What could be more fun than monkeys trapped in plastic hamster balls?
That's the strange philosophy of Super Monkey Ball, a puzzle series that debuted in 2001. Much as with Marble Madness, the goal here is to cross the finish line without falling off a floating platform. Except that this game has monkeys, and they make everything more exciting.
The latest edition, Super Monkey Ball Adventure, marks the first major departure from the winning formula. Now, instead of playing through a sequence of puzzles, you get to steer your monkey through a huge, fully explorable world. Think Tomb Raider with bananas.
While it may sound like a natural evolution for the series, the new direction is anything but a smooth ride.
The series' trademark wobbly steering makes it feel as if you're always walking a tightrope. While fun in the short-and-sweet format of the original game, it becomes endlessly frustrating on long hauls. You'll go apeshit as you constantly fall off cliffs.
Half the time you won't even see the death that awaits you, thanks to a horribly broken camera. You can wrestle with the controls all you want, but the view is often in the wrong place. This leads to doomed leaps of faith, blind cliff-diving, and whispers of "The penitent monkey shall pass!" as a last resort.
Adding insult to injury, if you fall, you'll have to repeat the whole annoying process. It's like missing your exit on the interstate and having to backtrack. Over. And over. And over again.
Falling doesn't kill you, but it does trigger the most annoying sound effect ever included in a videogame: the ear-splitting monkey shriek. On average, you'll be on the receiving end of a high-pitched monkey enema every three to five seconds. Before long, you'll feel like Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes: "You damn dirty apes!"
When your monkey isn't screaming, he's spouting nonsensical gibberish called "Monkey-ese." All dialogue is delivered via an endless string of chattering that could shatter a wine glass. Sample dialogue: "KI KI POO POO WI!!!" Keep the mute button handy.
Super Monkey Ball Adventure isn't a quest so much as a series of "monkey-see, monkey-do" tasks. These include collecting balloons, killing weeds, scaring off birds . . . you know, all the stuff real adventures are made of. Forget saving the world; you'll be too busy fetching lunch for a chain-smoking, sailor-suit-wearing baboon. A more apt title would have been Super Monkey Ball Internship.
If you actually manage to finish one of the idiotic missions, you'll be rewarded with such nuggets of wisdom as "All monkeys know there's magic in dancing" and "Photographs are like windows into your dream." Thank you, O simian Confucius!
As usual, Monkey Ball packs a healthy multiplayer mode. You'll find all the old favorites, such as "Monkey Fight" and "Monkey Target," ranging from mildly fun (the Mario Kart knockoff "Monkey Race") to completely unplayable ("Monkey Cannon"). But good luck getting your friends to play more than one round -- the load time between matches is longer than the evolution of man.
Though Adventure makes a monkey out of the concept, this franchise still has legs. The upcoming Nintendo Wii, which features a motion-based control system, is tailor-made for an innovative approach to playing Monkey Ball. But first, the designers have to sit down and pick out some major bugs.