If there’s one thing I love most about video games, it’s controls. I’m more likely to forgive a game’s flaws if it tries to use controls in a unique way, and many of my favorite games (like MGS 2 and Katamari) use unique controls well. So when the development team for Ape Escape saw what the DualShock controller could do, they went all-in. Ape Escape is the first game to require the use of the DualShock, since it makes use of literally every button on the controller. Even R3 and L3, which are seen unused in even modern games, have specific uses in gameplay.
I’m not going to give you a run-down of all the controls in the game, because that’s not why you’re here. You’re here for Ape Escape and that’s what I’m going to give to you. Ape Escape is a 1999 collect-a-thon/3D platformer, a genre hybrid more commonly seen on N64 titles, on Playstation. The title is misleading: you don’t escape with the apes or anything, all the apes have already escaped and it’s your job to Sarugetchu. Anyways, the monkeys got out because they all got cool helmets. The plot isn’t really important here, and the US dubbers knew that. The absolute lack of emotion in every voiced line almost makes the cutscenes “so bad they’re good”. Almost. You use a net to catch the apes, which is where the dual analog sticks come in. The left stick is used to move, and the right stick is used to swing around your net, or whatever item is equipped. This is simple enough, and gives the player lots of control over where they can attack. However, I couldn’t really get used to the range of the net, probably due to the camera angles.
Cameras are always a problem in games, it’s a thing we’re still struggling with today, so it’s no surprise that Ape Escape has a subpar camera. While the game does has a fully controllable camera, the right stick is already used, so camera control is stuck on the d-pad. To compensate, the L1 button is used to reposition the camera, and it works alright. There are also moments where the camera moves to a predetermined angle to aid platforming or whatever, which also works alright. Since it works alright, why is the camera a problem? Well, there’s something about the depth perception which really throws me off. It’s hard to tell if an ape is in-range sometimes, so I tend to swing my net early. But swinging the net halts movement, which resets me back to chasing the fucker down.
Let’s talk about chasing the fuckers down. You’ve played Metal Gear Solid 3, right? Yeah, I know, there’s an Ape Escape thing in the PS2 versions, but the games are still eerily similar. Each time you see an ape, there’s a short amount of time before it sees you. Once they see you, they’ll react in some way. It depends on the ape: they can run away and hide, or attack you head-on. Chasing an alerted ape around can range from fun to annoying, you’d know the feeling if you’ve ever accidentally let the dog get out and had to run 2 miles in the snow while you slowly lose sight of him and unsure if he took a left into someone’s backyard or if he headed toward the park or if he’ll show up back home in an hour because he knows this area anyways.
When the monkeys fight back, you didn’t come unprepared. You can quickly switch to a laser sword weapon which somehow doesn’t just murder the apes. An effective strategy is to use the sword to knock them out, then catch them with the net while they’re down. This is okay, but the apes can also have guns and other means of attack. There’s usually one or more tool to counter their attacks, and a proper application of these tools is key. You have 4 tools equipped at a time, accessed with the face buttons, out of a total 8 gadgets. The levels in Ape Escape mostly revolve around using these tools, almost like a puzzle game. Each ape which isn’t just standing around, usually has to be found by some sort of exploration in the level.
The levels are fairly unique. Ape Escape is a linear game, with a set number of levels which must be finished in order. The goal of almost all levels is to catch a certain number of apes, but no specific apes are needed. But that required number is going to be less than the total apes in the level, which implies you should revisit the level later on for completion. This could be annoying when you’re forced out of the level before you’ve gotten all that you can, but the game keeps this to a minimum. A lot of the apes left over will be locked behind gadgets you get later on, so you never want to revisit the level immediately. This is really smart.
It becomes not smart near the end of the game, when the levels start to become more and more linear. While linearity is always a factor, early levels are more circular, or structured like hubs with branches. A more open level always feels better to explore than a hallway, even if it’s an interesting hallway. Later levels introduce more gates, only unlocked after a number of monkeys are caught. And that number is exactly how many are behind the gate. This is not fun and a bad idea.
Another bad idea in the game was the introduction of vehicles. The first vehicle, the rowboat, is impossible to control properly, requiring you to spin both analog sticks at the same time. And you have to spin them at the same rate, or else you turn around. And you have to spin them in the correct direction, or else you turn around. It’s just something that’s not normal gameplay, so it’s something that should have been cut out.
There’s some boss fights and things, which make use of your gadgets, but they aren’t that great. They seem more obligatory than anything, and don’t test for your skill as much as they could. There’s also mini-games, which unlock based on a number of collected coins. The mini-games play like failed prototypes for how to use the analog sticks, but they’re nice to include regardless.
Okay that’s all I’ve got you can leave now. Come back next time with your Propellerheads cassette and fingerless gloves because I’m going to show you how to become an elite hacker in Uplink.
Be both the monkey and the typewriter
Also published on Medium.