Super Monkey Ball: Touch & RollMonkey Ball certainly made a splash when it appeared on the arcades and home consoles as a hard as nails game that tasked players with guiding a monkey in a ball along increasing difficult stages filled with numerous drop-offs and narrow paths. It was the kind of game where analogue precision would make or break it. Sega did well to make it so popular and so it’s not a surprise to see the series extending to other platforms. This DS game is the latest in a line of portable adventures for the ballsy simians, although in some ways I wish they hadn’t tried.
The general goal of the game is to pick one of the four monkey characters (the choice really only for aesthetics purposes) and then guide them along various stages to the goal at the other end while trying not to fall off into the abyss below, with the unique trait being that instead of directly directing the chosen monkey you are literally tilting the entire level to make them roll as needed.
As well as the myriad of ways to simply fall off, different stages will bring around a host of different hazards for you to navigate, such as moving platforms and conveyor belts. There are indeed loads of levels to lose yourself in with plenty of variety that repetitive boredom isn’t going to be showing up anytime soon should you persevere. These levels also have bananas scattered about, which serve both as a points bonus system and one for grabbing extra lives that you'll almost certainly need.
All levels also pit you against the clock, where you have to reach that goal before time runs out. Early on this won't even factor in because you should ideally reach the end of each stage well before the clock reaches zero, but in the later stages this is what's going to be adding onto the pressure as you try to balance racing through the levels against not flinging your monkey off the stage.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to ignore the main glaring fault of the game. The control is just too sloppy to maintain the enjoyment levels. The problem is that this is a series that relies heavily on precise analogue input and they’ve gone and put it on a system that simply cannot replicate that level of precision. Like many 3D DS titles the developers do offer a choice of using either the D-Pad or the touch screen for input. Unlike other games neither option is really sufficient enough to work.
The D-Pad suffers the obvious problem that it is only eight way directional and it’s not possible to only move “slightly”. In 3D games where you get some margin of error with directional movement (eg Super Mario 64 DS) this is rarely an issue and the games tend to survive with it pretty well. Monkey Ball, on the other hand, demands too much and is very punishing on slight movement errors that can easily send you back to the beginning of a stage just because the game cannot interpret the degree of movement you want from digital input. What is worrying is that this is the better of the two choices.
The touch screen is an attempt to emulate analogue control, and like all attempts before it this method just doesn’t work. Input feels inaccurate and not nearly as responsive as it needs to be. While the system here does at least offer more than eight way directional, it still does not give the amount of control the stage design of the game demands of the player. Minor directional adjustments are just as awkward to pull off without diving off the edge.
There is also a selection of minigames, some of which will be very familiar to fans of the series but altered to better suit the control interface offered by the DS. While these do suffer some odd problems partly due to the control setup these do at least offer some element of fun to play around in. Monkey Bowling lets you hurl the chosen monkey to send pins flying away and the touch screen usage is done reasonably well while Monkey Golf has a good setup and a nice selection of courses to tackle.
Some of these games don’t really work quite so well. The shooting game should be fun but it feels more awkward to get around the stages, even though there is no real risk of flying off the stages to your doom here. Monkey Fight was glorious on the console games and that should have easily transferred over to this game, but the insistence of using the touch screen sucks all the fun out of it by making it a very clumsy affair.
The game uses a combination of 2D sprites with 3D environments and the result is visually satisfying. The stage design is quite excellent, featuring impressive path details and the backdrops look great even if you rarely have the time to really appreciate them. The level layouts in general look great, featuring things like steep slopes and drop-offs to give a sense of depth to the stages.
The monkeys are done in 2D style which the DS manages to make look good, although long term fans may be put off slightly by the appearance going much further into the anime style than before. This is especially true of the bottom screen, which typically shows a close up of your chosen monkey demonstrating a series of emotes attributed to over the top anime expressions. Whether this appeals or not really depends on how much you like that kind of thing and how attached you may be to the more classic SMB design style.
The music is incredibly chirpy and bright, tinkering away as the background tunes as the monkeys. At times it can seem somewhat overwhelming in its power but generally I think the style suits the gaming action quite well and some of the tunes, while not terribly memorable, do at least serve as good backdrops to the onscreen action.
The voice clips for the monkeys, on the other hand, just do little other than irritate. Hearing the high pitched cries and shouts as they bounce along can easily drive a gamer to distraction and would benefit from being toned down a bit.
Trying to put the game on the DS was always going to be a strange choice and the lack of precise controls really hurts what would otherwise have been a great product. Some of the minigames are nice but really it says a lot about shortcomings when the only real highlights aren't even part of the main game. If you really must have a Super Monkey Ball fix do yourself a favour and invest in a version that has proper analogue control.