What is it about monkeys that makes people crazy? From Super Bowl ads to Hollywood movies to handheld and console videogames, monkeys and their outrageous hijinks never make for bad entertainment. Well, almost never. You see, the new PSP game Ape Escape Academy does darn near everything it can to debunk that theory for good.
The basic premise of Ape Escape Academy is for players to hop into the diaper of an ape in training. Through a series of college-like “courses,” players learn how to protect bananas, smack other students who misspell words, bounce around a boxing ring trying to hit their opponent and, all in all, act as irresponsibly and unpredictably as monkeys are wont to do. The only problem is that we aren’t all monkeys, of course, which means the repetition of the title’s minigames will drive you, um, bananas.
Ape Escape Academy is divided up into six “years” of school, each year being further divided into nine levels. These levels, laid out in a tic-tac-toe board style, are each composed of a different minigame in which the instructions are limited and a single mistake means immediate defeat. Win the round, and that level’s place on the tic-tac-toe board will be filled with a circle. Lose the round, and it’ll be filled with an X. Once all the levels have been played for that year, your success or failure to graduate is determined by whether you’ve succeeded in “winning” one, two or more rows (the number of required rows increases with each year you’re at the Academy).
The diversity of minigames makes it obvious that Ape Escape Academy is trying to be one of the brain-training games that have been all the rage lately. Problem is, its structure isn’t quite spastic enough to succeed. Several of the minigames, for instance, include brief video tutorials, eliminating much of the guesswork that’s inherent in today’s most popular brain-training titles. Then, once you’re actually playing each minigame, the controls are often more akin to a party game than they are a simple buttonmasher, often feeling like a party mode from Super Monkey Ball.
Consequently, Ape Escape Academy feels like it’s suffering from an identity crisis. Is it a brain-training game, with mad-dashing instinctual action, or is it a party game, with slightly more complex controls and minigames? The developers don’t seem to really know, and as a result, neither do gamers. The variety in games is certainly good (math puzzles, parachute games, bomb-stacking games and soccer), but their difference in complexity and controls underscores how unsure the game is of its purpose. Being confused by the solution to brain-training games is one thing. Being confused by the actual gameplay is another.
You’d think the tic-tac-toe layout would at least provide some sense of structure, but since you can’t select which location/minigame you want to play, it really doesn’t. Instead, each game is highlighted randomly as the cursor bounces around the board, and you press the X button when you think the cursor will stop where you want it to. If you ever watched the game show “Press Your Luck,” you’ll be very familiar with the bouncing-cursor concept. This means that there’s very little strategy to surviving each year; you simply play every minigame on the board until all nine of them are complete.
In the later stages, players need to win multiple rows on the tic-tac-toe board, but even if defeat is certain, you’re still forced to beat all the levels. The computer isn’t quite smart enough to realize “hey, maybe I should let these people start the year over.” This could’ve been a design decision, with the developers thinking the minigames were so enjoyable that players wouldn’t mind playing them all even if victory was unattainable. But the games just aren’t that enjoyable.
Ape Escape Academy looks fantastic and is easily on par with the console versions of Super Monkey Ball. Its sound is also commendable, with appropriate music and sound effects for each of the minigames. But good multimedia simply can’t cover up bad gameplay, and that’s precisely the monkey wrench that undoes the enjoyment factor of this game.
- Gameplay: 5
- Some minigames are fun, but most aren’t. Would’ve been better as a PS2 party game than a brain-training wannabe.
- Graphics: 8
- Great cartoony flair that never looks realistic…because it isn’t supposed to.
- Sound: 7
- The sound effects are appropriate, but some of the voices are plain weird.
- Replay: 4
- The same basic games over and over? No thanks.
- Overall: 6
- If it would resolve its identity crisis it would do much better, but it’s just plain “meh” as-is.