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Super Monkey Ball and the Catharsis of Motion

1st of September, 2020

This piece was originally published on the website The site only offers the ability to review music and film, but since all my work was already there and I had found friends and a very small audience there I decided to carry on posting my written work there.

There's this story that Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of the Mario series and Zelda series, likes to tell about how he got his design inspiration for the Legend of Zelda, the first game in that series. He describes the game as an attempt to give players a “miniature garden that they can put inside their drawer”, and his inspiration for the content of this garden was his own experience exploring the woods and caves of Kyoto. This has always struck me as odd, because the actual environment of that game is overtly yellow. It feels more like exploring some industrially poisoned car park overgrown with straw-like grass and dandelions than anywhere idyllic enough to have a naturally occurring cave. Nottingham has caves, but they're always full of cigarettes and crisp packets. The first Legend of Zelda doesn't have any crisp packets, but unlike the later games it feels wilted, hostile, and abandoned. It makes me wonder: in what way was Miyamoto's exploration important to informing the design, then?

The Legend of Zelda's handling of movement is pivotal: The player can move in an intercardinal way, in eight directions, but can only attack in the four cardinal directions, which means that a sort of short term planning needs to go into positioning oneself before striking. This is the movement on a moment to moment basis, while the movement over the course of an entire playthrough involves exploring a map of many interconnected tiles. There is a fixed camera in the game, and moving to the edge of the screen means the player has to move to another map tile and the camera teleports to follow them.

I think this limitation of movement is the way in which Miyamoto's experience with exploration informed the design—in fact probably the primary sense in which he makes that fundamentally artistic move of transforming experience. Exploration in real life isn't like in video games. Movement on foot is slow: trying to get close to a distant landmark which seems enticing is not an immediately gratifying discovery, from which we can then make our next, but a physically taxing process that is rewarding at least in part because of the effort one needs to exert to arrive. In a hike, it is an engagement with the physical process of moving ones own body that characterises the sense in which one exhibits agency.

The Legend of Zelda thus exercises a different sort of agency than a game like The Wind Waker does. In The Legend of Zelda, we must always wrestle with the mechanics a little bit, and mentally compensate, according to unintuitive but novel spatial calculations, in order to both attack moving targets and avoid getting flanked by other hostile creatures. That kind of reasoning is totally foreign to our usual spatial calculation, and it makes every fight tense. The Wind Waker's combat system has other priorities. In that game, the player's engagement with the mechanic of character control is not itself a mechanic of primary importance in the exercising of agency. The in-game avatar moves easily whereever we want it to, and the sworplay mechanics see graceful arcs and precise thrusts that never force one to choose between moving and attacking. The Wind Waker represents a more instantaneous and intuitive ideal of exploration that is exercised: simply choosing to move and, with an immaterial ease, arriving.¹

Exercising agency is an important part of art: listening to a polyphonic contrapuntal piece of music necessarily involves the active process of the continuous shifting of one's attention from voice to voice. Watching a film is the same way, in that we can engage with the movement of objects in the frame with respect to each other, or with respect to the shifting parallax of the scenery as the camera tracks through it, or in any other way one can think to. Super Monkey Ball is an aesthetically revolutionary experience with regards to movement as a form of agency. A game is at its best as a cathartic exercising of one's agency within a set of mechanics, and Super Monkey Ball has exactly one mechanic: as one tilts the control stick, so the world tilts around you. The buttons only control menus, there is no jumping or attacking or interacting, just the movement of an analogue joystick. You do not directly control the monkey in the ball, you tilt the level and the monkey rolls around it. This had been done before in arcade games like Marble Madness, but the reason Super Monkey Ball feels so alive is that the camera is positioned in such a way that one isn't constantly reminded of this fact. The game is posited not as a puzzle game about moving a marble through an obstacle course, but as a subjective experience of being a physical object that can engage with its world in the most intuitive way imaginable, by the operation of Newtonian physics.

This would all fail to excite if the environment didn't properly take advantage of this mode of movement. Super Monkey Ball 2 involves massive grandiose settings with moving parts and long obstacle courses, but the first title does only exactly what it needs to do to challenge, and so the stages are brilliant in their restraint. The stages themselves are the quiet medium that supports the movement, rather than acting as characters in themselves as in Super Monkey Ball 2. Where the complex obstacle courses do appear they feel like momentous end of level bosses.

There is an elephant in the room here. A colleague at work told me an amusing story, which it turns out isn't actually true but is interesting in another way. There exists a spider called the 'Brazillian jumping spider', and a bite from this creature gives the victim a four hour erection before killing them. My immediate response to being told this was to ask: “how high must this thing be able to jump if that's what it's named for? Not the ‘Brazilian four hour erection spider’? As if that isn't the most noteworthy thing about it?” The elephant in the room is that I have spent the entire body of this piece talking about the revolutionary way that Super Monkey Ball handles movement, camera, and agency, without ever addressing the sheer insanity of the fact that it's a game in which monkeys, trapped in Perspex spheres, roll around a load of ethereal floating sky platforms among jungle mountain ranges, floating cloud temples and 50s diners in outer space, and no explanation is ever offered for why this is happening. I hope that it tells you just how masterfully this game is designed, that somehow that premise is not the most interesting thing about it.

¹ (Footnote from 11/01/21) Incidentally, one of the things I most respect about Dark Souls is that it manages to gracefully translate the limitation of movement that characterises The Legend of Zelda (and indeed many other early Nintendo games) into 3D. Nintendo were enormously important in shaping the trajectory of almost every genre of game they tackled, and the vast majority of 3D action games still follow the blueprint set out in Super Mario 64. Dark Souls manages to feel distinct from this: it feels difficult to move around and attack in a way which somehow, like the best of the early Nintendo games, makes the experience richer, and not just frustrating. I've never finished Dark Souls because I got into it during the period of my decline in interest in video games. I think fondly about it sometimes, because it is undoubtedly very good.