This Sunday, the third entry in the classic Ape Escape trilogy has its 13th anniversary in Europe. Not only is Ape Escape 3 my favourite Ape Escape game, but it’s my favourite platformer period, so today I explain why I put the game on such a high pedestal.
By 2006, Ape Escape had released two mainline entries, one with the central theme of time travel and one with the central theme of world exploration. Both led to many creative and humorous levels and ape designs, so finding a follow up that provided opportunity for as many great ideas proved difficult. Alas, developers Sony Computer Entertainment Japan Studio surmised the central theme of entertainment, leading to a creative peak in the series thanks to the many hilarious concepts they pull off with it.
Every level features clever and amusing parodies of various works of fiction, including those inspired by Star Wars, Spider-Man, Little Red Riding Hood, Indiana Jones, Metal Gear Solid and more (that last one we’ll return to in a bit, as they do something especially special with that one). These parodies compliment the Ape Escape humour perfectly, and as such the game is bursting with personality thanks to its entertaining ape names, funny ape descriptions and amusing visual gags.
Moreover, the entire experience is set to a phenomenal soundtrack that I still listen to from time to time. Every track is memorable and catchy, including the complete, vocal featuring songs created with one of the protagonists and antagonists singing them respectively (with an in universe reason why). Be it the upbeat flare of Seaside Resort, the ominous drone of the Space Station or the mellowed vibe of the winter levels, Ape Escape 3’s soundtrack is a masterpiece.
That’s great, but what about the actual gameplay? Of course, that excels just as much. While it doesn’t switch up as much from previous entries (it doesn’t even have any new gadgets, in fact), it perfects what the first two games set up to provide a tight and intuitive control scheme that is responsive and, most importantly, a joy to use, something that remains a welcome surprise in light of its unorthodox, analogue stick centric control layout.
This is exemplified by its superb level design, which perfectly reflects the distinct theme of each of its levels. The desert based Mirage Town feels like you’re on an epic odyssey through numerous locales and unknown temples. Formidable Fleet immerses you in the 50 foot in the air aesthetic through its vertical level layout. Apes In Toyland feels like a, uh, toyland due to each section incorporating the RC Car or a fun, new contraption in some way. It masters the gameplay design/level concept synergy all developers strive to attain. Combined with the fresh ideas for the gadgets, entertaining (if slightly clunky) vehicle sections and enjoyable morph system unique to the third entry (that allows the protagonist to transform into one of seven superpowered figures with their own unique abilities (e.g. Wild West Kid can shoot bullets to stun monkeys and launch nets to capture them)), and you have a consistently enthralling gameplay formula that always manages to prevent itself from becoming repetitive, an issue that could occasionally arise in previous installments.
Lastly, what cements the game for me is the smorgasbord of extras they crammed into the game. While the core campaign is short, they make up for it with additional content that adds tons of replay value. The most notable is the minigames, with one in particular being one of the best games within a game I’ve ever played. One minigame is a monkey throwing game, which sees you trying to toss your monkey (hopefully I never have to write that sentence ever again) as far as possible. Fun and replayable in its own right, it gets even more replay value through the fact that you unlock better monkeys as you progress through the game, and through the fact that it can be played with two players, something I’ve done before to a lot of fun. It’s nothing crazy, but it’s a nice extra I return to occasionally.
Another minigame is a 2D fighting game where, playing as an ape dressed like Jackie Chan (because of course), you battle your way through a tournament or, like the monkey tossing (damn it) minigame, screw around in two player. While it’s no Mortal Kombat rival, it’s a really fun game that actually proves to be quite challenging in the later stages, with the final boss especially proving problematic for me. Its analogue focused control scheme also gives it a distinct style that makes it stand out versus its peers.
The minigame that is most notable, however, is Mesal Gear Solid. As the title suggests, Mesal Gear Solid is a Metal Gear Solid parody, and a fully realised one at that. The game within a game is a one hour plus experience that sees you sneak through areas without being detected, battling robots and, ultimately, rescuing Solid Snake (the real, actual Solid Snake, by the way). The game is complete with hidden collectibles, secrets and a cardboard box that add replay value to the game which, combined with the stellar level design, entertaining style and usage of actual Metal Gear Solid music and characters, creates what is undoubtedly one of the greatest bonus levels I’ve ever seen.
On top of the minigames, the game is filled with collectible photos, RC Car models, soundtrack songs, movies and more that give you incentive to keep playing. It also features Simian Cinema, a feature that, should you collect every developer made short film in the levels, allows you to create your own short movie with any ape(s) you’ve captured, complete with text, audio, location setting, action, camera angle selection and more. There’s absolutely no reason for this to be here or be as fleshed out as it is, yet it’s probably one of my favourite features in the game because of how fun it is to mess around with. I remember spending hours creating things in this as a kid, and I enjoyed it even when revisiting it as an adult.
On top of all of this is a time trial mode, survival mode, extra secret monkeys unlocked through earned (or Googled) codes and a zodiac machine, the latter of which being a system that players can use to read daily horoscopes, use a “love match” system, read details about every ape (including their birthday) and more. Again, all of these are excellent additions that add even more to an already fantastic package, and the zodiac machine in particular is another feature that is way more fleshed out than it should be, but I love because of that fact.
All of this comes together to create a once in a lifetime experience. Perfect platforming, addictive gameplay mechanics, hours and hours of extras, entertaining writing and ideas… I could go on and on. Ape Escape 3 is a gem that deserves so much more attention than it gets and, while most will forever hail Super Mario 64, Crash 2 or even the original Ape Escape as the best platformer of all time, my pick is easily this masterpiece.
What are your thoughts on Ape Escape 3 and the Ape Escape series overall? Let me know in the comments or via my Twitter profile @JoshsJots. And make sure to follow me there, because tomorrow I’ll be reviewing Ape Escape: On the Loose, the PSP and PS Vita port of the original ape catching classic.