Super Monkey Ball Jr.
Players: 1 Player Game | Release Date: 11/19/02 | Genre: Puzzle
One of the first things that you'll notice about Super Monkey Ball Jr. when you first turn it on is how much it feels like the GameCube original. I mean that in a good way (as opposed to feeling old or unoriginal). Realism did such a great job that, to an extent, the graphics, music, sound effects, menus, and even the controls feel a lot like the GameCube game. It's amazing what Realism has done with the help of Amusement Vision and Sega. They must be technical masters. Super Monkey Ball is a game that you wouldn't think would translate very well to the Game Boy Advance, but Realism did a great job.
The menus feature the same graphics, music, and structure as the GameCube game. Anyone who owns the original will feel right at home. SMB Jr. features almost everything that the original Super Monkey Ball had, with just a few party games missing.
To those who do not even know what Super Monkey Ball is, I pity you. It's one of the most fun puzzle/action/party games available in two iterations on the GameCube, and now they managed to squeeze all of that fun into your favorite (okay, only) handheld. In what is called the �Main Game� of Super Monkey Ball, a single player must maneuver a ball through a 3-dimensional course by tilting the whole course to control the ball's motion. There are several clever obstacles that the player must negotiate. The aim is to get the ball through the goal as fast as possible. There are also several party games to play with up to four players. Super Monkey Ball Jr. offers up three party games and the ability to challenge a friend at the main game (Super Monkey Ball GameCube had six party games and its sequel had twelve). The �Monkey Ball� name comes from the fact that instead of just rolling a plain old ball around, the player rolls a hollow plastic ball with a poor little monkey trapped inside of it like some kind of giant hamster.
Graphically, I could not have asked for more. The game runs in full polygonal 3D. Although the texture quality isn't that great, you have to remember that you're playing a handheld game, and for that, the game looks stunning. The framerate is fairly smooth, so it doesn't interfere with gameplay at all. The only time I really noticed a framerate drop was when the game shows you a rotating preview of the entire level, so you can scope it out before you tackle the course. Everything is made to look like the GameCube version, and they really did pull it off. The main levels feature the huge 2D backdrops, so that it doesn't look too plain. The goals have the real-time counter above them, just like in the GameCube game. They even managed to get the reflections in the bowling lane! The only downside to these great graphics is a limited draw distance, but honestly, it doesn't really matter. Super Monkey Ball is not a game where you need to see very far into the distance, and in most cases, you could not see too far into the distance anyways, due to turns in the course or other obstructions. The limited draw distance is something that you'll occasionally notice, but it never affects your ability to complete the course. Besides, it's totally forgivable when you consider how smooth the wonderful 3D engine really is.
The character is represented by 2D sprites. To make it look like a monkey inside a plastic ball, one sprite is used for the monkey, and another translucent sprite is laid on top of that to form the ball. The monkey has sufficient frames of animation. It's kind of small and a little blurry, but it's not bad at all. The ball has more amazing animation. The ball is made up of two differently colored halves, so when it rolls the �line� in between the halves could be at any angle as you continually rolled and changed direction. The developers gave the ball sprite so many frames of animation that this is smoothly and accurately represented. It's a minor detail, but geeks like me will appreciate it. You really can't complain about the graphics at all. The GBA was only designed to be a 2D gaming system, and Realism and Sega have managed to pull some pretty impressive 3D graphics out of it.
The sound can be looked at in two ways. On one hand, all of the sound effects and music are almost identical to those in the GameCube version, but they are a little more digitized. That makes the game sound and feel a lot like the GameCube version. On the other hand, just like the GameCube version, most of the music is incredibly obnoxious. Well, maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but I'd say about half of the music just seems too loud and distracting, especially the menu music. It's difficult to come down on it though, because the music isn't necessarily bad and it's just like the GameCube version.
The gameplay is almost the exact same as the original GameCube game. As I explained before, the Main Game is the same. You try to guide your ball through the course to the goal. One of the biggest disappoints to some people may be that most of the courses in SMB Jr. are replicas of courses you've already seen in the GameCube version. There are several new ones as well, but you'll definitely recognize a lot of them. Strangely, this did not diminish the amount of fun I had with it though. Perhaps that is partly due to the novelty of playing a 3D game that imitates the GameCube version very well on a little handheld. The physics are spot-on, and there's certainly no shortage of levels. There are 60 courses available in the Beginner, Advanced, and Expert modes, with several more to unlock. Getting the Extra stages and finishing the Master mode will be quite a challenge. Having enough things to do is not a concern. Also like the GameCube version, the difficulty gradually increases at a nice rate. There is a wide range of difficulty that you will appreciate. Everything is in place except for the controls.
First of all, I do have to commend Realism. I think that they made the controls as good as they possibly could have been without using a tilt-sensing cartridge. The GameCube version had the advantage of using an analog stick. This meant that in the game, you could tilt the level in any direction, to almost any degree. However, the Game Boy Advance only uses a D-pad, which is digital control. This means you can only tilt in eight directions and you cannot tilt to so many varying degrees. To remedy this, the developers allowed the player to hold �B' down while using the D-pad to do a �weak� tilt and the player can perform a �strong� tilt by holding the �A' button down while using the D-pad. Using the D-pad alone results in a �medium� tilt. So the player has three levels of tilt to control with. This system works surprisingly well in most cases. Also, the levels and controls are designed so that most of the time, you will not need to push �A' or �B' to maneuver your ball. The D-pad alone is fine in most situations. While playing the game, I can tell that Realism put some thought into how it would control with the D-pad. I can tell that effort was taken so that the digital control does not feel �jerky� when you start a tilt from a level position. The level smoothly accelerates to the correct amount of tilt rather than just �jump� to a tilted position. The same goes for when the player releases the D-pad and the level returns to the neutral position. The controls work fine for about the first half of the courses, but on the harder levels, the controls will cause you some frustrations. One of the main things that you lose with the use of digital control is the ability to tilt strongly in one direction and just slightly in a different direction at the same time. For instance, you may want to move straight forward very fast, but you may want to correct your direction just a little bit to the left or right. Unfortunately this can't be done, because you can either tilt strongly in all directions, mildly in all directions, or weakly in all directions, but you can't do a combination of varying tilts in different directions. A tilt-sensing cartridge would have allowed you to tilt your whole Game Boy to control the game, and this would provide analog control, but for whatever reason, Sega/Realism did not implement this. Although Nintendo has demonstrated a working GBA tilt cartridge and they have released one game that uses the tilt sensor on the Game Boy Color, it is possible that Nintendo did not have tilt cartridges ready for production yet. We'll never really know. In any case, I still believe that the controls for SMB Jr. are as good as they could be, given that a D-pad must be used. I think a lesser developer would not have been able to make the controls this well. Still, the controls will frustrate you when you have to perform some tricky maneuvers in the harder levels.
Realism did add other little tricks to compensate though. You will notice that in levels that are replicas of GameCube levels, the narrow paths seem wider in the Game Boy version than they do in the console version. This is intentional and it helps to iron out some of the control issues. It was thoughtful and it does not make the game easier. It makes it doable. There is another thing that I cannot be sure of, but I think that when you are traveling on a narrow path, the game helps you to straighten out a little bit. I'm not 100% sure about this, but if it is something that Realism programmed, it's very subtle. Again, it doesn't cheapen the game; it actually removes much of the frustration that would be caused by the lack of analog control. Making a 90? turn is also difficult, but this is mainly due to camera problems. These are the same camera problems that the original game had. On one hand, it makes it feel a lot like the GameCube version, and on the other hand it can be very frustrating. The simple ability to manually center the camera behind your ball with a press of the �L' button would have drastically reduced the camera problems. The main difficulty is that when you turn, the camera does not immediately turn behind you and then it can be difficult to go in the direction that you need to go until the camera rotates to the correct position. Couple this with the lack of analog control and it can lead to some frustrating deaths. However, the GameCube game shared this same problem.
SMB Jr. is missing a few minor features that were helpful in the console version. The ability to pause the game at any time and view the rules for the game you were playing was very useful. Also, in the Main Game, you could view the entire level that you were currently on through the pause menu. This helped you get your bearings straight. Sadly, both of these features are missing in this handheld version. They're minor omissions, but they would have been nice. SMB Jr. does not have a sleep mode, but it has something almost as good. In case you need to stop playing in the middle of a Main Game, you can pause the game and save and quit at any time. When you come back to your game, you will start on the same level with the same amount of lives and continues. This feature was not available in the console version, but it is almost a necessity in the handheld version since Game Boy players are often on the go, and they may need to stop playing at any moment.
There are three party games and they have been translated perfectly to the Game Boy Advance. All three games are in 3D and look wonderful. Monkey Fight lets you take on four opponents as you roll around in your balls trying to punch each other out of the arena with huge boxing gloves. This game is always good when you feel like a little mayhem. Monkey Bowling is an excellent rendition of a bowling game with good pin physics and the ability to throw your ball at different strengths, directions, and with different amounts of spin. There is also a challenge mode in which you try to see if you can knock down various formations of pins with one throw. Monkey Golf is an excellent mini-golf simulation. There are two 9-hole courses, and there is enough strategy and thinking involved to almost make another game by itself.
All three games can be played with up to four players. In addition, two players can compete in the Main Game. Unfortunately, there is no single-cartridge multiplayer. Every player must have their own copy of the game to play simultaneously. This is understandable since the 3D engine must be too large for the GBA's limited amount of RAM. Bowling and Golf do offer an alternating mode where up to four players can take turns using a single GBA.
All in all, Super Monkey Ball Jr. is an amazing package. You will get a lot for your money. There are so many stages to complete and the party games are fun as a single player as well as with friends. You will probably have noticed that I have compared SMB Jr. to the GameCube version many times throughout this review. That is one of the main faults with SMB Jr. It lacks any originality. It is almost an exact port of Super Monkey Ball for the GameCube, except there are a few different stages and you're missing a few party games. On the other hand, that's partly what makes this game so amazing. It's incredible how Realism has captured the feel of the big console game and converted it almost perfectly into the handheld. While the game is very similar to the console version, I can honestly say that it didn't diminish my enjoyment. The Main Game stages were still very challenging and the party games are still just as fun as they were before. Super Monkey Ball Jr. is a great overall package, and the problems are mainly the limits of the GBA hardware. The lack of originality doesn't hurt the bottom line: the game is still incredibly fun. I wouldn't have believed it if someone had only told me this, but they managed to take Super Monkey Ball and make a fantastic conversion to the primarily 2D handheld.