Love/Hate: Ape Escape 3

Welcome back to the Ape Escape Love/Hate series! In this entry we’ll be looking at the final, mainline Ape Escape game, Ape Escape 3! For whatever reason, despite loving the first two Ape Escape games, I never got the opportunity to play this game as a kid. I remember hearing that it had made some pretty big changes to the formula though, so I was always intrigued to find out how it played. Could it live up to its predecessors’ legacy? Read on to find out…

Love

  • Two Playable Characters – One of the bigger changes in Ape Escape 3 is that you now can play as either a boy or a girl character, Kei and Yumi. This is already pretty cool just for being able to play as the character who appeals most to you, but they’ve gone way further with this than they really needed to. The character you play as gets unique cutscenes and dialogue, they get wildly different costume designs (for example, Kei’s fantasy knight costume is a knight with a sword and shield, whereas Yumi’s is a wizard with a wand and arcane shield), and different gadget designs. Furthermore, Yumi’s character is a popstar in this game’s universe, and some monkeys you will encounter can become star struck when they see her, making them easier to catch. It’s a cute bit of extra differentiation, and it gives some extra incentive to replay the game.
    • I also really want to emphasize how much this change broadens the appeal for Ape Escape. Kei is very much in the vein of a traditional Ape Escape protagonist, with a cool, kid-friendly, edgy look. Yumi, on the other hand, gets to indulge in cuteness, while simultaneously being strong and sassy, making this game more appealing and approachable to girls as well.
  • Gadget Quick-Swap is GREAT – Easily the simplest and best change in the whole game is that you can now quick-swap equipped gadgets. Simply equip a gadget and then press that button again to start cycling through all your gadgets on the fly. Not only does this eliminate the pace-halting menu diving of previous Ape Escape games, but it also means that being forced to use less-used gadgets is less annoying too! This is a fantastic bit of design and I wish it could be retroactively put into every prior Ape Escape game.
  • Costume Designs Are Adorable – A variety of selectable costumes are this game’s main feature and the effort put into their aesthetic design really shows. The aforementioned fantasy knight costume is absolutely adorable, the miracle ninja outfit is really cool, and I like how the cyber ace costume turns Yumi into an anime magical girl (think Sailor Moon). Special shoutout as well to the genie dancer costume – I don’t care as much for the actual costume, but its ability is incredible. You can use it to force everyone to dance: apes, enemy creatures, even the coins and cookies littering the area will dance! You just can’t help but get a huge grin on your face every time you use this thing.
  • Some AMAZING Level Designs – After how derivative most of Ape Escape 2‘s levels were, I wasn’t expecting much from this game. However, imagine my surprise when this game had not one, but two of my favourite levels in the entire franchise.
    • First off, Monkey Expedition Sets Off! is incredible. Starts out fairly unique (for Ape Escape) with a mountain-climbing-themed first area. This results in a vertical level design, which is pretty fun to navigate on its own, but it also shows off the newly-acquired Sky Flyer gadget. Then it moves into a mysterious temple area, which then continues upwards until you end up in the clouds at ape heaven, complete with flying angel monkeys and further vertical level design! An absolute delight of a level, I was blown away with every new twist and turn this level threw at me.
    • Secondly, there’s Ape, Ape, and Away! This level is breath-taking, with the entire level taking place across the backs of a squadron of flying airplanes. You’d think that they’d run out of ideas pretty quickly and force the level to progress to the ground at some point, but no, there are some very creative and unique uses of this space and concept.
  • Mesal Gear Solid – As a huge Metal Gear Solid fan, I was totally primed to love this cross-over, and man did it deliver. The team here have straight-up gotten assets and music from the three Metal Gear Solid games that had released up to that point, they’ve got homages to the games, they mimic the gameplay and style of those games, while also making it simpler and accessible. The referential humour in Ape Escape 3 can be pretty shallow, but they’ve gone so hard into it here that it works great and a lot of effort has clearly been put in to make this a full-fledged experience. My only real complaint is that the controls are really weird (right analog stick to prime your gun, but then you need to use left analog stick to aim it and hold L1 or L2 if you want to aim in first person).

Mixed

  • TV Show Theme – Ape Escape was themed around time travel, Ape Escape 2 was a global ape hunt, and Ape Escape 3 is themed around a bunch of TV show sets. While this gives us a few really cool levels, it only really seems to exist as a vehicle to allow the devs to make a bunch of movie references. The referential humour of this game is very of its era and it reminds me of the sort of “comedy” that I was making back then, where the “joke” starts and ends with “oh hey, that’s Darth Vader monkey”.
  • Apes Can Steal Your Gadgets – Ape Escape 3 goes a step beyond Ape Escape 2‘s nerfing of the Stun aton. Not only can they shrug off a hit from it, but now they can get pissed off and then whack you, knocking whatever gadget you have equipped out of your hands. Not only does this force you to have to grab them back, but they can then steal your gadgets and use them on you. It is objectively hilarious the first time an ape catches you with your own Monkey Net, sending you back to the starting hub. However, it gets old quick and it REALLY sucks when it happens late in a level, forcing you to replay big chunks of a level to get back where you were. It makes the basic “capturing apes” gameplay a lot more dangerous, but not in a particularly fun way.
  • The Shops – The Gotcha Box is gone, and its replacement is a mixed bag. In its place, we get a suite of shops which give you all the same items as the Gotcha Box, but you get to pick and choose what you want. On the one hand, you’ll always be able to get what you want, but on the other hand, given the choice, I’m never going to spend my coins on the silly bonuses (concept art, enemy photos, monkey fables, etc) which made the Gotcha Box so charming. In addition, the prices of the shop items tend to be pretty high, so it makes splurging on these bonus items even more ill-advised.

Hate

  • Costume Implementation – On a conceptual and aesthetic level, I really like the costumes in Ape Escape 3. However, the way that they’ve been incorporated introduces a lot of issues and becomes major flaw for the game at large:
    • First-off, the energy/time limit sucks. You get 30 seconds per charge to use your costume, which immediately turns these things into anxiety-inducers. You can get up to 10 charges to ease the anxiety and extend this time limit, but I’m not convinced that this is entirely necessary because the game showers you with energy pickups whenever it expects you to use the costumes (think the useless oxygen upgrades in Dead Space: the game still has to be balanced for anyone not using the time limit upgrades, making them kind of pointless). The simple solution to all of this is that the game should just let you use your costumes at all times, buuuut…
    • The costumes are game-breakingly overpowered. All of them give you some sort of powerful, room-clearing attacking option, some sort of additional mobility option, and can capture apes at a distance and some even let you capture multiple apes at once. The cyber ace in particular can literally just fire off attacks and fly across an entire map in the process, making entire platforming sections trivial. Which leads to the further problem that…
    • The gadgets are completely invalidated by the costumes. The core gameplay of Ape Escape revolves around chasing apes and using gadgets to deal with challenges. With the way costumes have been introduced, they feel like they’ve been stapled awkwardly on top of the existing system, while also making the conventional gadgets feel entirely outclassed. Why would I risk using my Stun Baton and Monkey Net to catch an ape (who might dodge the attacks or steal my gadgets), when I can just stand in their general vicinity and automatically capture them in a fraction of the time with one of my costumes? The core gameplay has been shot in the kneecap by this decision. They REALLY should have just removed the gadgets entirely and made their functionality a part of each of the costumes’ abilities. That way you would still be incentivized to switch between costumes and you wouldn’t need the time limit.
  • AWFUL Vehicle Gameplay Sections – Ape Escape games tend to have short sections in levels where you need to use some sort of vehicle (rowboat, tank, robot, etc) to get through an area. The row boat and tank actually control a bit better than previous games, but there are two recurring, gimmicky set pieces which absolutely suck:
    • Firstly, there are racing sections which are abysmal. You drive a car where the left analogue stick controls the speed and direction of the car, but then the right analog stick controls the rear wheel steering. It’s supposed to facilitate easier drifting, but in practice it makes you want to throw your controller at the wall. Any section with racing requires you to hunt down two or three apes in cars, and you’re better off sitting and waiting for them to pass you and then ram them three times. This is a tedious waiting game, but it’s far preferable to actually trying to drive this stupid car.
    • Secondly, there’s the robot, which also controls awfully. To illustrate what I mean: WHY THE HELL IS “JUMP” DONE BY PUSHING BOTH STICKS OUTWARDS!? WHY CAN’T I JUST PRESS A BUTTON!?!!! Making matters worse, one of the late-game bosses is fought in the mech, making the entire boss fight pure agony. Thankfully, you can just hop in another mech when yours inevitably explodes, but it doesn’t make the fight any more fun.
  • Weak Story – Story is one of the least-important elements of Ape Escape, but my God, Specter is the least-threatening he ever has been in this game. He was at least sinister and legitimately threatening in prior games, but here he seems like a cartoonish moron… despite basically having already won by the time the game starts.
  • Super Monkey Throw Stadium & Ultim-ape Fighter – The other two mini-games in Ape Escape 3 are, unfortunately, very weak and uninteresting. Super Monkey Throw Stadium is an awkwardly-controlling hammer throw game. On the one hand, it’s like Monkey Soccer, where the apes you catch while playing have different skills you can use in the game. On the other hand… you’re throwing a hammer every time. It gets boring after your first throw. Ultim-ape Fighter, on the other hand, has some potential. It’s basically a simple fighting game, and even has a mini-story mode. However, the controls are really strange, with all actions being input on the left and right analog sticks… I wasn’t a fan of this and dropped it really quickly.

Ape Escape 3 is fun, but it’s a pretty big step down from its predecessors. This is mainly due to the half-baked inclusion of costumes, which compromise the core gameplay and end up making the whole game feel gimmicky. If they had integrated these costumes into the core gameplay more organically, then Ape Escape 3 could have had a shot at being at least on-par with the first two games. As-is, it’s enjoyable, but flawed.

Love/Hate: Ape Escape 2

Welcome back to the Ape Escape Love/Hate series! In this entry we’ll be looking at the PS2 sequel, Ape Escape 2! I remember seeing this game on shelves when it was new and immediately snatching it up for more ape-catching fun. Did it live up to it predecessor? Read on to find out…

Love

  • Monkey Soccer – I’m not even kidding, this mini-game elevates Ape Escape 2 so much in my eyes. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a basic soccer mini-game with apes, but it is so much more than that. You see, your teams are made up of apes that you capture throughout the game, so every captured ape is expanding your roster. This both incentivizes capturing every ape you can find so you can get new players, while also incentivizing you to check-in on Monkey Soccer every once in a while to see what new options you’ve caught for yourself. In addition, each individual ape has their own unique stats, so there’s lots of room for personalization and team-building. My brothers and I used to spend hours playing against each other with our hand-picked teams of simian strikers and it is by far the best memory we all have playing this game… and I don’t even mean that in a way to disparage the rest of the game, it’s just that Monkey Soccer was that much fun.
  • HUGE Graphical Leap – Compared to the very rudimentary PS1 graphics of the original Ape Escape, Ape Escape 2 is simply breath-taking. Between the much-improved graphics and the expressive, fluid, and charming animations, Ape Escape 2 straight-up feels like a Saturday morning anime brought to life. Further reinforcing this feeling, they even managed to get the English voice actors for Ash and Misty from Pok√©mon involved!
  • Gotcha Box – Fostering addiction in children since 2002! The Gotcha Box is an inspired addition to the formula and a major upgrade from the stars and Specter coins you collected in the original game. Here, coins you collect can be spent for a capsule from the Gotcha Box, which gives you some sort of random reward: extra lives, cookies, coins, concept art, mini-games, new RC Cars, etc. There are also rewards, like monkey fables, which are strangely compelling. Like, they’re usually just monkey-based parodies of popular fables and fairy tales, but I always legitimately finding myself reading them and looking forward to my next Gotcha spin to see if I’ll find out the next part of the story.
  • Themed Monkeys! – In addition to the colour-coded apes we got in the previous game, Ape Escape 2 introduces a slew of monkeys whose appearance and actions mirror the stage they are in. For example, in the Spain level you can encounter a matador monkey, the haunted castle has knights, the Vegas level has disco dancers and clowns, the winter level has Monkey Claus flying on his sleigh, etc. There are plenty more cool variants and it’s always fun to see what sort of new ape type you might encounter.
  • The Magnet – Ape Escape 2 brings back all the gadgets from the original and adds some new ones, but the best of these is definitely the Electro Magnet. This basically lets you attach to, or pull in closer, certain metallic objects, which is utilized in several creative applications to facilitate traversal, open up enemies to attack, or solve environmental puzzles.

Mixed

  • Really Leans into the Anime Elements – Look, I know I praised the game for looking like an anime, and your mileage will definitely vary on this one, but Ape Escape 2 leans harder into anime tropes than its predecessor. Like, for some reason, you now have a flying, baby monkey companion named “Pipotchi” who is basically just Pikachu (a feeling which is reinforced since the main character is, again, voiced by Ash’s VA). Then there’s some of the bosses, whose designs and characterization just scream “anime”. For one thing, there’s Pink Monkey, who’s this demure little pop-star wannabe, but when she gets angry, she glows with energy and becomes this psychic monster. Worst of all though is Yellow Monkey, who is… problematic, so say the least. Like… just imagine the gay/drag queen anime stereotype character. That’s what Yellow Monkey is… which brings me to…
  • Freaky Monkey Five – Specter has some help in this game in the form of a group of monkey bosses. On the one hand, it’s not a bad idea to give him some henchmen who can give you more regular, and varied, boss fights. On the other hand, they just kind of show up, fight you, and then go down, having very little time to actually make an impact. They also side-line Specter for most of the game’s runtime, reducing the importance of the game’s actual villain.
  • Dance, Monkey, Dance! – Basically a monkey-based Dance Dance Revolution, Dance, Monkey, Dance! is functional, but was not particularly compelling to me. Again, there’s enough here that someone might want to dedicate more time to getting good at it, but I find that these sorts of frame-perfect timing mini-games don’t hold my interest.

Hate

  • The Story – Unfortunately, the story of Ape Escape 2 doesn’t work quite as well for me as the original game did. For one thing, the stakes are far lower, with the apes just causing mischief around the world, instead of threatening to change history if they aren’t stopped. For a lot of the game, we’re basically just cleaning up the mess we made. It’s not until late in the game when Specter re-enters the picture and we get information that he’s building a super-weapon to take over the world once and for all, but this “lethargy laser” is barely elaborated on. As a kid, I sure as hell didn’t know what “lethargy” meant, so I was really confused about why exactly everyone was so worried about this weapon.
  • Control Changes – Ape Escape 2 seems to have been rebuilt from the ground up for PS2 and, as a result, it doesn’t play quite the same as the first game, much to my chagrin. I know that some of this is just me being grumpy that “It’s not the same!”, and that I wouldn’t even have an issue with it if I hadn’t played the original first, but… shut up. I can be annoyed that the Stun Baton has shorter range, that you have to spin the stick faster to actually do a Stun Baton spin successfully, that your jump doesn’t travel as far, that the Sky Flyer doesn’t let you travel as far, and that you have to jump up every set of stairs you come across.
  • Apes Can Shrug Off a Stun Baton Hit – That’s right, my mainstay strategy from the first game got nerfed and I’m salty about it. That said, is there any real justification for them to have even the timid monkeys be able to take a hit from a Stun Baton and keep going? I’m not even exaggerating – in the second level of the game, I nailed one timid monkey six times as I was chasing him around the level and he didn’t get knocked over once, it was really frustrating and just artificially makes capturing apes take longer.
  • Rehashed Stages – Look, I get that there’s only so many types of levels you can do in your platforming game, and the original Ape Escape covered a lot of them already, but does it not feel a little derivative when we visit another ninja temple, sandy beachfront, icy tundra, spooky castle… and a dinosaur level…? Again, this game is supposed to just be apes running around in the present day, why the hell is there a dinosaur level?
  • Bananarang and Water Cannon – Unfortunately, the other two new gadgets, the Bananarang and Water Cannon, are kinda useless. The Bananarang acts as a mid-range weapon that you can use to draw in monkeys closer… but it’s rather difficult to use accurately and we already have the Slingback Shooter, so you’ll only really ever use it during the tiny handful of situations where the game explicitly forces you to. Similarly, the Water Cannon just kind of… exists. There are a couple parts of the game where you’ll be encountered by a bonfire… that you could very easily just fly over, but the game arbitrarily prevents you from doing this. There are also water wheels which you occasionally have to shoot the Water Cannon at in order to progress. So… it’s basically as useful as a progression-gating Key Card from Metal Gear or Resident Evil. Oh joy, another gadget that I’m never going to use unless you force me to.
  • Monkey Climber – Okay, this mini-game straight-up FUCKING SUCKS. It describes itself as “extremely hard”, but it’s only “hard” in that it controls awfully. I’m sure you can get better at it and get your monkey to climb higher, but the time investment is not worth it.

All-in-all, I really enjoyed Ape Escape 2. Ape Escape 2 is basically the same as the original, only with some higher highs, but also more things that annoy me at the same time. I think I prefer Ape Escape overall just a bit more, since it’s a tighter experience, but you really can’t go wrong with either.

Love/Hate: Ape Escape

It’s time for a new Love/Hate series on IC2S! For those who have been following my Resident Evil playthroughs, don’t worry – I intend to resume the Resident Evil entries this year. In the meantime, we’re going to look at one of my childhood favourite franchises which has been dormant for far too long now, Ape Escape! And what better place to start this analysis, than with the game that started it all?

Also, just a note: there are a ton of random Ape Escape spin-offs. Maybe I will get to those someday, but at this time I’m only really intending to cover the mainline games.

Love

  • The Core Gameplay – First, and most importantly, it has to be said that just playing Ape Escape is a blast. Chasing apes around and trying to catch them is fun and compelling in a similar “gotta catch ’em all” manner to Pokemon. Levels have been constructed so that each ape you encounter is a mini-puzzle you have to approach and overcome using the terrain and tools you have at your disposal. This is the foundation that Ape Escape really had to nail in order to even become a franchise, and this original perfected it out of the gate.
  • The Gadgets – The second key, fundamental piece of the Ape Escape puzzle is the variety of gadgets it puts at your disposal. All of them are really useful, with only the R.C. Car being somewhat situational, but it’s such a cool gadget to have at your disposal that it doesn’t even matter.
    • Special mention needs to go to the Sky Flyer. Video game power-ups that upgrade mobility and traversal are always 10/10, and the Sky Flyer just feels amazing to use.
    • Also, I really need to give props for how well-designed the Stun Baton and Time Net are. The Stun Baton is your all-purpose, close-attacking weapon, while the Time Net is what actually catches 99% of the apes you encounter. In a worse-designed game, you’d just run around with the Time Net to catch every monkey, but the swinging animation for the Stun Baton is much faster. As a result, it is actually better to stun the apes first and then quickly swap to the net to catch them, incentivizing more strategic gameplay than just wildly flailing about with your net.
    • I also want to give a shout-out to the Monkey Radar, which allows you to switch to a “Monkey camera”, which shows you what each ape is doing, its stats, and gives you a little description for every single one. It lends each individual ape a bit of personality, which is a nice touch and incentivizes getting a peek at each ape to learn a bit of their story… before you chase ’em down and catch them in your net.
  • Innovative Controls – It’s easy to overlook this now, but Ape Escape was the first dual-analog console game and was largely intended to be a showcase for the brand-new Dualshock controller. So many games designed to demonstrate new technology end up feeling like tech demos which get in the way of actually playing the game (looking at you, Uncharted: Golden Abyss), but Ape Escape absolutely succeeded in demonstrating that dual-analog controls were not just a gimmick. Moving with the left analog stick, and using gadgets with the right stick feels natural and works very well at facilitating this kind of gameplay.
  • Iconic Character Designs – The cartoonish ape design in Ape Escape is instantly iconic. That said, there has to be special mention for how much thought went into the way that each ape is designed and how this conveys information to the player. For one thing, the colour of their pants denotes how they will behave and gives you information about how they should be approached effectively (yellow pants are “standard”, blue are extremely fast, light blue are timid, red are aggressive, white have high alertness, black have submachine guns, and green have high alertness and missile packs). This also extends to the lights on the monkey’s helmets, which communicate their level of alertness, as well as letting you know whether they’re on the lookout or not. It’s an extremely efficient and effective way in which to communicate complex information to the player so they know how to deal with each monkey they come across.
  • Stage Variety – Levels in Ape Escape are usually split into three “zones”, which share a unifying theme based on whatever time period you’ve travelled to. Despite sharing the same theme with two other levels, each individual stage tends to be very distinctive and well-designed to provide platforming and capturing challenges.
  • Music – Ape Escape was in that era of really evocative and iconic video game soundtracks, and stands strong amongst its peers.
  • Galaxy Monkey – Ape Escape established a precedent that these games will always have some mini-games and easily the best among these is Galaxy Monkey, which is a simple-yet-fun twin-stick shooter.

Mixed

  • Very Basic Story – On the one hand, it’s as functional and unobtrusive as it really needs to be, giving you the setup of “Apes messing with time travel to change history, go catch them” and only interrupting for more story infrequently. On the other hand, it starts venturing into some really generic anime trope territory (one character literally says “You didn’t need the gadgets, you were strong all along!”). Like, I get that it’s a game for kids, but even as a kid I thought this message was really corny.

Hate

  • The Camera – During the first couple generations of 3D console games, developers were still “figuring out” how to effectively do a camera in a 3D environment. Unfortunately, Ape Escape often suffers from this as well. The camera is sufficient during about 95% of gameplay, but that remaining 5% can really stand out in your mind. Camera manipulation is mapped to the D-pad, which is really inconvenient to use unless you stop playing in order to move it around. There is also the ability to re-orient the camera with the L1 button, which works most of the time, but every once in a while you’re going to be chasing an ape into a corner and the camera will completely lose track of everything, which can lead to some frustration.
  • Magic Punch vs Stun Baton – The Magic Punch is an endgame gadget you get, which effectively replaces the Stun Baton: it’s twice as strong, has longer range, and can break more objects. However, the one thing it cannot do is be spun around to hit things repeatedly… which is a pretty frequent thing you need to do to turn wheels throughout the game’s environment. It’s really annoying to give me a straight-upgrade gadget, but then have it be massively inferior in one particular way, necessitating me menu diving to go get by Stun Baton and then swap back immediately every time. The devs clearly agreed, because this was changed in Ape Escape 2 so that a hit from the punch would make wheels spin faster.
  • Boss Fights – Bosses are very basic in this game. They almost always require you to do some sort of action twice, then move to a second phase where you have to do some other action twice… that’s it. Very simple and boring affairs.
  • Ski Kidz Racing & Specter Boxing – Unfortunately, the other two minigames in Ape Escape are not very fun. While you could potentially dedicate time to them trying to improve your skills, they are ultimately brought down by really annoying controls which make them more frustrating than they need to be.
  • Goggle/Missile Pack Monkeys – Oh my God, these types of monkey are SO ANNOYING. You either have to slowly crawl towards them, or you get constantly bombarded. If you get spotted, missiles fly incessantly, making these by far the toughest enemies in the game.

And that is Ape Escape in a nutshell! Easily one of my favourite games of all time, I heartily recommend it if you have never played.