Ape Escape – Because Monkey Escape didn’t have the same ring

Box art for the PlayStation game Ape Escape
Not an ape in sight

Recently, Sony have been releasing their new and improved PlayStation Plus service.  Those on the basic package are basically getting everything that they previously received in the normal PS Plus, but there are now an additional couple of tiers.  The mid-tier will get people access to a bunch of PS4 and PS5 games, much in the same style as a Microsoft’s Game Pass, albeit with not as good a selection and not with day one release of first party titles.  The top tier will give you an option to stream games, as well as access to games from the PS1, PS2 and PSP emulated (PS3 games are only available through streaming, unfortunately for anyone with mediocre internet, such as myself).

It is these classic games that I am most interested.  Having been pretty much solely a computer gamer when growing up (the first system coming into my childhood home was Amiga 500+), I missed out on all of these older console titles. So, I was eager to see the selection that would appear on offer when the service finally dropped.

It’s a shame that the quantity is so meagre.  With just under 40 games across those three systems, it feels like a big missed opportunity for Sony to celebrate their older titles.  Also missing are some of the big-name games that really defined Sony’s early consoles, such as Tomb Raider, Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid.  Perhaps the remastered versions of games like Crash Bandicoot or Tony Hawk’s means that those licences holders are reluctant to let the original versions out in an easily accessible format, but it is still a big disappoint to me to see so few iconic titles not appearing here.

There are a few well regarded games here though.  I started with one that may not be as much of a household name as some of those previously mentioned games, but certainly has a bit of a cult following.  Ape Escape came out of Japan Studio in 1999, a later title for Sony’s original PlayStation console.  It is perhaps most notable for being the first title to require the use of a DualShock controller, implementing an innovative control scheme on a gamepad that would become the standard basic layout for controllers up to today.

Main character Spike running to the right in an industrial-like setting

The game is a 3D platformer, much in the mould of other 3D platform games of the era like Super Mario 64.  You control Spike, as you navigate him around self-contained levels, travelled to by your professor friend’s time machine.  This allows the levels to be spread out across various time periods, from the Jurassic age to a version of the present day.  Your task is to catch monkeys (clearly not apes and never referred to as those larger simians, despite what the title might indicate) that are scattered over these time periods, who have managed to become super intelligent by the use of one of the professor’s inventions.  You will be aided by various different gadgets that will help you in finding and stopping the monkeys, as well as tools to help navigation of the levels.  There is even an element of Metroid-ness to this, as some gadgets will open up previously inaccessible areas, if you feel the need to go back and catch all of the monkeys.

Controlling these gadgets is often where the uniqueness of the game comes from and where the innovative DualShock controller comes into play.  Adding the use of the two analogue sticks that we are now so familiar with, opened up some interesting means to use these gadgets.  Whereas we may now have fallen into the standard use of the left stick for movement and right stick for view/camera controls, Ape Escape instead uses the right stick to use your gadgets.  Push the stick to the right whilst carrying your stun baton and Spike will swing the baton to his right.  Spin the right stick in a circle whilst holding the propeller and Spike will be lifted off the ground like a human helicopter.

It takes a little getting used to, particular with our brains so conditioned by third person games using the same standardised control scheme, but it works surprisingly well once you get the hang of it.   The most interesting gadget to control is perhaps the remote-control car, which you navigate using the right stick, whilst still having movement of Spike with the left, allowing for some interesting puzzles, as you are required to follow the car as it navigates through a maze as you run beside it or above it. 

The controls soon become fairly natural and responsive, perhaps helped somewhat by the slower pace the game has.  Having camera controls on the d-pad instead is perhaps the fiddliest element, but this is far from the nuisance that I initially expected it to be during my first few moments with the game.  Jump being on the right bumper was probably the most unnatural, as I regularly found myself hitting X to try to jump.  The face buttons are instead used for quick access to your gadgets, which can be assigned from the menus.  It is a serviceable solution, although it does also make you appreciate the radial menus that are now fairly ubiquitous.

Spike in a green field holding his stun baton
Your life bar is represented by those delicious looking cookies

Besides your gadgets, you will also occasionally find vehicles to control in the levels, such as an inflatable boat or a tank.  The former of these is where I had the most difficulty controlling, as you are required to spin both sticks simultaneously in opposite directions.  Fortunately, sections that require the boat are not regular and generally short, so I could battle may way through them, but it was one of the few times I felt I was fighting with the controls rather than them allowing me to simply do what I wanted to do.  The tank on the other hand is great to control, with the sticks controlling the respective tank tracks.  Push forward on both sticks to move forward, push just on the left stick to turn right and so on.  Initiative, but more interesting than just controlling the tank as if it was just like controlling Spike.

All of these varied methods of control also reflect the general variety that is on offer from the game.  This mix of gadgets and locations, lends itself to a nice mixture of different places to explore and ways to interact.  Sometimes there are some puzzles you might need to clear or there might be some platforming to do or perhaps you have to sneak up on a monkey to catch it.  Considering the latter is the central conceit of the game, it is a little disappointing that there isn’t a bit more variety displayed in your pursuit of these primates though.  The monkeys do come in slightly different forms, their different AI identified by the colour of trousers they wear, as well as others that might be armed or able to jump into a nearby UFO to shoot a ray gun at you.  For the most part though, you will normally find yourself running at a monkey, smacking it with your stun baton and then grabbing it with the net.  The action becomes fairly instinctual.  Sneaking up on the monkeys is often also an option and can come with its own sense of satisfaction, but failing to sneak up is normally not that much of an issue.  There are also a few more set piece moments, such as seeing a monkey riding a dinosaur that you need to get it to fall from.  These moments are where the game feels most like the 3D Mario games and show some of the inventiveness that you see there.  They are not very frequent though.

I found the back half of levels to be a bit more interesting than the earlier ones, particularly once you get to the recent history section and on into the present-day levels.  The theme park section in particular is a lot of fun, taking you from a wild west themed area, to a rollercoaster ride and then into a haunted house.  The game does a really good job of keeping these levels interesting and they increase in complexity the more you progress.  This progress is perhaps a little more linear compared to some other 3D collect-o-thon style games, such as the 3D Marios, and I didn’t have a great urge to return to them upon completion to find all the other monkeys I missed or couldn’t reach before, but I still very much enjoyed the first time through them.

Three monkeys
Some cheeky monkeys ready to get in your net

All in all though, this turned out to be a really delightful game, offering up a colourful world to play in and set of characters.  There are a few subsequent games in the series (Ape Escape 2 is also part of the new PS Plus Premium tier), but I did get a sense that this was a game that could have a modern iteration.  I’m not sure if people would be willing to return to the control scheme it pioneered, as a change from the standard third person controls would likely alienate those not willing to give it a try, but the basic idea of having a bunch of gadgets and a variety of levels to catch monkeys in still feels like it could have plenty of potential in modern games.

If you have the Premium tier of PS Plus, then I would highly recommend checking this one out.  It might take a little to get used to the controls, but it is well worth getting over that hump to teach those pesky monkeys a lesson.

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