The 90s and early aughts were filled to the brim with 3D platformers, so it can be easy to forget some of them through the years. Ape Escape is always on that list for me of forgotten platforming legends. With its array of gameplay gadgets and spunky monkeys, Ape Escape set itself apart from other quirky platformers of the time.
Ape Escape is one of the first games I ever played and thusly has the most vague memories for me; however, my 4 year old self had a good time and the theme song is still one of the catchiest in the PS1’s catalog.
But whatever happened to Ape Escape and why does it seem like no one ever talks about the franchise anymore? I wanted to find out just what happened to this Sony exclusive and see what sort of a future the franchise might still have.
A strong start to a budding franchise
Ape Escape is a Sony exclusive and was first published in 1999 on the original Playstation. The first Ape Escape was really well received by critics and fans alike back in the day and IGN at the time gave it a 9.5/10. Ape Escape’s premise was simple: a monkey stole a helmet that made him intelligent and he released his monkey brothers form their prison to take over the world throughout time.
The monkeys escape into different time periods and the player, in the shoes of Spike must hunt them down using his net and various gadgets. Honestly, it sounds a bit like Rise of the Planet of the Apes but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Ape Escape was one of the first games to really take advantage of the (at the time) new DualShock controller that Sony released. The added control sticks allowed for much more refined movement in the 3D world compared to what was capable with only a D-pad.
In fact, you couldn’t play Ape Escape without the DualShock controller as the game required the precision of the analog sticks. I can’t imagine trying to keep up with the monkeys, who run and jump all around the levels, with only the stiff PS1 D-pad.
What made the original game so special were its unique platforming levels and its utilization of gadgets as new ways that Spike can interact with the worlds. Ape Escape did a great job introducing colorful new worlds that ranged from prehistoric Earth with dinosaurs walking around to a medieval castle with a dungeon. The game had great variety and that stuck out to me even as a kid. Rayman certainly seemed one note in comparison to my underdeveloped brain.
That variety was largely supported by the introduction of gadgets regularly throughout the game. Spike starts out with just a net and club but quickly obtains the water net and monkey radar to help catch monkeys in the water and ones that are trying to hide respectively. As spike gets new gadgets, he will have to backtrack to get the monkeys he wasn’t able to get the first time around. By the end of the game, you are true guru of the levels if you decided to go for 100 percent completion.
Plus, the monkeys all had a little bit of personality to them. The fashion forward monkeys would identify their quirky personality types by the color of their pants. Monkeys wearing yellow pants were slightly faster than normal for instance, but a monkey wearing green pants was a demolitions expert and could launch missiles. Hunting the apes was more than just throwing a net over them but preparing for the type of monkey and the area that it was hanging out in.
Several sequels and spinoffs
There were a number of sequels to the franchise after the original 1999 release. I never managed to play Ape Escape’s sequels or spinoffs myself as my family began to float towards Xbox and Nintendo for the remainder of my childhood, but there were two more entries in the mainline series as well as multiple spinoffs that I had no idea even existed in the early 2000s. For simplicity’s sake, I will only be covering the North America releases and not the Japan exclusive games.
Ape Escape 2 was released in 2003 for the PS2 and was also received well. Critics enjoyed the variety in the game design and the return of the collect-athon aspect of the series but many felt the game was too easy. especially in comparison to the original. A solid follow-up which is all anyone could really ask for.
The first spin off to hit North America released in the summer of 2004 called Ape Escape: Pumped & Primed also for the PS2. Sadly, this entry in the series was not nearly as well received by critics and fans as the main line games. Primed & Pumped tried to be Sony’s attempt at a Mario Party game with different mini games using various gadgets from the previous Ape Escape games. The main complaint was that the formula became stale way too quickly even for a party game; however, some critics appreciated the franchise for attempting to take some risks with its genre and gameplay.
Turns out 2004 was a big year for the Ape Escape franchise because we also received the first game in the series on the PSP with Ape Escape Academy. This is another entry that focuses on the mini games but this time you play as a monkey. Academy was even less liked by critics and fans than the previous spin off. Critics complained that the game performed poorly on the PSP and the minigames were just not that fun.
Not all was lost because the next entry in the mainline series finally released in January 2006 with Ape Escape 3 for the PS2. Specter once again gets a helmet that allows him to control all the monkeys in the world and decided to use television to establish his reign. Kei must hunt down the monkeys using nets and gadgets much like the other two mainline entries. Fans loved it almost as much as the original Ape Escape but critics were beginning to wane in their appreciation for the series. Many said that the game was simply “average” and that stings.
The final entries in the series were Ape Quest for the PSP in 2008 and Ape Escape Move for the PS3 in 2010. Both didn’t do too well and might help explain the silence for the franchise in recent years. Ape Quest was a PSP store excusive with poor design choices according to critics while Ape Escape Move was a gimmick game for the Playstation Move peripheral. Ape Escape Move bombed and has the lowest scores of any of the North American entries.
The Ape Escape franchise started off really strong but it seems like, as the years went by, the original heart of the series was lost. The seemingly halfhearted attempts to diversify genres made the franchise stray further and further away from 3D platforming and might have been part of the issue for the franchise’s fall from grace.
However, platforming icons beginning to move away from their original genre was common at the time. Mario has been in almost every genre available in gaming and Crash had his own racing games. This direction makes sense since most companies were trying to find alternative ways to make use of their 90s platforming mascots but maybe all they had to do was put the series on ice? After all, there has been a recent trend in the games industry of resurrecting old 90s icons.
Is there a future for the series?
At the moment, there doesn’t appear to be any news coming for this long dormant franchise. The last game in the mainline series was released in 2006 but the last appearance of Spike or the helmeted monkeys was in 2012’s Playstation All Stars and a small reference in Astro’s Playroom, the playable tech game/demo for PS5. That doesn’t bode super well for the 3D platformer but that also doesn’t mean it is completely dead either.
Stranger things have happened as we have seen the release of two remastered collections for two long thought dead platforming legends with the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy and the Spyro Reignited Trilogy. Crash even received an entirely new sequel based on its success with its remastered collection.
However, the fanbases for both of those games are much louder and definitely larger than the Ape Escape fanbase. There would need to be a much more vocal representation online for Ape Escape outside of a few dozen people on Reddit hoping Sony takes pity on us. Maybe the success of Spyro and Crash will be enough for Sony to take another risk and publish a remake/remaster for Ape Escape on the PS5. Either way, Sony please stop monkeying around and give the fans at least one more opportunity to play this beloved franchise even if it’s just a port.