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Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania – Xbox Series X Review

After the disappointment that Sonic Colours Ultimate left in its wake, I was a little uneasy going into Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania. It certainly looked the part, but I still had this nagging feeling that they were going to dramatically mess something up. Thankfully, my fears were for nought. Banana Mania does almost everything I could want from a remake of Super Monkey Ball Deluxe, albeit with a few small issues that impact the experience to varying degrees.

To get the big one out of the way, the controls and physics are not 1:1 to the original titles. On paper this probably sounds like a death sentence alone, but thankfully it’s close enough that many of the crazy skips and strategies from the original games work pretty much the same here, and it’s a world away from the motion-sickness inducing gameplay of the previous Banana Blitz HD. One of the most iffy aspects of the new control is how diagonals react compared to the original games, as you’ll lose speed the moment you veer away from holding straight forward. It’s not usually too much of an issue, but it is frustrating when the remedy is so simple. The original games used a square analog deadzone, and by forcing such a deadzone in Steam, you can restore the controls to nearly 1:1 accuracy. That’s great and all, but this is something that cannot be done on consoles. It should be fairly easy to patch, and I seriously hope we see one down the line. It’s already so close to being perfect, so why not go the extra mile? That particular point aside, I was sad to see the speed needed for the characters to go spinning out-of-control inside the ball upped to a degree you’ll rarely see, but on the other hand it does make the comedy of it more rewarding when it happens.

Something that has changed a lot is the visuals, but thankfully not in a way that misses the point of the art style these games had. There’s no attempt to clumsily contextualise levels into specific areas, and the charm of these tech demo-esque stages (such as one where you’re up against a giant comb) are retained, only in higher resolution. It’s simply a cleaner, modern take on the charm of the old aesthetic, and it works fantastically well. Even the wave effects seen in certain bonus stages retain the look of the older reflections used, and it holds up amazingly well. The HUD and general front-end has been overhauled to use a more modern and sleek look, and sometimes it can feel somewhat poorly done. The texture of AiAi’s face used on the loading transitions defeats the purpose of the clean, vector graphics because it’s distractingly low-res, for instance. Losing AiAi’s amazing stage select dancing is also a bit of a shame, but the menus are at the very least snappy and straightforward.

Audio fares somewhat less well than the visuals, though not terribly. I didn’t have much issue with the sound design on the whole, but I think the argument can be made that the original fared better in terms of sound effects, and certainly in terms of music. Mercifully unlike Colours Ultimate, you actually can use the original music here, although it comes as DLC. Still, it’s more than worth it to listen to a soundtrack that still effortlessly holds up all these years later – the new tracks aren’t really bad, but certainly aren’t as memorable as these classics. Props to the new stage theme made for the SMB1 Night Stage at least, as it’s an absolute banger.

Another disappointment on the audio side comes from the various cameo characters introduced: Sonic, Tails, Kiryu and Beat, with more on the way via DLC. Part of the fun of Monkey Ball is hearing AiAi and friends scream their lungs out as they get pelted around the stages, but these cameo characters lack any audio beyond the stock ball sounds. It makes them feel somewhat unfinished, and so in the end I didn’t actually use them much. The playable SEGA consoles don’t even move when in the ball at all, making them feel especially static and lifeless. It’s a shame given Kiryu yelling as he’s flung around in a ball would’ve been golden, and puzzling given SEGA’s planning to charge extra for characters who suffer the same problem. At the very least, the cameos keep up the strong visual showing, with Kiryu fitting better into the artstyle than he reasonably should. The classic skin DLC also looks superb, and the inclusion of skins for Yan-Yan and Doctor, who were introduced after the art style change, is something I genuinely love to see.

In terms of modes, there’s a slew of them on offer. Story Mode returns, and recreates Super Monkey Ball 2’s story mode in particular. Sadly the cut scenes are reduced to ‘motion comic’ style affairs, and without knowing SMB2’s story mode already, come off as somewhat nonsensical. That said, the mode itself is just as great as ever, and feels much snappier to play through now, too. The Challenge Modes of the original also return; now sporting infinite lives and some reworked stage designs. Admittedly giving the player infinite lives does turn this mode from a skill-based challenge into an endurance run; whereas in the original, worse players would be filtered out by the lives system until they were constantly pulling off great runs. Here you can just hammer your head against the same level for hours if you want to, and there’s no way of saving where you’re up to either. With the later Challenge Mode runs stretching into 60 levels, I feel like some kind of checkpoint or bookmark system should’ve been added to better suit the removal of the lives system, while reserving the straight-through run for Time Attacks.

Bananas aren’t totally worthless though, as the removal of lives may have some thinking. Instead they’re one of several ways to accrue points, currency used for the in-game shop. Here you can buy characters, modes, and items that you can use to customise the characters of the base roster with, but no – you can’t give Sonic that ridiculous Supreme-style shirt. Sorry. The main way you’ll be getting points is via Missions – every stage has them, and they reward you for collecting a certain number of bananas, clearing a stage under a certain time limit, or reaching goalposts that are harder to hit. The amount of replayability this offers is staggering in theory, though you’ll eventually have more than enough points to unlock everything just by playing the game normally, so grinding isn’t something to be worried about.

Additional modes on offer include Golden Banana mode, where you try to collect the titular shiny fruit, as well as modes for more niche applications. As I mentioned earlier, certain levels have been adjusted for difficulty balancing in the main game. But RGG Studio went and included the original, unadjusted versions of those levels in here too, under Original Stage Mode! It’s a fantastic inclusion and one that I feel really shows the developer’s understanding of their audience.

Party Games are not something I put a lot of time into in any Monkey Ball, but I gave them a cursory glance here. Monkey Target has always been considered the be-all and end-all of Monkey mini game action, and sadly it feels somewhat sluggish here. It’s perhaps understandable that these took a backseat to the main game, but it’s a tad disappointing all the same. You can’t even use anyone beyond the main roster in these games, so no Monkey Racing with Sonic for you.

It might seem like I’ve torn the game a new one in places here, but it’s more so that the flaws stick out a bit more given the overall success that Banana Mania is. At its core, this is Super Monkey Ball as I remember it, but looking prettier and with a slew of options and modes to boost playtime. The amount of content is staggering, and it feels like no corner was cut in that regard. Levels even vary visually depending on what mode you’re playing them in, just like the original! The main thing I want to see fixed currently is the deadzone issue, as it’s such a basic fix that I can’t help but be annoyed that PC players now get a better experience over console users in terms of something as vital as control. That said, I played through the entirety of Story Mode and several of the other modes (including the brutal Original Stages) with the current console deadzone, so it’s certainly not unplayable, just not optimal.

As it stands, Banana Mania is something I can very, very easily recommend. It’s a remaster that’s clearly packed with love and respect for the source material, and you can tell the developers had a lot of fun making it. It basically does what I wish Colours Ultimate had, and offers a means of playing a fantastic game on modern hardware, without sacrificing that original quality.

8/10

Written by Liam “Tracker” Ashcroft 5/9/2021

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