Reviewed: November 15, 2004
Released: Otober 19, 2004
Back in the final days of the original Playstation, the eve of the PS2, many in the gaming media compiled and published their “Best of the Playstation” lists. For the most part, there were few surprises in the choices – Gran Turismo 2, Metal Gear Solid, and a handful of other high-profile games. What did come as a surprise for many, though it shouldn’t have, was the near-universal inclusion of a little known Sony first-party platformer titled Ape Escape.
In the original Ape Escape, you played as a kid named Spike, who was tasked capturing a band of simian amusement park escapees who had stumbled upon the secret to time travel, and were using their newfound knowledge and power to go back in time and reverse the order of things – the result: putting the monkeys in charge, and the people in cages. Ape Escape was filed under the Platform genre, but it was far from being your run of the mill hop ‘n bopper we had come to expect.
Ape Escape featured some of the best, never-seen-before gameplay for the platform genre. Where others were content with corral-type 2D-in-3D platform, Ape Escape opted for large worlds, each littered with a handful of devious little monkeys to be netted, many of which requiring the use of specialized equipment and gizmos collected in further levels and tracked back. Thankfully, the whole dimension was held together by a central hub world (another new-ish idea at the time) and you could freely go back and forth between opened levels. At the time, this was some pretty unique stuff.
However, what struck critics as the really revolutionary aspect of Ape Escape was not so much the interesting level design, but more how it utilized the newly designed (and now commonplace) analog DualShock controller – so integral was the new hardware, that the game wouldn’t load if a DualShock wasn’t plugged into the port. At a time when the DualShock was not the standard equipment, laying down a hefty ($30) requirement like this was a bold move for developers, and was probably a big part of the reason that Ape Escape never reached the popularity of Crash or Spyro.
Still, the control scheme was innovative – with the face buttons relegated to simply being instant selectors for a four piece inventory system – all of the other controls (movement, melee, jumping, etc…) were mapped to the analog sticks and shoulder buttons. Most unique was the use of the right analog, which was used for weapons and items, and was mapped 1:1 with the game camera, regardless of which direction the character was facing.
What do I mean? Really, it sounds more complicated than it is without explaining this scenario. Basically, let’s say you have Spike facing towards the right side of the screen and a rogue monkey runs up between you and Spike (essentially, on Spike’s right hand side). A press of the X button instantly equips Spike’s staff, then a quick jab of the right analog stick in the down direction causes Spike to instantaneously whip around 90ş and club the little fellow into a daze. A quick press of the triangle button equips your capture net, which you would again jab down and secure the ape. This absolute relationship between the dual analog sticks and the game camera might sound elementary half a decade later, but in 1999 it was a fairly new concept – you could, in effect, run to the right and swing to the left at the same time – which couldn’t be done in the days of the D-pad controller.
The dual analog was also used for some interesting vehicular levels. For instance, Ape Escape featured levels, which required navigation using round, dual-oared, inflatable raft. Once inside the craft, each analog stick took control of a particular oar. In one of the most frustrating (yet rewarding) moments in all of gaming, you had to clock both oars round-and-round in unison – but in opposing directions – to make the boat paddle straight. Any deviation and the boat would begin to rotate – which was fine if you intended to turn – but devastating if it took you off course. As much as I was impressed by the rafting mechanics, I must admit that to this day I could not get a good handle on the process and I still dread every minute spent in the boat.
Once the PS2 came along, there came a new breed of platformer; Jak and Daxter, Ratchet and Clank and Sly Cooper. Ape Escape was nearly forgotten until late in 2003 when Ubisoft imported the little-know sequel, which had been released over a year prior in Japan. The reviews were hit-or-miss. Critics who remembered the original Ape Escape remained enamored by the gameplay – the others scoffed at its simplicity and lack of overall polish compared to the current blockbuster platformers.
Surprisingly enough, a year later we find ourselves with yet surprise Ape Escape release titled Ape Escape: Pumped and Primed – and this time, it’s not a platformer…it’s a party game, and a fairly enjoyable party game at that.
Like the GameCube’s Smash Bros., or the Xbox’s Kung-Fu Chaos – Ape Escape: Pumped and Primed is a four-player party title filled with a variety of mini-games, including arena-based melee and weapons combat, coin collecting foot races, a smattering of vehicular racing and/or combat levels, and a number of specialty levels (tennis, etc…. Nothing is new here – your standard party game fare - yet as a total package, it is a very large game and surprisingly enjoyable.
The arena battles play out like you would expect as you skitch around, dodging the oncoming attacks, and dishing out a bit of a beating yourself – whether with your club-like melee staff, or your projectile attacks (slingshot primarily). As you would also expect, pickups appear periodically to help you get the upper hand on the competition – yet, interestingly enough, where most party games like pickups of the power-up variety, Ape Escape: Pumped and Primed more often than not likes to drop environmental hazard pickups into the fray, which upon activation tends to make the level perilous for all. A single bunch of bananas will unleash a slippery ring of peels; a lone bomb will unleash a virtual air strike upon the level. It’s all quite exciting, knowing that what can hurt others so well is just as effective on you, forcing you to think hard before activation.
The coin races require players to collect as many coins as possible on a treacherous course, all locked in a forced screen scroll. There are plenty of high stakes coins placed on hard-to-reach platforms, but getting to them can be nigh impossible given the limited time you have to line up your jump while contending not only with the scroll of the screen, but also while navigating around the attacking opposition and the tricky course layout which will more often than not see you falling to your death. To give you a bit of a boost, you are allowed the use of the sky flyer – a paddle-like apparatus that can be twirled to become a helicopter. Each frantic race will have you on the edge of your seat, squeezing every bit of life out of your poor DualShock controller.
The vehicular levels come in a couple of varieties – motorized and non-motorized. The motorized events will find you commanding the controls of either a tank or underwater submarine or jetpack, with which you will fire various weapons. Non-motorized events involve primarily the rubber raft, which take the form of lap races through obstacle. As you can probably guess, these weren’t my favorite events.
Each of the mini-games were well thought out and designed, the only real drawback being with the controls – the very same controls which somehow seem totally intuitive in the platform games, often left me fumbling in under the frantic party pace of Ape Escape: Pumped and Primed. The issue wasn’t so much the use of the dual sticks as it was the use of the shoulder button for jumping. I mean, maybe it’s the fact that I grew up learning to press a button down to jump up, and now I was being told to pull a trigger back instead, or maybe it was the fact that you thumbs (the smartest digits, by far) are occupied with the sticks, relegating your to use your index finger to make quick, precise movement – either way, it just seemed unnatural and it would take a good 5 to 10 minutes to get a groove on and that’s just not fun. And although I did say the analog sticks weren’t really and issue, I still somehow feel that I would have enjoyed the game even better if the controls were more like, oh…Maximo or Onimusha 3, and still used the 1:1 camera control, yet employed face buttons to slash – allowing a greater number of planned combos as opposed to accidental kind which seem to happen on their own.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Ape Escape: Pumped and Primed as much more fun when playing with a friend or two than it is playing against the AI competition. And that’s not only because of the trash talk factor involved with having a buddy in the room with you, but because the AI can be impossibly challenging at times – especially in the coin and boat levels. Of the 50-plus single player levels, 44 are available for multiplayer.
Still, the Sony developers are well aware that a majority of the time, gamers will be playing alone, so to counter the usual doldrums associated with the party game single player mode, Ape Escape: Pumped and Primed employs a Fan Club system where your successful progress will cause monkeys fall, err….in love with your character and begin sending fan mail, gifts, heck – they’ll even join your posse and stand for you in the battle. While it seemed a bit silly at first (even a tad bit creepy) getting fan letters and outfits from your monkey minions, it really starts to pay off when they start doling out special attacks and gadgets. It’s definitely a unique concept, and did do a great job of keeping the interest in its weird, quirky Japanese sort of way.
And c’mon Sony and Ubisoft…where’s the online play? We need a few more lighthearted online games! Anyone who has played the Rainbow Six 3 or Ghost Recon titles knows that you guys can pump out some killer online titles, so get these developers on the online train and let us club some friends from afar!
Featuring a well-detailed cell-shaded scheme, Ape Escape: Pumped and Primed looks killer on the Playstation 2. True, the levels are stark arenas for the most part, but everything in them looks bright and crisp and jaggies are fairly unnoticeable.
Really the only visual knock is one that we find with nearly all party games – in order for a single screen to capture the position and movement of four independent individuals, it tends to zoom out so far that the characters become nearly indistinguishable. With friends, you can try to stay together as much as possible, but against the AI, these zooms will have you button mashing more than usual.
Ok, Japanese games generally mean horribly monotonous midi-styled Casio keyboard background music, and if this is the stuff you like, Ape Escape will not disappoint. I found it to be just too grating to my liking.
The range in sound quality was not very impressive – repetitive shooting and slashing intermingled with repetitive grunts, groans and moans – nothing very exciting here. Given that you are intended to be playing with a roomful of buddies, the sound obviously took a backseat to the gameplay. Still, it gets the job done.
Again, it’s a party game. A party game with a bit more life via the Fan Club system, mind you, but a party game nonetheless. It’s lighthearted, it’s entertaining, it all you want in a party game – but it’s as shallow as the kids pool at the K.O.A., and you’ll probably be wishing you had spent your $40 on something with a bit more substance – something like Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal (which does feature online play), Jak III or Killzone. No matter how amusing Ape Escape: Pumped and Primed is, a party game just can’t hold a candle to the recent glut of similarly-priced blockbusters.
But, if you’re having a party – you really can’t go wrong renting Ape Escape: Pumped and Primed. There aren’t many games which cater to the four player experience, and Ape Escape: Pumped and Primed comes out golden in this respect.
I’m a sucker for party games – and as so, I had a lot of fun with Ape Escape: Pumped and Primed. We all need a break once in a while, and party games allow us to let our hair down and do some brainless button mashing. But with party games, when all is said and done, it ends up being nothing more than button mashing, making it hard to recommend in the light of the other Grade-A titles out there.
I appreciate Sony and Ubisoft keeping the Ape Escape franchise alive for us fans in the states, but one wonders how long that can continue in the shadow of Sony’s other massive platformers.