Once upon a time I went to college. I studied Literature, with a capital “L”. I read a lot of really old books, a lot of really modern ones, got super into poetry, and picked up the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism for upwards of eighty dollars. There was a brief moment in time post-graduation - I’m talking about a week- where I thought “I’ll read a little bit of this book every day, and become better acquainted with different ways of thinking about the world!”.
It didn’t last long, but a few things stuck.
Plato had this idea about how most things in this world are not the best versions of themselves, merely dim reflections. Those things that are the best versions of themselves- we call those “the Platonic ideal”. Like how Ron Swanson is the Platonic ideal of a human male, or the Star Wars cantina band is the Platonic ideal of music. I posit that the 1999 title Ape Escape is the Platonic ideal of a fun video game, in that it clearly lays out its premise, is mechanically sound, and is consistently fun to play, even today.
It barely needs to be said, but I’ll say it anyway- this game is almost two decades old, and obviously things have changed since then. Games are more complex than ever, and playing Ape Escape today can be frustrating and more than a little taxing. But looking at it in context, and really understanding what Ape Escape brought to the table at the time- it’s really impressive.
1999 was a huge year for video games. System Shock 2, Planescape: Torment, Silent Hill, Final Fantasy VIII, Donkey Kong 64. Amazing sequels, new IPs. And yet- Ape Escape is lauded as the first game to ever require the use of dual thumbsticks. I almost didn’t believe that when I first read it. The development team spent years perfecting the control scheme, and yeah it’s a little rough by today’s standards but at the time? Tight and magical.
The apes have escaped, and it’s up to the player to get them back. Once you get all the apes, you can go after the final boss; after that, there are some time attack challenges. The gameplay is varied throughout, and builds on itself all the way through. The game looks good and it has strong art direction all the way around. All the pieces just fit together and the goal of pure “fun” is achieved throughout.
It’s clear the influence this game had on future games like Super Monkey Ball and Katamari Damacy. Ape Escape is ambitious, but not overly so- just enough to be innovative but not so much that it overburdens itself (though that last level is a bear). It’s entertaining, through and through, without any filler or extra pointless collectibles. There are apes to be caught, and that’s all the player needs to worry about. The focus is on play, and how it feels to play. Catching the slippery little buggers is super satisfying, and usually involves one or more little gadgets to be deployed properly. It’s always a little exhilarating when you spring for an ape and it eludes your grasp, resulting in a chase. Sometimes they’ll even aggressively attack you, or hop into a vehicle to turn the tables. It’s constantly surprising and always a blast.
Not everything is perfect, as Plato would agree- even when a game reaches that Platonic ideal, there are still small things that stick out after twenty years of games improving on themselves. The camera is often cruelly out of touch with reality. The Monkey Radar is a little obtuse. The draw distance isn’t great, sometimes making a hidden ape even harder to find. But these are quibbles. What the game sets out to do, it achieves mightily.
I don’t know, y’all. I’ve been playing a lot of Ape Escape this week in preparation for a future Completionist episode and I’m just super high on it. If they ever came out with a remastered version for the PS4, I would totally play it.