The Ape Escape franchise is a cult classic. While the mainline trilogy is often praised, many forget or are simply unaware of the many spinoffs the series has. One of these is Big Mission, a Japan only PSP title that continues the story of the original trilogy and, surprisingly, almost rivals those games in terms of quality.
Big Mission plays similarly to the main titles, with the core level design, style, etc. all being immediately recognisable. However, the thing that makes Big Mission stand out is the fact that instead of you capturing the monkeys with a net, you capture them by landing on their head with a shrunken down base (essentially serving as a hat). This allows you to control the monkey, which you subsequently use to reach the end of the level. This may sound familiar, and that’s because the more well known Super Mario Odyssey would go on to do a very similar thing ten years later.
Like in Mario Odyssey, this mechanic is a ton of fun. Each type of ape has a different ability and all of them are incredibly entertaining. Some run fast, some jump high, some turn invisible. The developers make great use of this novel concept, as the level design is consistently well thought out and they always switch it up before one type overstays its welcome – like the gadgets and personas, they’re utilised in such a way that the game never becomes monotonous. I also like how the design is centered around freedom – you will always need to change monkeys as it’s impossible most of the time to complete a level with just one, but most sections have a few monkeys you can essentially “choose” to use to move forward. For example, one level has a section that can either be beaten by climbing up the wall with one monkey, or jumping up platforms with another. While one option is usually the more obvious and easy pick, the choice is there which is something I appreciated.
There’s also a lot of player choice in other aspects. For example, you’re now able to capture every monkey on the first playthrough (compared to the original trilogy that automatically kicks you out of the level after capturing a certain amount). Conversely, the game also lets you finish the level with the bare minimum. Reached the end of the stage with just three monkeys captured? Sure, move along to the next level anyway. It’s superb design, and also very suitable given its portable format.
Despite this, player choice is also more restrictive in some aspects. One of the reasons I love the original trilogy so much is because of how open the levels are. While they often branch into linear sections, you’re in complete control of which ones you want to try first and it can all be done at your own pace. Moreover, there’s a lot of monkeys you will miss if you don’t go off the main path. You’re constantly rewarded for exploring. In Big Mission, however, the levels are very linear. While this might not have been a problem, because many linear games still have complex layouts and hidden secrets, it stood out to me here because of how simplistic the level design is. The paths lead you directly from ape to ape, and every time I thought I found a cool, out of the way space, there was nothing there. Although the extra monkeys added after beating Specter the first time are occasionally placed in cleverer locations, these instances are rare overall. It’s a missed opportunity and one of the only nitpicks I have with the game.
I also think the capturing mechanic is way too inaccurate (if you’re even slightly off base it will count as a miss), which can make successful captures more satisfying but can often just lead to unnecessary frustration (maybe I’m just trash at the game though).
Stylistically, the game is as perfect as its predecessors. The soundtrack is fantastic, with most levels featuring an extremely catchy and memorable score. The same applies to the graphics. Big Mission uses the same engine as Ape Escape 3 (a series first), which I’ve always thought had the best graphical style of the series – as such, having an entire other game using that was fantastic. It’s especially impressive because the graphics almost look on par with that very PS2 outing; while there’s definitely some rough patches if you look close enough, Big Mission generally looks as beautiful as its console big brothers, which is a feat seen only in the most elite PSP offerings.
Lastly, the story and characters. Despite being a PSP spinoff, Big Mission boasts a narrative easily on par with the original trilogy and, as noted previously, it even directly continues it. In fact, it almost feels more epic at times because this story directly incorporates all of the past protagonists and villains. Seeing Spike, Jimmy, Kei, Yumi, Natalie, The Professor and Aki all interacting is amazing to experience as a lifelong fan, and Specter and the Freaky Monkey Five are just as on point as ever (especially Yellow Monkey, who has now graduated from rubbing his star nipples to straight up kidnapping Kei and trying to kiss and marry him against his will… I really wish I was making this up). The story entails you (as Spike and Natalie in the aforementioned shrunken base) rescuing the other main characters from the Freaky Monkey Five, who have captured them with the intent of torturing them to analyse human behaviour. Yeah, it’s dark. Like the other games you don’t play it for the story and, as you’d expect, there’s not much to it, but what is there is charming and well executed.
Overall, Ape Escape: Big Mission is incredible. It embodies everything that makes the original trilogy all time classics while also evolving that formula into something fresh. This, combined with its presentation that is just as great as those, makes this feel like Ape Escape 4 in everything but name. If you’re desperate for a fourth game I’d urge you to import this or obtain it via eyepatch-wearing means, because it’s not only the next best thing to an Ape Escape 4, but it’s one of the best Ape Escape games period.
Have you played Ape Escape: Big Mission? If so, what did you think of it? Let me know in the comments or via my Twitter profile @JoshBSocial. If you’re looking for more Ape Escape content, check out my video review of Ape Escape 2 below: