Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Super Monkey Ball: Banana Rumble (NSW) Review

We're not slowing any signs of slowing down here at SuperPhillip Central. A new review is here for a relatively new game, too. Super Monkey Ball: Banana Rumble rolled exclusively onto the Nintendo Switch last Tuesday. Here is the SPC review!

Rollin', Rollin', Rollin'. Keep those monkeys rollin'!

It's been--what--ten years since a wholly original Super Monkey Ball game graced our presence. Can you believe that? After the rather excellent Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania in 2021, which compiled stages from Super Monkey Ball 1, 2, and Deluxe into one package, Monkey Ball fans like myself have been feverishly hoping, anticipating, waiting, and praying with paws together for SEGA to roll out a new game. Now, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Rumble is here, and it features hundreds of brand-new stages, an all-new multiplayer mode, and a fresh mechanic to, well, freshen the rolling action up. Does all of this set up Super Monkey Ball: Banana Rumble for a freshly ripe experience, or is it rotten from the inside out?

Super Monkey Ball's main claim to gameplay fame as a series is its stage-tilting action to move your monkey in a ball through hundreds of progressively more difficult stages. The goal is to reach the end of each stage without falling off (or as the announcer loves to harp, "Fall OUT"), and it's honestly a literal goal too, as your ball needs to cut through the tape of the orange, circular goal to clear the stage successfully. You'll get lots of moments where you "kiss" the goal, only to bang off the edge of it and fall out, or worse yet, run out of time in a stage because you were too careful and cautious about falling off! Oh, it happens far too often... at least for me!

AiAi and the Super Monkey Ball gang are back, and this time... it's still not personal!

There are ten initial worlds in Banana Rumble (with more to unlock after the fact), taking players through an abundance of challenges and locales, from the cute and cozy Banana Farm that eases players through their pacing to get their footing--or rather, rolling into the game to later worlds that really dial up the difficulty considerably to almost fiendish levels, Banana Rumble's Adventure Mode is about a 4-6 hour affair. That's if you're just rolling through stages trying to clear each stage. This mode can also be played locally with up to four players via split-screen, offering the ability for all players to roll around stages at the same time. If just one player clears the stage, all players do. You can also have collisions with other balls off or, if you like some added chaos and carnage, you can have them on, too. Mwahaha!

Colorful worlds abound and await in Super Monkey Ball: Banana Rumble!

Banana Rumble also arrives with its own story in its Adventure Mode, introducing various new characters to go along the familiar and trusted Monkey Ball crew of AiAi, MeeMee, Baby, GonGon, and others. It features cute, animated, voiced (in monkey gibberish, I do believe) cutscenes following the story of AiAi and friends meeting a mysterious monkey named Palette, who searches for her missing Papa. AiAi and pals agree to help by finding the Legendary Banana treasure which Palette says will help in searching for her father. Thus, the motivation to roll through 100 stages commences! Well, that outside of the good times and fun the Super Monkey Ball games generally provide!

This time around, this latest installment of Super Monkey Ball takes a new mechanic out for a spin--and quite literally, too. It essentially borrows a chapter out of Sonic the Hedgehog's playbook--a fellow SEGA all-star--with the spin dash. Unlike past Super Monkey Ball games implemented multiple new game mechanics that served as a banana-split to the fanbase in popularity--whether that's motion control, touch controls, the ability to jump, or heaven forbid, Banana Blitz's boss battles--Banana Rumble's spin dash works wonderfully and feels like a natural evolution of the series' gameplay. Dare I say, it's going to be a bit difficult to return to past or future games in the franchise without this mechanic. I love it so much. Mere gimmick, this ain't.

Depending on how long you hold the B button as well as which direction you hold the left stick,
these factors determine how fast and how far of a speed burst courtesy of the spin dash your monkey will get.

Performed by holding down the B button and then letting go of it whilst pointing the analog stick forward, the spin dash propels your monkey of choice in their ball forward with a sudden burst of speed. This helps in charging up ramps without worrying about losing momentum, great for lipping off ramps and short edges of stages, and most interestingly, allows for some phenomenal speed run opportunities for most stages. 

Sure, a lot of the time the speed run opportunities boil down to tremendous trial and error and even some luck with spin dashing into a corner or ledge to "jump" and skip a large portion of stage or even hop all the way to the goal, but it's positively thrilling and rewarding when you accomplish such a feat. It's absolutely awesome to rush your way through a stage without doing it the "intended way".

Shortcut and skip opportunities alike are present for proficient spin dashing players.

I put "intended way" in quotes because each stage presents players with three missions apiece to optionally complete. The missions are always the same requirements, just varying in the amount one needs to reach to accomplish them. For instance, as it pertains to speed running and clearing a stage the unintended way, there is a mission to complete a stage within a usually strict time limit. Generally, most stages require a skip via a well-placed spin dash or series of spin dashes to meet and beat these times. The other two missions in each stage feature finding, collecting, and reaching the goal with a Golden Banana, and grabbing a certain amount of bananas within a stage. 

Those are the stage missions, at the very least. There are also various in-game missions outside of stages that can be completed, too. These missions award points that are the currency to be used in the in-game shop. Here, you can purchase different clothing, balls, gear, animations, and more with the points you earn from completed missions. Needless to say, there is a LOT of content even in the single-player mode to be found in Super Monkey Ball: Banana Rumble.

Camera got you flustered? Press the right shoulder button to get it centered back behind
your monkey in a snap! It's a lovely quality of life addition!

But, what of the multiplayer component within Banana Rumble? While this iteration of Super Monkey Ball lacks the familiar and celebrated party games of past entries (sorry, friends, Monkey Target is nowhere to be found here), what does take their place is that of battles pitting you against 15 other players. Battling with randoms mostly consists of one or two other real players and a bunch of other bots, but I'm happy at least that bots are an option to make the matches less empty. At any rate, the online matches switch between different modes at random, throwing you back to an empty waiting room of sorts where you can roll around for fun and while you wait for the next match to fill up. Once it does, you're thrown into a match.

Matches are relatively short affairs depending on the mode chosen. Really, you can find yourself waiting in the lobby longer than you actually play a match. That said, matches feature races from point-to-point along a perilous sky high road with multiple twists, turns, and obstacles to them; there are matches where you attempt to destroy robots for points; matches consisting of grabbing the most bananas; matches that are like a Hot Potato, keep-away game with bombs, where the players who remain holding a bomb by the end of one of five rounds don't earn points while the players who successfully passed off their bombs to other players or avoided getting a bomb altogether earn points; and finally, a match type where two teams of eight players apiece claim goals for points with the harder to reach goals awarding more points than those that easier to roll through.

These match types can all be played offline with bots solely (and locally as well), but there is an incentive to play online at least once per day. You get a lucky ticket each day for participating in an online match, which rewards you with a rare clothing item or gear for your Monkey Ball. There are seasons with exclusive unlockable gear that can be earned through merely playing online, as well. There's hardly a grind to speak of, too, and no further real world money must be paid to complete the season pass, as it were.

Doctor, Doctor, give me the news. I got a bad case of dizziness from all this rambunctious rolling!

I mentioned Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania (the 2021 game) back near the beginning of this review. While that game was entertaining as all get out, it did have one issue that many veterans of the Super Monkey Ball franchise held a grievance with. That was that the physics weren't 1:1 to the classic Monkey Ball games from the GameCube originals. It is my pleasure to alleviate any concerns that the physics in Banana Rumble resemble Banana Mania's relatively "off" feel of rolling your monkey about. Instead, Banana Rumble feels like the closest we've gotten to the originals without actually BEING the originals. A pleasant surprise, but a welcomed one.

Super Monkey Ball: Banana Rumble delivers an exhilarating package all in all. It features the most consistency of any Monkey Ball game since 1 & 2 back in the early 2000s. A long time to wait, for sure, for consistency. Everything from the stage design, to the challenge level, to the amount of content to sink one's teeth into like a delicious banana, to the all-new spin dash make for a terrific entry in the series. The latter of which is such a great inclusion for both gameplay and speed-running (or is it speed-rolling?) purposes. I can't imagine moving forward with the Super Monkey Ball series and not seeing the spin dash return. That's how game-changing and elevating it is. While the unsteady framerate of Banana Rumble is less than stellar (in and out of multiplayer, even), and said multiplayer modes are a bit lesser than their old school counterparts (but still fun--don't get me wrong), Super Monkey Ball: Banana Rumble for all intents and purposes is Super Monkey Ball 3 in everything but name only. I can think of no greater compliment!

[SPC Says: B+]

Monday, July 1, 2024

Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3 (GBA, NSO) Retro Review

We're continuing our Mario retro review theme from a few weeks ago with a look at one of Mario's greatest 2D adventures turned portable on the Game Boy Advance. It also received a release on Nintendo Switch Online's Expansion Pass. I'm talking about Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3. 

The Mushroom Kingdom cast takes stage once more for a riveting encore performance.

In what must be one of the more absurd naming conventions in gaming history, the Super Mario Advance series saw its fourth entry--this time featuring the third Super Mario Bros. game in all of its remade Super Mario All-Stars glory--with Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3. Of course, Super Mario Bros. 2 was Super Mario Advance, while Super Mario World (aka Super Mario Bros. 4 in Japan) was Super Mario Advance 2, and the completely different series, Yoshi's Island, was Super Mario Advance 3, because Nintendo makes no sense sometimes. Just like calling the Wii successor the Wii U, or calling a revised Nintendo 3DS the NEW Nintendo 3DS XL.

Anyway, mini rant over. Super Mario Advance 4 isn't just the original Super Mario Bros. 3 with the Super Nintendo-style visuals from Super Mario All-Stars. Even still, it'd be a pretty sweet package, if not a bit bare content-wise. In addition to the main game, there is of course Mario Bros., a mainstay of the Super Mario Advance line, but more interestingly, Nintendo added power-ups and even MORE interestingly, never-before-seen levels that could be added to the game via the e-Reader peripheral for the Game Boy Advance original version. The Nintendo Switch Online version comes with them already available in a separate menu. More on those levels later.

Every great platforming adventure has to start somewhere.
Super Mario Bros. 3 begins here in Grass Land's first level.

As for the base Super Mario Bros. 3 game, it's just as fantastic as it's always been. It presents players with over 80 levels of platforming nirvana. The game begins with the easy and breezy Grass Land that helps players find and establish their footing as well as their running and jumping groove. It features simple-enough courses with minimal bottomless pits, not-so-tricky enemy positions, and coins and power-ups aplenty.

World 2, Desert Land, immediately turns up the heat in more ways than one.

From there, the game gets increasingly more complex with worlds with multiple more levels to them on their individual maps. Some of these can be avoided, but in order to get that much-desired "World Complete", you do have to beat every level on a given world's map. Mario and/or Luigi will see themselves braving dangerous deserts (with one infamous level home to a particularly angry Sun), diving into the ocean depths, facing enemies and obstacles of giant proportions, taking a trip to the skies above, chilling out in an ice world, finding their way through a pipe maze, all before reaching the kingdom of Bowser himself in hopes of rescuing Princess Peach. 

Giant Land will have you wondering what Bowser feeds his troops here! Aren't you all big!

Levels include basic left-to-right courses, but also some vertical ones, as well as auto-scrolling courses too, particularly the auto-scrolling airships that round out almost every world save for the last. The levels in general are usually short affairs, able to be run through within a minute or so each, if you're keeping a good pace. This is a positive aspect, as there are no checkpoints in levels, meaning that if you make a costly mistake in a level, you start from the beginning of it. The brevity of levels means that you won't have to make up too much progress with each attempt, and with some of these levels, especially later levels, you'll be making a LOT of attempts.

These auto-scrolling levels, especially in the final world, can make anyone can-"tank"-erous!

Super Mario Bros. 3 is a challenging game. It's by no means "NES Hard", a term coined by fans and players of the era, but it's also not a cakewalk either. With the Super Mario Advance 4 version, niceties like save anywhere, being able to stockpile more power-ups and items in your inventory to use on the map (collected from Toad Houses, Hammer Bros (or some variant of Bro) battles, and other methods from each world's map), and the ability to revisit worlds make for a less frustrating, less agonizing experience.

Mario's "nope-ing" out of being here faster than you can say that enemy's name!

Speaking of challenging levels, perhaps the most intriguing part of the Super Mario Bros. 3 and Mario Bros. package (the latter of which has been in every Super Mario Advance game prior, so it's really well-trodden territory at this point) is that of e-Reader bonus content. Think of it as DLC via scannable cards courtesy of an old Game Boy Advance peripheral--you guessed it, the e-Reader. Thankfully, the recently released Nintendo Switch Online version of the game arrived with the major part of the e-Reader's functionality--new levels made specifically for Super Mario Advance 4--already included. 

It's difficult to speak the importance of all-new 2D Mario levels for when this game originally released. The last full 2D Mario game released prior to the Super Mario Advance series and this fourth installment was Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins waaaay back in 1992. Note: I'm talking about a game with a fully playable Mario, so my apologies to Yoshi's Island, even though one can make a very well presented argument of the contrary. That said, until Super Mario Advance 4, all entries in the Advance series featured no new levels at all, so this was a pretty big deal in many ways. We wouldn't get a new 2D Mario until New Super Mario Bros., which was event unto itself, but I digress there!

The over 30 unique levels featured as essentially bonus DLC to Super Mario Advance 4 are quite extensive and elaborate levels. They're also some of the most difficult in Mario series history. Much like Super Mario Bros. 3's base levels, these e-Reader ones feature no checkpoints, which can make them more frustrating to tackle. This is especially so if you're searching high and low for Advance Coins in each level, or in some levels, the super-hidden, hard-to-reach e-Reader Coins. 

Either way, levels basically take everything from past Super Mario Advance games. Some levels feature plucking up vegetables from the ground or digging into sand a la Super Mario Bros. 2 (aka the original Super Mario Advance), while others feature power-ups like Super Mario Advance 2: Super Mario World's Cape Feather, enemies like Bumptys of Super Mario World 2: Super Mario Advance 3 fame, and even some challenges grabbed straight from Super Mario Bros. 3, only made harder--like a battle with TWO Boom-Booms as opposed to the usual one. 

Hey! You're in the wrong game! ..Aren't you? I guess the rulebook is thrown out of the window in these e-Reader levels!

Super Mario Advance 4 has a similar presentation to that of the Super Mario All-Stars version back on the Super Nintendo. Essentially the visuals were taken almost 1:1 directly from that compilation, much like Super Mario Advance's version of Super Mario Bros. 2. There are some added effects as well as some missing ones, too. The major difference is that of sound. If you're not a stranger to the GBA hardware, particularly that sound chip, then you are familiar with how tinny the monaural sound and music can be. The music is lesser quality than the Super Nintendo version of Super Mario Bros. 3, but serviceable yet as always, suitably catchy as well. Like past Super Mario Advance games, Nintendo laid it thick on the voice clips, so be ready to hear "Just what I needed" from Mario a few hundred times throughout your adventures together.

One of the lovely but perilous world maps Mario/Luigi will find themselves venturing along.

Overall, Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3 unquestionably had the most love and care put into it by virtue of the endearingly made bonus levels originally an e-Reader exclusive. Now, with an NSO Expansion subscription, one need not track down packs of cards hoping to get something good out of them. As stated earlier, instead they're all within the game as is. With tight controls that one would expect from the Super Mario series, over 100 levels to enjoy (and curse towards, at times, admittedly), and one of Mario's finest adventures in handheld form, Super Mario Bros. 3 shines like the portly plumber racing through a level with a Starman--colorful and brightly, making Super Mario Advance 4 a fantastic package for any SMB3 or platforming fan in general.

[SPC Says: A]