In 1989, a man named Toshihiro Nagoshi graduated from Tokyo Zokei University, earning a degree in film production. Shortly thereafter, he joined Sega, a game developer that recently made a name for itself in the arcade scene and the budding console market when they released the Mega Drive – renamed the Genesis in North America. When the developer conceived its mascot in the form of Sonic the Hedgehog, whose debut game launched in 1991, they suddenly became a force capable of challenging Nintendo. Mr. Nagoshi was first assigned to the company’s second arcade department (AM2). Under the wing of Yu Suzuki, he was a CG designer for the 1992 arcade hit Virtua Racing – one of the first games of its kind to utilize three-dimensional polygons. He then used this knowledge to direct, produce, and design a game of his own in 1998: Daytona USA 2.
In 2000, Sega had separated their nine research and development departments from the parent company. They were established as semi-autonomous subsidiaries with a president acting as a studio head. Mr. Nagoshi found himself in charge of one of them; the subsidiary’s name was Amusement Vision. Their first two projects saw the creation of Planet Harriers and SlashOut. The former was a 3D rail shooter and the latter a fantasy-themed beat ‘em up. Their first console project saw them revamp the original Daytona USA alongside Genki for the Sega Dreamcast – the successor of the Sega Saturn.
Despite this success, Mr. Nagoshi felt he was bad at actually playing games. Therefore, his next project would be one that new players could instantly understand and play. Specifically, he wanted to make a game involving rolling a sphere through a maze. This was to provide a contrast to the increasingly complex titles dominating Japanese arcades at the time. Although they quickly conceived a physics engine, he felt the idea of guiding plain spheres to be visually unappealing. Worse, without any distinguishing features, it would be difficult for the player to gauge their avatar’s movements. Therefore, Mr. Nagoshi decided to place monkey characters inside the spheres, using concept art from designer Mika Kojima. The game, entitled Monkey Ball, debuted at the 2001 Amusement Operator Union trade show before formally hitting arcades in June of that year.
Despite its arcade design sensibilities, Monkey Ball provided gameplay that would make for an ideal console port. However, there was just one problem with such a proposition. Although it was well-received and is thought of as a great console for its time, the Dreamcast’s run ended up being short-lived. Isao Okawa had replaced Shoichiro Irimajiri as Sega’s president in 2000. Unlike his predecessor, he had advised Sega to leave the console business to focus entirely on software. Combined with a lack of third-party support, the enormous success of Sony’s PlayStation 2 console, and Sega’s damaged reputation as a result of previous failed attempts to launch new hardware such as the Sega 32X and the Sega Saturn, March of 2001 marked the end of an era when the Dreamcast was discontinued. With Sega officially having left the console race, they were now a “platform-agnostic” third-party publisher. Mr. Nagoshi still intended to create a console port for Monkey Ball, and the parent company had chosen the ideal platform for its debut.
The creation of Sonic the Hedgehog sparked the medium’s first true console rivalry between the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and the Sega Genesis. Due to their fairly high price points, most kids would only own one of these consoles. This meant you were either a Nintendo kid or a Sega kid. In schools, it wasn’t unheard of for gangs to form based on which console they owned. All of that came to an abrupt and shocking end in 2001 when, in the very same year as the Dreamcast’s discontinuation, a game published by Sega would be among the Nintendo GameCube’s launch titles.
Unlike Sony’s PlayStation 2 or Microsoft’s inaugural console, the Xbox, the Nintendo GameCube sought to draw in a younger audience, meaning that Monkey Ball would fit right in. Mr. Nagoshi even commented that the Amusement Vision staff felt more comfortable with the GameCube hardware than they did Sega’s own. He also joked that Nintendo was the only console manufacturer his staff members didn’t hate.
Sega assured fans that the port would be created in time for the GameCube’s launch. A little over a month later, the team modified their game to run on the GameCube’s hardware. They spent additional time to conceive bonus features, enhance the graphics, and even introduce a fourth character. As promised, this port, named Super Monkey Ball, was released alongside the Nintendo GameCube itself in 2001. The game proved to be a commercial success, though to Mr. Nagoshi’s surprise, it fared better in the United States than it did domestically. There, it became one of Sega’s bestselling titles in 2002. Many journalists even went as far as considering it the highlight of the GameCube’s launch titles. As the very first game Sega ever published for a Nintendo console, were they able to begin their new life as a third-party developer on the right foot?
Analyzing the Experience
Some have described Monkey Ball as a platformer while others deem it a maze game. While both descriptions give players a good idea as to how the game plays, neither quite encapsulates what the experience has to offer. Those approaching the original arcade cabinet would deduce the game’s minimalistic nature the exact moment they looked at its panel. The only two notable features on the panel are a joystick shaped like a banana and a button with the words “START BUTTON” printed below it.
By 2001, even arcade titles began boasting increasingly complex gameplay. The cabinets thereof – particularly those housing fighting titles – often featured a multitude of buttons. Games of this variety, while still easy to pick up and play, required a great degree of technical skill to master – a natural result of having so many buttons to work with. In light of this trend, Monkey Ball stood out by featuring a control scheme that wouldn’t have felt out of place in 1980 alongside Pac-Man. Once a player has inserted their coin into the machine, they are made to select a difficulty setting and then one of three monkey characters: AiAi, MeeMee, and Baby. After that, you have absolutely no reason to ever touch the button again for the rest of your playthrough.
The gameplay is about as simplistic as one would expect from a title that solely relies on the joystick. Regardless of which difficulty setting you chose, your monkey is placed on a platform floating in the sky. Being the first stage of the game, it is appropriately simplistic to give players an idea of what to expect from that moment onward. The most notable features in this level are a collection of bananas inexplicably suspended and spinning above the floor and a blue archway. As one may deduce from what is written on the tape in between the arches, this is your goal. All you need to do to clear this stage is to have your monkey roll their ball through and sever the tape. For good measure, this causes the ball within the archway to drop confetti.
Every stage gives you either thirty or sixty seconds to complete it. If you complete it in less than half of the time allotted to you, your score will be doubled. Certain stages have multiple exits. The normal goal is typically blue, but you may find green and red ones as well. Both allow you to skip a certain number of stages. Red goals skip more stages than green ones. Immediately after clearing your fourth goal, you will be transported to a bonus stage wherein you’re made to collect all of the bananas available. On the Advanced and Expert modes, you will play through additional bonus stages on every ten floors starting from the tenth with the exception of the final one. Collecting one-hundred bananas rewards the player with an extra life.
The gameplay design of Monkey Ball is highly reminiscent of Mark Cerny’s Marble Madness. Both draw inspiration from Labyrinth – a marble game that dates back to 1946 wherein the player must guide a marble to the end of a maze by tilting the toy. Marble Madness allowed this simple concept to evolve in a digital format, providing players with fantastical obstacles obviously impossible in real life. While both are games that require dexterity, chances are good you didn’t have to deal with green worms attempting to eat your marble or green, possibly acidic blobs capable of dissolving it. Thanks to the power of the medium, these scenarios were easily achievable.
Although Monkey Ball is similar to Marble Madness, there are many key differences between the two games. The most obvious is how the game is presented. Working with the technology available in 1984, Marble Madness was presented from a top-down, isometric perspective. Seventeen years later, Monkey Ball took advantage of the single most important development in the medium’s history at the time – the leap to three dimensions. Somewhat unusually for a 3D game, particularly one that clearly borrows platforming sensibilities, you do not have direct control over the camera. Instead, the camera positions itself according to your character’s movements. A three-dimensional game not played from a first-person perspective affording the player little control over the camera would be, on paper, a kiss of death in terms of design. However, as the player will soon find out, Mr. Nagoshi and his team specifically optimized their game with this limitation in mind.
As you progress through the stages, you will inevitably have to guide your character through paths that are narrow, winding, and, in many cases, capable of launching them off the course – preferably temporarily. It’s important to know that you are capable of steering your character as they sail through the air; oftentimes, it is necessary to progress. Because you are only focused on either keeping your character on the floor or guiding their airborne movements, the limited control you have over the camera works to your benefit. Every once in a while, you will encounter a situation in which you wish you could pan the camera, but it is an extremely rare occurrence. If nothing else, the camera pans around the perimeter of a stage before depositing your character upon it, allowing you to memorize the layout.
Another curious difference between Monkey Ball and Marble Madness is that there are no enemies. There are only two ways to lose lives in this game: by falling out of the course or letting the time run out. This doesn’t mean your journey will be uneventful, for there is a wide array of obstacles preventing your character from reaching the goal, including pinball bumpers, moving platforms, and other assorted props commonly based on common household objects. In all of these cases, the key to surviving is to study their patterns and react accordingly.
Lastly, despite your character being a living being, you don’t need to concern yourself with fall damage while playing Monkey Ball. Contrasting with Marble Madness in which any sufficient trauma could send the titular marble into a daze or outright shatter it, this is a highly appreciated development. In effect, it means that you don’t have to stay on the path in order to clear a stage. Anything you do, as long as it ends with your character going through the goal tape, is a viable tactic.
Monkey Ball is, in many ways, a throwback to the general zeitgeist of 1980s game design. During that time, console games were designed for people of all ages. PC games could afford to depict violence and other concepts meant for older audiences, though this was primarily because they had a higher barrier to entry, requiring a degree of expertise to operate properly. Conversely, once a console player had properly hooked up their machine, the only further actions required of them was to insert a cartridge and push the power button. The fact that the content was appropriate for all ages, however, did not reflect in the actual game design. Anyone who grew up with it could tell you that the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was home to some of the most difficult games ever made. Kids and adults alike struggled to complete these games – many going their entire lives without doing so.
Monkey Ball has a very similar guiding principle behind its own level design. Looking at the arcade cabinet from a distance, it’s easy to get the impression that it was targeted to a very young audience. Notably, the original Japanese version lacks kanji in its text. Everything is instead rendered in hiragana and katakana, which is typical of media aimed at children. A curious adult player, noting the strange shape of the joystick, may then insert a coin into the machine just to see what the game is like. They may believe themselves to be fairly good at games and opt to tackle the advance stages immediately. And then, shortly thereafter, they would find themselves falling into the void again and again.
Although the game begins innocently enough, as the stages go on, you will be guiding your character through increasingly perilous situations where even the slightest miscalculated move will send the monkey careening out of bounds. In extreme cases, sending your monkey careening off the stage is unavoidable. By the end, you will find yourself taking advantage of the fact that, once they sever the goal tape, you automatically win – even if they would have fallen off the stage otherwise. Because of these factors, the game design has a very “do or die” quality to it that rewards twitch reflexes and foresight.
When Monkey Ball was ported to the Nintendo GameCube under the name Super Monkey Ball, it received several enhancements. The standard game was largely unchanged – albeit with altered backdrops and the addition of a fourth character named GonGon. The main difference is that Super Monkey Ball has a multiplayer mode, allowing up to four people to play at once. From here, players can play five stages from the game’s Normal Mode to see who can complete them first. Getting to the goal faster naturally awards more points, and whoever has the most after five stages wins. These stages are unlocked by clearing them in Normal Mode, so you cannot skip them if you intend to play them in Competition Mode later.
While competing to see who can clear the stages is fun by itself, Mr. Nagoshi and his team saw fit to add a cavalcade of party games to the mix. From the onset, you can play Monkey Race, Monkey Fight, and Monkey Target. Monkey Race is the most straightforward because it uses the same rules as the standard game – just slightly altered for a different context. You simply guide your character through a racetrack as fast as possible, making sure not to fall off or crash into too many obstacles. This game takes many cues from cartoonish racing titles such as Mario Kart by including dash panels and items you can use to either sabotage the other participants or give yourself an advantage.
Monkey Fight follows a similar pattern by taking cues from Super Smash Bros. Although the game is not presented from a side-scrolling perspective, the overall tone and even the overarching goal are similar. The spheres your characters roll around in have a boxing glove attached to them, and your goal is to knock your opponents out of the ring. As with Monkey Race, there are power-ups you can receive during the fight to give yourself an advantage. A successful knockout results in the player receiving points. Whoever has the most when the time limit expires wins.
In Monkey Target, you guide your character off a ramp and into the air. While airborne, you can press the “A” button to open the ball, causing your character to glide. Just like in standard hang-gliding, attempting to gain altitude slows down your character while diving increases their speed. There aren’t any thermal currents to ride, so it is in your best interest to make sure you have reached the desired speed before opening the ball. There are targets floating in the middle of the ocean you can land on after closing the ball. You receive the number of points indicated on the platform upon which your character lands. You can gain power-ups by collecting banana bunches while flying. Depending on which one you choose, you can either make it easier to stick the landing or multiply your score by a certain amount.
By playing through Normal Mode, you obtain Play Points. Once you have amassed 2,500, you can unlock one of three additional minigames: Monkey Billiards, Monkey Bowling, and Monkey Golf. By contrast to the previous three events, these are fairly straight adaptations of their respective sports; the only real twist involves the player characters playing from within the game balls. Monkey Billiards has you and your opponent play a game of nine-ball pool. Monkey Bowling has you play a standard ten-frame game, though you can also attempt a Challenge Mode in which you try to pick up difficult splits in one shot. Finally, Monkey Golf has your character work their way through a mini-golf course – with the penalty of falling into a void if they misaim.
The truly remarkable aspect about these minigames is how well they are implemented. When you offer a large variety of minigames, you run the risk of diluting the experience as a whole. It is better to have one mode of gameplay implemented to the best of your ability than multiple forms all with glaring execution issues. While they are simplistic, they do draw a lot of inspiration from games that blazed the trail in their respective genres. It’s easy to get the impression that Super Monkey Ball would run on an entry-level engine due to the experience possessing few moving parts, but these minigames demonstrate how flexible it is. These games could have been standalone titles in their own right, but players can get a lot of mileage out of them as they are.
By contrast to the arcade original wherein you could simply insert another coin if you lost all your lives, the GameCube port limits the number of continues you receive per playthrough. You start with five, but you can increase the number you receive by amassing enough Play Points after unlocking all of the minigames. If you amass enough Play Points, you will receive unlimited continues. From that point onward, the number of Play Points you receive at once is recorded as a personal record.
Even operating on a simple premise executed very well, there are a few problems I have with Monkey Ball. Before they even start the game, a newcomer will notice that the number of stages increases dramatically between difficulty levels. Respectively the Beginner, Advanced, and Expert settings involve the player going through ten, thirty, and fifty stages. This, by itself, is not completely untoward. It makes sense that the Beginner stages would act as a tutorial for those of the other two sets. Furthermore, while having to complete thirty or fifty stages in a row sounds like a tall order, none of them are especially time consuming.
Where the proposition falls apart slightly is when you discover the existence of extra stages. This is the easiest to observe by clearing all of the Beginner stages without losing a life. If you can do this, you will be made to go through an additional three stages set in outer space. Because it wouldn’t make any sense to only include a reward for clearing the easiest stages, it’s only natural that they exist for the other two difficulty settings. Clearing the Advanced stages without losing a life is tricky, but manageable – especially if you take advantage of a green or red goal along the way. And then you reach the Expert stages. With fifty stages standing between you and the bonus content, you would appear to have a daunting task before you. Even worse, you have an incentive to clear the extra Expert stages in a similar fashion, for doing so brings you to the Master set.
There is a degree of mercy attached to the Expert difficulty in that you don’t need to perform a flawless run to unlock the extra stages; merely completing the set without using a continue is good enough. This does not change the fact that you must complete fifty stages making as few mistakes as possible. There are quite a few problems with this. The most glaring is that the Expert stages are significantly more difficult than the Advanced set. While the Beginner and Advanced stages can be completed by careful observation, there is a good chance you will be resorting to a trial-and-error method when going through the Expert set. The higher difficulty settings tend to recycle the base design of stages in earlier sets. With the Expert set boasting fifty stages, there are going to be several unique challenges you wouldn’t have had the chance to prepare for earlier. The fourth and seventh stages of the Expert set are significantly more difficult than anything you will have encountered in Beginner or Advanced. The latter is particularly infamous, as pre-release material suggests it was intended to be a Master stage. When the developers got around to conceiving the Master set, they replaced this stage with an even more difficult version.
I could envision many people being put off from even finishing the game in light of either of those stages. After all, if the developers placed both of those stages near the beginning, the rest of the excursion must be excruciating. In practice, however, the stages within the Expert set tend not to follow any kind of natural difficulty curve. If you can get past those stages, you will be surprised how the rest of the journey, while still tough, doesn’t quite reach the same heights. The last ten stages in particular are, ironically enough, some of the easiest in the set.
In fact, what really makes a perfect run difficult in Expert mode isn’t necessarily the stage design, but rather the distinct lack of warp goals. In Advanced, you can skip a significant portion of the stages because warp goals are offered at consistent intervals. Meanwhile, in Expert, there is not a single green or red goal to be found between stages three and forty-two. The first red goal places you in the first bonus area, and from that point onward, you must go through almost every single subsequent stage to see the extra ones. The GameCube port does allow players to practice the individual stages, but it doesn’t alleviate the sheer enormity of this task. And because extra lives are difficult to amass, you can’t brute-force your way through; only by honing your skills do you earn the privilege of challenging the Master stages.
It’s a shame that the extra Expert and Master stages are so difficult to unlock because many of them boast highly creative designs you won’t find anywhere else. Whenever a game is highly difficult, it is easy for developers to become complacent. After all, why put effort into designing a good stage when a vast majority of your audience will never reach it? However, that isn’t the case with the extra Expert and Master stages. While they are, appropriately enough, the most difficult stages in the game, a lot of care went into them, possessing the same high quality the experience leading up to them maintained. The result is a game that was clearly meant to be experienced in its entirety, yet its old-school design sensibilities prevent this goal from being fully realized.
Drawing a Conclusion
While whether it was intentional is highly debatable, Monkey Ball managed to be an open act of defiance by Mr. Nagoshi and Amusement Vision. As exemplified by the release of Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty the same year, video game developers became increasingly interested in providing story-heavy experiences to their audience. Conversely, Monkey Ball, by virtue of providing an experience that sold itself purely through its gameplay, seemed to completely ignore this trend. It’s almost what would happen if you were to transport a pioneering developer from the 1980s ahead two decades and asked them to design a game using the technology available at the time. The result is a game that is easy to pick up, yet very difficult to master – not unlike Pac-Man or the aforementioned Marble Madness.
This isn’t to imply that old design practices were inherently superior to the zeitgeist of the new guard. One of the more irritating aspects of older games was that, owing to their extreme difficulty, many people didn’t get a chance to see everything they had to offer. In many cases, the high difficulty masked a dearth of content. Many of these games were remarkably short; one could theoretically complete them within an hour. In this regard, Monkey Ball occupies a strange space because its high difficulty is not used to conceal a shallow experience, but it has all of the negative ramifications of such a design choice. While a persistent, mid-tier player can experience a majority of what the game has to offer, they will miss out on some interesting content if they are unable or unwilling to rise to the challenge.
Regardless of how much the design sensibilities can work against itself, I still find Monkey Ball an easy recommendation. If, by chance, you find it in an arcade, it is definitely worth paying a quarter or two to play. Should you be the type who collects arcade cabinets, it absolutely deserves a spot in your game room. Otherwise, most people are better off seeking out the GameCube port, which features all of the stages from the arcade original on top of a treasure trove of minigames that are a lot of fun to play whenever you have friends over. The GameCube may not have had as glamorous of a launch as its rival consoles, but Super Monkey Ball ensured that it had provided a classic, enduring experience right out of the gate from the most unlikely source imaginable at the time.
Final Score: 7/10