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For those who understand that everything is better with monkeys...

YOUR MONKEY LEVEL IS:
45: RING-TAILED LEMUR

PLATFORM - Nintendo Gameboy Advance
DEVELOPER - Original game by Sega; GBA development by Realism.
RELEASE DATE - 2003

Super Monkey Ball was one of the launch titles for the Nintendo Gamecube. It was an extremely simple game, but quite challenging, loaded with extra goodies for players to unlock, and built up a small but dedicated fanbase. At least, in the US it did; I understand that it was much more successful in Japan. SMB Junior is an extremely faithful reproduction of that game on a smaller scale. While the original game had 90 or so "regular" stages, the Gameboy version has 60. The graphics have been simplified for display on the Gameboy, and not all of the unlockable party games have been ported. Other than that, it's very much the same game.

The basic concept is quite simple. The player has to roll a transparent ball, containing a monkey, around a series of maze-like platforms hovering in space. The platforms start out very easy, with broad areas to move around in, the only challenge being to collect as many bananas as you can before you send your monkey ball through the circular goal at the other end of the platform. Level by level, the platforms get more and more difficult, with the introduction of tight turns to navigate, ramps going up and down, tilting and shifting platforms and pinball-style bumpers to avoid. Naturally, if you go over the edge of the platform, your monkey plummets hundreds of miles down, screaming all the way to its death, or so you imagine. And of course, there is a time limit on each level.

Everything else is icing on the cake. There are four monkey characters to choose from, each with its individual victory chants and cries of despair, but the character you play with has no effect whatsoever on the game play. And you don't actually move by rolling the ball, but by tilting the platform underneath it - again, this is purely a visual effect, but it is a nice one.

And then there are the extras. Every time you complete a level, you get points for time and bananas collected - the original game was sponsored by Dole, believe it or not. Once you have scored 2500 points, which shouldn't take long, you can unlock one of the mini-games. The party games include Monkey Fight, Monkey Bowling, and Monkey Golf, as well as a strictly two-player game called Monkey Duel. After you have unlocked all the party games, you can unlock extra continues and other features that keep the game interesting. There are also bonus levels to keep you rolling the monkey even longer.

The controls are basic and well managed. The D-pad moves the monkey around, or rather tilts the platform. You can use the A button for a more extreme tilt, or the B button for a softer touch, but these buttons are hardly ever used. Control over the ball is a kind of trade-off from the Gamecube version; it's harder to steer the ball at precise angles with the D-Pad than with the Cube's analog stick, but the platform edges are a little more forgiving and it's easier to bring the ball to a stop (on the Gamecube it was practically impossible to immobilize the ball) or balance on an edge.

The only real failing, as far as gameplay goes, is the camera control. The camera follows the monkey around at strange, almost random angles, with no player control. When the monkey is moving fast, the camera swings around to follow with a good over-the-shoulder perspective, but the view changes lag behind the monkey's turns a little. Most of the time, the field of vision is wide enough that this is not a major problem. On some levels, however, it is vital that you see exactly where your monkey is headed, especially since diagonal movements are notoriously hard to control with the GBA's D-Pad. At these times, the skewing camera view can really trip you up.

Players of SMB on the Gamecube will doubtless have one question on their minds: how good is the conversion? Let me put it this way: if you've played the Gamecube version all the way through, there's no point in buying the Junior version, because it really is the same game. Most, if not all, of the levels are exactly the same as they were in the Gamecube SMB, and only the visuals have changed. I believe that a few of the levels were invented for the GBA game, but it must be said that I never completed the Gamecube version. Hey, I’m only a Slender Loris after all. In any case, there aren't more than a handful of these possibly new levels.

The golf course is different, but that's hardly going to keep your interest for long. And the coolest party games, Monkey Race and Pool, have not been ported. So if you've got the original SMB, hold onto it.

I don't mean to slight SMB Junior by these statements. On the contrary, I'm very impressed by the conversion. I never expected to play such a neat 3D game on the GBA. When I bought this game, it was mostly out of nostalgia for the original, which I stupidly traded away when I got stuck halfway through the Advanced Level. I should have stuck to my guns - no other console game since has entertained me as much as SMB did. So it was a nice surprise to find that the GBA port was so well done. The graphics, although simpler than the originals, are clean and pretty, with lots of little touches like lens flare when you look towards the sun and more than decent transparency effects. It may just be that I’m still used to Unadvanced Gameboy games, but I’d say this is an excellent conversion.


BONUSES, MINI-GAMES AND EASTER EGGS:

  • BONUS STAGES:
    Each level has extra stages to be played by the skilful. If you can complete the Beginner Level’s ten stages on one life, you will unlock three extra stages which are pretty neat, although not very difficult. I have not been able to unlock the Advanced and Expert Level bonus stages, but if the pattern of conversion from the Gamecube SMB holds true, each one should have five extra stages, which unlock when a player completes a level on a single continue.
  • MINI-GAMES:
    • Monkey Duel - This one is strictly multi-player, so I don't know how good it is. It is the only mini-game that does not have to be unlocked.
    • Monkey Fight - Mindless button-mashing, but good clean fun for parties. Four monkeys duke it out with oversized boxing gloves in one of three classic Monkey Ball arenas (floating platforms, natch). Power-ups drop into the arena at random times, with some amusing effects. This is the one game that was actually a lot more fun on the Gamecube - on this little screen, the action is very cramped, and you can hardly see which power-ups are in play.
    • Monkey Bowling - I don't see the point on either console, really. The awkward controls make this mostly a matter of luck. Mind you, I'm not the world's biggest bowling fanatic.
    • Monkey Golf - Nine holes of miniature golf on some very strange floating platforms. Fun until you memorize the angles. As usual with party games, it seems like the multi-player is probably more interesting. And there is a separate extra that gives you another nine-hole course in an Arctic setting, making the fun last a bit longer.
  • OTHER EXTRAS:
    • Master Level - Five extra stages for the main game. Horrendously difficult, featuring narrow, tortuously twisting paths over molten lava. Steep inclines and morphing platforms virtually ensure that only true Masters (or should that be True Monkeys?) will complete even the first Master Level stage. I lost this as soon as I looked at it.
    • Extra Continues - The game starts with five continues. Extra continues cost 2500 points each. The last unlockable feature is Infinite Continues. You'll need them by the time you unlock them, believe me.
  • EASTER EGG:
    Finally, there is actually a mini-game hidden in the credits sequence. Your monkey is racing down a checkered course dotted with bananas and bumpers. You have to collect the bananas and avoid the bumpers (duh!) On completion of the course, the game awards you a "Monkey Level". It seems like the cartridge saves this title, but I’m damned if I can tell what effect your Monkey Level has on the rest of the game. Still, it’s good to know that you are a genuine Slender Loris, if only so you can sneer at those wussy Ring-Tailed Lemurs.


SUMMARY:

All in all, this is a great game, guaranteed to keep you up late and entertain you on long train rides. It is also one of those Tetris-type games that everyone and his monkey seems to have fun with. My two-year-old daughter likes to pull it away from me and chortle “Monkey!”, and even my video-game-hating wife has lost a few hours to it. The controls are ridiculously simple, the graphics are pretty, the monkey characters are... well, they’re tiny little sprites that don’t do much but laugh and scream, but they’re entertaining nonetheless. The music is corny but unobtrusive, and the levels start out easy enough for anyone to complete a few of them on the first go, while later levels will challenge even the greatest GBA ninjas.

Replayability seems pretty high, with numerous hard-to-reach areas where you can score extra bananas to perfect your score. And there is always the challenge of trying to unlock all the bonus levels, a feat which is guaranteed to take you many, many hours of gaming.

When the endless climb towards the little circular goals bores you, the mini-games offer a quick diversion. And when you get too frustrated by the seemingly impossible Expert stages, you can always hit the end credits’ mini-game and try to get a better Monkey Level.

YOUR MONKEY LEVEL IS:
13: JAPANESE MACAQUE

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