Super Monkey Ball is a game, by Sega, for the Nintendo Gamecube. It is a port of the arcade game Monkey Ball, with added play modes and mini-games that lend it a party-game feel.
Both SMB and its sequel, Super Monkey Ball 2, contain several of these mini-games. Some of them, especially billiards and bowling, are complete simulations in their own right, and not too many years ago would have commanded the package's full price for them alone. Both SMB and SMB2 contain so many extras that to treat them would require a separate writeup. This is not it.
The object of Super Monkey Ball is to guide a plastic ball, containing a monkey that has no impact on the game's physics at all, through a treacherous landscape, up to and though a goal gate within a time limit. By tilting the control stick around, the player tilts the level: gravity does the actual work of moving the ball. It sounds complicated but really it's very natural, so natural that when one of the rare levels comes up that relies on the fact that it's the level being moved and not the ball, it's not obvious. The game plays very much like new-millennium Marble Madness, except there's no enemies. That's right, no enemies! There's not even a final boss. All the obstacles in the entire game are either immobile, move on a fixed track, or react directly to the ball or level motion in a simple, purely mechanistic fashion. SMB2 introduced buttons with which the players could speed, slow, stop or reverse the fixed-track obstacles. That is the extent of the player's power to manipulate the game world. This might make for a rather boring game if it weren't for the level design.
The first level of Super Monkey Ball, Beginner 1, is a flat surface. Push forward, and the ball rolls straight through the goal. Beginner 2 has a hole directly between the player and the exit, so the player has to go around the hole, ooh that sounds hard, Chuck. By the last level of Beginner, level 10, the game has progressed to the point where small obstacle courses must be completed. Finishing them all on one life grants access to three secret, Extra levels as a reward.
The thirty levels of the second mode, Advanced, take the player from there through ever more devilish layouts. Yet, despite the limited pallette of tools with which the designers had to work, the game never gets repetitive. There's nothing in the game that tries to kill the player. There's no damage meter or means of attack. The only ways to die are falling off the board and running out of time. No level is anything more than a complicated arrangement of flats, slopes, banks, curves, bumpers and moving bits. Even so, you never stop wondering what diabolical challenge will come up next. This is genius level design.
Some levels give the player a choice of several paths to take, of varying widths. The thinner paths are much harder to survive, but have more bananas, which are worth extra points and, eventually, lives. Sometimes a level will have multiple goals: blue goals are the ordinary types, while green and red ones are worth huge score bonuses and let the player warp ahead levels. Naturally, they are much harder to reach.
Some levels have difficult slopes that require a running, or "rolling," start to climb. Some levels make the player cross diagonal gaps between platforms. Some levels have pinball bumpers that fling you away when touched, and these are usually fatal. Some levels have conveyor belts, some fling the ball into the air, some have a moving goal, and some have a combination of all these things, and more.
And, some levels require the player fall from one platform to another and "control the bounce." Doing this requires taking advantage on an anti-intuitive, yet accurate, feature of the game's physics: the ball's trajectory can be controlled, to a limited extent, in mid-air. This makes sense when you realize that, when you steer the ball around, the whole level "pivots" around the ball's location. The ball is the center of the universe! If the ball is at one edge of a wide level and you tilt the playfield, the areas at the other end are traveling huge distances, just like the outer edge of a record travels a greater distance than the regions around the spindle. Since this effect follows the ball around, even if it's in the air, it means the game behaves exactly as if you could control the ball while airborne. A side-effect of this is that the further away you are from the ground, the greater will be the result from the same push of the controller.
Advanced 30 is a formidable challenge. Complete Advanced in one life to gain access to five secret Advanced Extra levels.
Expert mode has 50 levels. They start tough, and get tougher. Some of them are very difficult, but they're always fair. One of the game's tricks is to take levels from the easier modes and bring them back, with little gimmicks that make them much harder. There's three such levels that are in each of the three difficulty levels. Beginner 1, Advanced 1 and Expert 1 are all basically the same level, except that the Advanced version has a small bump that must be crossed to reach the goal, and on Expert there's some holes. Beginner 2's hole-in-the-middle layout is complicated by a hinge in its Advanced counterpart, and a huge rotating platform in Expert. The last level of Beginner matches with a similar level in the middle of Advanced, and Expert 7. They're all obstacle courses with winding paths, stair-step rollways and tricky slopes, but while the Beginner version is only hard for amateurs, the Expert version is one of the most challenging levels in the whole game.
A few of the levels look impossible. All all Expert 16 except a narrow starting platform is at a straight 45-degree angle to gravity. It looks impossible, but there are actually two ways to solve it: the "official" way is to land on the high portion of the diagonal platform, control the bounce, then, while holding against the slope of the platform to slow the ball's descent, maneuver "sideways," carefully, around the large square gaps in the platform, to reach the goal. The other way, much harder but impressive to any on-lookers, is to just plunge forward from the start at full speed, make one bounce on the slope, and steer right through the goal on the rebound. Many levels have alternate solutions like this. The designers have admitted that some of them weren't intended, and that they're amazed when people discover new ways to finish them. This is another mark of genius level design, though it might not seem that way at first.
When all fifty levels of Expert are completed on one continue (not life, thankfully!), the player "gets" to play ten levels of Expert Extra. If all 50 Expert and all 10 Expert Extra levels are finished, again, all on one continue, ten final levels, the infamous "Master Mode," become available. I consider myself fully justified in my hyperbole when I say that reaching Master Mode is one of the most challenging tasks ever put into a video game.
I've played Super Monkey Ball for over a year now, and I've managed to get to Expert 36 on one credit. But I don't consider it amazing that I've yet to succeed in reaching Master. After all, it's a simple matter to make a game arbitrarily hard, anyone can do it. What I consider amazing is that I haven't given up yet. I know it's possible, I've just yet to do it. I know this is true, even though I've been trying, off and on, for a year. I'm still getting better, and I know it's just a matter of time. That, more than anything else, is genius game design.