Thursday, November 15, 2012

Wii Retrospective Reviews: Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz

Well, I was planning to do Red Steel for my second Wii review, but as it turns out, I can’t play that game very often lest I lose my sanity. Thus, to take a break from that obscene pile of insipid puke, I decided to tackle fellow launch title Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz, developed by SEGA.

Ah, I’ve been kind of interested in revisiting this one for a while, but never really felt the motivation to do so. I was always a bit curious about the Monkey Ball franchise, so, upon discovering this game for a reasonable price, I decided to try it. A few levels later, I quit in frustration. Still, I’ve always wanted to give it another chance, especially now that I’m quite a bit older and much less prone to blaming a game for my personal inadequacies. And hey, the critical reviews were decent and I tend to like SEGA’s wacky, experimental little Crazy Taxis and Jet Set Radios and NiGHTS’s, and I thought that maybe it would be one of those games that you can still kind of have fun with even if some frustration comes along with it. I came into this game with an open mind, and when I finished it and looked back on my experience, I said to myself, “At least it was better than Red Steel”.

So what’s the main problem with Banana Blitz? Well, it’s hard to say exactly what the main problem is when the gameplay is plagued by so many major ones, many of which tend to overlap with or exacerbate others. But I’m getting ahead of myself, since some of you may not be familiar with the gameplay of the Monkey Ball series. In that case, allow me to educate you, which won’t take long, since the gameplay is very simple. Basically, you are a monkey in a hamster ball…for…whatever reason. And you roll through various landscapes, clearing the obstacles the wonderful level designers have laid before you. Oh, but rest assured; as the first entry for the Wii, Banana Blitz ensures that your experience will completely and totally revolve around fluid and polished motion controls. And by “fluid and polished”, I mean “awkward and cumbersome”.

See, the way they work is that you use the Wii Remote to tilt the arena in various directions, which will, in turn, affect the direction of your monkey. In theory, this could actually be quite fun, but it appears that the monkeys coated their capsules with grease prior to embarking on this most thrilling adventure. You’re going to find yourself slipping and sliding all over the place and even when the controls aren't sending you careening off the edge of a cliff, they just feel weird. I’m certainly not expecting the balls to stop on a dime – in fact, if anything, I expected this game to use the principles of momentum and inertia to great effect (and it still does, which leads to some other problems, but we’ll get to that later), but this game feels a little ridiculous. You would really have to play it to see what I mean. Of course, the problems with the controls are compounded with the fact that this game is so…“bouncy”. You literally bounce off of every object, surface and bump that happens to be on the edge of the road in your seemingly plastic ball, often for ridiculous distances. Thus, even the slightest nudge against the edge of a rope bridge will send you falling to your doom. Needless to say, these “quirks” pretty much eliminate any sort of precision the gameplay might have had.
Looks cute, doesn't it? Oh-ho, just wait until you see the level designs.

Still, awkward controls and physics don’t have to kill a game. Let’s take Jet Set Radio, for instance. I had never played that game before the XBLA port, and when I got it, I found that the controls were pretty awkward and imprecise by today’s standards. Nonetheless, since the game didn’t operate on precision, I was able to bear with it and eventually found myself enjoying the game quite a lot. This…is not something that can be said for Banana Blitz. A lot of this game’s level designs, especially towards the end, require the utmost precision. Move the Wii Remote a millisecond too early and you die. Move the Wii Remote a millisecond too late and you die. Move the Wii Remote an inch too far to the left and you die. Move the Wii Remote an inch too far to the right and you die. If you jump and it’s not at just the right time and at just the right angle, you will die. If you’re going fast and don’t jerk the Wii Remote right back at just the right time, you will freaking die. What makes this worse is that the game goes out of its way to punish you if you attempt to go fast, something that is also completely compounded by the controls and bouncy physics. There was one level that was basically a giant slide. I thought this was my cue to just cut loose and blast down the thing, so I tilted the Wii Remote forward and began maneuvering left and right in accordance with the direction of the curves. There was a sharp one, so I tilted the Wii Remote as sharply as I could…and still flew off the edge to my doom. There were also a number of levels in World 7 that even featured Sonic-esque dash pads that would propel you forward at maximum velocity. Logic would dictate that I’m meant to use these to go fast. The exact same thing happened numerous, numerous times. Oh, and sometimes the levels can be downright cheap, placing some sort of bouncy object or corner right at the edge of a steep incline, or possibly even a three-inch wide bottomless pit that you would never be able to see coming.
This killed me many more times than it should have.

What I came to the conclusion that this game wanted me to do was jerk back on the Wii Remote constantly at just the right moment, grinding my monkey to a screeching halt. This led to a very awkward and jarring start-stop pacing in a game that, in all honesty, should allow for a lot of speed. What I was expecting from Banana Blitz was a game that, once you got used to the level designs and acclimated to the controls, would allow you to soar through the levels at high speeds, eventually earning the satisfaction of high scores, somewhat similar to Jet Set Radio or even the daytime stages of Sonic Unleashed. Of course, I’m not saying that it’s necessarily a bad thing for the game to require you to go slowly every now and then; in fact, the Monkey Ball series is, as far as I’m aware, more of a puzzle series than a platforming series. And yet, the level designs of Banana Blitz are so simplistic and linear that you always feel like they were meant for speed, but didn’t allow for it due to incompetent design. Oh, and part of that incompetent design includes some of the most unfathomably awkward incorporation of platforming elements I’ve encountered in all of my years. Far too many levels of this game have sections that require you to jump up or down flights of stairs or other tiered objects in a ball that literally cannot be stopped – only slowed down – and also bounces off of literally everything. Sometimes, this platforming is even of the “stop and go” variety. This came to a head in World 5, which had so much of this crap that it ended up being the first time I almost gave up on the game in frustration, a notion that also popped into my mind many times in World 7, none more so than at that world’s boss fight.
Here, you are supposed to stop and wait for a platform that swings in a massive arc to make it over to you. Whoever thought this was a good idea should be punched.

Oh, yes, the bosses. Well…okay, before I say anything else negative about this game, I think I should throw a bit of praise its way, as this is starting to become less of a review and more of a lengthy rant. Really, for everything that completely breaks it, I don’t want to say this is a downright terrible game. While it suffers from all kinds of incompetence – both technical and in terms of design – I can sense that there was at least some semblance of effort that went into this game. There are a handful of levels that aren’t legitimately poorly designed, only rendered frustrating if at all due to the game’s technical problems. Some of them, if you can get past that, can even be kind of fun and some even offer some pretty unique little elements. Most of the levels in the first half of the game (the key word here being most), I’d say, are pretty inoffensive; it’s only at World 5 where things start to get especially rough in terms of design. World 6 is hit or miss, and then it’s all downhill from there, but even then, there are a few that at least work in theory. Oh, and the soundtrack is probably the one thing I seriously loved about this game and, most likely, is what kept me sane as I was playing it. Just listen to this. I suppose it’s not really one of the best tracks in the game, but it samples two – count em – two songs from Sonic Rush. That alone is enough to put a smile on my face. Oh, and I also love the ending desperately. (Skip to 4:12 in the video - don't worry about spoilers, as this game barely has a plot.)
No, it doesn't even make the slightest amount of sense in context. That's why I love it.

And back on the topic of unique ideas, a lot of the bosses are kind of creative. It’s…really much too bad that the controls and physics turn almost every one of them into an ungodly mess. Much like the level designs, the bosses from the first half are okay, but also much like the level designs, they turn into horrid frustration-fests soon afterwards. The World 7 boss was easily the worst, since, after its giant golem crumbled, you had to chase the tiny (and incredibly fast) enemy throughout the arena by fighting with the controls. It would often jump on parts of the broken golem as they rolled around the room at high speeds, no less, which rendered almost any chance of scoring a hit hopeless. This boss legitimately almost caused me to quit playing and write the review you see before you prematurely, but nonetheless, I persevered.

Oh, yeah, there are these fifty party games, too, or something. I don’t know, apparently that’s one of the big draws to the Monkey Ball franchise. I played a few and they didn’t seem too interesting or fun. I didn’t feel much incentive to play all of them, really. I did my time, and I doubt what few people who actually read this thing really care anyway. If I didn’t like the main game, why would I give a crap about the extras?

The Verdict

Banana Blitz…isn’t really one of the worst games I’ve ever played. Far from it, in fact, but good Lord was it a pain to play. It’s certainly a poor example of what the Wii was capable of, even in its infancy. Twilight Princess only had a few mini-games and mechanics that made heavy use of the Wii Remote’s features, but even they were far more competent than anything you’ll see in this game and that was technically a port of a GameCube game. I guess it’s gotten me a bit interested in previous entries in the series, since there does seem to be a pretty fun little game buried underneath all the crap. Even the Wii Remote controls were a cool concept. They were just…executed horribly and didn’t work with the level design at all.

But, subpar though this game may be, it is nothing compared to the piece of crap I’m going to have to review next for the Wii series. Fortunately, Halo 4 came in the mail right on cue to save me for at least a bit. Welp, until next time, sayonara.


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