So when Sony chose to release a new installment of Ape Escape on the PSP, you have to wonder whether of not they slipped on a banana peel. What was once a quirky, innovative platform game for the Playstation spawned two less successful sequels, neither of which really shook the tree like the original. Now that it's on a cutting-edge platform, how much better is Ape Escape: On The Loose than its simian parents?
The answer is not much. While some of the Ape Escape's features lend themselves well to the new format, the game itself is a pretty generic reincarnation of the original. Is it legal to clone monkeys yet? If not, SCEA might want to pack up and get themselves to Scotland. I hear they can do cool things with sheep there.
On The Loose chronicles the nefarious activities of an evil white monkey named Specter, who has stolen a magic hat that allows him to control hundreds of his kind. With his army, Specter steals a time machine and disseminates his monkey flock throughout history, effectively jeopardizing reality as we know it. A planet where men are ruled by apes!? You play as Spike, a red-haired upstart whose job it is to track down the little chimps and capture them with an oversized butterfly net.
To aid in his poaching, er, "rescue efforts," Spike's scientist friend provides him with several gadgets as the story progresses. These include a stun club, a slingshot, monkey radar, a propeller and several others. The gadgets are essential to the game's unique platform puzzles. For example, in one area Spike must use his remote-controlled car to trigger door panels on one level while he runs on the glass platform above. Each of the gadgets can be assigned to any of three buttons, the last one being absolutely reserved for jumping.
However, in order to assign the gadgets to the buttons, you have to go through the Start menu to the item menu and then back again through both menus. This unintuitive design is cumbersome and disruptive to say the least, especially when Spike needs to use several different gadgets in the heat of the chase. What a bunch of programming monkeys.
Other programming decisions seem similarly simian (alliteration, on the other hand, is the province of the homosapien). The analog nub is the only means to move Spike, the D-pad being reserved for camera angle adjustments. Although the nub is a pretty neat little device, there are some things it doesn't do very well, such as moving you in a straight line. Since most of the areas involve some instance of precise jumping or tightrope-walking, the analog nub guarantees a good number of frustrating deaths. For a genre that requires tight controls, the PSP's nub falls well short of the mark.
The other major obstacle to making Spike walk like a sober person is the annoying, wandering camera. You can center the camera behind Spike by pressing L1, but it will start drifting as soon as he begins to move. In order to compensate, the scientist tells you to tap on the L1 button, jerking the camera back to center while you run. This is problematic for three reasons: (1) the camera thus jerks back and forth, making the game look jittery; (2) frequently tapping the L1 button while using the analog nub forces your left hand into a mildly painful position; and (3) holding the L1 button switches the game into first-person view, which also freezes Spike's movement. If that scientist hadn't spent all his government grant money on making hats for monkeys, maybe he wouldn't have engineered such an unintuitive camera scheme.
Still, once you resolve yourself to the silly camera and the interruptive gadget menu, the game itself can be delightful and even clever. The monkey animations are all irrepressibly silly and irreverent. Watching Uzi-toting monkeys dance the Watusi is a singular treat. Each monkey has a name and a distinct "personality," though these usually come down to whether they dance or sleep while you sneak up on them or whether they patrol the area vigorously. Captured monkeys appear in a "monkey book," a feature sure to please the kids in the backseat. Our favorite monkey? A shy one called "Monkeygaard" who is identified as an "existentialist." How droll.
The platform puzzles and the level design is also very solid. Although some of the spawn points seem a little far back from the really dangerous cliffs and jumps, moving through a level usually opens up doors that allow you to bypass puzzles you've already solved. The puzzles themselves are pleasantly varied, requiring unique uses of the gadgets to negotiate lava pits, oversized cog-wheels, and all the whistling levers and pulleys you could shake a banana at.
The game looks pretty good on the PSP, featuring a resolution that is brighter and more precise than the original. The bright colors and cheerful music feels just about right on the handheld. Although the graphics aren't very complex, they also aren't muddy like the few launch titles that have tried to treat the large LCD panel as if it were your living room TV. Easily accessible and decently long in length, this is a fine title for those PSP owners who are not hardcore gamers. Kids and girlfriends, for example.
The former should beware, though: Ape Escape does not escape from excessive load times. After turning on the PSP, it takes nearly two minutes to get through menus and into the game, which might be too much waiting for the short attention spans of today's ADD monkey children.
Included in the package are unlockable mini-games that can be played with a friend using Ad Hoc wireless. Monkey Skiing feels like a SSX clone gone horribly wrong, while Monkey Boxing is a rudimentary exercise in button-mashing. None of them are worth much in their own right, but make for a welcome multiplayer feature for aggressive siblings.
Unfortunately, Ape Escape's appeal pretty much begins and ends with the littlest chimps. While the puzzles and level design are as solid as any handheld platformer out there, the crazy camera, imprecise control and gorilla-sized load times keep his old silverback from evolving.