Super Monkey Ball Step & Roll
Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz wasn't everyone's cup of tea. It, for various reasons, lacked the magic inherent in some of the game's previous outings. We blamed all the silly mini-games. But the Super Monkeys are back in Super Monkey Ball: Step and Roll, they're still ensconced within balls, and the three year gap between their hurried last outing hopefully means Sega have had ample time to get used to developing for the Wii. Fingers crossed.
The twist is that you can use Super Monkey Ball: Step and Roll with the dust-gathering balance board you've got in the cupboard. Which, given the nature of Super Monkey Ball, makes perfect sense. Using the balance board feels like you're standing in the monkey ball, we're told by the Sega representative. It also makes you look a bit silly, but that didn't stop us wanting a go. Alas, it was strictly a hands-off presentation.
We kicked off with a tour of the first four single-player levels. They're not especially tricky, as you might expect, and there's even a groove going through the stages to ensure you'd have to really cack it up to fall off. The first level is basically just leaning forwards and going in a straight line, which is what you'd expect considering the other Super Monkey Ball games all do the same thing. The aim of the game is to collect as many bananas as you can, says the man giving the demonstration, just in case anybody in the crowd thought the plethora of potassium-rich delights scattered around the levels were mere decorations. He also says it's great fun if you can get it right.
It looks like standard Monkey Ball fare: saturated blue skies, an abundance of palm trees, and adorable monkeys trapped inside see-through balls. There's only so much you can get out of a demonstration of the first four levels: they're basically tutorials, after all. They do get considerably harder further on, we're reminded, but it would have been nice to have seen something ingeniously complex in the presentation.
Then we're off to a bonus round; a giant swirl, littered with bananas, etched into the ground. The man rolls the monkey to the far edge before leaning heavily left on the balance board, causing everything to whiz around at frenetic speed whilst the monkey grabs enough bananas to make Donkey Kong green with envy. Looks fun.
The game will calibrate itself each time a user steps on the balance board, we're told. You lean forwards and back on the board to move, and left and right to turn. There's a little icon in the bottom-right corner of the screen showing your position on the board, which helps, but overall we get the impression it's a lot more imprecise than when we were playing the first game seven years ago with ever-dependable GameCube controllers. Whether the more difficult stages will prove too much for the balance board is a concern, too. Nobody's willing to talk much about the controls, other than saying they're still being refined and that they'll be really good in time for launch. They even promise.
Next in the demonstration are some mini-games. They proved contentious in Banana Blitz, with too many poorly implemented ideas marred further by fiddly Wiimote controls. But Sega are quick to realise, and admit, the faults of Banana Blitz - they've removed the oft-criticised ability to jump, for instance - so we're interested to see how they've developed the game.
The first to be shown is Monkey Racing, which is basically Mario Kart-lite. The circuit is a simple oval, with plenty of speed pads scattered around, alongside a selection of weapons that spice up the proceedings. The biggest danger, however, seems to be the corners: there's plenty of crashing into them in the demonstration. The man on the balance board spends most of his time in seventh, edging his way up to first in the penultimate lap, and finishes second because he hits the wall on the final corner. Ouch.
Second is Red Light, Green Light, which is based on the classic playground game What's the Time Mr. Wolf? Which, for those that can't recall, is a game children used to play before they all started carrying knives to school, doing copious amounts of drugs, and playing Mario Kart DS in their lunch breaks. A CPU monkey stands at the end of a field, looking at a tree. You walk on the balance board to progress across the field, but have to stand completely still whenever the CPU monkey turns around. If you're spotted moving it's game over, and the winner is either the first person to make it to the other side or the last person to be eliminated. The man giving the demonstration says it's his favourite of the mini-games they're showing, and we're inclined to agree. It, more than the others, seems to have the potential for amusing multiplayer hijinks, and it's always refreshing to see the Balance Board being used in inventive ways.
The last mini-game on show is See-Saw Ball. A monkey drops from the sky onto a levitating see-saw, and you gently lean left or right to drop the monkey down onto another, lower, see-saw. It's an obstacle course of see-saws, basically, and the game is over when the monkey touches down on the ground. It looks very precise. In our demonstration, the man makes a mistake on his first attempt and falls straight to the ground, but we watch him give it another go later and he does much better. Practice obviously makes perfect.
But wait: weren't all of these mini-games from Banana Blitz? What's new, then? We don't get to see any more in the demonstration, and Sega won't give us any indication of what to expect in the finished game. It's at this point we realise even the menus and icons have been carried directly over from Banana Blitz, although we're told that they, too, are still in development. It seems like including the balance board is taking up most of the development time, which becomes a bit muddled when you consider the game's obvious multiplayer leanings: the Wii is incapable of having more than one Balance Board synced to a console.
One person can be on a Balance Board, while the rest of the players (up to three, depending on the mini-game) are resigned to Wiimotes and Nunchuks. Whether or not you'll want to play like this is another question, as the board looks to be even fiddlier than the Wiimote, although Sega are quick to remind us that the controls are still being tweaked.
The real question is whether Sega can ensure the Balance Board will work exactly as it should, and it's hard to say from the pre-alpha build we were shown. Conceptually, however, the balance board makes perfect sense. There's still a clear focus on forcing Super Monkey Ball into the party game market, but Sega's proven competence with the genre (see Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, for instance) and awareness of Banana Blitz's failings gives us plenty of hope. We're certainly eager to see how the game shapes up ahead of its early 2010 release.