Like "Ridge Racer," Sega’s "Super Monkey Ball" is no stranger to system launches. The franchise saw its console debut during the launch of the Nintendo Gamecube, and later accompanied the frenzied opening of the iTunes App Store. Built on the foundation of the classic marble board game "Labyrinth," "Super Monkey Ball" (SMB 3D) finds AiAi and his menacing monkey friends tilting various mazes in order to roll to the goal, and snatch up every last possible banana on the way. It’s a simple, effective formula, and now it’s being augmented with the allure of 3-D and motion control on Nintendo’s 3DS handheld.
In SMB 3D, your driving concern is devouring bananas and reaching the level goal as quickly as possible. To accomplish this, you use the 3DS motion sensors or the circle pad to tilt each level back and forth, side to side, propelling your ball-bound monkey to its next adventure. In addition to rolling your way to the goal, different surfaces in the maze will trip you up, slow you down and generally attempt to stop you in your tracks. It all requires precise control, quick reflexes and carefully calculated movement.
When SMB appeared on the iPhone, the device’s built-in gyroscope seemed a perfect fit for the puzzle-like, tilt-based action. Sadly, it was too finicky and sensitive, and required an uncomfortable playing position. The good news is that the motion sensing capabilities of the 3DS are far superior, and Sega’s developers seemed to have mastered them this time around. Unfortunately, the 3DS has a "sweet spot" for viewing games in 3-D, and the act of moving the portable around to control the action results in constantly broken 3-D viewing. It works perfectly for standard 2D, but that brings us to perhaps the strongest selling point of SMB 3D.
Simply put, I can never return to playing this franchise in two dimensions. Sega’s implementation of 3D is more than a gimmick; it’s a necessary enhancement that not only adds subtle depth to the colorful worlds, but also improves your game, not to mention that days later, the 3D effect still feels and looks fascinating. Even with the unit’s 3D slider barely on, distances to perilous cliffs and blind drops become easier to estimate, saving lost lives and trimming precious seconds from your course time. The sense of speed is also enhanced, making long downhill runs exhilarating. That being said, I experienced a slight case of motion sickness after about 20 minutes of continuous playtime. In a warped way, it’s a testament to Sega’s developers! If this happens to you, get outside and inhale some fresh air.
The 3DS launch lineup has a mixture of meaty games, and also games that are light on content and longevity. "Super Monkey Ball 3D" falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. It packs in seven themed worlds, each brimming with original music and injected with tons of personality. From the actual mazes to the background visuals, creativity abounds. But each world contains only 10 levels, and when you consider that each level takes, at most, 60 seconds to complete, a skeptic could argue that there is a sum total of 70 minutes of gameplay.
The game does include two extra modes a bit too robust to be considered mini-games, but too shallow to be considered compelling. "Monkey Race" feels a bit like "Mario Kart Lite" and offers 16 different vehicles and a handful of tracks to compete on. Similar to other kart racers, a variety of weapons can be procured mid-race and unleashed on your opponents. It’s fairly well executed, but it just doesn’t feel like Monkey Ball. I came here for the maze-negotiating puzzle platforming, not for tacked on kart racing. If it suits you, though, and you don’t own Mario Kart, there’s plenty to enjoy. The other mode, "Monkey Fight," is a bit shallower and finds you squaring off in fist fights to see who can obtain the most bananas. It’s the most throwaway mode on the cartridge and is only fun in spurts against a buddy using the game’s local WiFi multiplayer.
Speaking of online, it’s a shame that this and many other launch titles aren’t showcasing the robust online functionality of the 3DS. There are no online matches here, not even leader boards which is something a game really needs.
Compared to most other "Super Monkey Ball" releases, the 3DS version feels sparse. What’s here, however, is nonetheless exciting and the main Monkey Ball mode is addictive and makes you want to replay it a lot. The subtle depth that the 3D adds is magical, and the challenges within at least promise to have you endlessly competing with yourself.
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*Author’s Note: Sega provided us with a retail review copy.