Rolling With a Dole-ful Crew.
Well, isn't this a fine how's-your-uncle: You spend your life ostensibly refining your tastes in electronic entertainment, honing an ever-more sophisticated eye and palate by, say, decrying the failure of Newtonian physics in Colony Wars or volubly identifying with the bourgeois/imperialist stance of Resident Evil (as opposed to the *rawthuh* reckless Jungianism of Silent Hill). And then one day you come full circle, endlessly fascinated as you play with your...monkey balls.
If you've never found yourself in an arcade with a banana-shaped controller in your hand, know this: Super Monkey Ball's main game challenge is lot like the old ball-and-board game Labyrinth. You control the motion of a sphere-bound monkey (rather like one of those hamster exercise balls) by tilting the playfield beneath it, simultaneously trying to collect bananas (Dole brand bananas, no less; I hear Chiquita lost the license in a bitter, protracted, last-minute bidding war that will continue to rock the international produce trade for years to come), beat the clock, and not fall to a hideous death from the dizzying heights at which Monkey Ball's ramps, curves and platforms are suspended. An overzealous tilt or panicked counter-tilt can of course spell doom, but the 90 play stages are also often in motion with pistoning steps, rotating bridges, morphing floors and more. It's mechanically simple and weirdly elegant, a formula for videogame fun so basic and obvious that it's no wonder it's been largely overlooked for so long. And like the best video games, it takes only a moment to fundamentally grasp...but a long time indeed to master.
Plus it's cute as hell, what with the monkeys and all.
When you've finally bounced and teetered your way through the surreal, daunting single-player levels, I'm happy to report that you've only just begun. Designed from the start as a "party game," Monkey Ball has a monkey-buttload of extra mini-games and challenges for 1-4 players, and (unlike many so-called "party games") there isn't a loser among them.
The pleasantly frantic Monkey Races allows split-screen, literally balls-to-the-wall cart-style racing action complete with the expected weapon power-ups as well as high-bank turns and jumps (by which the observant player can conveniently cheat, hopping from one track-segment to the next). Next is the wonderful Monkey Billiards, a respectable little pool-sim in its own right, complete with realistic physics, applicable 'english' (ball spin), a truly cooperative camera, and the smoothest, most realistic graphics found in the entire game. Ape-Ball in the corner pocket! (Yeah, yeah, I know - monkeys aren't apes, but if you think I was gonna pass up a pun like that, you're out of your freakin' mind.)
Another great multiplayer party game is Monkey Miniature Golf, which is just what it sounds like: eighteen holes of geometric, labyrinthine monkey ball mayhem, with a simplified version of the shot-power mechanics you might find in games like Mario Golf (but trimmed down for mini-golf courses). It's the same eighteen holes over and over again, true, but they're genuinely challenging ones. Master them, and you are truly the Big Simian on Campus. In a mini-golf kinda way, you understand.
The oddest distraction by far is...a glider simulator. You roll your ball-bound monkey of choice (there are four 'characters' you can choose) down a slope and off a jump-ramp, whereupon the sphere clicks open into two hemispherical halves that are used as wings for gliding across the sea to islands divided into target-zones. It's Jumping Flash with a humanoid bias.
Had enough? How about Monkey Bowling (again, complete with spin/'hook' physics) or even Monkey Fighting, where the last simian not bonked off the floating platform into oblivion in the winner?
Given Super Monkey Ball's superb look, perfect physics and fluid gameplay, it's tempting to complain that there aren't more levels to the mini-games, but that's a minor quibble at best. This game is exactly what instantly accessible gameplay is all about, and is a party-style game that keeps the eyes engaged...and those coveted opposable thumbs in motion. Keep an eye peeled (among other things) this November.