After seeing all of the success Nintendo had with their revolutionary analog controller and the benefit of having a marketable mascot to help sell systems, Sony decided that they would not be outdone. They had to have a newer, fancier controller and had to have a hot commodity (like Mario) attached to their brand name. So here we are with an analog controller with TWO joysticks and a built-in rumble (they call it "vibration") support and a new 3D platformer called Ape Escape. The game was supposed to be launched with the new controller but instead got delayed, so Sony bundled it with the new PlayStation systems and hoped for the best. So here we are half a year later with Ape Escape in hand.
Ape Escape brings little to the table upon first inspection. The music is pretty ordinary (catchy at times, but definitely not memorable). Visually, the game is just lacking. Sony offers the gamer simplistic character models and pixelated textures. I guess this was supposed to allow for the large levels, but when I look at older titles like Spyro The Dragon, it's obvious that huge levels can fit into a game and be accompanied by beautifully rendered characters. And Spyro wasn't bogged down with as much slowdown either; at times the game slows to a crawl, ruining the experience. We're in the 5th year of the PlayStations's lifespan so it is inexcusable for Sony's own internal development to be so blatantly inept at handling the PlayStation hardware.
Ape Escape falls further in the originality department. As with all 2D and 3D platform games, plot is the least developed part of the game. Let me get this straight. An utterly brilliant and kind-hearted scientist has created an intelligence-increasing machine, which was then discovered by a bunch of escaped monkeys and now they are bent on enslaving humanity? It all just sounds too implausible, even if they do have opposable thumbs! Add to this equation the fact that this same scientist happens to have the only working time machine known to man -- you see where this is going. It's best not to think too much about this, but it's sure to rub some people the wrong way.
In a cruel twist of fate, the main character, Spike, is not the star. Without a story, there isn't any development of his character. From beginning to end, he's just a bland kid with no personality or special ability to make him stand out. The star, or stars, are the monkeys. They are far more entertaining to watch and we actually find out more about their individual personalities and quirks throughout the game than we do about Spike. On top of that, Spike doesn't do anything that other mascots in 3D games haven't been doing for years now. With no compelling reason to like Spike, I can see the sequel of this game going the way of Donkey Kong where the ape becomes the star.
What Ape Escape does offer is possibly a new way to play games. One that totally breaks the rules and does it nicely. To their credit, Sony didn't try to fool themselves. They saw that they had an innovative title, but with innovation comes a lot of adjustments, so they focused heavily on the controller and the game mechanics. Tutorials are everywhere and practice levels are provided for me to try my hand at each new gadget. It turns out that the gadgets are really a lot of fun and using the dual controller, they are both challenging and refreshing. This was a negative at times because the game doles out so many gadgets that I felt that they were just showing off and not doing anything to advance the playing experience. At other times it was incredible what I found I could do. With the dual joysticks I could control weapons or gadgets in a complete 360-degree motion, something I couldn't do in other games. I also had to use the joysticks for actions like moving forward in one direction and attacking an enemy in another.
Ape Escape was supposed to be a breath of fresh air during the down side of the PlayStation life cycle but Sony nearly ruins it. Ape Escape borrows too heavily from games on other systems and doesn't deliver enough to help it stand out beyond the Mario clones flooding the market. It takes a while for Ape Escape's own charm to shine through but when it does, Ape Escape proves to be a nice start for a franchise. However Ape Escape is a prime example that the old-school action buttons may be a bit antiquated for games taking place in a 3D world and I really hope that Sony gets it right with the sequel. One final note to the zookeepers of the world or whomever else must deal with apes. If one of them combs its hair over one eye and goes by a name other than Cheetah or Bubbles, beware. Because if a scientist misplaces a mind-altering device and this monkey gets a hold of it, we're in for a world of hurt.