Twenty years ago, gaming was changed forever by the release of a game that made dual analogue sticks compulsory to play it. Is it a 70 hour epic where the player fights through an ancient, infamous war? Is it a mind bending adventure game with numerous shocking twists? No, it’s a game about a child capturing monkeys with a fishing net. And yet, it’s awesome.
Ape Escape takes the popular collect-a-thon formula and flips it on its head by making the collectibles living, moving characters, complete with personalities, backstories and varying levels of difficulty. This is why the game is so fresh even today, because it creates a dynamic experience that is different every time you play it. Platforming games are usually formulaic because the levels are designed to be the same and repeating (e.g. platforms going back and forth infinitely), so this idea adds a unique flare that differentiates the game from its peers.
Its uniqueness is added to by its control scheme. As alluded to above, Ape Escape is primarily played with the analogue sticks, with the face buttons instead being used simply to change gadgets. Although it can take time to get used to, this scheme ultimately works really well. Running around with the left stick while driving a remote controlled car with the right is a novelty that still feels fun years later, and keeping the protagonist from plummeting to his death by desperately spinning the right analogue stick to operate the Sky Flyer is just as enjoyable. Just like every other aspect of the game, the control scheme works way better than it has any right to.
While this novelty can carry the game for a while, it needs good levels to sustain itself, and in that regard Ape Escape also hits it out of the park. The level design is consistently impeccable. Every gadget is used in clever ways, and each is never used too much or too little. Moreover, the core platforming feels tight and responsive, and the levels have the perfect balance between linear design and player freedom. The latter point is especially well executed, as exploration always feels rewarding and fun. Many apes are hidden in obscure areas you wouldn’t find without exploring and, on top of that, you’re further rewarded for exploration through additional collectibles like Specter Coins, extra lives and (regular) coins.
Even without these incentives, exploring is enthralling because of how fantastic the visuals and sound are. The story is centered around time travel, which works perfectly because it allows so many creative level ideas. Jumping off dinosaur backs and hula hooping through medieval castles is a joyous experience that provides childlike wonder and amusement to this day, and the vibrant colour scheme only enhances the already enchanting surroundings. This effect is furthered by the phenomenal soundtrack, which is packed with memorable tunes that are upbeat and catchy. Ape Escape has a distinct style that it absolutely nails.
Outside of the main gameplay, Ape Escape features a plethora of minigames (unlocked through collecting the aforementioned Specter Coins) that also take advantage of the unique analogue stick centric control layout. Included is a skiing game where you race across various tracks, a boxing game that is unlike any other due to you controlling each hand with the left and right analogue stick and a twin stick shooter which is, well, pretty much like any other (still fun though). These minigames house a surprising amount of content, and many of the stages also provide some of the most challenging sections in the entire game. They’re very enjoyable and add a lot of replay value to an already highly replayable game. Side content also includes time trials of every level, which again only further enhance replayability.
The only things I can criticise are the lightweight story and weak voice acting, elements that I’d argue are completely irrelevant in a game like this (especially the former, and even then the characters are still memorable and the narrative is still enjoyable).
Across the board, Ape Escape is a masterpiece. It offers a brilliantly original take on the platforming genre while also nailing everything that makes it great in the first place. Moreover, it’s had an astronomical impact on gaming by proving that analogue sticks are not only cool novelties, but control methods that can be the main source of input in a game, something the industry would go on to make note of and standardise. If you’ve never played this gem, I urge you to get a PlayStation, PSP or PS Vita (or take a trip to pirate infested waters) and play this game immediately, because it’s one of the best platforming experiences on the market.
What do you think of Ape Escape 20 years later? Let me know in the comments or via my Twitter profile @JoshBSocial. Also, engage in the #ApesWillEscape hashtag there, it’s pretty great.