[27 May 2005]
I’m a platformer fan. I always have been. But some fairly classic ones have definitely eluded me. I never played the original Super Mario 64. I haven’t played a single 2D Sonic the Hedgehog game. I wasn’t familiar with Insomniac till Ratchet and Clank, having never touched Spyro the Dragon. And I didn’t play the original Ape Escape. I did pick up the PS2 sequel some time ago and explored it to some degree, but I had always wanted to play the original.
Depending on how you look at it, the game rerelease trend that we’ve been seeing these past few years may or may not be a good thing. Nintendo has certainly led this effort, and although it seems strange at first, I remind myself that movies get rereleased, and special editions come out on DVD. Books get republished. Albums get remastered. Maybe as a diehard fan you want to pick up the newest possible version for additional content or updated graphics. Another thing I like about rereleases, though, is that they may serve as an introduction to the uninitiated. A way to bring a game’s existence back into the public consciousness. A mechanism to allow for people who had missed a game the first time around to play it on current hardware, as opposed to legacy systems they might no longer have on hand. In that sense, and due to the dearth of quality platformers on the PSP, I was pleased to learn that Ape Escape: On the Loose, a lightly updated port of the original, would be coming to the handheld system.
As with the original, On the Loose is the story of Spector, a white monkey who has recently acquired a super helmet that has increased his intelligence and filled him with the typical world domination machinations of any given James Bond villain. The game puts you in the shoes of Spike, a redheaded boy who has been tasked with capturing a number of Spector’s hench-monkeys who are running amok in the annals of time.
One of the biggest compliments bestowed upon the Ape Escape series has to do with its inventive use of the dual analog sticks present on the PlayStation and PS2 controllers. Nowadays, it is fairly common that both sticks be used in a platformer or any action-oriented game, for that matter. But Ape Escape had gone far beyond the bounds of using the left stick to control motion while the right controlled the camera. Unfortunately, those mechanics had to be removed from the PSP version, given its lone analog nub. The game suffers for this modification, as I found it extremely difficult to capture monkeys. As opposed to being able to intuitively swipe a net in any given direction, one must now be directly facing a monkey before luring him into your trap. This is awkward and takes more time to get used to than many will be willing to invest.
Ape Escape: On the Loose also contains a few unlockable minigames. Ever since I became introduced to Super Monkey Ball, however, my standards for the addictiveness of minigames have become much higher. There are serviceable versions of boxing and ping pong, among others, but I simply didn’t find them very fun.
A danger of rereleases, I believe, is as follows. Even if graphics have been spit-shined (and On the Loose clearly looks far superior to even the best games PlayStation titles), sound has been tweaked, levels have been added, and extras included, but the core gameplay feels quite dated. The Ape Escape concept, from the early days of 3D platforming when item collection was essentially the entire point of a game, seems rusty when compared to current 3D standard-bearers like Ratchet and Clank and Jak and Daxter.
It was difficult to shake the feeling that I was playing not a remake of a PlayStation game, but rather the exact same game from several years ago, complete with all the design deficiencies that plagued early 3D platformers. Although I believe that Ape Escape: On the Loose has enough creativity and sheer character to be able to overcome this issue to some degree, the lack of an adequate alternative to the dual analog setup that made the game famous makes control harder than it should be. As is frequently the case, the lack of elegant control brings the whole experience down, making the game experience a rather frustrating one.