Ape Escape (Video Game Review)

Video Game Review
Ape Escape
1999
Developed by: Japan Studio
Published by: Sony Computer Entertainment of America

We consider Mario the standard bearer when it comes to platformers. During the Nintendo 64 days, fanboys could hug their Nintendo consoles and say with pride that they had the best platformer available for that generation; Super Mario 64. Not content with stealing away most of Nintendo’s user base from the Super Nintendo days, Sony decided to make a cute looking platformer of their own. Not only was Ape Escape every bit as good as Super Mario 64, it was better. It even borrowed from Zelda which must have really sent fanboys for a loop. The action and platforming are great. The graphics, on the other hand, not so much. However, its innovative controls made this arguably the best platformer on the original Playstation.

An evil monkey named Specter has gotten his hands on the Professor’s Peak Point Helmet which grants him an extraordinary amount of intelligence. Specter also uses the Professor’s Time Station to send monkeys back in time to take over the world. It’s up to a young boy named Spike to go back in time and capture all the monkeys before they rewrite history and defeat Specter before he takes over the world.

Spike has to venture through various time periods of history in different geographic locales to scoop up every last monkey before it’s too late. He also has a whole arsenal of tools to use. His standard equipment is a stun club (a lightsabre-looking baton) and a time net which transports the captured monkeys to the present day. Spike has to sneak up on the monkeys to catch them in his net or they’ll run away or attack him. As the adventure progresses, he’ll be given new tools to use such as a propeller that allows him to fly for a short period of time and a radar to find hidden monkeys.

The controls are simple despite it being the first game for the system to require the Dual Shock controller. The left analog stick moves Spike around. Pushing in the left analog stick (L3) allows Spike to crawl around and act all stealthy. While crawling, pressing in the right analog stick makes Spike curl up into a ball to avoid detection from the monkeys. Four different items of the player’s choosing can be assigned to any of the face buttons. Pressing the appropriate face button selects that weapon and then it can be used by moving the right analog stick in any direction. This is very useful when trying to catch monkeys with the net in that you swing the analog stick in the direction you want the net to go. It seems weird that the jump button is assigned to R1 button (R2 can be used for the same thing) but it becomes second nature in no time. Tapping R1 twice allows for a double jump. The camera controls are mapped to the L buttons and the d-pad. The d-pad moves the camera around while the L1 button centers the camera behind Spike. Pressing the L2 button moves the camera into a first-person perspective. It’s a different controller set-up from most platformers but it works incredibly well and is very responsive.

The graphics are another story though. Even though there is plenty of colour in the game (which is a sharp contrast to many of the games found on the N64), everything looks jagged, crooked, and pixelated. Those who get motion sickness easily would probably be well advised to avoid this game. It doesn’t look good at all. The water effects are neat and well done considering the horsepower of the PSX but everything else looks awful. It doesn’t make the game unplayable but if you’re really into good looking graphics, this game can be less than enjoyable. The backgrounds look bland and everything else makes it seem like that either the coding for the images was quickly put together or the PSX just can’t handle the display and everything is about to implode on screen due to a meltdown of the system’s processor. It’s too bad because it really mars an incredible experience.

The sound is fine. The in-game music isn’t going to blow your mind but it isn’t going to want you to push the mute button on the TV either. It sets the atmosphere of the game and nothing more. It’s forgettable more than anything. The sound effects give the same impression. They could have been better considering the audio tech of the system but they’re acceptable enough that it doesn’t hurt the game in the least. The voice acting is laughable but most games of that era were known for some pretty horrendous voice acting.

Between the gameplay design and the controls, this game is incredibly fun. Snatching up monkeys is very amusing and the controls make the game feel very fresh. The levels aren’t as big as some of the other platformers for its time but there is still plenty to do in each one. It feels less of like a treasure hunt than other games of the same genre even though there are energy chips (golden triangles) to collect (which do nothing than give you extra lives after collecting 100 of them) and Specter coins to find in each level (which unlock minigames that can be accessed in the hub area). When it comes down to it, it’s about catching monkeys and everything else doesn’t matter if you don’t want it to.

Playing the game will constantly have a smile on your face; half the time because the game is so enjoyable and half the time because you’ll be impressed by what you can do with the controller. Using some of the transportation devices is really interesting as navigating requires using both analog sticks in neat ways (like when Spike is using a raft and you have to rotate the sticks just like you would oars). It’s very clever and it feels as if there was a lot of thought into making the controls feel as natural as possible while allowing the player to interact with as much as possible inside the game.

Sony’s Ape Escape managed to steal the crown away from Mario during the Nintendo 64/Playstation One days as the best platformer available (although the mass market may not agree considering the popularity of Mario and the obscurity of the Ape Escape franchise). It showed that platformers could be done well on the PSX and comparable to some of the top titles on the Nintendo 64 (which feels as if it had been designed with 3D platformers in mind). It hurts that the graphics are atrociously bad but it still is an easy game to recommend.

☆☆☆☆

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