Ape Escape is 20 years old today and is still PlayStation’s greatest 3D platformer
The chance to plunge a net over the head of a monkey is one that mustn’t be overlooked. Sadly, it’s one that doesn’t come about in life all that often, and it’s one that video games, with their endless capacity for wonder, haven’t indulged with nearly enough gusto or frequency. It’s a great shame, especially considering the monkey-positive data available to us. There hasn’t been a video game in the medium’s history that hasn’t been made better with the addition of monkeys: TimeSplitters (its creator agrees with me), Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Tales of Monkey Island, of course, and Super Monkey Ball, a game that would be hollow, quite literally, without them. To quote Jane Austen: it is a truth universally acknowledged, that anyone in possession of a good game, must be in want of a monkey.
This week, to celebrate its 20th anniversary, I have been playing Ape Escape – specifically, the Ape Escape remake, on the PSP, which bettered the original in a number of ways. Its polygons were waxed and buffed, sanding down some of those broken-glass edges. The colours were cleaned up and popped off the screen. And the fiddly functions of the second analogue stick were scrapped, mapping your gadgets, including said net, more sensibly onto the face buttons. By far its most celebrated improvement, however, is the loading screens; here, you see the monkeys lounging, dancing, cavorting. They’re a stroke of genius, these loading screens. They present your prey. They rile you up. They get you, mentally, to a place of absolute resolve: these monkeys must be stopped. It’ll have to be the net, and there’s nothing else for it.
The first thing to consider, when going back to Ape Escape, is the simple, unabashed genius of its name. It’s the sort of name that any game maker or marketer must dream of: a rhyme, a plot set up, an emotional anchor. It’s all there. In fact, you almost wonder if they had the name before they had anything else. The second thing that leaps out is, of course, the monkeys. The story goes as follows: a white monkey, named Spectre, puts on a helmet that makes him super intelligent and, for some reason, evil; he then provides similar helmets, I don’t know where from, for his entire hairy horde; they break out of a local theme park – aptly named ‘Monkey Park’ – and lay siege to the lab of a professor, who happens to have invented a time machine, through which they escape and scatter themselves across history.
The game arrived on this day in 1999, and it remains, in my mind, the finest example of 3D platforming on the PlayStation. After Super Mario 64 – which came out three years prior but felt as if it had arrived, fully formed, from the future – you had to have a platformer. Preferably one piloted by a character that was either (a) an anthropomorphic animal, preferable with jeans (b) in possession of a rude ‘tude, or (c) something that we still don’t understand (my theory is that it’s some sort of space mouse). Ape Escape had none of these. It proceeded with the underrated strategy of having a calm camera and intuitive controls. It seemed to emerge from a crowd of clones untouched, glancing nonchalantly over its shoulder as if to say, ‘What’s all the fuss about? Who needs a pouchy plumber when you have monkeys?’
And not just monkeys, either. As far as games go, these capering little menaces are in a league of their own. Each chimplet wears shorts. These start in banana-yellow, for the most basic, moronic monkeys, progressing through to white shorts for the more discerning, alert types. It’s never made clear where the monkeys got the shorts – they had them even before they were given helmets and let loose. That has stayed with me, and annoyed me, for two decades. Their muppet mouths are always agape; one monkey, in the opening cutscene, sports sunglasses and sprays an Uzi at the camera; their eyes are infuriatingly wide and gormless; and their helmets have flashing lights on them. Make no mistake: the monkeys are aware they have to be caught, and yet they resist.
There’s also a discernible layer of earnestness to Ape Escape – a lack of self-consciousness in its quirk. We seem to be entering an era of ‘weird’ at the moment; Untitled Goose Game, from publisher Panic (who seem determined to root themselves in left field), immediately springs to mind, and it seems to be leading a gaggle of games aimed at those who tire of the normal. But we have to sniff out those who go for quirk above content, and a jaunt back to the simian-scattered coves of Ape Escape will sharpen your senses. This isn’t weird for the sake of weird; it’s a swift and sure platformer that just happens to be crammed with chimps. It had the savvy to cash in on the collect-a-thon bandwagon that Banjo-Kazooie championed the year before, but it had the good sense to motivate you with monkeys.
For me, there’s no better spur. If you’ve ever cast a forlorn eye over the landscape of games, in search of absent chimps, I feel your pain. To spot the saucy little malcontents from Ape Escape pop up in the likes of LittleBigPlanet, Ratchet & Clank, or, in a sublime stroke, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, is to feel a surge of delight with a bitter aftertaste of longing. If you’ve a pocket of free time this weekend, I recommend spending it netting a few naughty chimps. If you’ve got a PlayStation haunting the back of some musty cupboard, it’s worth wiping down. Or, if you have a PS Vita, even better: get the PSP remake (it’s on there for £6.49) and venture back to 1999 by way of 2005. We never had it so good.