Playing Super Monkey Ball with a monkey in a ball just makes sense

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Rolling with the Punches: A DIY Trackball for "Super Monkey Ball" Takes Gameplay to a New Level

The world of gaming is constantly evolving, with new technologies and innovative controllers emerging to redefine the way we play. But sometimes, the most inventive solutions come from the most unexpected places. In the case of "Super Monkey Ball," one developer has taken a literal approach to controlling the game’s titular monkey, by building a DIY trackball that allows for physical manipulation instead of button mashing.

"Super Monkey Ball," a classic platformer featuring adorable monkeys rolling through complex obstacle courses, initially featured an oversized trackball controller in its arcade form. This design, intended to mirror the in-game experience of tilting and rolling, was unfortunately absent from the console versions. Yet, the appeal of this unique control method lingered, inspiring developer Tom Tilley to create his own DIY trackball, meticulously crafted from recycled materials.

"I am a software developer, but I worked for about eight years as a fax and cellular phone technician in the late 80’s, so I have some small amount of electronics knowledge that comes in handy with this sort of thing," Tilley told The Verge about his journey into the realm of hardware engineering.

Tilley, now based in Australia, spent years teaching at a university in Thailand, where he challenged his students to brainstorm alternative gaming controllers. From this challenge, the idea for a giant trackball constructed from repurposed components was born.

"The first version of this trackball was built to play a 1986 Japanese arcade game called ‘Armadillo Racing,’ but I have used it to play other games, including ‘Katamari Damacy,’ with a soccer ball,” Tilley shares.

The innovation behind Tilley’s invention lies in its simplicity and resourcefulness. Utilizing readily available items like a basketball, cardboard, and roll-on deodorant containers for bearings, Tilley crafted a functional trackball that replicates the arcade experience with surprising accuracy.

An inverted optical mouse, another salvaged component, plays a critical role in detecting the trackball’s movement. This meticulously assembled system, initially designed for "Armadillo Racing," was then adapted to play the GameCube version of "Super Monkey Ball" through an emulator.

To make the GameCube version of "Super Monkey Ball" work with his DIY trackball, Tilley utilizes a tool named FreePIE (Programmable Input Emulator). This scripting software inverts the signals from the optical mouse and maps them to a virtual joystick compatible with the emulator software.

However, simply attaching a basketball to a mouse wasn’t enough to accurately control the monkey character, AiAi, rolling within the transparent plastic sphere. The sphere’s smooth finish lacked enough friction for the deodorant roller on the mouse to register movement. This problem was solved by swapping out the deodorant roller for a smaller rubber ball rolling on metal bearings, allowing the mouse sensor to detect AiAi’s movements within the sphere.

In a charming and thematic addition, Tilley 3D-printed a miniature AiAi figure to sit inside the sphere. This figure, mounted on a weighted wheeled base, ensures that AiAi remains upright throughout the game, adding a whimsical touch to the project.

With his trackball achieving remarkable fidelity and responsive manipulation, Tilley is ready to conquer the upcoming "Super Monkey Ball Banana Rumble", the first new installment in the series in over a decade. This eagerly awaited release on the Nintendo Switch, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the franchise, has sparked fresh enthusiasm among the series’ loyal fanbase.

The success of Tilley’s DIY trackball highlights not only his ingenuity and dedication to the gaming community, but also the potential of repurposing everyday objects for unexpected applications. His project embodies the spirit of innovation and resourcefulness that permeates the gaming landscape.

It’s a testament to the power of creativity and a reminder that the most effective ways to enhance a gaming experience can often come from unconventional sources. By merging physical manipulation with virtual worlds, Tilley has reimagined how we approach gameplay, creating a unique and engaging experience that redefines the boundaries of the traditional gaming controller.

Beyond the "Super Monkey Ball" project, Tilley’s approach holds lessons for anyone interested in pushing the boundaries of gaming and technology. Here are a few key takeaways:

  • Embrace resourcefulness: Innovative solutions often come from unconventional materials and methods. Don’t be afraid to explore what seemingly ordinary objects can achieve when utilized creatively.
  • Challenge conventional norms: Consider innovative alternatives to existing technologies and approaches. Explore the potential of new ways to interact with digital environments.
  • Share your passion: Tilley’s project is a testament to the power of sharing passions with the gaming community. By engaging in discussions and showcasing innovation, you can inspire others to create and explore.

With the release of "Super Monkey Ball Banana Rumble" on the horizon, Tilley is ready to show the world that rolling with a literal monkey in a ball can be the ultimate way to conquer the challenges ahead.

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David Green
David Green
David Green is a cultural analyst and technology writer who explores the fusion of tech, science, art, and culture. With a background in anthropology and digital media, David brings a unique perspective to his writing, examining how technology shapes and is shaped by human creativity and society.
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