'Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz' Game Director on Preserving Charm of Original Characters in Remaster

Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz HD  - SEGA Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Sega
"Even though all you're doing is rolling around in a ball, there was something about the game I found supremely compelling and enjoyable," says Masao Shirosaki. "The characters were super-cute, and it seemed like one of those games you wind up picking up again and again."

Over ten years since the original release, the frenetic Super Monkey Ball platformer is back: full steam ahead.

Featuring new hidden characters such as Sonic the Hedgehog, enhanced level design and two challenging new modes, Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz HD released Oct. 29 on Playstation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. The game tasks players with taking on the role of a monkey inside a ball and tilting their way toward the goal across a variety of levels — dizzying, colorful, adorable, surprising — that offer fun obstacle courses.

Sitting down with The Hollywood Reporter, game director and producer Masao Shirosaki opened up about the process of remastering a classic title while preserving the charm of the characters and world, and the personal connection he has to the game. "When I was a child, one of my joys was to find hidden tricks and secrets in video games," he says. "We've implemented a bunch in this title, and I hope you can find them."

An avid gamer during his youth, Shirosaki talks about finding inspiration to pursue a gaming career from titles such as Super Mario Bros., Final Fantasy and Tomb Raider, how he toured Japan playing Magic: The Gathering tournaments in high school, and how the Super Monkey Ball series, with its deep-rooted history, was an important title for SEGA.

How did the original Super Monkey Ball series capture your imagination as a player?

Even though all you're doing is rolling around in a ball, there was something about the game I found supremely compelling and enjoyable. The characters were super-cute, and it seemed like one of those games you wind up picking up again and again. From the development perspective, the game rules and controls are rather simple, so the fun lies in coming up with new devices and traps to keep the game experience fresh and exciting. Since this title is a remaster, we weren't able to implement any completely new obstacles. However, if I were to get a chance to create an all-new game, I'd like to brainstorm all sorts of devious obstacles and traps.

Why did you decide to remaster this game for modern consoles?

The Monkey Ball series, with its deep-rooted history, is an important title for our studio. We've been in active plans to do a remake for some time now, but resources were tight within the dev team, and it was tough to move the project forward. Around the time that development on Judgment wrapped up, myself and a few others had some downtime, so I volunteered to step into the producer role. That was around January of 2019. The project was greenlit in February, and the development took around six months after that.

Can you talk about what aspects of the original game you preserved and what parts you enhanced?

I think the level design is incredible, that perfect design where, even when you fall off, you're just so convinced that you could beat it if you just tried one more time. I wanted to make sure that feeling was preserved in our remake, even as we updated the controls to fit current-generation hardware. The cute characters are another vital part of the charm of this game. By remaking this game on the current gen, we wanted the users to see and experience AiAi and his friends with modern graphical fidelity. I am personally very fond of how their voices sound, too, and I hope players will come to love these adorable characters with their cute squeaky voices. As for the UI, we completely redesigned it. It's been over ten years since the original release, so we decided to incorporate more modern trends and give it a whole new look. We wanted vivid colors to showcase the bright, colorful world of these monkeys, so we chose yellow as the main color scheme.

What obstacles did you run into during the development of the levels?

The level designs in the original version were intended to be played with Wii controllers, so some of the levels would've been too easy with the stick input. For those levels, we made some adjustments to the shape of the level to make them more enjoyable with the current controls. We struggled to figure out how to make it just right, and we were making little tweaks here and there all the way up until the end. If you're familiar with the original, I'd be very happy as a developer if you tried to find all the differences in this newest version of the game.

Is the game intended to offer a stiffer challenge than the previous entries in the series?

I believe this game ultimately turned out comparable with the previous games. Of course, to ensure that first-time players can still have a good time, the game is designed so that players will naturally gain the skills necessary as they complete the earlier stages one at a time. This game ought to be enjoyable to series veterans newcomers alike. Personally, you should have seen the pure joy on my face when I beat the game for the first time during testing. (Laughs) 

What enhanced aspect of the game are you most looking forward to having people discover?

For this game, we added two new modes: "Time Attack" and "Decathlon." Both are meant for players to hone their skills and challenge themselves. The whole dev team and I are looking forward to being surprised by the timestamps and scores that users achieve. These two modes have worldwide rankings enabled, so please, give it a shot and try to become the best in the world! (I bet people will be beating my own record in no time flat...) When I was a child, one of my joys was to find hidden tricks and secrets in video games. We've implemented a bunch in this title, and I hope you all can find them. There are also many hidden characters that you can unlock as you make your way through the game. That includes the one and only Sonic the Hedgehog!

What games were impactful for you in childhood? Was there a particular game that inspired you to pursue a career in gaming?

There are many games that had a role in my childhood, including long-running series such as Super Mario Bros.Final FantasyTomb RaiderMetal GearUnchartedPokemon and Derby Stallion. Among SEGA titles, I enjoy the Sakura Wars and World Club Champion Football series. I'm also quite fond of card games, and I'm a huge fan of Magic: The Gathering in particular. During my middle-school and high-school years, I traveled across Japan to enter tournaments. I truly cherish the friends and memories I made during that time, and you could say that experiencing the joy of connecting to people through games is one of the reasons I chose this career.

What other games have impressed you this year?

Out of the games that I've played this year, Days Gone really left an impression on me. I enjoyed the incongruity between zooming across a scenic landscape on a motorcycle and the sudden zombie attacks. And that inimitable feeling of relief when you finally get back to your motorcycle after a mission...that stuck with me. Another game would be Astral Chain. I played it because the director, Takahisa Taura, happens to be a former schoolmate of mine, but it was a well-made, fun, solid action game. His work inspires me to continue to improve my own.

I'm currently playing World War Z and Concrete Genie. Since I'm not so good at shooters, WWZ is helping me practice. (I also enjoyed the film.) Concrete Genie, in the meantime, is a beautiful game and very soothing to the heart. I'm very excited for upcoming releases Death StrandingControl [released in August] and The Last of Us Part II. On the mobile end, I mostly play the Power Pros series, just because I like baseball. I've also been playing board games like KartelPiece o' CakeSkull & RosesKingdominoCamel Up, and Settlers of Catan.