The hallmark of quality in videogames is when a title is worth buying the host console for. Super Monkey Ball was a reason to get a Gamecube at launch and I’d argue is still the best thing that came out on it.
Sega’s Monkey Ball originally appeared in arcades in 2001 and it’s a fair bet hardly anyone in the West got to play it. The aim of the game is brutally simple – to roll a ball across a series of increasingly difficult levels, not falling off and avoiding obstacles in order to reach a goal within a time limit. The ball does not propel itself as it does in early examples of the genre such as Atari’s Marble Madness; instead, the player tilts the entire level and gravity does the rest.
The game requires no buttons – just a steady hand. The arcade cabinet features a joystick controller shaped like a banana that is used to tilt the level (this continues the theme of bananas which are distributed throughout the levels – collecting 100 of them earns an extra life). There are 3 sets of courses to tackle ranging from the ludicrously simple to highly complex layouts with some intimidating narrow pathways without side rails that twist and turn to challenge the most skilful player. It has a traditional take turns multiplayer mode and that was more or less that. Like the other games in this series, it is beautifully pure and implemented to an extremely high technical level with a clean abstract look that ensures graceful aging.
The game could have been done just with simple balls to roll around but the genius of Sega means players experience the whimsy of monkeys in transparent hamster balls, implemented with panache and charm. It adds to the entertainment value while at the same time offering some slight variation in handling across the three different monkeys.
It’s an excellent, challenging game requiring a great deal of skill and finesse, but for its time could be accused of being limited in what is offered to the player in terms of variety.
However, Sega produced a sequel of sorts for the Gamecube launch in the same year. In Super Monkey Ball they took the game to the next level by squeezing a pile of extra content onto the tiny Gamecube game disc.
The most important aspect of the game, it’s control, was ported beautifully; the GC controller with its octagonal grooves are a perfect match with the game’s exacting requirements- so much so that later PS2 and Oldbox versions had some levels tamed to deal with the less suited controllers.
It looks and sounds gorgeous – Sega in all their pomp with their trademark Sonic green grass and sparkly blue sky in the early levels.
Sega added a 4th character for more game style variance, but perhaps more importantly to make it compatible with 4 player modes.
As in the arcade version, the main game on its own is pretty much flawless and doesn’t require any changes. The GC port also offers 4 player simultaneous split screen racing AND a turn based option – replete with enough settings to mix things up and add a bit of variety. Sequels added jumps and switches which just sullied the purity of the game. Super Monkey Ball doesn’t do that – but it does introduce new game modes in the form of party games and mini games that are gradually unlocked.
Each game takes the basic concept and warps it into a different genre with sufficient variety that anyone will find something they like. Each new mode could have been expanded into a full title, and in some cases, almost already are apart from the absence of more tracks and levels. Monkey racing is a decent stand-in for Mario Kart for example. It’s hampered by the relatively small number of tracks – but with single race, GP and TT modes it feels like a full featured game. Other games based on bowling, golf, fighting, billiards and even gliding offer a decent bit of fun in single player but are a riot when played with 2 or more – as they are designed to be.
The abstract design of the arcade is kept with some extra polish and this means it has kept its looks and this longevity also extends to the entertainment it can still offer today.
The presentation was head and shoulders above anything around at the time – from the high score entry table and the full featured replay support (which the hardcore use to full effect in showing off their mastery of the game) to the end credit sequence incorporating a mini game of its own, it is implemented with the highest degree of polish that is achieved by few others. The whole package remains a high tide mark in sheer unadulterated enjoyment and I love it.
There was a followup game on Gamecube, and it has of course since been ported to other consoles and updated on Wii, but while remaining entertaining, the purity of the game has been affected by the changes such as a jump move and the introduction of switches that introduce a light puzzle element. The original Gamecube game with the GC controller remains the definitive way to play this perfect game that delivers years worth of entertainment – another game I will never tire of playing.
Looking across these 4 games some common traits begin to show. Perhaps these same traits could be used to identify more.
- Abstraction These games are not set in any world that even approaches a reality that we are familiar with. Super Breakout and Tetris are totally self referential – they have no connection with our world at all. Asteroids and Monkey Ball feature a version of real world physics to recreate motion, friction and collisions but they are set within very tight boundaries.
- An absence of narrative. They have no story either. Many modern games are narrative-led. I can remember in the early days of videogames publishers used to try and set the games within a storyline – no doubt to try and engage the potential player. But no such trappings have ever been required by me – it’s always been about the experience – the feeling of play – the feedback. They are largely score based as well and with the exception of Monkey Ball, the single player experience is never ending – these games can played to infinity. You don’t “beat” these games. Even Monkey Ball has its multiplayer experience that can be played for years after the single player campaign as been mastered.
- Quality of control scheme. Control schemes are important in any game – but these 4 in particular live and die by their control schemes. The response is everything – without it the player disengages and becomes frustrated – a large percentage of the development effort has gone into that aspect of these titles. It’s simple too – requiring no more than a control stick and one or two buttons. The most complex scheme, that of Asteroids Deluxe , consists of 5 buttons – but two of those are directional controls and with the thrust button, together comprise the function a stick would perform in later games – not that I believe such a substitution should be made.
- Pick up and play is such an over-used term for games. But these ones genuinely are. You don’t need to read any manual – you can start straightaway – but – they have hidden depths that show themselves with repeat play that reward players dedicated enough to invest time in them.
Of course many games have these qualities but I would argue having them combined in a balanced way is extremely rare. I believe they will remain so because as time has progressed , the mainstream don’t seem to look for this type of game. Narrative led adventures and multi-player online experiences that require large amounts of player time investment (and in more and more cases – further investment of money too) are very much in the majority. Because they rely on the novelty inherent in an unfolding story or new features introduced by DLC they are transient in nature – they are “won and done”. A narrative led game is severely limited when it comes to repeat play – which for me compromises them as candidate perfect games. The novelty of narrative, high quality visuals and the inherent delight of online multiplayer experiences can make up for imperfect game and/or level design. The games I have mentioned don’t match that model. They are small too – more isn’t necessarily better. Game developers today have a surfeit of resources to hand but sometimes, great creativity is born in a restrictive environment, and with bigger games that have large investments behind them, perhaps the creative forces have to make room for marketing demands that tend to favour variations on what has been successful in the past. I am encouraged by platforms such as smartphone and Steam that give smaller developers room to take a chance and I’m betting that is where the next perfect games will come from.
A retro gamer and occassional writer..