My experience with the first Ape Escape back in the day was very limited. I definitely played it because I have foggy memories of Specter, the game’s villain, cackling at me from the screen on my old tube TV. Sadly, this was one of the many games my brother and I rented from the local video store to return and never play again.
I did spend a lot of time with the game’s sequel, though, and I have a lot of fond memories of it. It seems that actually buying and owning a copy of a game can help a lot when it comes to playing through it. Despite loving Ape Escape 2, I never bothered to go back and revisit the series from the beginning. But I always wanted to.
I picked up a copy of Ape Escape for the PlayStation 1 a while back and left it on my shelf to collect dust until I found time to get to it. Two decades after its initial release in North America, I’m finally doing that. Despite its slightly aged controls and awkward camera, it remains one of the most fun 3D platformers on the system.
Ape Escape earned enough of a following to get two sequels, several spin-off titles, and guest appearances in games like Ratchet & Clank and Metal Gear Solid 3.
What makes it stand out from the other platformers of its era is its innovative use of the dual-shock analog sticks, cute anime visuals, childlike sense of humor, and ridiculous premise.
When a group of monkeys breaks into a genius scientist’s lab, they steal an invention called the Peak Point Helmet which grants them intelligence. They follow the lead of a peculiar white-haired monkey named Specter and scatter themselves across time to rewrite history and take over the world under his rule.
It’s up to Spike, with the aid of Natalie and the Professor, to travel through time to capture the apes and stop Specter before his plans come to fruition.
While most of the levels in Ape Escape are small, they’re thematically interesting enough to keep your attention. You get your standard water levels, ice levels, lava levels, space levels and more.
What makes these areas interesting is the act of capturing the monkeys themselves. These apes are full of personality. Some of them will run from you while throwing bananas to make you slip, and others might shoot you with laser guns. Using the monkey radar can not only help you figure out where they are in the level, but it also displays their unique personality traits. I found one of them caressing a giant bust of Specter’s head; it described him as “being Specter’s favourite.”
The radar isn’t the only gadget the game offers you. One of Ape Escape’s strong suits is the number of items it rewards you with. Some areas have apes that are impossible to reach until you get a specific gadget later on in the game. The Sky Flyer, for instance, propels you to high platforms. I saw a lot of monkeys in the earlier stages that I couldn’t reach without this. That familiar eureka moment when I got it reminded me a lot of Zelda’s world’s; important areas are unreachable until you come back to them later when you’re better equipped.
This may not be ideal for completionists who like to collect everything as they go, but it’s very rewarding once you realize how you were supposed to reach that tricky monkey you couldn’t get to before.
None of the gadgets are one-and-done items either. Each one is important enough to use throughout the entire game. After receiving the RC-Car that lets you enter spaces too small for Spike to get through, you begin the notice the levels have several areas reserved for using it. Having the Sky Flyer equipped at all times was the most useful since getting to areas high up becomes a necessity pretty often.
You get these gadgets from the Professor at certain points throughout the game. He forces you to enter a training stage before moving on when you get a new one, stating that it’s too dangerous to proceed without practice. While each training session was very short, I never found them to actually be necessary. I’d always enter the stage afterward realizing that I would have been able to figure out how to use the gadget by messing around with it in the level.
The best and most important gadget in the game is the Time Net. You use this to catch and send monkeys back to the lab. Doing so is the most satisfying thing in the game. With the apes being the motivating force of the plot and the central collectible, it makes sense that catching them feels great. This feeling is achieved by the zoom the camera does on Spike and the electric sound effect that goes along with the capture.
You use gadgets with the right analog stick. Ape Escape was one of the first games to take advantage of the dual-shock controller on the PlayStation 1. So they wanted to have it be integral to the game’s mechanics. And it works a lot better than you’d think. Swinging the net feels completely natural since it moves along with the right stick, and some gadgets like the Sky Flyer and the Super Hoop work by spinning it around in circles.
Where this becomes a slight issue is in the control of the camera. A lot of older games need you to use the trigger buttons instead of the analog stick to move it around, and it can take some getting used to. I would often find myself having to recenter my view to see what was in front of me, and it felt awkward a lot of the time.
The other issue with the dual-shock control is infrequent but still frustrating. There are a couple sections where you pilot transports: a rowboat and a tank. Each of them is controlled with both analog sticks being used. Doing it this way made them uncomfortable to move. The rowboat has the sticks acting as each paddle when it could have easily used one to move the boat forward and backward.
Thankfully, Ape Escape’s platforming is excellent. The movement feels great and having several options with the gadgets and the double jump to get around offer a lot of possibilities. New and interesting challenges are always thrown at you, and the game ramps it up in the final stages.
The music in the game alternates between being excellent and grating to listen to. In the main hub—aptly named the Time Station—the music is is very spacey and relaxing. However, a lot of levels suffer from obnoxious electronic tracks that get old very fast. Not every stage suffers from this, but it was bothersome enough to be pointed out.
The Time Station is a great hub world that floats high up in space. Here you can save your game and explore a couple different rooms. One lets you revisit gadget test rooms, and the other has three different mini-games you unlock when you get a certain number of the monkey coins.
The mini-games are an excellent reward. Each one is surprisingly fun. You get a snowboard racing game, a monkey boxing game, and a space shoot ‘em up in the same vein as Asteroids. Discovering that these games are available is a nice surprise. It’s a shame that most games nowadays only give simple rewards like access to concept art and music tracks.
Ape Escape is very reminiscent of old children’s anime from the 90’s and early 00’s. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it struck a chord with me. The bad voice acting was a riot, and I enjoyed that the story was more than your average “save-the-princess” plot.
Ape Escape is a game that, for the most part, aged awesomely. There are some glaring issues here and there, but they pale in comparison to the quirky fun the game has to offer. Whether you enjoy wacky anime games or not, this game is definitely a classic, and it deserves a spot right next to Crash and Spyro.
Backtrack Review is a series where I take a look at games that are two years old or older. I’m doing this to see if these games, despite not being currently relevant, are still worth playing today. Whether I’ve played them before or not, anything is an option for me to review.