Super Monkey Ball: Step & Roll
When it comes to Sega's enduring Super Monkey Ball franchise, I've never understood the gameplay attraction behind squeaky monkeys trapped in transparent spheres collecting bananas while rolling around on perilous floating environments. Then again, I don't get the Teletubbies, Boohbah, or In the Night Garden - maybe it's because I'm greying around the temples and I don't have a child below the age of 10.
However, I do understand the blanket appeal of the Nintendo Wii, which, when coupled with Super Monkey Ball: Step & Roll, offers the perfect excuse to bypass the bonkers premise and enjoy obstacle traversal and banana collection while happily looking much like one of its panicky floundering in-game simians.
With no online multiplayer to speak of, the core of Step & Roll is to be found in the 60 progressively more difficult levels of its single-player component, which is split into six themed worlds of 10 levels each, all of which are against the clock and can be tackled with either the Wii Remote or Balance Board. Supporting the main portion of the game is a co-op option (one player on the Balance Board and another shooting obstacles with the Wii Remote), along with 21 mini-games that take a general (ly poor) stab at simulating events such as Luge racing, snowboarding and skydiving.
Sadly, many of the 60 level designs leave something to be desired due to a lack of invention and challenge, a shortfall that renders the first half of the main game as surprisingly easy regardless of whether the player opts for Wii Remote or Balance Board. It's not until world four (the Okami-flavoured Far East) that difficulty ramps as the use of multiple plains, moving platforms and reactive obstacles suddenly intensifies and tests the player's ability to direct their Monkey Ball with a mixture of precision and subtlety.
But here's where those favouring the Balance Board's increased interaction will begin struggling with the control mechanics amid a growing sense of frustration. Specifically, while ball movement is governed through the Balance Board by simply leaning in the required direction, once the difficulty curve removes helpful environmental guardrails, plunging off platforms becomes an all-too frequent occurrence. And why? Because the Balance Board is nowhere near sensitive enough to register and accurately convey incremental movement, gentle turns and sudden shifts of weight.
This ties directly into problems with the game camera, which can be extremely obtrusive and disorientating. Although the in-game viewpoint is automatically maintained and is generally fine when travelling forward, positioning and movement quickly become confusing when leaning backwards on the board to perform an about turn. Whenever this happens, the camera blurrily spins back behind the Monkey Ball - but not quickly enough to centre before the simian sphere quickly begins rolling forward in its new direction. This can ultimately lead to bouts of bothersome spinning and rolling in confined areas as the clock ticks down and all the player wants to do is turn 180 degrees and slowly navigate through a tight space or avoid a nearby trap.
The truly sad thing about the Balance Board control mechanic is that the game's developers seemingly knew of its failings and were unwilling to hone it accordingly. Supporting this notion is the fact that the Balance Board single-player game is light on obstacles and trades environmental difficulty against basic difficulty of movement. Conversely, the Wii Remote's tilt control system, which is much more sensitive, is attached to a version of the single-player game that's littered with more obstacles because movement is more consistent and intuitive. Anyone with a Balance Board will want to play Step & Roll with it; it's the way the game should be played. It's a shame therefore that it doesn't work nearly well enough to sustain the fun factor, and the Wii Remote cannot fill the resulting void because it doesn't carry the same sense of fun and interaction.
One interesting gameplay twist not outlined in the instruction manual involves the co-op mode. On the page, co-op requires one player to control the Monkey Ball with the Balance Board, while the other player uses the Wii Remote to blast on-screen items placed in the ball's path. The mode works well enough in adding some of that missing obstacle-based variety to the Balance Board game, but it quickly grows a little boring for the person merely shooting from the sidelines. So, if you're feeling particularly masochistic, taking to the Board along with the Wii Remote provides a completely different - but no less frustrating - single-player experience.
From a presentation point of view, Step & Roll's cartoon leanings are well suited to the Wii and are perfectly crafted for the console's younger audience, which means every aspect is unfailingly bright and colourful. Cute inexplicably captive monkeys and vibrant background themes, through to saccharin synth-pop and upbeat in-game music means player accessibility is guaranteed and only the most strident animal rights activists will be offended. While specific character choice has no direct influence over gameplay, access to franchise favourites such as AiAi, Baby, MeeMee and GonGon at least means there are plenty of different monkey screams and furry butts to enjoy - none of which should unduly upset the aforementioned activists.
Perhaps this is an unnecessarily pedantic appraisal of Super Monkey Ball: Step & Roll. It isn't hopelessly broken. It certainly has moments of fun. And, yes, the kids are gonna love it. Maybe the Balance Board control gripes are down to my lack of physical dexterity, and perhaps the Wii Remote will hold more fun for those players not armed with a Balance Board. However, the fact remains that, as cutely appealing as Step & Roll can be, it essentially equates to yet another Wii offering that works in some ways but fails to make the grade because of an inability to fulfil the promise of the console's innovative controls.