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Monkey Ball

Developer: Amusement Vision Publisher: Sega
May 2001
Monkey Ball - cover art
Glitchwave rating
3.71 / 5.0
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413 Ratings / 1 Reviews
#698 All-time
#31 for 2001
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Title
There's this story that Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of the Mario series and Zelda series, likes to tell about how he got his design inspiration for the Legend of Zelda, the first game in that series. He describes the game as an attempt to give players a "miniature garden that they can put inside their drawer", and his inspiration for the content of this garden was his own experience exploring the woods and caves of Kyoto. This has always struck me as odd, because the actual environment of that game is overtly yellow. It feels more like exploring some industrially poisoned car park overgrown with straw-like grass and dandelions than anywhere idyllic enough to have a naturally occurring cave. Nottingham has caves, but they're always full of cigarettes and crisp packets. The first Legend of Zelda doesn't have any crisp packets, but unlike the later games it feels wilted and hostile and abandoned. It makes me wonder, in what way was Miyamoto's exploration important to informing the design, then?

The Legend of Zelda's handling of movement is pivotal: The player can move in an intercardinal way, in eight directions, but can only attack in the four cardinal directions, which means that a sort of short term planning needs to go into positioning oneself before striking. This is the movement on a moment to moment basis, while the movement over the course of an entire playthrough involves exploring a map of many interconnected tiles. There is a fixed camera in the game, and moving to the edge of the screen means the player has to move to another map tile and the camera teleports to follow them.

I think this limitation of movement is the way in which Miyamoto's experience with exploration informed the design—in fact probably the primary sense in which he makes that fundamentally artistic move of transforming experience. Exploration in real life isn't like in video games. Movement on foot is slow: trying to get close to a distant landmark which seems enticing is not an immediately gratifying discovery, from which we can then make our next, but a physically taxing process that is rewarding at least part in because of the effort one needs to exert to arrive. In a hike, it is an engagement with the physical process of moving ones own body that characterises the sense in which one exhibits agency. The Legend of Zelda thus exercises a different sort of agency than a game like The Wind Waker does. In that game, the player's engagement with the mechanic of character control is not itself a mechanic of primary importance in the exercising of agency, but instead it is the more instantaneous and intuitive ideal of exploration that is exercised: simply choosing to move and, with an immaterial ease, arriving.

Exercising agency is an important part of art: listening to a polyphonic contrapuntal piece of music necessarily involves the active process of the continuous shifting of one's attention from voice to voice. Watching a film is the same way, in that we can engage with the movement of objects in the frame with respect to each other, or with respect to the shifting parallax of the scenery as the camera tracks through it, or in any other way one can think to. Super Monkey Ball is an aesthetically revolutionary experience with regards to movement as a form of agency. A game is at its best as a cathartic exercising of one's agency within a set of mechanics, and Super Monkey Ball has exactly one mechanic: as one tilts the control stick, so the world tilts around you. The buttons only control menus, there is no jumping or attacking or interacting, just the movement of an analogue joystick. You do not directly control the monkey in the ball, you tilt the level and the monkey rolls around it. This had been done before in arcade games like Marble Madness, but the reason Super Monkey Ball feels so alive is that the camera is positioned in such a way that one isn't constantly reminded of this fact. The game is posited not as a puzzle game about moving a marble through an obstacle course, but as a subjective experience of being a physical object that can engage with its world in the most intuitive way imaginable, by the operation of Newtonian physics.

This would all fail to excite if the environment didn't properly take advantage of this mode of movement. Super Monkey Ball 2 involves massive grandiose settings with moving parts and long obstacle courses, but the first title does only exactly what it needs to do to challenge, and so the stages are brilliant in their restraint. The stages themselves are the quiet medium that supports the movement, rather than acting as characters in themselves as in Super Monkey Ball 2. Where the complex obstacle courses do appear they feel like momentous end of level bosses.

There is an elephant in the room here. A colleague at work told me an amusing story, which it turns out isn't actually true but is interesting in another way. There exists a spider called the 'Brazillian jumping spider', and a bite from this creature gives the victim a four hour erection before killing them. My immediate response to being told this was to ask: "how fucking high must this thing be able to jump if that's what it's named for? Not the 'Brazilian four hour erection spider'? As if that isn't the most noteworthy thing about it?" The elephant in the room is that I have spent the entire body of this review talking about the revolutionary way that Super Monkey Ball handles movement, camera, and agency, without ever addressing the sheer insanity of the fact that it's a game in which monkeys, trapped in perspex spheres, roll around a load of ethereal floating sky platforms among jungle mountain ranges, floating cloud temples and 50s diners in outer space, and no explanation is ever offered for why this is happening. I hope that that tells you just how masterfully this game is designed that somehow that premise is not the most interesting thing about it.
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Shmin 2016-12-22T02:37:21Z
2016-12-22T02:37:21Z
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Title
Meditations of a Monkey Ball Master
Super Monkey Ball is the Citizen Kane of ball-rolling platformers, the Moby Dick of party games, the Mona Lisa of monkey-related media. Beneath its unassuming exterior lies a hidden beast of game design genius so powerful that even Miyamoto-san himself fears the day will come that the critics and fans and amateur YouTube video game analysts all in unison turn their backs on Super Mario Bros 1-1 and instead crown Super Monkey Ball's Expert 7 as the greatest video game level ever created. And his fears are not unfounded. There are already some players (me, for instance) who whisper the genius of Super Monkey Ball into the ear of any startled yet intrigued passerby who has access to a GameCube controller.

From the first "Ready? GO!" in Beginner 1 all the way through the last "GOAL!" in Master 10, the game uses only one method of input: the control stick. There are no buttons here. Buttons distract. There are no trackballs, no touch-pads, no motion inputs. No dials, knobs, pullers, twisters, spinners, whizzlers, or skallywhomps—only the control stick. When you tilt the stick, the world tilts with it. There is a zen oneness to this control method, a union of on-screen action and controller input so perfectly harmonized that it often stuns me into a drooling, open-mouthed catatonic state of unrefined awe. I call this oneness "perfect parity." Perfect parity is what results when every controller input a player makes directly mirrors the physical action of some actor on-screen. In this case, the obstacle course stages are the actors, and every minute tilt of the control stick places the stage in the exact orientation and angle as the stick itself. The effect of perfect parity is total mechanical immersion, the placement of the player into some kind of ethereal flow-state where the controller has disappeared from the equation altogether. All that exists is the game—you are the actor. You are the floating obstacle course 10,000 feet in the air, and each and every tilt you make has immediate consequences for those poor primates rolling along your banana-ridden form.

The simplistic beauty of the controls has another advantage: total accessibility. Even the most clueless video game non-enthusiast can pick up the game and immediately intuit how to play. If you don't believe me, then next Thanksgiving, discreetly boot up the copy of Super Monkey Ball that you keep on your person at all times, sit your mom and dad down on the couch, and hand them each a GameCube controller. Quiet their incessant objections that they "hate video games" with assurances that they will "love this one," and watch the magic that unfolds as they tackle Beginner 1. "Just tilt the stick and the world will tilt the same way. Try to get the monkey to the goal." A two-sentence explanation is all that is required. Within seconds, they will understand the objective and they will understand the controls. Within three stages, they will understand something else—they want to keep playing. They will have fallen into the flow-state, the latest converts to the way of life that is Super Monkey Ball.

And Super Monkey Ball truly is a way of life. This becomes clear when you contrast the Monkey Ball novice with the Monkey Ball master, the GonGon Guru or MeeMee Maestro of the control stick. A player's first tilt of the control stick is always a graceless affair—less of a tilt and more of a shove—that sends their hapless monkey careening into the crude corrective barriers of Beginner 1. Their movement is clumsy. They over-correct and wobble the stick in short, jerky bursts. They attempt to conquer the game with rough, lurching tilts that earn them only the cries of a banged-up primate. But the Monkey Ball master—he respects the game. Every light nudge and gentle tap of the stick serves a purpose. There is no wasted movement as his thumb dances along the stick in tandem with the game. And when a stage calls for a full tilt, the master obliges with a confident stroke of the stick, heavy yet graceful. To commit oneself to Super Monkey Ball and to master its stages is to learn the ways of precision and grace. This is why surgeons play Super Monkey Ball before entering the operating room (I'm not joking—look it up). They know that the line between life and death is as razor-thin as the narrowest path in Expert 8—to walk that line demands the precision and elegance of movement that only a true Monkey Ball master possesses.

Indeed, as you progress from Beginner to Advanced, from Advanced to Expert, you come to understand that Super Monkey Ball builds character. This is evident in its majestic controls, which foster pinpoint precision and grace. It is evident in its stages, which build tenacity and persistence, each level synthesizing techniques learned in prior stages with new layouts and challenges to create a perfect balance of difficulty that pushes players ever onward. And it is evident through the monkeys themselves. Though the world tilts beneath them, the shifting topography and the whim of the joystick dictating their every move, AiAi and his cohort of beleaguered simians rejoice in reaching their goal level after level. Those brave monkeys, injured though they are after countless collisions with walls and floors and goal posts, stand in their plastic balls undeterred by the latest fall out. With the daunting obstacles and precariously placed bananas at their backs, they smile and clap upon hearing that sweet sound: "GOAL!" Though the journey is arduous, they remain confident that the peak of this mountain they climb, this mountain of spiritual growth and self-discovery, is one worth reaching. And so they fly skyward—the next level is waiting.

Final rating: 5/5
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Catalog

RetroVertigo_ Monkey Ball 2024-04-13T12:51:23Z
2024-04-13T12:51:23Z
3.5
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
adg3 Super Monkey Ball 2024-03-30T19:52:59Z
Gamecube • XNA
2024-03-30T19:52:59Z
4.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
rokcman Monkey Ball 2024-03-29T01:17:12Z
2024-03-29T01:17:12Z
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
Kluwenblauw Monkey Ball 2024-03-27T20:45:08Z
2024-03-27T20:45:08Z
2.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
nca0 Super Monkey Ball 2024-03-26T10:36:06Z
Gamecube • XNA
2024-03-26T10:36:06Z
4.5
10
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
dotnds Monkey Ball 2024-03-22T19:09:39Z
2024-03-22T19:09:39Z
3.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
vc15 Monkey Ball 2024-03-18T01:20:20Z
2024-03-18T01:20:20Z
3.5
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
Action52 Super Monkey Ball 2024-03-11T13:08:52Z
Gamecube • XNA
2024-03-11T13:08:52Z
4.5
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
Kremling98 Monkey Ball 2024-03-04T17:29:18Z
2024-03-04T17:29:18Z
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
locomotic Monkey Ball 2024-02-29T21:04:03Z
2024-02-29T21:04:03Z
4.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
MiriamMendelsohn Super Monkey Ball 2024-02-22T01:46:42Z
Gamecube • XNA
2024-02-22T01:46:42Z
5.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
AntonioZee Monkey Ball 2024-02-19T17:43:18Z
2024-02-19T17:43:18Z
4.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
Player modes
1-2 players
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Also known as
  • スーパーモンキーボール
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  • Previous comments (9) Loading...
  • Crash6351 2023-06-23 17:58:41.289708+00
    i beat master
    wasn't until like ten years after the game released but i eventually did it
    easily one of the most difficult games i've ever beaten
    reply
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  • Paycheck 2023-11-01 23:14:41.681282+00
    Yeah getting to Master is freaking RIDICULOUS Exam c......
    reply
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