of beating dozens of demanding Expert courses without a single continue meant most would never so much as see these brutal levels. There are still a few naff stages in the mix, mind. Super Monkey Ball 2 in particular had a bit of a thing for gimmick stages that just feel completely luck-based (looking at you, Launchers), but with only a handful of truly bad levels out of the hundreds available, it's still an impressive hit rate overall. The core Monkey Ball experience, then, is pretty much as great, as taxing, and as rewarding as ever.

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Then we have the mini-games, of which there are 12 in total, ranging from the exceptional to the forgettable. And here, unlike the main game, we see some quite radical changes in physics. Two things sank when I loaded up the new Monkey Target for the first time: my monkey, and my heart. Now I'm pretty darn good at Monkey Target on GameCube if I do say so myself (which I do), so it was instantly apparent that something had changed. It took a few rounds to get a feel for the new system — which is more about incremental adjustments to altitude than the epic swoops and dives from before — and while it's certainly different, it's still great and I was soon able to start making the same pinpoint landings as ever. A lot of the other, more basic mini-games are surprisingly fleshed out, with a bunch of different variations in things like Monkey Bowling and Monkey Billiards that make for fun party play, although all of these are local multiplayer only, and the competitive leaderboards only cover four of them — Race, Boat, Shot, and Target, and then only Formation Target with hazards on, which isn't ideal, honestly. Monkey Baseball in particular seems way more difficult than I remember, too. I fired up a quick single-innings game just to get a feel for it, and it somehow ended up going the full nine (and then some) in extra innings because neither me nor the AI could chalk up a single run. There's a great suite here for a fun evening or two of variety gaming with friends, but as ever, only a couple of the mini-games have true lasting appeal. Monkey Target always soared higher than the rest, and despite that little initial patch of turbulence, I'd argue that still rings true here.

'Variety gaming' is actually one of the best ways to describe the full Super Monkey Ball experience, and Banana Mania has more ways to play than ever before. Super Monkey Ball 2's 100-level story mode is here, as well as all the Casual, Advanced, Expert, Master, and Marathon Courses from the first two games, plus the additional DX Course. In the interest of fairness, some of the ruder courses from the original games have been reworked a little, although the original versions are also still present in their own standalone Course, just in case getting angry at video games is your thing. On top of all that, you can try out several new ten-level modes like Golden Banana (collectathon stages where the only goal is to round up every banana), Dark Banana (effectively the opposite, where all bananas must be avoided), and Reverse (run stages backwards from goal to start line). Then all of the mini-games and their variants, the ranking challenges, the unlockables, the myriad score and time attack challenges across the entire package, the 750-odd missions to tick off the checklist — "you'd never guess the Yakuza devs were behind this," he said, sarcastically — there's an absurd amount of content packed into this collection and it'll take you ages to even just see everything, let alone do everything.

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Admittedly, not all of the newly-added stuff is as good as the source material. The reworked (read: completely different) music has its moments, sure, but some veteran rollers will yearn for the original tunes, and those are locked behind a DLC paywall. Same goes for the original character designs, and while there are plenty of new alternatives to unlock and use, the non-traditional characters have no audio of their own, just that off-puttingly loud footstep sound effect — you can tell it's supposed to be footsteps as opposed to a ball-rolling noise, as that weird squeaking sound cuts out completely when you go fast with Tails and he starts to fly. The new modes are neat, if somewhat short-lived, but then this isn't so much about 'new' anyway — it's about having all of the classic Super Monkey Ball content on modern consoles. And despite the odd wobble, this collection does a darn good job in that regard.

In terms of the achievements, Super Monkey Ball has always been an extremely challenging game at its core, and the list reflects that. As mentioned, Master stages are easier to reach here than ever before thanks to the lives/continues system being a thing of the past, but actually beating them all without assists is another matter. Those numerous Missions are no pushover either, requiring you pretty much master everything in the game, from Story stages to mini-games to full Courses. There are some gimmes on the list, for sure, but many will retain (and probably even grow) their ratios long after launch, purely due to how taxing a game Super Monkey Ball can be when it comes to high-level play. Not everyone has the mental stamina to spend hours at a time perfecting a single level, especially when there are quite a few examples of stages where there's a lot of relatively basic build-up play before you even reach the tricky bits where you fail over and over again. Honestly, it's really only the Master, Marathon, and Mission achievements that are going to be a proper struggle here, but those will absolutely be the gatekeepers of the completion for many.

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Summary

Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania is a superb remake at a great price (considering just how much game you actually get), bringing together all of the content from the golden age of this beloved franchise while layering on some new stuff and underlying progress systems to keep returning players interested and involved. It can be frustrating at times — admittedly less so now that you can attempt stages endlessly without worrying about lives — but as ever, reaching that goal ribbon after countless attempts feels like a triumph. Every. Single. Time. It's hard to call this an absolutely definitive collection of these classic gaming curios when aspects aren't perhaps quite as authentic as they could be, but when there's so little in it for the most part (and when the aspects that have changed more notably are still great despite feeling different), Banana Mania stands as a feature-packed reminder that 'simple' and 'easy' are not nearly as interchangeable as a lot of people might think.
8 / 10
* Luke spent around 20 hours making pretend monkeys fall off things and had a lovely time doing so. He managed to grab half of the achievements along the way, but some are simply never going to happen. A review copy was provided by the publisher, and played on Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S.
Luke Albigés
Written by Luke Albigés
Luke runs the TA news team, contributing where he can primarily with reviews and other long-form features — crafts he has honed across two decades of print and online gaming media experience, having worked with the likes of gamesTM, Eurogamer, Play, Retro Gamer, Edge, and many more. He loves all things Monster Hunter, enjoys a good D&D session, and has played way too much Destiny.