When I set up Potential Gamer last week, I didn’t expect one of the first articles to focus on Super Monkey Ball. For starters it has an extremely silly name, presumably the result of a glitchy Japanese translation back in the mists of time (I’ll be grumbling about game names some more in the future…), but there’s also the rather cloying cuteness and infuriating just-one-more-time factor. It’s very much an arcade game, rather than a narrative game (another topic I’ll be covering soon…but I should stop getting ahead of myself) and, as such, isn’t something I’d encounter in my normal gaming activities.

As you may have noticed, Apple just released a new iPhone, accompanied by updates to the existing model as well as the iTouch (I refuse to call it by its clumsy official title of iPod Touch). Consequently, I’ve joined thousands of others in feeling compelled to spend money on odd things I ordinarily wouldn’t consider. My iTouch is now home to all manner of gadgets, mostly useless, as well as my first iPod game: Super Monkey Ball.

Review: Super Monkey Ball

I’d previously encountered the game on an old Nintendo console – probably the Gamecube – and was highly amused by its utterly arbitrary design decisions. It must have been an interesting production meeting:

“Yeah, we want to create a new Marble Madness style game.”

“That genre’s been eroded by too many lookalike sequels and clones, it’ll never work.”

“What if we use a monkey instead of a marble?”

“Monkeys don’t roll very well, though.”

“True, but we could put it inside a transparent ball.”

“Then what’s the point of the monkey?”

“The inherent amusement derived from implied animal cruelty?”

“Good point. It’ll need a name.”

“How about Turbo Monkey Ball?

Which brings me to the iPod version of Super Monkey Ball. It’s essentially the same game it’s always been, as far as I can tell from my decidedly non-expert view, with the added bonus of being able to control the marble using the iPod’s tilt sensor doodad.

First impressions are that it’s absolutely, positively impossible to control. Finding the ‘no movement’ angle quickly is crucial, otherwise your marble will be rolling all over the place and straight off the edge to its doom before you’ve had time to mumble “ooh, pretty 3D graphics on an iPod!”

The problem is that everybody holds their iPod in a slightly different way. Some people might hold it up right in front of them, others by their side, some might place it flat on their lap/table – and so it goes on. Ideally your natural iPod Holding Position would be the neutral spot for the game, but instead I found it resulted in the marble moving backwards at mach 3. Perhaps some kind of calibration tool would be useful?

Then there’s the second, rather obvious problem inherent in using the iPod as a gaming device, at least when the tilt sensor is the primary control mechanism: The screen is attached to the controller. In a game like Super Monkey Ball, it means that you’re constantly tilting the screen away from the ideal viewing angle – not terribly useful when you’re trying to accurately judge the speed required to jump a small, battered, imprisoned simian across a tiny, drug-induced platformy gap.

Motion controllers work fine on the Wii and the PS3, precisely because you can look at your TV while your hands do the rest, comfortably out of sight. Imagine playing Wii Tennis if the display was on the Wiimote – it wouldn’t take long for you to fall over or have some kind of fit.

Despite that, Super Monkey Ball is still quite fun and it’s undeniably cool to have such a big title running perfectly smoothly on your mp3 player. No doubt there will be hundreds of 15 year olds that will master the control nuances in no time and make me feel decidedly inferior, but there’s a worry that for the average gamer – let alone the average mobile phone user – their first wobbly, uncontrolled attempt to navigate the simple rectangle of the first level could be enough to put them off handheld gaming for life.

Update: Discovered to my chagrin at the weekend that none other than my father – who has barely played a computer game in his life – is rather good at Super Monkey Ball on the iTouch. So it may be that people both younger and older than me are considerably more skilled at the game: in fact, I am beginning to suspect that it may only be me that is having such difficulty…


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