The original Super Monkey Ball was a surprising success when it launched alongside Nintendo's Game Cube console back in 2001. Developed by Sega's Amusement Vision team, the innovative title managed to appeal to a wide audience of both casual and hardcore gamers; it is in my opinion one of the GameCube's best party games.
The sequel, Super Monkey Ball 2, improved on the original in almost every aspect and was quickly followed by the series' first step into the handheld realm with Super Monkey Ball Jr. Cue Nokia's N-Gage, which is the official home for the fourth installment in the series.
Sadly Super Monkey Ball on N-Gage arrives as a more limited, choppier version of the Game Boy Advance title it follows and offers nothing that Jr. doesn't do better.
Gameplay once again revolves around monkeys in balls who have to survive tricky 3D courses full of crazy obstacles. The catch is that instead of taking control of the character, players are able to tilt the playfield itself with the N-Gage's directional pad, which will set the ball in motion. Gravity, which comes into play via slopes and hills, as well as moving parts and bumpers stand in the way of success, while bananas littered around the courses supply our monkey stars with extra lives (one life for every 50 bananas collected).
Players select one of four monkeys (the same team as in the previous games: MeeMee, Baby, AiAi and GonGon) and select to compete in one of three main courses. The Beginner course offers 10 stages, Advanced 15, and Expert 20. Since the original game heavily relied on the GameCube controller's analog stick to give the player full control over the boards, control on N-Gage (and GBA, for that matter) isn't nearly as tight. Developer Amusement Vision smartly added the ability to hold down the 5 Key to allow for major tilt, or 7 for slight tilting, but controlling the game with digital buttons produces a much more jumpy gameplay experience than in the original. It takes some getting used to, but after a while the controls become second nature and Monkey Ball fans will be able to zoom through the levels much more quickly. Sadly, the game's framerate and lack of map mode (or zoom) directly impacts the gameplay. There are areas where it's tough to tell which direction the course goes, and the game slows down when moving fast and turning makes it difficult to judge the precise moment when you should counter steer to avoid overshooting a platform. Despite these nagging shortcomings, the single player remains fun to play and provides for one of the better gaming experiences on the N-Gage.
Sadly, the very essence of Super Monkey Ball -- the sense of competition that only multiplayer modes can provide -- is completely absent. While both GameCube and GBA offered a smattering of multiplayer modes and mini-games, the one platform that enables wireless head-to-head play is the one to feature a single-player-only Monkey Ball. That's a real shame, too, since the N-Gage version actually features the fan-favorite Monkey Target mini-game not available in the GBA release. The mini-games are nice rewards for racking up points and fun to play on their own, but competing against the computer is just not the same as playing against a friend or several friends.
Powered by the X-Forge 3D engine, Super Monkey Ball's visuals are above average when you consider the time of release and the hardware. The simple textured platforms may not impress your friends, but they ring true with the original console game's presentation. Unfortunately, the Game Cube's 60fps framerate is history, as the N-Gage edition chops up quite a bit. While there are more polygonal elements here than in Realism's GBA version, the framerate in the Game Boy Monkey Ball is actually smoother. A more conservative approach and a bit more optimization (it's okay to have sprite bananas, folks -- and we didn't really need the disco ball hanging above the goals) would have been in order to get the game to run at a steady and ultimately more playable framerate.
The N-Gage version is faithful to its console brethren when it comes to sound design and music. That's not necessarily a good thing, depending on whom you ask. Overall, the music is good, though, and many of the goofy monkey samples from the GameCube games are present as well. That means of course you should avoid playing as Meemee, or you'll get to hear that high pitched "ii!" whenever you pick up a banana. Stand in the middle of a crowd, pick Meemee and play a bonus level or the credits sequence on full blast and you'll either be left alone or badly beaten within minutes.
Super Monkey Ball on N-Gage is a missed opportunity. One of the most accessible, frantic party games arrives as a choppy, single-player-only port. This should have been the game to really showcase the system's wireless Bluetooth abilities, but instead it's just another one of those games can't quite deliver on the potential. With the core multiplayer gameplay dynamics and mini-games like Golf and Bowling missing, Super Monkey Ball for N-Gage is just half the game it used to be (and should be).
The single-player action of the Amusement Vision classic is still intact, of course, and newcomers to the franchise will definitely get some enjoyment out of the title. So if Monkey Ball was your prime reason for buying an N-Gage, then sit this one out. Then again, nobody buys a gaming platform for just one game, so be sure to check out the other N-Gage offerings if you're in the market for a new handheld. N-Gage and Monkey Ball seemed like a perfect match, but this rushed version just doesn't live up to the glory of its predecessors.