Monkey see, monkey don't.
As the nation's parents and children grow ever more concerned with AP test scores, college preparatory schools, and the benefits of Mozart in the womb
, what's a monkey to do? It's bad enough that the monkey cages at the zoo are bereft of good natural light for studying, but it's even worse that not a single school in the country has a monkey as its mascot. Thankfully, there's a school just for monkeys - and it's not the University of Mississippi.
Ape Escape Academy is merely the second in a series of well-intentioned PSP games that just don't make the grade. Although the PSP sorely needs a dose of small scale arcade fun, the mini-games that make up the curriculum of the Ape Academy are too uneven, too disconnected, and too brain-numbingly elementary to compete with the sedentary joys of a tranq-dart to the neck.
Placing its four opposable digits squarely in the prints left by WarioWare, Ape Escape Academy tests the waters of the mini-game format for the PSP. You progress through "grades" of the academy by playing tic-tac-toe against yourself. Each square of the tic-tac-toe board contains a single mini-game. If you successfully beat the mini-game, you win that square, and if you fail, you lose the square. Win the tic-tac-toe game and it's off to the next grade. Unfortunately, you can't quit a game of tic-tac-toe until all of the boxes have been filled. This annoying oversight makes it impossible to cancel a game you've already clearly lost. School might suck, but being forced to finish out the term after you've failed is cruel.
The tic-tac-toe format is really just a banana peel to be discarded for the juicy meat of the mini-games themselves. With over 30 games in all, Ape Escape Academy offers a wide variety of challenges. Some cater to the PSP's controls, such as the hammer-toss that requires a dexterous spin of the analog nub. Others have you saving skydiving monkeys, shooting monkeys in a gallery, balancing bombs thrown by monkeys, and protecting your giant banana from zombie monkeys...literally. You can't complain about the variety of games, as you can play for half an hour without repeating any.
However, you can complain about the games themselves. While some (like air hockey) are harrowing and moderately fun during their thirty-second lives, others, such as addition and multiple-choice memory quizzes, remind me of educational games for ADD kids. Even worse than the smuggled-in arithmetic are games that are simply boring. The first time the PSP asks you to turn it 90 degrees to play a diving game, you will be intrigued. However, the game merely requires you to guide your diving monkey left and right, navigating an elementary maze. Lame.
On the other end of the spectrum are games that are nearly impossible, especially at the higher grades. One of the more difficult is a flower-peddling game that doesn't seem fair at all. Get close to the monkeys with your flowers and they get pissed at you for getting in their way; stay away from the monkeys and they won't take your flowers at all. Why you're giving flowers to monkeys in the first place is a mystery.
Sometimes the games hit just the right balance between difficulty and inventiveness, such as the weird "Mon Quixote" game. Dressed as the itinerant Spanish knight, your monkey stands on a windmill-spotted hill armed with only a shield as arrows rain down upon you. Blocking the arrows is genuinely fun, the setting is smart, and the difficulty is appropriate.
Unfortunately, for every good mini-game there are three boring, frustrating, or fleeting ones. I can't do the math, having skipped the arithmetic mini-games, but I'm fairly sure that adds up to failure in most college courses.
The music and the graphics are typically bright and cutesy, but since the game lacks of any sort of cohesive narrative, the style isn't exactly distinct. The load times between the mini-games are also a frequent pain in this monkey's hairless ass. Since some of the games can be as short as two or three seconds, waiting several seconds for them to boot up is yet another scratchy mathematical proportion against Ape Escape Academy's favor.
Ad hoc wireless multiplayer is a nice feature, but only a few of the games, such as monkey air hockey, are really worth competition. The joy here is brief if anything.
They say that childhood is brief as well, and obviously this game caters to a younger audience. I imagine that some of the games, especially the quiz and math types, will be difficult for those conceived after 1995. But then again, the dubious cuteness of the monkeys will only be fresh and appealing to those unspoiled by years and years of random animated animals.
And speaking of brevity, there simply isn't much more to be said for Ape Escape Academy. It seems like a smart evolutionary step for the series to begin aping (ha) Nintendo's better handheld experience, but not when it treads down a path paved with banana peels, which, I am conditioned to believe, are very slippery.