Video games went through a super exciting period in the late 90s. The introduction of a third dimension, championed by the PS1, presented a broad new challenge for designers. How can you comfortably control a character in 3D? It's widely recognised that Super Mario 64 pretty much nailed it first try, but there are other games from that era which deserve some attention. Ape Escape, a 3D puzzle platformer from Sony, is one of them.
This was the first game to require the use of the DualShock, a swanky new controller with two analog sticks. Back when 3D games were still a fresh concept, it took a while before the standard controls we use today were fully embraced, and so games like this were still experimenting. A big part of Ape Escape's appeal is its novel control scheme, which makes the most of both analog sticks in ways you don't see nowadays.
A bit of context, though. Specter, a zoo-bound monkey, gets his hands on a special helmet that makes him super smart. He frees his primate brethren, gives them helmets too, and they make their way to the Professor's lab, where they travel back in time to try and replace humanity as the dominant species. Inadvertently, Spike and his friend Buzz also travel to the past, and it's up to the former to put a stop to the madness by capturing all those pesky monkeys. It's a zany story, but it allows for varied, creative levels throughout the adventure.
That core idea of catching all the apes is great, and still a very unique one. To start with, Spike only has access to a club and a net, and these will be your go-to tools in each level. All gadgets are controlled using the right stick; you'll swing the club or the net in the direction you push, for example. At first this is tricky to get used to, but having more control over where you aim your swings comes in handy quite often. Once you find an ape, get close enough and bring the net down to catch it. Using the club will stop it running around, giving you a brief moment to scoop it up.
Things obviously aren't always that simple. As alluded, monkeys can and will spot you, and their helmets tell you what state of alert they're in. Fortunately, each level is open to be explored and there's no time limit, so if a monkey escapes, you can find it at your own pace. Holding in L3 makes Spike crawl, which makes it much easier to sneak up on your target, though moving the stick while holding it down feels awkward. The act of finding and capturing each monkey is simple fun, and successfully snagging them always feels satisfying.
You can swap between gadgets using the face buttons, and camera controls are put on the D-pad. Some of these control decisions are antiquated and feel clunky by today's standards, but it works well enough. L1 brings the camera back behind Spike, so you can use that when things inevitably end up in a strange view.
Other gadgets include a radar to locate monkeys, a slingshot to hit targets at range, and a hula hoop that acts as a shield and speeds Spike up. We appreciate that each tool has its uses, maybe not in every stage but you're given plenty of reason to use them all throughout the game. You can only equip four at a time — again, assigned to the face buttons — but pressing Select gives you quick access to your whole collection. It's another aspect that really shows the title's age, but again, you're never in a situation where you need all the gadgets at once, so it works just fine.
The drip-feed of gadgets across the campaign means you can't always catch every monkey in a level on your first visit. In fact, you'll automatically end a stage when you reach your quota, and often there will be a few more you haven't found yet. Coming back to previous sections with new equipment allows you to reach new areas and capture all those apes, which you should do if you want the true ending.
Visually the game is quintessentially PS1 with sharp edges, flickering textures, and heavy use of distance fog. It's certainly quite crude, but even so, there's a lot of personality shining through. Colours really pop, characters are stylised nicely, and the monkeys have an iconic look that would almost be lost if they had more polygons.
The main game is pleasantly simple, pretty easy, and not particularly long, so it's a great palette cleanser. Collecting Specter coins in each stage rewards you with mini-games of varying quality, the point being they also make heavy use of the analog sticks. In Ski Kidz Racing you control the skis under each foot of your character, which is tricky to get used to. You control your character's fists independently in Specter Boxing, with similarly unwieldy results. Finally, Galaxy Monkey is a twin-stick shoot-'em-up, and probably the best of the three. They're neat extras, but you probably won't spend that long with them.
Ape Escape might show its age in certain regards — the controls are very much of their time, and the mini-games are hit and miss — but it remains a fun, easy-going adventure. Tracking down all the monkeys and figuring out how to catch them is still a joy, and all Spike's gadgets are useful across the varied, colourful stages. Packed with charm and still pretty unique to this day, this is quite simply an oldie but a goodie.