Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked…Chazz Redhead’s World – #49: Ape Escape

In PlayStation, PSP on December 17, 2013 at 5:22 pm

Title: Ape Escape

Format: Playstation, PSP

Released: July 2nd, 1999

Ape Escape Box Art

One of the main complaints offered up against the ultra-high-def, macho, maybe slightly racist games of today is the lack of colour. The AAA line-up that defines the current generation features a similar palette to Henry Higgins’ brash description of Eliza Dolittle: Brown! Brown! Brown! When I think of the first game I truly became obsessed with, I think of a level of colour akin to a fireworks display in Cyberdog. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this game came from Japan.

My very first exposure to Ape Escape came from a ‘Best of’ demo disc courtesy of Playstation Magazine. You’d think my attention would be grabbed by Metal Gear Solid’s espionage antics, Tombi’s impenetrable aesthetics, or something my friends called ‘the one with the guy who kicks a lot’ (Tekken 3, if you’re curious). Booting up the demo would cement the love of videogames that has run throughout my life so far.

Tekken 3

For the uninitiated, Ape Escape centres around an albino monkey called Specter who puts on a helmet that makes him super intelligent and, as sciencey things tend to do, EVIL! He then springs a cabal of monkeys larger than the average Pokemon roster and sends them through time and space so that primates can rule the world. So far, so Charlton Heston. A young man called Spike (in the UK, Kakeru in Japan) is tasked with tripping through the 4th dimension, and capturing the monkeys. How does he do this? The old fashioned way; twat them on the head and catch them with a net. A fancy gadget net with particle effects, but a net all the same.

Ape Escape Net

The daft story, bright visuals and catchy music seemed to be tailor-made for pleasing childhood imagination, appealing directly to the kids that played it/tag/whatever and fantasized about the time of the dinosaurs (so pretty much everyone).

On the hardware side of things, the big deal about Ape Escape was that you HAD to have the Dual Shock controller to play it. As the only kid in Bedford with said controller, I felt like Sony was personally rewarding me with this experience, and it was certainly something I bragged about on a regular basis. And despite the beatings from my peers, I still smile thinking about wiggling that right stick and flying up into the sky, or running so fast that a T-Rex couldn’t catch me or TWIRLING AROUND WITH MY GODDAMN LIGHTSABER MUM MUM COME AND SEE THIS IT’S AWESOME! Plus, it really messed with my friend’s heads when I told them there was a game where the jump button was R1.

Ape Escape Lightsaber

That control scheme made it really feel like a level of sophistication was required to pull of more complex moves. I had more than a few punch-the-air moments after successfully executing a complicated capture. From dropping down from a ledge right on top of an unsuspecting foe or timing that double jump just right so the bastard practically runs into your net; it couldn’t have been more emotional unless I fist pumped the sky, froze, and a Survivor song started playing (Playing. I definitely didn’t sing my way through the 80’s pump-up oeuvre. Definitely not.)

The other thing I remember about this game was that it was hard. Not Battletoads hard, or God of War ‘again?! FUCK YOU HADES BLADES OF DEATH!’ hard, but hard enough that you had to think things through. If you just went charging in, net aloft, you were bound to get shot. Oh, did I mention some of the apes have guns? Yeah, some of them have guns. And bombs. And there’s this one prick with binoculars that fires missiles out of a backpack. You could tell from a distance which was which due to the colour of their pants (an example of the games brilliant visual language assisting and engaging the player)

Apes

That motherfucker on the far right is the face of my frustration nightmares. At the moment, he appears and tells me to get a job.

Failure was frustrating, but not controller-throwingly so. It made me rethink and use the information I’d gained from the last attempt. It was never the game’s fault; it was mine for playing it wrong. A bit of recon with the trusty monkey radar would allow me to observe their movements, plan, and try again.

The radar itself is a wonderful addition, as it allowed the writers of the game to not only name each of the monkeys, but add a little sentence about their personality. Maybe a purely superficial touch, but enough that they made me laugh. For lack of a more appropriate phrase, it humanised my primate foes and injected a further sense of fun into the adventure. These descriptions covered a whole spectrum, from pop-culture references to entire relationships told in fewer characters than your average tweet (the strongest example being two monkeys who have had a falling out, but finding out the story separately as they’re seven levels apart). As the series went on, the references would become more overt, but still retaining that element of fun.

Apes 2

To give him credit, he’s doing what he loves.

The radar was just one of a string of gadgets that was rewarded to you as the game progressed. It didn’t feel like content was being deliberately locked away, as you could revisit the levels with your enhanced loadout at any time. You master one gadget and the game threw you another one, with a set of levels to test your skill. And as the loadout got bigger, so did the levels. Beginning with one small plain progressing through to towering caverns, snowy mountains, and sinister caves before dumping you in present day to face off against Specter. And it doesn’t stop there. This game managed to pull a fast one on 7-year-old me by presenting me with what I thought was the final level, and then pulling the rug out from under me and revealing another set of sprawling, ape-infested areas. It managed to do this THREE TIMES. I couldn’t have been happier. I never wanted it to end.

Massive levels, with over twenty monkeys on each, and each with its own amazing design (a medieval castle, a modern TV tower, and a theme park/enormous space station). When that was done, you had to go back to all the levels and grab any monkeys you missed. Then you finally got to the last boss battle.

Ape Escape Specter

As sad as it may sound, I consider Ape Escape a close childhood friend. One that was there on weekends to hang out or stay up late on a school night. Friendly, funny, and just plain great to be around. Two sequels on the PS2 allowed my friend to grow (even if that meant cracking the Japaneseyness up to 11, or whatever that number is in kanji), but that first game will always have a special place in my heart. I heartily recommend pulling out your PS1, popping it in, and grabbing a net. It’s hunting season.

——

P.S. Aren’t you glad I made it through this whole article without saying the game made me ‘go bananas’? I was really tempted to.

P.P.S. Playing the PSP version of the game at 17, after I had realised that I really loved writing, it managed to teach me a lesson about subtlety in writing. On the penultimate level, Spike has just managed to free his friend Buzz (or Jake in some versions) from Specter’s brainwashing. He’s leaving to face off against the villain in what might be the final battle. The following exchange happens:-

UK Version:

Spike moves to leave
Buzz: Spike!
Spike turns around.
Buzz: Don’t lose.
Spike nods seriously

PSP (US) Version:

Spike moves to leave
Jake: Spike!
Spike turns around.
Jake: Kick his butt!
Spike nods seriously

Stiff upper lip trumps teenage tough-talk every time.

Chazz

Chazz Redhead reached rock-bottom a month ago when he ordered and consumed a Dominos Two-for-Tuesday by himself. He is currently a writer and performer in sketch groups The Electrosexuals and Dirty White Boys. His slasher musical RIPTIDE opens in February 2014

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