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Nearly five years ago, Super Monkey Ball was arguably the defining third-party title for the launch of Nintendo’s GameCube. At a time when Sony and Microsoft were waffling on about emotion engines, poly-counts and cinematic gameplay, it was a sign that Sega, like Nintendo, understood that there was still room for games that were simple, addictive and – most of all – fun. Now, with the Wii, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz sits in a similar position. If you wanted a game emblematic of both the promise of Wii and of the challenges it offers developers, you’d be hard-pushed to find anything more representative. Cut from the same cloth as its GameCube predecessors, and unable to count on vastly upgraded visuals for effect, it’s a game whose whole worth rests on the way it can utilise an oblong chunk of plastic containing a selection of motion-sensitive controls: the Wii remote.
It’s not that the graphics are unchanged. Like the otherwise lamentable Super Monkey Ball Adventure, Banana Blitz has dropped some of the shine and colour of the first two SMB games for a cleaner, cel-shaded look. But while the cartoon imagery looks lovely and some of the backgrounds look more impressive than they used to, nobody ever bought SMB for eye-candy. No, they buy it for the way it plays.
Now, the original SMB was a model of stripped-back elegance: one analogue stick, one ball, one twisting, undulating level, one goal. Few games have worked so well using one control, and fewer still have demanded such finesse with it. As a result, the biggest risk Banana Blitz takes is in replacing the analogue stick with the Wii remote itself, asking you to tilt it left and right to tilt the world and turn the ball, then up and down to move back and forth. The result is more intuitive than you might think, though the shift has had some noticeable consequences. While there’s now arguably more sensitivity in the vertical movements, it seems harder to make swift or subtle movements on the lateral axis – at least at first.
Luckily, the levels have adapted to match: in the early worlds, there are fewer thin winding stretches and more edge-of-level barriers than you’d have found in the first two games, and it takes a while before the ramps and trails hit the truly fiendish heights of difficulty they hit relatively soon in earlier titles. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean Banana Blitz is the easier game. In SMB2’s story mode there was already a noticeable drift from the arcade simplicity of the original towards more conventional platform game dynamics, and while Banana Blitz doesn’t take this to the extremes that SMB Adventure did, it does take further steps in that direction. The most obvious is the addition of a jump button, enabling the sphere-bound simians to leap obstacles and cross yawning chasms. This in turn has encouraged the level designers to use more platform game-style obstacles than ever before, with a panoply of revolving and moving barriers and tilting or floating barriers popping up to separate you from the goal.