Those damn dirty Apes!
Platform: PlayStation 1
Available on: PlayStation 1
Genre: Action Platformer
Developer: SCE Japan Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Released: July 2nd 1999
Have you ever played Ape Escape? You should!
This is one of the games I remember most from the early 00’s on my PS1, along with Spiderman and Metal Gear Solid. That said I've never had the chance to revisit it, so I had completely forgotten practically everything about it. Thanks to a poll on what game I should play next over on the Casual Game Community where Ape Escape won by a landslide, now was the time!
So here’s the pitch. It’s a PS1 3D action platformer with beautifully vivid colours and pretty great level design.
One day, Specter, a white-haired ape at the local amusement park tires of doing tricks for the kids and spectators attending and decides “No more!”. He finds a prototype mind-enhancing helmet designed by the local inventor, innocuously named “Professor”. This helmet grants Specter a spectacular boost in mental processing power, with which he intends to liberate his monkey brethren in an attempt to overthrow the world and the humans who he sees as his captors. Can't argue with his logic.
He does this by using a time-travelling device found in the professor's laboratory and begins his tirade across centuries, leaving his monkey minions as he goes in an attempt to reclaim themselves as the dominant race. Each of these minions also wearing a version of the aforementioned helmet which imbues both intelligence and personality to each one.
Very little of this is mentioned explicitly as this is a game of its age with somewhat questionable voice acting and plot devices, but we’ll get to that.
A controversial comparison…
Step in our protagonist Spike, a local happy go lucky kid who loves to hang out in the professor’s lab (it was a different time) with his best friend Jake and the professors assistant Natalie, who now becomes humanities last chance for salvation.
Spike and Jake, along with a barrel load of simians, are sent hurtling through time and space to various periods with our friend Jake being brainwashed by the now even more powerful Specter to do his bidding. Spike must now work with the help of both Professor and Natalie, to gather these monkeys and thwart Specter's plans.
Ok so allow me to let you in on a little thought I've not seen much of across the interwebs but I hold very close to my heart. The PlayStation was always praised for the things it excelled in. Its wide demographic potential, its depth of RPG’s, its relatively easy to program for 3D graphics engine, however, there is one thing that the PlayStation always kind of faltered on. The 3D sandbox platformer.
With the launch of the N64 came the birth of what many consider to be not only the best Super Mario game but also the defining moment where everything changed for the humble platformer, Super Mario 64. A game so solid, so enjoyable, so easy to pick up yet hard to master that it held the consoles relevancy for months during the N64’s launch window.
When you talked platformers on PS1, sure there was a certain beloved bandicoot in your back pocket, but nothing to the grand scale and freedom that something like M64 allowed for. Many imitators to the crown popped up here and there, such as Spyro, Croc, Gex, etc, but no-one could come close to the spark of Mario’s outing.
I’m here to tell you something did! And its name? Ape Escape! I prefer it to the classic that is M64. Let me try to explain why.
Like Mario 64 you are given many sandbox environments to explore, with each being full of objectives, secrets and Metroidvania-esque challenges that are to be attempted in the end game with a full equipment set. Each new level is unlocked by collecting a required number of maguffins. In Mario 64 these were stars, or essentially challenge full stops, rewarded for achieving the specific objective before ripping you out of the level to select a new objective. While Ape Escape tasks you instead with collecting a set number of apes out of the large number roaming the environment, allowing you to make your own progression structure, set your own goals, or just dilly dally to your heart's content in the for the time beautifully rendered environments.
The time-travelling mechanic works wonders here. Opening a wide gamut for environment opportunities. One moment you’ll be in pre-historic times, the next you’ll find yourself in feudal Japan, the next in the modern-day. It is truly wonderful what the teams did in this regard to keep the chase fresh.
Play that funky music Dr Zaius!
Speaking of fresh, god damn this game has a straight-up banging soundtrack! The composer Soichi Terada went out of his way to ensure every environment had a suitable soundscape to accompany it and it is an absolute pleasure to behold.
Not only will the music change as you progress through the game, but also through contextual queues. Should Spike start crawling on his belly to stealthily sneak up on an ape, the music will suddenly slow down and become more mellow. In contrast, when you completely whiff the capture of said Ape, the music will swell once again as you find yourself frantically chasing the now agitated target. Truly lovely stuff to help keep you engaged in a very subtle but very recognisable way.
It's no secret that I feed my insatiable podcast addiction often while playing games. The second I'm asked to grind in a game or spend a lot of time with a ho-hum soundtrack, I immediately reach for my phone. This soundtrack kept me constantly engaged with its blend of high energy strings and drum and bass as I played. So much so I’m still humming some of the tunes two weeks later. See Snowy Mammoth for example. Banger!
The voice acting, however, eh, not so much. Each voice feels completely out of place with the next. Many voices sounding like they just pulled in a random friend or family member, put them in front of a mic and shoved the script under their nose.
I mean I’m willing to cut some slack here, were talking a PS1 platformer after all, but with just a little more direction this could have been a lot more enjoyable. Luckily, the dialogue is few and far between so not too pressing in the grand scheme.
Apes a Go-Go
OK so you’ve been teleported to a place in time, the sounds are banging and you’re ready to go procure some primates! How you may ask is this done? Well, this is where the Professor and Natalie step in. Throughout the game, you will be given several inventions to help you in your task. These include your (definitely not a lightsabre) energy baton used for dazing mischievous monkeys, to the teleportation net used for sending simians back to base, to a hula hoop that when ‘hula’d’ grants you incredible running speed but to name a few.
The brilliance here is that all of these items and more are operated solely by swinging the right analogue stick not via button commands which can be tricky to wrap your head around at first but stands out as an innovation in practice. Running around the environment is done via the left stick, swinging your weapon with the right stick, while jumping and camera controls are left to the shoulders. Certainly, a far stretch from the norm but works fantastically in practice. I wouldn’t change a thing.
You see, Ape Escape came hot on the heels of the release of the first PS1 analogue thumb-stick controller, and as such Sony clearly wanted to have the killer app to sit alongside it. In my opinion, they more than succeeded, I know that right analogue stick = camera controls is inarguable for many gamers but trust me when I say when done right there is a lot of room for innovation.
You will encounter several boss battles throughout your adventure, but nothing too challenging or frequent. The real focus is exactly where it should be which is on the Apes.
Each ape can be roughly defined by their pant colour which is a very helpful visual queue when planning how to pounce. Blue apes are generally shy and will flee from you if seen, while red apes are aggressors and won't blink before launching an attack on you, with yellow being somewhere in between.
Each of these apes are pouring with personality, living out their day on each sandbox, some even with costumes or weapons themed to the location, before being disturbed by the red-haired menace Spike. Each monkey has its own micro or macro tactic in of to defeat, and when your net finally lands on them you are given a gloriously satisfying sound effect that became like crack to me! It's that good trust me, I’m fine. I’m FINE!
Before long you will have unlocked all of the levels before facing off against Specters minions in the final sandbox where the levels are expansive and the Apes a plenty. This level is particularly fun as it tests all that you’ve learned up until this point while never being all out hard. A nice recap if you will. Soon you will have freed Jake from Specter’s control and captured enough Apes to be able to face down Specter in typical PS1 boss fight glory and I lapped up every second. There’s something so comforting about this generation of platformers when done right.
Anyway, you defeat Specter, you save your friends, everything goes back to normal right? Wrong!
Specter has escaped and the inevitable sequel is teed up, but the game does not end there. No far from it. Now Spike is tasked with revisiting the worlds he’s cleared throughout the game, but this time using his newly acquired gadgets to mop up any remaining apes that weren’t necessary for level completion previously. Having sections of the level now open up due to having the correct equipment to hand is super satisfying and keeps things just fresh enough that rethreading ground (which is something I traditionally hate in games) never felt lie a chore.
So what's the verdict?
Ape Escape is a wonderful yet underutilised franchise that is just begging for a revamp. I mean, give this franchise the same love as the Crash and Spyro remasters and you would have something incredibly special on your hands!
You can probably tell but I thoroughly enjoyed coming back to this game. So much so I’m eagerly making room on my review schedule for the sequels on PS2 that by all accounts are just as fun. (watch this space)
Sure some of the graphics can be a bit choppy as were all on the system at the time, and sure its not the most complex or even difficult games of all time, however, the levels of fun and character here are just off the chart and I wait in hopeful anticipation for Specter’s dastardly return!
Play this game if…
You love solid action platforming
You want to experience a piece of PS1 history
You enjoy banging drum and bass infused soundtracks
You’re looking for a game with an abundance of character
You’re a fan of general monkey related shenanigans
All images taken from the Japanese Ape Escape website here
Trailer taken from the IGDB press kit here
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