There are at least two things wrong with Move Ape Escape's title. First, as fans of taxonomy no doubt realize, the simian antagonists of this Move-required capture-a-thon appear to be monkeys, not apes. More troubling, these furry funsters have little interest in escaping from your grabby wrath. They swarm you like you're made of bananas (and that's not far off, considering the potassium-rich fruit is the unit used to measure your health), and their relentless assaults give rise to the real problem behind this adventure: It's way too difficult. Your slingshot and net are no match for the raging primates pestering you through steamy mountain passes and exotic city streets, which leads to failure, frustration, and the unnerving thought that you may not be their evolutionary betters after all. The charming escapades of your relentless tormentors have all the silly mirth the franchise is known for, but there's little joy in fighting desperately to stay alive in this disappointing spin-off.
You may see images of monkeys rushing pell-mell toward the screen and wonder, "What's my motivation?" Fear not, there is a reason you have to once again grab your net to take on the primate hordes, and it's a little more involved than you might have expected. Two young girls are on a mission to save their time-traveling grandmother from the clutches of an invading alien species that looks suspiciously like Earth's monkeys. Meanwhile, Specter, the grizzled leader of the simian clan, is planning revenge for perceived slights and looks sad and lonely in his various cutscenes. It's strange, to be sure, but in a way that piques your interest to see how this mixed-up tale is going to play out.
The appeal of Move Ape Escape stems from elements not directly related to the act of playing. Although far from a technical wonder, this downloadable on-rails shooter has a vibrant artistic style that gives your plentiful foes a dose of personality. You may see a monkey running over a grassy field with an inner tube wrapped around his waist, or brandishing a towel in a slightly off-putting manner, and these go a long way toward making this taxing affair seem welcoming, at least in the early stages. If you're interested in the backgrounds of the captured hostages, you can poke around in the Monkeypedia to find out their various names and interests. Some of them rely on pop culture references to deliver the joke, and it's kind of funny to meet a monkey named Apefeld whose bio simply states, "What's the deal with…?"
Unlike the core games in this franchise, Move Ape Escape is not a platformer. Rather, it's an on-rails shooter, and the transition to a new genre has not been kind. The 16 levels are broken up into two distinct sections. Half of the time, you automatically walk down predetermined paths, shooting monkeys, bananas, and mechanical beings with your slingshot to earn points and build your health for the next portions. Once you arrive in certain areas, you cease moving, and you try to capture the monkeys who sprint toward you with your magic net. It's an adequate premise. There are plenty of secrets to unpeel during the walking portions, a call back to the light-gun shooters of yesteryear that rewarded players with bonuses for shooting every object and surface they could. And the capturing sections offer nice variety from the typical action, playing toward the hijinks angle these rambunctious rascals are known for.
In practice, there are simply too many problems to ignore. The most pervasive issue stems from the controls, which are not responsive enough to meet the hectic demands placed on you. Your slingshot serves as your lone long-distance weapon, but it's far from an ideal tool. There's a sizable delay between when you first hit the button and when you actually fire. This makes logical sense considering you have to load a slingshot with a choice rock before you can strike a faraway object. But in the confines of this adventure, this delay is infuriating. There are times when so many enemies and objects flood the screen that you simply cannot fire quickly enough to keep up. Furthermore, the amount of precision required is startlingly high. Monkeys are often far in the distance with long-range weapons of their own, and you have to shoot them before they shoot you. But actually seeing them can be tricky amid the bountiful environments, and lining up a shot is tough because your aim is adjusted every time your character decides to sway.
The problems continue when you put your slingshot away to nab monkeys with your net. To capture your foes, you have to swing your net at them when they're within reach. But like everything else in this surprisingly difficult game, that's much easier said than done. There are times when your net clearly passes right through monkeys and they somehow escape unscathed. This problem is exacerbated when you take on multiple enemies at once. A ring of monkeys may circle around you and rush in at sporadic intervals. They twist and leap with the flair you would expect from an athletic ape, and they have a nasty habit of stunning you if your net comes up empty. Once one monkey makes contact, the rest are free to rush at you unhindered, which turns a pleasant walk through a monkey-strewn park into a terror reminiscent of a never-made Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Such complaints seem preposterous if you've played only the first few levels. Although your weapons lack precision from the beginning, the level design hides these failings. Monkeys appear closer to your character so you don't have to squint to see them, they attack in predictable patterns, and there's enough health to ensure you don't meet an untimely end. The early stages have a cartoony charm that does not deserve to be called downright fun, but they are at least pleasant. Unfortunately, difficulty spikes feel like a stab through the enjoyment center of your brain. Levels have a difficulty rating (ranging from "easy" to "insane"), and there's no option to adjust the difficulty based on your skill level. Breezing through easy and normal levels is pain-free, and you should find only a slight challenge on hard. But once you move on to very hard levels in the second half of the game, things become so frantic that any semblance of entertainment is extinguished.
During the course of the single-player Story mode (there's no co-op option), you unlock three minigames. Sadly, these aren't any more interesting than the main adventure. In Mecha Tag Rally and Sprayzer Defense Force, you finally have an option to team up with a friend for some local entertainment. Just because you're in a new mode doesn't mean you can avoid the control issues. In Mecha Tag Rally, for instance, one player controls a car (using a standard controller), while the other shoots obstacles with the Move. The car's steering is so stiff that it saps away any potential fun you could have from zooming through courses, and the vehicle has a tendency to get stuck on items in its path. Aim, Slingsnipe is at least pretty funny. In this single-player game, you must assassinate three monkey targets. Looking down a sniper rifle scope, you have to pick them out among a horde of simians. It's silly fun while it lasts, but there are only three levels.
The only element that carries through from the original Ape Escape games to this downloadable spin-off is the monkey charm. And because the core action is rife with problems, you won't even be able to enjoy that for long before you're overwhelmed by monkey riots. When you factor in leaderboard races and minigame challenges, there's plenty of content to justify the $20 price tag. But the experience never finds an interesting groove to make this an adventure worth taking. Uneven difficulty and finicky controls make capturing monkeys more trouble than it's worth.