As one of the first 3-D games to be demonstrated for the iPhone and iPod touch, Sega’s first Super Monkey Ball for the iPhone was akin to a meteorite hitting the earth with a surprisingly dull thud. Originally developed as a showcase of the graphics and accelerometer features in Apple’s touchscreen devices, the title quickly revealed itself to be nearly unplayable due to a lack of calibration options — a major disappointment given its $10 asking price. Now Sega is back with Super Monkey Ball 2 ($10), a legitimate sequel in that it includes 115 new levels and an improved graphics engine; moreover, it includes improvements in control and new mini-games. Only one question remains: is the gameplay compelling enough to merit such a price tag?
As with the prior game, Monkey Ball 2 gives you the choice of four monkey characters who roll through 3-D maze levels while trapped in transparent balls. Though the new mazes are very similar to the first game’s, with fairly simple geometry, decent textures, and a high priority on smooth frame rates and motion, Sega has made changes: the monkey characters have evolved from 2-D sprites into actual 3-D models this time, enabling them to look more fluid when rolling and turning, and trivial but nice little special effects improvements can be seen as well. A glimmering light beam appears at the start of each stage, and your monkey now exits the stage to a more colorful and interesting-looking musical confetti-like effect. If the original game looked like a modestly enhanced port of a Nokia N-Gage title, this one looks like it was fully developed from the ground up to take advantage of the pre-iPhone 3GS generation of Apple hardware, which is to say that it’s a step or two behind the best titles we’ve seen on the platform, but completely fluid. By contrast, the audio is very similar between the two Monkey Ball games, with upbeat, clean music that inspires you to move too quickly for safety, plus nice little voice and monkey audio samples.
Gameplay remains basically the same as before: each maze has bananas floating around, and you can either collect them to earn extra lives and other bonuses, or ignore them in favor of proceeding directly to the exit at the end of a stage. Technically, all you need to do is pass through an exit gate at any velocity, but the challenge is in making it safely to that point: early stages have fairly linear, straight paths to the exits, but the mazes quickly shift to include elevated platforms, sharp turns, and varying elevations that can impact your momentum and stability. Fall off a platform into the abyss and you die; your goal is to complete two clusters of ten or so mazes in sequence per world in order to move on to the next world, and thus a new background and texture set.
Ultimately, though developer Other Ocean has done a better and more thorough development job here than on some of Sega’s nearly excrable Genesis ports, the question we were left with in Super Monkey Ball 2 was a simple one: were we having fun? The answer was “only a little.” The challenge of repeatedly navigating turns and hills, collecting bananas, and steering safely to exits can quickly become a tiresome one, not done any great favors by the iPhone’s accelerometer-based controls, and you’ll almost certainly lose count of the number of times you’ll find yourself pitched off the edge of a platform due to some modestly errant tilt of the device. It’s the sort of play experience that tends to frustrate more than reward, with later stages appealing to players who don’t mind failing 10 times before succeeding. A 60-second timer runs down on each stage, eliminating any chance that you’ll collect all the bananas on your first go-through, and thereby creating a semi-incentive to replay stages after you’ve figured out how to maneuver over to the goal. Another incentive is a Wi-Fi multiplayer mode which supports up to four people at once, playing through any of the game’s stages.
The developers do deserve credit for trying to make this experience better than the last one, particularly in controls. In addition to somewhat more forgiving stage designs, Monkey Ball 2 now calls up a tutorial with automatic calibration features, and constantly presents you with a little on-screen indicator to show how far off center axes you are at a given moment. It’s no substitute for a proper analog controller, and so small that you won’t likely be studying it while trying to move around, but it’s there. More importantly, Super Monkey Ball 2 just feels a little better than the first game did, so there’s less to blame this time on the controller. When you fail, at least you generally have a sense as to why, and can correct it by using greater care the next time. Three mini-games are also supposed to be included, but only Monkey Bowling actually made it into the current release of the game. It looks nice, but is dull as rocks to play. Sega promises to make Monkey Golf and Monkey Target available “early next year,” the sort of “we’re not done yet” development strategy that never strikes us as worthy of a premium asking price; if anything, early adopters should receive a discount for buying into a game that hasn’t yet been finished.
Overall, Super Monkey Ball 2 is unquestionably an improvement on an early and disappointing high-profile App Store release – a better play experience than before, with modestly improved graphics and more to do. While it’s not a bona-fide great game, and there are moments when it’s not completely fun, those who like the concept of working through 3-D mazes with delicate hand motions will find it to be a pretty good title; it will most likely become more compelling when the price falls and the developers finish adding the extras it should have shipped with for the $10 asking price.
Company and Price
Title: Super Monkey Ball 2
Compatible: iPod touch, iPhone, iPhone 3G