There I stood, in a grassy field marked by the footprints of an ancient creature, ready to take my first step into a new experience. It did not take long until I had selected my prey. Determined, I prepared my net and waited for the perfect moment to strike. Then it happened. I ran up, swung the net over my head and on top of what I believed was my goal. It did nothing. I was immediately attacked, leaving me with only four cookies left. Turns out I wasn't supposed to catch those little orange things.
So, my first experience with Ape Escape was rough, but who could blame me? I didn't know what to make of those weird sticks. Until that point, it had been all about pads, bout them pads, no trouble, so I wasn't exactly on board with the erect rubber nipples growing out of my controller. Looking back, ironically, there probably wasn't a better game I could've played to get me used to the analog sticks, but I did not want the change at all. Despite that, I still played it a lot, but not without switching over to games where I could use that sweet, familiar d-pad. Yes, even in 3D games. I was a dumb kid.
But time passes, we grow as people, try new things, change and get smarter. I don't remember exactly when it was that I returned to Ape Escape, determined to capture every monkey in the game. It might have been around 2010 or 2011. In any case, it was quite the surprise to finally get a sense of how good the game was, having gotten used to the directional mushrooms over the years.
To those not sure what all the fuzz is about (since most of it is stirred up by me), Ape Escape is a 3D action platformer for the original PlayStation (the one with the cool noise at the start). It's another one of those "open level + task" kind of deals, which I'm sure you're all familiar with, but what sets it apart are the controls and the tasks themselves. See, the likes of Super Mario 64 and Spyro the Dragon are the "basic" ways to pull off these games. They are different, yeah, but they scratch the same itch. This game is more like scratching an itch slightly to the left of that.
The story is that a young monkey named Specter gets his hands on a helmet that increases his intelligence and turns him evil, leading him to gather an army of helmet monkeys to go back in time and change history with their superior technology. A kid named Spike (and his Milhouse wannabe of a friend) is sucked in, and the dude who made both the time machine and the helmets tells him to clean up the whole mess by capturing all the monkeys using a high tech super net and a lightsaber that's set to stun (before you get all the other sweet gadgets). You might have noticed that this is glorious bullshit nonsense of the highest order, and I love it. Way to take a silly idea and run with it!
So, let's talk about collectibles, and how they don't usually fight against you. Like, you don't see something like a power star run away, swim, punch you, shoot at you, throw bombs at you or even jump into a tank or a UFO in order to fight back. The monkeys in this game do all of those things, and it's basically what the game is all about, even though you've got plenty of "common" enemies as well. They have vastly different weapons and abilities too, more than enough to carry the entire game, and they've even got unique names. My favourite one is Lens (PAL name), a heavily armed monkey found in a hidden cave behind a waterfall, ready to attack on sight. What a clever little bastard!
So I come back to the game all those years later, and it plays brilliantly, even through the camera has to be adjusted a bunch. But it was when completing everything that I started noting a little something that's been crucial in my decision to consider it my all time favourite game:
Ape Escape doesn't have a bad level.
It doesn't even have a boring one. Every single level is completely awesome and memorable to me. All of them are unique to each other. One level takes place in a rainy lake. Another leads to an active volcano, where you need to get a monkey off of an angry t-rex. Another takes place in some lost ruins full of underground tunnels. Another one makes you slide polar bears across ice. Run along The Great Wall of China, jump into the stomach of a huge dinosaur, destroy sand castles at the beach, whatever time travel allows you to do. Each one has a different theme, as well as different music. Every animal has different behavior and every button has a different function. There isn't a single part of the game that I don't look forward to when starting a new playthrough. It never allows you to get bored or frustrated, it just keeps getting better. When the game first threw the massive Specter Land level at me, I got extremely excited, and it really is one of the most climactic and gigantic final levels ever, easily up there with this baby!
The game is pretty long (20 stages, most of them very big), especially for a single disc, but it never gets repetitive, yet it also never needs to spice things up with forced minigames. It does have minigames, but all of them are bonus unlockables, and the main game remains pretty much the same all the way through. Not once are you actually forced into racing, boxing or twin stick shooting, even though all of that is in the game. The rules don't change, and if you just want to catch monkeys, you can do that. Only slight exception happens in one of the final levels with the roller coaster, but even that is just timed jumping, which isn't too different from everything else.
So yeah, Ape Escape is fucking awesome, as I've made sure to mention in several other blogs. It's a fast paced, wonderfully charming hurricane of fun that's a blast from beginning to end. It's stood the test of time with ease, and I will continue to sing its praises until it gets the recognition it deserves. Despite being a financial and critical success back in the day, nobody really talks about it, and I find that incredibly strange for a game with so much to offer.
It's a huge shame that Sony hasn't done anything interesting with the franchise for years. I can only imagine what they could do with the technology we have now. The way levels could look, the new gadgets that could be made, the way social features could be implemented in a way that's actually cool. It's a huge well of untapped potential, yet the brand is as dead as they get. Maybe one day it'll get another chance to shine. Recent years have shown us that nothing is impossible, so being a bit hopeful is perfectly reasonable.
Knowing where and when to keep a game simple is, in my opinion, key to making the game age well, and this is a great example of why that is. It could've made the mistake of complicating its use of the analog sticks in order to show off, and the result would probably be the kind of game that's awkward to pick up years later, but even though the controls are still unique, they feel more natural than ever before due to the dual analog layout being a modern standard, and I could not be happier with it.
I will never stop loving this babe of a game. *smooch*
Due to the timing of this blog, I would like to add that Ape Escape was undoubtedly heavily influenced by the work of recently deceased gaming legend Satoru Iwata. May he rest in peace.