What’s next for Super Monkey Ball?

Jose Cardoso May 24, 2013 - 12:00 pm

Super Monkey Ball has been reborn in a fair few forms since its inception. With Sega’s overall strategy undergoing a restructure, Jose Cardoso explores where this will leave the ailing franchise.

Super Monkey Ball Feature image 2C

It’s true of any growing franchise that directional changes can do much to cement or reverse a reputation. Though they are not always welcomed with a spirit of tolerance, continuing to lean in a certain direction could devolve into something tired and overdone, and so sometimes it’s better to rub long-standing supporters the wrong way for the ultimate sustainability of the overall brand.

This isn’t always the case, however. Such a strategy can backfire if the overarching vision isn’t clearly discernible or strays too far away from the founding principles that led to certain design pillars being nurtured. And as I think of Super Monkey Ball and what SEGA has been doing to presumably move this franchise forward, I can’t say I’m too hopeful about the course they’ve been setting for it.

Recently I’ve been prompted to ask myself what’s next for this franchise. This comes at an especially fitting time, as SEGA is currently engaged in their own form of rolling around. Prior to the whole restructuring phase, SEGA had come out publicly, announcing plans to shift business practices to focus on established, “balanced” IPs. Question is, does Super Monkey Ball still fall under that bracket?

Spinning heads

To be perfectly frank, you could say the franchise has been experiencing more fallouts than it has made stunning finishes. Commercial success, fan feedback, critical reception – all of this, when put together, paints a less-than-glowing picture of where Super Monkey Ball is currently and where it could go. With these factors presenting a vivid danger to the franchise’s strength and long-term success, now more than ever does SEGA really need to regroup and take better stock of things before the ground becomes too slippery to get a firm hold on.

To be sure, in looking at things from a longevity point of view, Super Monkey Ball has had a great run up until this point. Things could have turned out much differently had the series history been marked by an all-too-common situation where each new entry was simply just more levels being added with the possibility of a different storyline to follow.

It is for this reason that I do applaud the core development team for taking risks and exploring new conventions of executing their changing vision, even while it has dissonantly affected how they want the brand to be perceived and who they want to connect with. But now, this drastic change in direction has become a driving force behind recent lukewarm reception.

Super Monkey Ball Feature image 3A

It’s actually quite puzzling how certain qualities that were once firmly attached to the Super Monkey Ball brand have now fallen by the wayside – namely, the high level of challenge, fanciful environments, as well as the diverse level design. Once ruled by a clear vision, the franchise’s more recent efforts reveal an almost punctured design sphere, one where holes in their ideas have reflected a swift change from the reputable foundations the original games were built on – to the point where the multi-tiered focus has been diluted.

Deadly challenges, tight restraints, and creative design were brought together to create a captivating formula where precision and a strong helping of aggravated faults developed determination and commitment. The often boundless, open-to-manipulation design that once stimulated challenge seekers has now been stripped down to its laurels to such a point where depth is notably lacking.

Feelings of emptiness are now part of an equation that was once complex, with their craft becoming one-dimensional and fitted to a template that, by all arguments, isn’t working terribly well. By my observation, this goes deeper than just the visions that’ve encapsulated the changing components of the core design.

Truthfully, it’s difficult to attribute a common denominator as being a precursor to all of this, since each recent entry has had different contexts in which differing design executions have been explored. Furthermore, how they relate to an overall vision is where there’s a lack of clarity, as their approaches have become individualized and are no longer shared as identifiably as they once were.

With specific reference to this point, I am singling out Super Monkey Ball Adventure, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz, Super Monkey Ball: Step & Roll, and Super Monkey Ball 3D, which have each presented differing values and components in relation to the franchise at large.

It’s not so much they are wrongfully drifting too far away from the original game design (notwithstanding Adventure’s story-driven attempts); more that, in all the shuffle, things have fall through the cracks. Yes, it is the core game design where SEGA needs to take an especially honest look and analyze the feedback these changing focuses are having on the two audiences that seem to be fighting for attention. One is being more favoured than the other – and it’s not the one that’s been supportive of the franchise since the beginning.

Super Monkey Ball Feature image 4A

By all means explore new ways and directions to breathe new life into the universe, but when trying to return to the central make-up of what it is that the universe stands for, don’t kid yourself into thinking you can rest on a divided focus. Specifically with Step & Roll and Super Monkey Ball 3D in mind, it becomes apparent that a change in design principle has sprung forth – one that, like in the case of Super Monkey Ball Adventure, shifts away from what the established successes represented. Such focus has honed in on one of the early building blocks – that of time restraint – as a key pillar, enforcing a revised mindset players have as they venture through the challenges these games present.

It’s become less about finding your own way to the end and trying to discover a superior strategy. Instead, players are now often confined to a more linear way of doing things but still have different (sometimes gimmicky) obstacles to slow them down. And while I wouldn’t say the team is rolling around in the dirt, the population of sand traps in Super Monkey Ball 3D seems like an appropriate point of reference when it comes to the design visions they keep fluctuating between.

It’s great to take risks, but what is the backing force behind such changes? Barring very scarce, even rare instances of creativity, it feels like each new entry gets further and further away from the established principles that led the series to become so successful to begin with. Even having the most open of viewpoints, there is indeed a limited range of how said creativity rears its head over the span of each puzzle-infested conquest, never living up to the same pedigree of stage exploration seen especially in Super Monkey Ball 2.

Design decisions

There are cases in Step & Roll and 3D where the game looks itself in the mirror and decides that it wants more than just safe design. But between other instances giving this impression that the team has put its hands on its head to avoid further criticism, those inner qualities the franchise once had have indeed faded considerably.

It doesn’t reflect very well on the team to continue justifying their actions, either, stating both core and casual groups will be attracted to a formula that is clearly more skewed in one direction. Being way too generous in their evaluations, terms such as “wild” and “mind-blowing” have been used to describe efforts in level design when the reality is anything but.

The approach taken towards the party aesthetic has also demonstrated confusion and a lack of coherence. Going from six mini-games in the original to a whopping 50 in Banana Blitz was a huge jump, but with that came a reduction in quality. With the lousy activities sometimes overshadowing the entertaining ones, I can sympathize with the upset some fans had over the quality seen here, even though I personally was still able to enjoy myself.

Super Monkey Ball Feature image 5A

However, when you look at how things changed with Step & Roll and Super Monkey Ball 3D, it’s probable that these negative comments prompted them to pull back and, in the process, lose sight of why they needed to tailor their strategy in this area in the first place. Taking things to another extreme, a less-is-more approach has now been adopted where the results are greatly lacking in extended appeal. As if pulling away the additional rugs wasn’t enough, even the original carpet has been removed, forcing long-time supporters to catch sight of pale flooring never before seen.

What was once an expectation, even a guarantee, has now become a sight for sore eyes. An experience that was once defined by its rollercoaster-like speeds of change and unpredictable direction has now become synonymous with a fairly thin crust. Groaning for reform is the process they’ve undertaken to level the playing field, but without solidifying who they’re doing what for.

Not since Super Monkey Ball 2 (and maybe Banana Blitz, if we’re going to be a bit more reasonable) has SEGA achieved proper acceleration in pacing and movement of the game design, and I sincerely hope they will be moved to take a closer look at the way they’re choosing to spearhead development of the Super Monkey Ball titles. With the lack of acceptable progression seriously hurting the series’ future, I fear that one or two more missteps is all they have left before the critical support they once entertained in abundance becomes a memory filled with regret.

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