Super Monkey Ball Banana Rumble Review

I’ve been spending every night of the past week with a good old friend. Super Monkey Ball and I were inseparable back in the GameCube days, but we grew apart as the series traded its perfect blend of devilish challenge and finely tuned physics in favor of bland level design and imprecise motion controls aimed at a more casual audience—so you can imagine my apathy when Super Monkey Ball Banana Rumble’s initial announcement focused so heavily on the uncontrolled chaos of 16-player online battles. But I’ve never been happier to be wrong, because tucked away within Banana Rumble is the best set of traditional Super Monkey Ball levels the series has seen since the GameCube originals, bolstered by tight mechanics that give me the complete control I needed to overcome its demanding late-game obstacles. Monkey Ball is finally back, and now all I want to do is roll.

Banana Rumble’s impressive set of 200 courses is divided into 20 cartoonish worlds, each containing 10 levels. In classic Monkey Ball style, the premise is delightfully simple: you have 60 seconds to roll your monkey from the start to the goal, but the obstacles in between change radically as you progress. The opening levels aren’t overly challenging, but they cleverly introduce you to Banana Rumble’s mechanics so you’ll be ready to go when the chips are down.

As a certified Super Monkey Ball 2 master, I had no trouble making it through the first 80 or so levels. But they’re still a joy to roll through, as I was faced with turns, slopes, rails, switches, and bumps that recalled the level design of the excellent Super Monkey Ball 1 and 2. Plus, speedrunning is a classic element of the originals, and it was a lot of fun to see how quickly I could breeze through levels that didn’t require too much precision, like those where you can slam dunk into the goal with a perfect launch from the start if you know what you’re doing. I quickly realized that Banana Rumble was a return to form for the series, and I had a blast rolling through the early levels while moving to the awesome GameCube-inspired soundtrack.

That lighthearted feeling didn’t last long, however, as Banana Rumble doesn’t hold back in its second half. The 10 EX worlds unlocked after completing the main story delivered all the Monkey Ball challenges I’d been begging the series to return for. Suddenly I was faced with gruelling levels that truly tested my monkey mettle, from crazy spinning contraptions to invisible tilting seesaws to the narrowest of walkways that you have to carefully sneak across, Banana Rumble constantly introduces new challenges and clever twists on old ones. Some of the final levels took me dozens of tries, and nothing quite compares to the feeling when my lead monkey AiAi finally breaks through that elusive goal. In fact, I was so engrossed in completing every level Banana Rumble has to offer that one night I didn’t even bother to get up to turn on the lights when it got dark outside, so I sat in complete darkness rolling my monkey around until well after midnight. Totally worth it.

Chaos, controlled

That fantastic set design and variety means nothing unless it feels right, and Super Monkey Ball nails it for the first time in decades. While it may seem like you’re moving your ball directly through each lane, Super Monkey Ball is actually about controlling the stage, not the monkey. At its best, the control stick is aligned 1:1 with the angle of the stage, allowing you to fine-tune how the terrain tilts—and how your monkey rolls through it.

2021’s Banana Mania (which remade every level from Super Monkey Ball 1, 2, and Deluxe) should have been a homerun, as it returned to some of the best levels in the series’ history, but the controls were so sluggish and imprecise that they made them overly frustrating at best and nigh-unplayable at worst. Precise controls are a must for the toughest levels, and Banana Rumble handles so well that whenever I fell off the level it almost always felt like it was my fault, inspiring me to do better next time. Banana Rumble even offers extensive control options for both the level and the camera, so I cranked up every possible setting and found that it gave me the expert level of control I was looking for. The physics aren’t quite perfect – there was sometimes a high ledge where I didn’t quite get the level of bounce I was expecting – but this is still easily the best-feeling Super Monkey Ball since the first two.

This is by far the tastiest Super Monkey Ball since the first two.

Banana Rumble also finally ditches the series’ poorly implemented jumping mechanic (if I tilt the level and my monkey is stuck in a ball, why would they be able to jump?) in favor of an exciting new spin dash, which takes a page from Sonic the Hedgehog and has you charge up and unleash a quick burst of speed. While the jump was never more than a gimmick in previous games, the spin dash is a genius evolution of Monkey Ball’s core mechanic. It’s only required in a handful of levels, but nearly every level features some kind of shortcut or exploit that is only possible thanks to this new ability.

A well-placed spin dash can send your poor monkey flying across the map in the blink of an eye, and it’s a speedrunner’s dream to discover all the ways to take advantage of this clever addition. Banana Rumble rewards players who understand its mechanics and level design with optional, in-sight routes that require expert skill to reach, and it adds a ton of replay value to an already jam-packed adventure.

Bananas split screen

Multiplayer makes a return to the main game, which was shockingly absent from the last two games. You can tackle all 200 levels with up to three other players in split-screen local multiplayer or online co-op. Playing online with others is fairly seamless – I played through the entire campaign online with a friend and we never disconnected. Banana Rumble also runs at a very smooth 60 FPS when playing solo on Nintendo Switch, and it maintains that level of performance when you add online play into the mix. The framerate does drop slightly in split-screen, but not to the point where it feels unplayable.

Playing with others turns Banana Rumble into a surprisingly strategic cooperative experience. Everyone starts the stage at the same time, and only one player needs to complete it for the group to progress. This also makes each level’s optional missions easier to complete: each stage tasks you with collecting a certain number of bananas, completing them in under a certain number of seconds, and finding the hidden golden banana, which often requires some advanced technique to grab. Sending one person to the goal as quickly as possible while the rest go banana hunting adds a fun layer of planning to the entire experience. I even enjoyed tackling levels online with random players, as I found myself helping some Monkey Ball rookies complete some of the easier worlds and working with others to grab some of the trickier golden bananas in later levels, using encouraging emotes and phrases to cheer on my teammates. I just wish Banana Rumble had included a more traditional Challenge Mode, where you take turns tackling each level individually at your own pace.

One problem with online multiplayer is that it kicks you all out of a group after you complete a world, meaning I had to share a new lobby code with my friend every time we wanted to keep playing. Additionally, when working through the adventure mode online, Banana Rumble doesn’t show you the story cutscenes, meaning that if you want to know what’s going on with AiAi, MeeMee, Baby, GonGon, and their new friend Palette, you either have to play locally or watch all the cutscenes in the gallery after the fact. I don’t play Monkey Ball for the story – and the story here is extremely basic and bare-bones anyway – so I actually preferred not to see the cutscenes so we could get straight to the levels, but it does feel like an odd omission.

Banana Rumble’s biggest wish for a monkey’s paw is the aforementioned battle mode. Longtime fans of Super Monkey Ball know how iconic legacy party games like Monkey Target and Monkey Bowling are, but there’s nothing here that held my attention for longer than a few minutes. The five modes all feel extremely shallow and uninspired, with so few maps in rotation that I felt like I’d seen everything they had to offer after less than an hour. There’s generic racing, banana collecting, and bomb passing that feels like a cheap knockoff of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s ​​battle mode. I’m guessing others feel the same way, as it took me minutes to find a match with a full 16 players just a few days after launch. Performance also takes a serious hit in battle mode, reducing the smooth 60 FPS of adventure mode to a choppy slideshow at times. Local multiplayer has its own limitations, as you can’t play battle mode online with two people on the same system, and three-four player battles aren’t even an option locally.

The five battle modes all feel extremely shallow and uninspired.

But even if you completely ignore Banana Rumble’s subpar battle mode, there’s still plenty to do. I’ve completed all 200 levels so far, but I’m still a long way from completing all of the level missions—some of which still have me scratching my head trying to figure out how to grab dozens of bananas and reach the goal in time. There are hundreds of cosmetic items to purchase with in-game points to style up your monkey. I’m a simple guy, so I bought AiAi’s classic orange t-shirt from the original games and was fine with it, but it’s cool how many outfits and accessories are available for Banana Rumble’s 12 playable characters (or more, if you grab the optional SEGA Pass that adds Sonic the Hedgehog and friends to the mix).

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