Sony's Ape Escape franchise never quite clicked with the US mainstream when it hit the original PlayStation in 1992. Despite strong visuals and innovative use of the then-new Dual Shock controller, the original Ape Escape didn't leave a very strong impression on this side of the Pacific, which is most definitely a shame. The ensuing years have seen several sequels and spin-offs released in Japan, some of which have even made it to the States, thanks to Ubisoft. One of the latest branches in the now-diverse family tree of Ape Escape games, which includes platformers, an EyeToy game, and a Mario Party-style multiplayer ape extravaganza, is Piposaru Academia for the PSP. The game, known as Ape Academy in the US, is equal parts minigame collection and management seminar for those of you hoping to one day use an army of monkey minions to conquer the world. We've been playing the Japanese version of the game, which was released at the tail end of 2004 in Japan, to see how the critters have taken to the PSP.
The game's loose plot manages to fit into the basic chronology of the series by catching up with Spectre, the superintelligent monkey who's been stirring up trouble since the first game, while he is focusing his massive intellect on the problem of his regular defeats. It doesn't take a rocket scientist or even a superintelligent monkey to come to the conclusion that Spectre does--his help basically sucks. Sure, a massive gaggle of monkeys sporting performance-enhancing headgear seems like it should work out pretty well, but can you really expect to conquer the world if you don't train your minions properly? Of course not. Following his epiphany, Spectre sets up his own institute of higher learning to school his ape army on the ins and outs of world domination.
Your journey as a would-be member of Spectre's grand army forms the core of the single-player experience in Ape Academy. You'll be able to customize your monkey avatar by picking a name and choosing from one of several different monkey types, each with his or her own hue of pantaloon. Once you're in the game, you'll go through a quick boot camp to get yourself up to speed on the controls before being set loose in the school. The game will break down into different sessions that are led by assorted familiar faces from the Ape Escape franchise. You'll have a grid of nine games that will require you to stop a cursor that moves over each of them. Once the game is selected, you'll see a screen that informs you of the control for that game, and then you're thrown into it. If you succeed, the game's square will be marked with a circle. If you fail, it will be marked with an X. The key to passing each session is to succeed in the available games and get at least three circles in a row on the grid. The game will also offer some additional incentives in the form of special collectibles you can find as you go.
In addition to the single-player game, you'll find several other modes in Ape Academy that offer single- and multiplayer options. Much like in Nintendo's WarioWare, you'll be able to practice on any of the games you've cleared in the single-player mode to perfect your skills and beat high scores. You'll also be able to check out the roughly 300 collectible monkey statues you'll come across in your adventure in a gallery. The multiplayer mode actually comes in three flavors: two players on one PSP, two players on two PSPs, and four players on two PSPs via Wi-Fi. While the single-player component features more than 40 games to test your skills, you'll find fewer available in the multiplayer game.
The control is simple and easy to pick up. The single-player game will require you to use the D pad or analog stick and usually one or two of the face buttons. However, some of the more intricate minigames will make use of the whole lot of them. Two-player games on a single PSP will divvy up the inputs to both sides of the PSP, which ends up working out well.
Monkey-Training Done Easy
The minigames themselves are diverse and range in difficulty. You'll play matador to a pack of rampaging bulls, dodge balls flung at you, match onscreen button prompts in a rhythm action game, pick a monkey ninja out of a crowd, count how many apes you see cross the screen in a set period of time, make a shish kebab out of random items thrown at you, fight in space against other monkeys using a ray gun and a rocket pack, parachute to the ground while giving chutes to monkeys in distress as you drop, deflect incoming arrows with a shield, and fight to knock an enemy monkey off a small platform, to name just a few. One of the minigames, a diving challenge that has you guiding your monkey to a chest on the ocean floor, actually requires you to turn the whole unit sideways to make the most use of the long screen.
The graphics in Ape Academy are clean and simple, staying true to the franchise's minimalist design ethic. The assorted monkeys who are the franchise's stars are faithfully re-created on the PSP and look comparable to their console counterparts. The environments you'll be playing in are a colorful and varied assortment of locales. The graphics are given an extra kick thanks to vibrant color that keeps the action popping on the PSP's massive screen. As far as performance goes, the game runs at a smooth clip regardless of the onscreen action.
The audio in Ape Academy consists of sound samples, sound effects, and catchy tunes. You'll hear full voice from Spectre and the various monkeys who will offer you instruction, encouragement, and, of course, insults based on your performance. You'll also hear the varied shrieks of the monkeys as they experience the highs and lows of training in the minigames. The action is complemented by a fair amount of sound effects that reflect the onscreen madness. The audio package is rounded out by a goofy soundtrack that's a quirky blending of tunes that fit well with the franchise's whimsical tone.
Like most of the early PSP games we're seeing, Ape Academy has a few blemishes. The game's load times, while speedier than those of some of the other PSP games we've played, are long enough to warrant mention. The load from the game-selection screen to the actual game and back again bogs down the pacing. The other bummer is the inability to pause the game once you've started a minigame, although you can still just pop the PSP into sleep mode. The above rough edges should be fixable with the addition of some polish if Sony chooses to tighten the game up for a US release.
Judging from what we've played so far, Ape Academy manages to have a good amount of charm in the face of some rough spots in its performance. Thanks to a hefty dose of the apes' trademark personality, good visuals, and strong audio, the game winds up offering an engaging experience. If you're looking to import the game, know that there isn't a lick of English to be seen. However, if you're not looking to follow the story, the game is basically import-friendly, as most players should be able to suss out what to do in each of the minigames through trial and error. The setup for multiplayer games is equally doable for anyone driven to play with friends.
We should note that the game features a "Region 2" icon on its packaging, which could mean that you won't be playing the import game on your US PSP--with no US units to test the theory with, we can't say for sure at the moment. While Ape Academy is currently out in Japan, there's no official word on a US release for it. Hopefully, Sony--who's also working on Ape Escape PSP (a remixed version of the original game)--will come to the rescue. Until then, check out some media from the game, as well as an exclusive interview with the game's producer, on our media page.