Super Monkey Ball and its sequel were two of the best games on Nintendo's Wii-predecessor, equally loved by the Nintendo fanboy horde and the post, or pre pub crowd. The core mechanic - tilt the game world to move a ball into a goal - worked, and the main game courses and mini-games spawned hundreds of impressive speed runs and stunts on YouTube.
Then, SEGA dropped the proverbial Super Monkey ball, with a number of handheld ports and curious home console updates (the less said about Super Monkey Ball Adventure the better) serving only to quash early enthusiasm for the series. 2006's solid Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz on Wii went some way to addressing the situation, but it is with Super Monkey Ball: Step & Roll, due out on Wii early next year, that SEGA hopes to return the series to its former glory.
All you need to know about the game is in the subtitle: Step & Roll. You guessed it, it's compatible with the Wii Balance Board - that peripheral soccer mums use to improve their posture. You "Step" onto the Balance Board and "Roll" your monkey ball by shifting your weight as if controlling a platform.
SEGA Europe brand manager James Bray was on hand at a recent press event to demonstrate how it works. A small Balance Board icon is displayed in the bottom right hand corner of the screen, and a dot shows you where your weight is currently focused. Subtle shifts in weight are all that's required to tilt the stage. The further you lean forward the faster your monkey ball will roll. Lean back and you'll slow down. For more precision, you're able to do a quick Resident Evil-style turn by tilting back on a perfectly level platform. The camera will do a 180 and you're then able to lean forward for a quick burst. It's all in the hips, James says.
Beyond the Balance Board controls, Step & Roll is classic Super Monkey Ball in the spirit of the first two GameCube games. There are two game modes on offer - the main game (which supports co-op play) and four-player party games. Four playable monkeys were available in the Japanese build on show - AiAi, Meemee, Baby and GonGon - all familiar faces. The first five levels of the easy opening main game world were demonstrated - a simple collection of platforms draped in palm trees and foliage and covered by a blue sky, all designed to get the player used to moving the stage with their weight. The goals during these stages are simple to reach, with grooves in the platforms designed to lend a helping hand if needed. Level five of the opening world is a bonus stage - the idea is to fit yourself into a spiral groove and collect all the bananas as you twirl towards the centre of the platform. Nice, simple stuff.
We were then shown three mini-games, to my mind the best thing about Super Monkey Ball. Seesaw Ball sees monkey balls try to reach the bottom of a level via a number of tilting platforms shown from a 2D Donkey Kong-style perspective. It looks very easy to fall off of the edge of the world, but should be good fun. Red Light Green Light is Super Monkey Ball's version of children's game Grandma's Footsteps - you need to get as close as possible to the finish line by wiggling your legs as fast as possible. When Grandma turns around you need to stand perfectly still on the Balance Board - any shift in weight and you'll be spotted and have to return to the start.
Monkey Race is a straight up race to a finish line. It's an eight monkey race, with support for up to four players. You need to tilt to turn and lean forward to speed up. Question mark boxes hover above the track, granting power ups like rockets. A little jump on the Balance Board fires them straight ahead. Pads give you a short burst of speed. There's even a star power up. My impression? Super Monkey Kart. SEGA Europe says these three are only a taste of the mini-games that will be included in the final game. Some will be classics, some will be new.
You're thinking, but what if I don't have a Balance Board? What then? What if I have one but I don't want to use it? WHAT THEN? You will of course be able to play Step & Roll without the Balance Board, using the Wii Remote to tilt the stage. Know this though: SEGA says the game has been designed from the ground up for the Balance Board.
Perhaps because it knows most people won't have more than one Balance Board in their home, SEGA has taken the decision to limit its use to one player during multiplayer. All other players must use a Wii Remote (the game doesn't support the Nunchuck). So no two-player Super Monkey Ball Balance Board face-offs, I'm afraid.
There's no doubt that Tilt & Roll looks like a quality, polished product. In many ways it looks like Super Monkey Ball 2 with Balance Board support and new mini-games, but for many that's just what the doctor ordered. Expect an avalanche of speed runs to land on YouTube as soon as the game comes out.
Super Monkey Ball: Tilt & Roll is due out for the Wii early 2010.