Both Super Monkey Ball and its sequel were among my childhood games, especially the first. They're some of the most memorable games for me, largely thanks to their simple stories and gameplay and the countless hours spent in the game's varied modes. Even though they both came across on the lacking side in ways, they deserve the acclaim they got and I never regretted buying either game. I'd say it was a wise move to port the arcade Monkey Ball to the Nintendo Gamecube with enhancements, it allowed many people to get their hands on and enjoy the game (and its sequel, which came out a year later).
In these two games (and most subsequent sequels), you roll a monkey around in a ball to the goal under the time limit. To move this monkey, you must utilize the control stick to tilt the stage, guiding your player character to the end. Depending on the stage, you might have obstacles like bumpers that might try to throw your monkey off the stage or varying platforms of different sizes that either help or hinder you depending on what they are. You usually have 60 or 30 seconds to handle these missions, and you must not fall off the edge or you must start the stage over from the beginning.
About twelve years after I first purchased the first title of the series though, I realized something was seriously wrong with both of them. I mean, I was always aware of their faults but I never thought of it too deeply. Then as I watched some Monkey Ball videos, I managed to hit a nerve and now I feel the need to rant about the two games. Let's look over some of the series' flaws right now because it's time I got these off my chest:
Issue #1: Uneven Difficulty
In both the games I mentioned, you can choose a difficulty to play in. These difficulties have different stages and obstacles for you to race through, and are usually true to their name. However, in some of the modes (particularly in SMB1) they will throw some very difficult stages in either the wrong modes or really early on, or simply created stages that are on the borderline of being impossible. No stage in either game is really impossible, but some people like myself have no option on some of these stages but to abuse physics and stage design to hit the goal tape. This is definitely apparent in SMB1's master mode, where a lot of players have apparently used shortcuts to reach the goal rather than taking on the eternity of the courses themselves.
For example, let me talk about the stage Arthropod in Super Monkey Ball 2. It is the last stage of Advanced mode, and features a giant arthropod-like robot that walks around on turning rings that you must balance yourself upon. If you're not careful with your balancing, then you will certainly fall off the level. You either need picture-perfect timing after waiting for the goal to show up or you need to somehow survive on the rings until the goal approaches. This is definitely more of an Expert stage than anything for its cruel design. Diagram C (Expert 7) in Super Monkey Ball is another great example. It appears very early in the set of 50 stages and has a checkerboard floor and a very thin line with 180 curves that you must navigate quickly or the timer might go off too soon.
In Super Monkey Ball, it was very bad. Some of the stages featured in Expert should have appeared later in the mode, in Expert Extra, or even in Master. Some stages in Master are completely unnecessary too and feel more like luck than actual skil (we'll get to that soon), so some of the brutal stages like Expert Floor 32 or Expert Floor 42 could have found a new home. In the sequel, the uneven difficulty is somewhat fixed, but there are still some stages I'd have swapped out or even removed entirely. However, the real reason why the difficulty matters so much is because of this specific thing called the timer.
Issue #2: Strict Time Limits
Normally the timers in the games' levels are pretty reasonable, but sometimes the times feel way too strict for accurate level play. I assume that the strict timers are to pressure the player and make them feel like pros when they complete a level, but I personally feel like they're way unforgiving at times. All levels in the first Monkey Ball have either 60 or 30 second timers whereas I feel that some should have had at least 100 second timers at most. Master Floor 3 and 9 both deserve longer timers, they're both extensively long stages with low time limits and you need near-perfect timing to overcome them. Yes, the strict countdowns do add to difficulty, but they're really unfair at times due to the uneven, weirdly done difficulty balancing in SMB1.
Labyrinth, the story-exclusive level in SMB2, has a strict 60-second time limit. To do this stage on the first try or even just not sacrifice any lives, you pretty much need immediate knowledge of the stage's design or you need to have watched a playthrough on YouTube or something beforehand. If you basically stumble or fall off at any point, you won't have the time to get to the goal and you'll pretty much have to drive your suicidal monkey off a cliff so you don't have to suffer the wait. Expert 7 in SMB1 has a pretty crappy 60 second time limit too -- you have to put your energy into running the monkey as fast as possbile across the stage without having them fall off. The worst thing about these time limits is that they up your anxiety. If you're running out of time, you can easily become paranoid and lose your balance.
Advanced Extra Floor 3 in Super Monkey Ball is almost impossible to do on a time limit because of its excessively long length. You sometimes actually do need to take a shortcut if you want to reliably get into the goal on time. Some levels just period do not need a time limit either: some levels where you need luck don't need the time limits because the time limits wouldn't allow you to experiment with finding out how to get to the goal on time. They're maddenly frustrating and to be honest extremely frustrating, especially with what we're going to talk about next:
Issue #3: Luck
I honestly love luck, man. I sorta study it and like making stuff that's based on luck, and certainly love luck-based board games. Card games are definitely my forte and inspired my love for casinos. Some luck based video games are acceptable, but none of the Super Monkey Ball games should have luck as pure level design, period! It is the absolute worst in games like these. While the first Super Monkey Ball game suffered from really strict time limits and unbalanced difficulty, the third had insane luck-factored stages. I did mention that some Master stages really suffered from luck -- I have never actually made it to the Master stages in the first game because of the insane difficulty it took to get to Expert Extra alone (which I never made it to either!).
In Monkey Ball, what luck stages there were mostly depended on your skill at least. Some of the Master stages in the first game require a level of talent beyond what I can handle...extremely thin slopes, objects that move faster than you can...jeez. In SMB2 however, they introduced an inane amount of stages that required luck. In one of the stages, Free Throw, you have to set yourself down on a slope and hope to Jesus Christ that you'll get thrown into a "basket" (goal). You'll either overshoot or be flung into a pole and be shot off the stage. In another (Dizzy Circles or something), there'll be a bunch of spinning platforms that will hold more spinning platforms which are all located on a giant spinning platform. Somehow you have to navigate yourself and hit the goal tape without getting ovely dizzy or falling off stage.
If you had indefinite lives or continues, then luck wouldn't really be a problem. But considering that you have to not lose a life/continue on some gameplay modes to make it to more advanced levels, you can't just experiment and keep going until you figure out the correct timing to hit the goal tape. One of the Expert stages that has you press a bunch of switches to find the one that'll take you to the goal punishes you for pressing the wrong one by (most of the time) swinging you right off the stage! Some stages require almost completely on your understanding of timing and thumb wrestling to bash the goal, and those can get extremely insane at times.
Issue #4: The "Lives" System
Both Monkey Ball games have a large problem with their lives system. Initially I thought it was pretty balanced, but they really screwed it up in both the first and second titles! In SMB1, you can only have three lives at once and you must not lose ONE on Beginner or Advanced to make it to their respective "Extra" counterparts. For Expert you must not lose a continue at all in order to gain entry to its Expert stages, and still not lose it to make it to Master. In SMB2, however, you can purchase extra lives via Play Points on your playthroughs to gain a better shot of getting to the Extra modes (which all require not losing continues). This is a good thing until I realized that you can have up to 99 lives, which gives you way too many shots at getting into the best modes! Based on the luck issue though, I don't mind too much.
My gripe from the lives system is mostly in SMB1. In that game, you must not lose a single life in order to hop on Beginner or Advanced modes' extra stages. This isn't necessarily an evil or bad thing for the first mode, because it is pretty easy, but some of the tougher levels in Advanced make the 1-life decision very questionable indeed. You only have THREE lives for the eternity of Expert's 50 floors, which is horrible game design because of the awkward difficulty shifting of this particular mode. While you can collect extra lives, it can only be done by collecting 100 bananas, which means that the best way to get extra lives is to go through the rare bonus stages, which often just get you halfway to an extra life! It's really risky to collect bananas in Expert too, because they're positioned in ways that'll hurt you if you dare try to get 'em!
In both games, the amount of lives provided should have been at least 5, with the ability to gain more by collecting...I don't know, 30 bananas? It is such a hassle to collect bananas because most of them can only be collected by taking the most risky routes available. Again, that's poor design because it's very easy for the games to eat at your lives by keeping your main ways of recovering on the hardest and often most unfair routes in both games. This is a huge problem in SMB1, where bananas definitely aren't as plentiful in Expert and the fact that you only have 3 lives doesn't make anything better.
Conclusion I think
Playing the games is fun, don't get me wrong, but I needed to express the pain and difficulty of both Monkey Ball 1 & 2 because of how damn ridiculous they can be at times. They're both sort of broken and sometimes way too difficult to bother playing. I have never achieved Expert Extra in SMB1 (let alone Master) because of the absurd difficulty and overdone slopes and curves patterns of the stages. I completed the eternity of SMB2, but its basis on luck and its seemingly endless frustration due to the absurd number of lives you can set up for yourself have prevented me from really coming back to it. Sometimes I go back to them for a little while, but that's no easy journey and I learn why I put them down as fast as I pick them up.
They're both really flawed titles and I wish it were easier to express that rather than making a big deal out of four huge issues with the games. These titles play fine but...it's just hard to appreciate them when they punish you by being way too brutal.