Roll around on the ground if you’ve heard of Super Monkey Ball. You probably aren’t rolling on the floor right now, since it is somewhat likely you haven’t heard of this videogame, and you’ll look rather conspicuous if someone sees you rolling on the floor next to your computer. What you may not expect however, is that a monkey within a hollow sphere rolling through mazes isn’t conspicuous at all; some may even go so far as to say it can be quite cute.
So why bring up a game about haplorhine primates that progress through mazes while inside round geometric objects? Well, Super Monkey Ball turns 15 years old this year; in fact, 15 years ago this month, the original Super Monkey Ball game was released on everybody’s favorite purple lunchbox, the Nintendo GameCube, in Japan, and would come to North America two months later. So to celebrate this 15-year-old game that few people are going to talk about, let’s take a look back and see what made this game so special.
First things first. Who made this game? Well, it turns out our dear old friends at SEGA published it; a game from SEGA that isn’t Sonic the Hedgehog is practically nonexistent nowadays, so this game is fascinating on that front alone. Furthermore, this game was developed by Amusement Vision, or av for short. av is also behind Daytona USA 2001 on the Dreamcast, and F-Zero GX on the GameCube, among others, but being a subsidiary of SEGA, they would eventually dissolve into the company by 2004.
That’s enough history, you want to know what this game’s about don’t you? Well, old-school gamers will recognize the gameplay as being similar to the Atari game Marble Madness. In both games, your objective is essentially to guide the spherical object through labyrinthine platform layouts to reach a goal in a set amount of time. The concept is simple, but those who pick up Super Monkey Ball will quickly realize that it is easy to learn, but difficult to master.
The controls are very intuitive. In fact, a young child will easily be capable of playing; outside of manipulating the camera with the controller’s right analogue stick, the only thing players will be using during gameplay is the left analogue stick. It’s really that simple.
What Super Monkey Ball really brings to the table though, is its unique physics engine. The game is leaps and bounds ahead of Atari’s Marble Madness due to the nature of how it controls. As you begin to roll, you feel the struggle to overcome your own inertia, but as you gradually build up momentum, you’ll eventually find it quite difficult to stop without a normal force to impede your movement, provided by yours truly, a wall.
This is where the level design complements the game’s physics. You may have inclined planes of varying degrees, pitfalls into the abyss below, bumpers that give you a spike of kinetic energy for better or worse, platforms that themselves move which adds non-inertial reference frames into the mix, and many other special features that combine to create new obstacles for the player and make each level feel unique from the last. Many levels have much verticality as well, and once players get a grasp on the game’s physics, they can learn to take epic shortcuts by utilizing gravity to their own advantage. Similarly, other levels are designed to have you achieve top speeds and even launch through the air in order to reach the goal. What’s more, is that the game contains a slew of extra mini games and party games to enjoy, including things like target flying, boxing, racing, and even nine-ball pool. All of these games use the same physics engine, and are quite fun to play with a group of friends.
Among all of its nuances and intelligent design, perhaps the greatest success of Super Monkey Ball is the appreciation it earns from the complex things, like the simulation of real-world-inspired mechanics, or simply because you find little monkeys with ears that look like cinnamon rolls amusing. If you happen to have a Nintendo GameCube, seek out this game, or its sequel, Super Monkey Ball 2. These games are a real hidden gem.
Written By: BeNjamyn Upshaw-Ruffner