As if to counter the knee-jerk anti-simian sentiment fostered by the Ape Escape series, in which a revolving cast of spiky-haired anime kids runs around snaring mischievous monkeys with nets, Sony presents the monkeys' side of the story with Ape Escape Academy. OK, so there probably aren't any underlying sociopolitical motivations behind this minigame collection, but there are plenty of monkeys, and the inherent appeal of watching cheeky little monkeys dressed up in funny little costumes comprises much of the appeal of Ape Escape Academy. This loopy energy, however, is the only thing standing between you and a compilation of pretty by-the-numbers minigames.
Ape Escape Academy gives you a look at how the other side lives, putting you in the role of a simple monkey with a cop light on its head training to become a suitable hench-monkey for Specter, the hyperintelligent nemesis who has been cooking up monkey-fueled world-domination plans since the first Ape Escape. Like some kind of weird combo of high school, boot camp, and the monkey house at the zoo, your hench-training is split up by grade, and each grade is presided over by a different instructor, which happen to be the boss monkeys from Ape Escape 2.
Each grade contains nine minigames, which are played at random. The screen that you randomly pick from is set up like a tic-tac-toe board, which figures prominently into whether you will graduate from a particular grade. Passing a minigame will net you a circle on the board, while failed minigames get stamped with an X. After you've played all nine minigames in a particular grade, the total number of "lines" that you've made with the circles is tallied. For the first few grades you only need one complete line to graduate, but that number starts to increase as you advance, and the games themselves get harder, too.
We can't help but be skeptical about the connection between tic-tac-toe and monkey training, and this seemingly arbitrary choice makes the format feel like a lazy, top-of-the-head solution for presenting the 40-odd minigames in Ape Escape Academy. What's worse, though, is that there is no way to drop out of or repeat a grade before you've played all nine minigames. If you're in position where it's impossible for you to score the necessary number of lines to graduate, but there are still several minigames left to be played, this little quirk proves exceptionally annoying.
The minigames themselves, while competent, are kind of predictable. A good share of them are simple tests of reflexes, memory, basic puzzle-solving skills, or in one particularly odd minigame, your knowledge of international flags. You can expect to see games like dodgeball, bowling, air hockey, wrestling, and soccer boiled down to simple one-button exercises, and several games that concern the unconventional acquisition and protection of bananas. Most of the minigames are pretty self-explanatory, but when they're not completely apparent, you'll notice that the game does a pretty poor job of explaining things. Given the pass-fail nature of the single-player game, this can make your first encounter with a specific minigame rather frustrating. But even when you've happened upon one of the more enjoyable minigames and you actually know what's going on, the experience is brought to a crawl by lengthy load times every time you transition to or from a minigame. It's something you could overlook in a game in which there's more than a minute of action in between load times; but when the load time is actually longer than the game itself, it's hard not to notice.
The structured single-player game in Ape Escape Academy is also kind of short, and there's not a huge amount of content to keep you coming back. The game invites you to play through grades you've already completed with the promise of special monkey statues that you can collect, which is some rather dubious motivation. If you happen upon a minigame in the Academy mode that you particularly enjoy, you can go and play it without any of the Academy trappings. There's multiplayer support for up to four people as well. You can play wirelessly against other players if they have their own copies of Ape Escape Academy, or up to four players can all cram onto a single PSP. Minigame collections like Ape Escape Academy thrive on the competitive spirit, and the game is probably at its best when you're trying to show up your friends, which makes it a bit disappointing that only a fraction of the single-player minigames are available in multiplayer.
Though they can be good-looking games, the Ape Escape series has always given favor to clean, colorful visuals and simple, energetic sounds over technical showcases or some kind of thematic depth. The Ape Escape monkeys have become rather iconic in and of themselves, and they make a strong showing in Ape Escape Academy. The game is missing some of the self-aware absurdity and pop-culture referencing that has come to define the Ape Escape series, but it gets most of the effective simplicity of the visual style. There's a little voice acting for the different instructors, which is usually a little hammier than it ought to be. Just about everything else, from the music to the vocabulary of monkey yelps, seems to be pulled almost directly from an Ape Escape game, and the game is better for it.
Despite an abundance of monkeys in funny clothes--a very compelling element indeed--Ape Escape Academy comes off as rather generic. The Ape Escape games have consistently done a good job of supplanting genre conventions and injecting the action with a bizarre sense of humor, but Ape Escape Academy ignores almost all of these tenets. If you're just looking for something quick and simple for your PSP, Ape Escape Academy isn't offensive, but it's really nothing special, either.