Even after the Dreamcast was discontinued in 2001, few predicted that Sega would, in the very same year, proceed to have one of their games ported to a Nintendo console. Such a reality came to pass when the GameCube launched. The console’s debut signified the true end of an era when Super Monkey Ball, a port of Sega’s arcade game Monkey Ball, was among its launch titles. To the surprise of creator Toshihiro Nagoshi and Amusement Vision, Super Monkey Ball became a sleeper hit amongst the Nintendo GameCube’s launch titles in North America. If Sega porting a game for a Nintendo console only for it to become a tremendous hit was a sign of the changing times, what happened shortly thereafter drove the point home even more.
Sonic and Mario had clashed numerous times throughout the fourth and fifth console generation. Halfway through the 1990s, the rivalry between the two characters became the stuff of legends. And just like that, the final mainline release in Sega’s long-running Sonic the Hedgehog series to debut on one of their consoles, Sonic Adventure 2, found itself ported to the Nintendo GameCube as though nothing happened. For those who had grown up with Nintendo consoles, this port, named Sonic Adventure 2 Battle, was likely their first exposure to Mario’s most famous rival alongside Sonic Advance, which was released the very same day for the Game Boy Advance. The gaming landscape had permanently changed, and even those not very versed in the medium knew it.
With Super Monkey Ball being one of the GameCube’s most popular launch titles, it was only natural that Mr. Nagoshi and Amusement Vision would be inspired to create a sequel. Taking their simple concept out for another spin, Mr. Nagoshi and his team created Super Monkey Ball 2, releasing it in 2002. To appeal to the series’ newfound fanbase abroad, it was first released in North America in August of that year before debuting domestically the following November. Like its predecessor, the game was well-received, garnering dedicated fans who continue to praise it to this day. As one of Sega’s first games specifically created for another company’s console, did Super Monkey Ball 2 successfully continue its creator’s momentum?
Analyzing the Experience
The original Monkey Ball is a pure game that, technology notwithstanding, wouldn’t have felt out of place among a typical golden-age arcade title from the 1980s. Its gameplay was simple, yet difficult to master; once you began, the button on the cabinet’s interface had fulfilled its purpose. The entire rest of the game was solely controlled using the joystick. Having a control scheme identical to that of Pac-Man demonstrates Monkey Ball was conceived using a similar design ethos.
Another sign that this was the case can be observed when trying to parse its story – or more specifically, its lack thereof. Much like Pac-Man, Monkey Ball didn’t contextualize its gameplay. You simply guided your character encased in a translucent sphere to the stage’s goal. That was it. The cutscenes included in the GameCube port suggest that AiAi and his friends were searching for bananas, but its impact on the gameplay was minimal. Collecting one-hundred bananas award you an extra life, but you could ostensibly complete the game without obtaining a single one.
The reason this bears mentioning is because, unlike its direct predecessor, Super Monkey Ball 2 has an actual story. Considering that Super Monkey Ball 2 had been, from the beginning, intended to be a console experience, including a plot – a common fixture of games played at home – was a logical creative choice. An evil scientist named Dr. Bad-Boon has stolen all of the bananas from Monkey Island. His goal is to modify the bananas to make them taste like curry, thus preventing anyone from enjoying the fruit’s natural flavor ever again. To stop him, AiAi must traverse the madman’s mazes.
The core gameplay is identical to that of the original Monkey Ball; you guide your character through a maze floating in the sky to a goalpost. You will have completed the stage as soon as you sever the tape between the goalpost’s stands – even if doing so would normally send your character tumbling into the void below. Falling out of the stage is the only way you can lose. The only things close to resembling enemies are implicitly non-sentient automatons – fixtures of the stages themselves. Indeed, Dr. Bad-Boon himself does not show up in any of these stages; his antics are limited to cutscenes.
Unsurprisingly, when you consider that Super Monkey Ball 2 continues to sell itself primarily through its gameplay, it’s not an especially deep plot. Still, this Story Mode does fundamentally alter how players progress through the stages. There are one-hundred stages standing – or floating, to be more precise – between the protagonists and the credits screen. Each of the ten worlds contains ten stages; completing them all will move AiAi to the next. Once a stage has been completed, it is not possible to play it again for the duration of that playthrough, though you can still revisit it in Practice Mode if you so choose.
Unlike the original game, which forced players to traverse all the stages in a set consecutively, the Story Mode of Super Monkey Ball 2 allows players to take their time. Story Mode doesn’t contain a life system; you are afforded infinite chances to complete a stage. Your score is also unaffected by your losses. Once a stage is completed, your progress is saved automatically. This means you can complete the worlds level-by-level or in a single run as you see fit.
Those who took one look at this development and expressed disappointment that the game would mark such a severe drop in difficulty from its predecessor were relieved to learn of the existence of Challenge Mode. This mode translates the arcade gameplay of the original to a console setting. Once again, there are three difficulty settings: Beginner, Advanced, and Expert. These settings have a unique set of stages, consisting of ten, thirty, and fifty respectively. The stages you play through roughly correspond to the ones that feature in Story Mode. The Beginner set covers World 1, the Advanced set Worlds 2 through 4, and the Expert set Worlds 5 through 9. World 10 offers stages that cannot be played in Challenge Mode. Due to the existence of bonus stages, which appear at the same frequency as they did in the original Monkey Ball, the final floor of several worlds are omitted from the three sets.
While one, bearing in mind the entirely nonsensical plot, may dismiss Story Mode as pointless save for World 10, it does allow players to practice the stages before tackling Challenge Mode. Indeed, anyone who takes a look at the dialogue present in Story Mode and dismisses it as a children’s game is, once again, in for a rude awakening when they watch their character fall into the void time and time again. While that was true of the original game, one could argue it is even more so in this installment.
Although the gameplay is, for the most part unchanged, Super Monkey Ball 2 has significantly more gimmicks to throw at you. As difficult as it may be to believe, this can be observed as early as the very first stage in the game. Returning players may notice the first stage is significantly larger than that of the original game. In Monkey Ball, barring an improbable exploitation of the game’s physics engine, it was impossible to fall out of the first stage in the Beginner Set. While completing the first stage of Super Monkey Ball 2 is a matter of pushing the control stick forward and watching your character go right through the goal tape, it is possible to fall out. This subtle change is enough to signpost to savvy players that they better be on their guard from here on out.
This facet is also showcased by the very fact that the levels have names. As a possible side effect of the stages in Monkey Ball being nameless, many of them lacked themes entirely, throwing players into obstacle courses featuring a haphazard variety of set pieces. On top of that, playing the entire game revealed many stages designs were recycled in later sets, albeit with a twist to make them more difficult.
Meanwhile, I strongly suspect that the decision to begin naming the stages while creating Super Monkey Ball 2 subtly encouraged the developers to get creative with their designs. While Super Monkey Ball 2 itself has its own reoccurring motifs, you generally won’t find any designs that are outright recycled. This means, even after completing the Beginner and Advanced stages, you will find value in replaying them, for they do offer unique challenges – albeit not obviously to the degree as the Expert set. This is a stark contrast to the original game where, because the Expert set was composed of several stages taken from Beginner and Advanced, it effectively provided the definitive experience, making them largely redundant.
While the gameplay is as easy to pick up as that of its predecessor, Super Monkey Ball 2 does add two reoccurring props that add extra layers to the experience. As you make your way through World 1 or the Beginner set, you will encounter a stage named Switches. This on-the-nose title successfully alludes to the existence of two switches. The first will cause a bridge to rise, allowing your character to access the rest of the stage. The second, which is further ahead, causes a path ahead to turn vertical, rendering it inaccessible. This is intended to be a beginner’s trap, for a common mistake first-time players make when traversing the stage is to keep going after hitting the switch, which will likely send their character into the abyss where the path once existed. Pressing the switch comes with the added benefit of revealing the green goal, providing a sizable bonus for those skilled enough to fall into it.
As you will have gathered from this demonstration, switches possess the ability to manipulate sections of the stage. There isn’t much of an indication as to what a given switch will affect until it is pressed. However, what it accomplishes is usually obvious once you’ve pressed it. The first switch in the game has a triangle pointing right imprinted on it. Anyone who has ever owned a video player recognizes this as the “Play” button. Later in the game, you will encounter switches that emulate the other functions of a standard video player such as “Fast-forward”, “Reverse”, “Rewind”, and “Pause” – all using the corresponding universal symbols. Knowing how to manipulate these props via the switches is vital to reaching certain goals.
The other props of note would be the wormholes. Like any good teleportation device one would find in a video game, these portals instantly whisk your character to another part of the map. The wormholes you find in Super Monkey Ball 2 have an advantage over their counterparts in other games in that they show where your character will be deposited. All you need to do is peer into the wormhole; the destination is in its reflection.
On a more general level, what I especially enjoy about these mechanics is how it places an emphasis on puzzle solving not present in the original game. One could reasonably argue that the series always featured puzzle elements – the solutions being your reactionary inputs to the various obstacles – but these two props make them more overt. Many stages start your character on a “Fast-forward” switch, necessitating the player to find a “Play” switch to slow down the objects. And while wormholes don’t appear as often as switches, the level design takes advantage of their properties in increasingly interesting ways. The most memorable one involves repeatedly going through a wormhole until you have built up enough momentum to launch your character onto the platform housing the goal.
As a result of these enhancements, it is no coincidence that, in Super Monkey Ball 2, there are only two stages to feature a thirty-second time limit. Even many of the Expert stages in the original Monkey Ball had a shorter time limit due to the design having fewer moving parts overall. Although it may sound as though the level design of Super Monkey Ball 2 is bloated by comparison, it never strays from what made the original such a standout title. The stages still sell themselves with their simplistic designs, but there is just a little bit more going for them.
What I believe to be the greatest enhancement the sequel offers over the original game, however, lies in its balance. In Monkey Ball, while the leap from Beginner to Advanced wasn’t too bad, the leap from Advanced to Expert was borderline untenable. It was nice for the developers to offer some leniency for the Expert mode by making the requirements to reach the extra stages less strict, but it did little to assuage the gigantic step up in difficulty. The game’s difficulty was also hampered by the fact that it didn’t follow any natural progression. In fact, one could argue the first ten stages within the Expert set were actually more difficult than the final ten. Sure, the Master stages absolutely deserved to be placed late in the experience, but by the time you reached them, the penalty of losing all of your lives was no longer a factor if you had infinite continues.
Super Monkey Ball 2 resolves this problem by virtue of spreading its difficulty much more evenly. The Beginner set’s extra stages, though not especially difficult, do successfully foreshadow the kinds of challenges you should expect to face in the Advanced set. In fact, whereas the Expert set in Monkey Ball had an effective monopoly on the game’s toughest stages, I would argue the single most daunting floor in Super Monkey Ball 2 is the final stage of the Advanced set.
Called Arthropod, this stage involves avoiding the legs of a giant mechanical insect across four rotating rings. If this sounds difficult, I can assure you that playing it is at least ten times worse. Getting past its legs involves dealing with its bizarre physics, which could send your character through the floor and into the abyss. There are later stages that, pound for pound, are more difficult, but you can at least study them and learn what to do. Due to the random nature of the arthropod, this isn’t an option.
Consequently, the Expert set only wears down your chances of completing them through attrition than sheer difficulty. It also helps that there are significantly more green and red goals to be found. Part of what made getting through the Expert set in Monkey Ball without using a continue such a steep challenge was that you couldn’t skip most of the stages. With the abundance of green and red goals in Super Monkey Ball 2, this is no longer an issue. Accordingly, they are far more consistent in how many stages they skip. Green goals allow you to skip a single stage while red goals skip two.
In fact, these goals are so helpful, that even those not interested in using them will benefit from their existence. After all, if you offer multiple exits, it would stand to reason that the ones capable of skipping stages are more difficult to reach. What would be the point in having a goal capable of skipping stages if you could reach it just as easily as the normal one? In stages with multiple exits, blue goals tend to have less demanding requires to reach. This means, while you had to take every challenge in Monkey Ball exactly as it was, many stages in Super Monkey Ball 2 act as breathers, so to speak, in between tough ones.
As you’re amassing Play Points, you may notice that, once you’ve unlocked all of the party games, you can no longer increase the number of continues per run. No matter what you do, you are only ever afforded five continues. Fortunately, this is not an issue at all, for you can do something even better: increase the number of lives you start out with. In Super Monkey Ball 2, simply completing an entire set without using any continues is enough to move onto the extra stages. How many lives you decided to start with has no effect on this condition. This means, if you’re persistent enough, you can start with as many as ninety-nine lives per playthrough. It still takes quite a bit of skill to reach the Master levels, but as long as you’re persistent, you will get to see everything this game has to offer. Better yet, if you unlock the Master set, you are then given the option to start with those stages. This makes it easier to reach the even more esoteric extra stages hiding beyond the Master set.
Finally, just like its predecessor, Super Monkey Ball 2 has plenty of fun party games. All six of the party games from Super Monkey Ball, Monkey Race, Monkey Fight, Monkey Target, Monkey Billiards, Monkey Bowling, and Monkey Golf, make a return for this installment. Most of them play exactly as they did in Super Monkey Ball. The most obvious exception is Monkey Golf, which plays like a traditional playing of the game rather than a round of miniature golf. Even the ones with practicably identical gameplay have new modes of play such as being able to play three different variants of pool in Monkey Billiards or ninepin bowling in Monkey Bowling.
There are also six party games waiting to be unlocked with your Play Points: Monkey Dogfight, Monkey Shot, Monkey Tennis, Monkey Boat, Monkey Soccer, Monkey Baseball. Monkey Tennis and Monkey Soccer are fairly straight adaptations of their respective sports. Anyone who knows the rules to those games can pick them up easily. Those who don’t may find them a valuable learning experience.
Conversely, Monkey Baseball modifies the rules of the game quite a lot. The pitching player controls a monkey who rolls their ball to the batting player. On the edges of the outfield are rectangular holes. Depending on the hole, they can either read “1BH”, “2BH”, “3BH”, or “OUT”. If the batting player hits the pitching player’s character into these holes, they will be awarded that number of bases or be declared out as is appropriate. All players advance the designated number of bases at the same time and cannot be tagged out under any circumstances. In the outfield are ramps that launch the pitcher into orbit if they should roll over them. This indicates you have hit a home run.
Before each round, the batter spins a roulette that determines how many ramps are in play along with what targets are in the outfield. One variant lowers all of the ramps, but in exchange, the targets all award only one base when struck. Another raises all of the ramps but turns all of the targets into “OUT” boxes, meaning you can only score that inning if you hit a homerun. You cannot settle for bunting either; if the pitcher lingers comes to a dead stop in the outfield, one of their comrades will catch them, declaring the batter out. This means any hit that isn’t declared a foul ball must land in a target awarding at least one base or get launched off of a ramp in order for the batter to avoid being declared out.
Monkey Dogfight brings to mind the multiplayer aerial-based combat of Star Fox 64. In this game, your character flies around in manner similar to Monkey Target. Your character shoots pineapples at your opponents while bananas restore their health. The last person standing wins. Monkey Shot is a fixed, arcade-style light gun game played from a first-person perspective. You shoot at the enemies that appear while periodically reloading. Because you can’t exactly dodge, the best defense is a good offense – or in this case, is indeed the only defense. Finally, Monkey Boat is a racing game set in water as opposed to on land. The primary difference between it and Monkey Race is that it is controlled by alternatively pressing the shoulder buttons. Otherwise, it operates on the same basic principles; you finish the race as fast as possible, and along the way, you can get items to either give yourself an advantage or sabotage the other participants.
Once again, what I admire about the party games is that a lot of care and attention went into them. The increased number could easily have led to a drop in quality, yet it did not. Every single one of them could have been a standalone title. Because of how well-implemented they are, don’t be surprised if you find yourself taking an extended break from the standard game to play them – even during solo sessions.
Admittedly, even with all of the material improvements Mr. Nagoshi and his team made upon their original game, Super Monkey Ball 2 has its own flaws. The game does give players enough information with which to make calculated decisions on how to progress through a stage. Just like the port of the original Monkey Ball, Super Monkey Ball 2 allows players to view the entire map, which is helpful in a game that doesn’t allow direct control of the camera. Regardless, every now and again, you will encounter a stage that relies on a tedious trial-and-error process wherein you learn exactly what inputs you need to proceed. This problem is at its absolute worst in one particular stage that features an abundance of switches. Most of them trigger a partition that knocks your character off the platform while a select few reveal the goal. There is no way for you to tell which switch you need to push; it is as pure of a guessing game as it gets. In a game that relies on real challenges, this lapse into artificial difficulty is highly jarring.
Otherwise, the biggest problem that manifests in this game’s challenge is actually the exact opposite of what plagued the original. While Monkey Ball had simpler stages overall, it did demand players to think on their feet for every single floor past the first one. Super Monkey Ball 2, on the other hand, contains stages I don’t think were playtested properly. I say this because some of them can be completed by holding forward on the control stick as soon as the player is given control of their character. Such a player would then get to stare in amazement as their character gracefully bounces into the goal unscathed. Having one stage like this is bad enough, but the strategy is viable as late as the final stage of World 7. Sure, it’s not obvious that this is a solution, but once you know of it, there is absolutely no reason why anyone would ever try to complete these stages in the intended manner.
Then again, it is possible the designers purposely did this, thereby tricking players with the prospect of a difficult stage when the solution is as simple as it gets, though one wonders why they would program these assets in the first place. It is also mitigated in that none of these stages appear in the Expert set. Regardless of how many times you fall off the stage attempting to reach the Master set, completing all eighty stages lends itself a sense of true satisfaction easily on par with accomplishing a good run in the original game.
Drawing a Conclusion
For those longing for arcade-like experiences in 2002, Super Monkey Ball 2 was a true treat. Like Monkey Ball before it, hindsight revealed it to be an active rebellion against the direction AAA gaming was heading at the time. One may extrapolate from this description that it was behind the times. Examining its superficial elements – most obviously, its infantile Story Mode – could easily have caused put many gamers off when considering the increasingly mature nature of contemporary AAA productions such as Halo or Silent Hill 2. But just like the average effort of the third console generation, anyone who underestimates Super Monkey Ball 2 does so at their own peril. This ostensible children’s game somehow manages to be more of a challenge to complete than ones geared towards older audiences in the early 2000s.
More than anything, Super Monkey Ball 2 succeeds because it is exactly what a sequel should aspire to be. It takes the classic, arcade-style gameplay of the original and adds just enough new features to make any investments worthwhile. The game provides a more sophisticated experience without ever compromising its simplicity. For those looking for a sixth-generation title that prides itself in its gameplay, Super Monkey Ball 2 is for you. In addition to the eclectic challenges Story Mode and Challenge Mode throws at you, you can easily get lost in the twelve party games for hours. With something to offer gamers of all stripes, Super Monkey Ball 2 makes for an experience worth experiencing firsthand.
Final Score: 7/10