Monkeys inside balls, rolling around like hamsters set loose inside your living room, has made for a pretty popular franchise. SEGA's Monkey Ball series has moved beyond its arcade origins to become a home favourite, especially on the Wii. With its ball rolling gameplay mechanic, SEGA has decided the time is right to introduce Wii Balance Board support; in Step and Roll you'll be moving your hips from side to side to try and make your monkey collect all the bananas and make it to the goal gate.
Step and Roll is essentially what long-time fans of the series will expect. The core game features a series of game worlds, each offering various, increasingly hard courses to navigate through. As always, you're tilting the game world, not rolling the ball, and you need to try to get to the finish gate before the timer runs out, while collecting as many bananas as possible. It's the tried and tested formula of games gone by and there's no adventuring or storyline - as seen in Super Monkey Ball Adventure.
For whatever reason the levels here still don't excite as much as those included in the first two GameCube iterations did, but they're not bad. It sounds really rather good for fans, then, but the control options might get a few of you sending nasty emails to SEGA. Whereas the original games featured incredibly tight and precise analogue stick controls, that tested your ball balance to its limit, here you only have two options: tilt a Wii Remote or use a Wii Balance Board.
The bad news first. Balance Board controls aren't easy. In fact I'd go as far as saying they've been included as more of a novelty than a sensible option - the game is that much harder when tilting the world with your body. SEGA clearly knows this, as it's made the levels less populated with obstacles when the Balance Board has been selected. Monkey Ball is a series that requires precise movements, but the board simply doesn't allow this.
I can imagine potential Olympic gymnasts managing to weave their ball around the courses without too much trouble, but the average player will want to switch to the Wii Remote controls unless playing for laughs. Manoeuvring your ball using the Wii Remote isn't easy, but with some practice you'll be able to roll around with a fair degree of precision. You hold the Wii Remote with the pointer directed at the TV, and then simply tilt it to move the game world around a central axis.
I could understand SEGA's decision to leave out analogue stick controls if it was trying to make a game completely playable with just a Wii Remote, but many of the included 20+ mini-games need a Nunchuck plugged in. Analogue stick support wouldn't have even had a negative impact on the leaderboards, given that the game already differentiates between Balance Board and Wii Remote scores, and there's no online functionality at all.
Outside of that annoyance, Step and Roll is perfectly enjoyable, especially for younger gamers. The original-style levels can be played with a friend (with one player blasting obstacles out of the way) or played in long marathon sessions where the next course is loaded directly after you head through a gate. You'll likely rush through all the stages in an afternoon, but the leaderboards promote replaying them all at least one or two times more.
On the mini-game side of the package, there's a fair amount of throwaway rubbish that won't be played more than a handful of times, but others, including the classic Race and Target games, are much more enjoyable. Most are incredibly simple to learn so there should be no trouble if you're playing with younger or less experienced family members.
There's an incredibly annoying new personal trainer monkey character, appearing all over the place, clearly designed to be someone kids will like (if he's not slipping on a banana skin he's being crushed by a big bunch of them). Combined with the game's irritating music, Step and Roll becomes quite hard to play for extended periods of time, simply because of these irritants. It's definitely still got some of what made the series popular with hardcore gamers in the first place, but the balance has definitely shifted in favour of the new casual gaming Wii audience.
Super Monkey Ball: Step and Roll might be marketed as a game to play using the Wii Balance Board, but it's a much better game when played using standard Wii Remote controls. If I had to choose I'd go for one of the original two Monkey Ball games on GameCube, but newcomers and younger gamers will find a lot to enjoy in Step and Roll.