Release Date: January 17, 2006
Sometimes a perfectly serviceable little game can be destroyed by the simplest of logistical problems. This is the case with Ape Escape Academy. On the outside, everything seems well and good – it's a rather unambitious mini-games collection, it doesn't do very much of note at all, and it's all wrapped in the trappings of the Ape Escape franchise, so it's somewhat cute and full of little monkeys. There certainly is nothing wrong with that.
Oh, except for that little logistical problem. See, Ape Escape Academy is a PSP game.
You probably knew that already, seeing as it says this right on the link you clicked to get to this review. Of course, there isn't anything really wrong with the PSP as a platform – believe me, I'm no Sony hater. It's just that the combination of this type of game with the specific foibles of this system turned what would have been lighthearted fun anywhere else into a complete chore to play.
But let's start with what didn't go wrong. It's quite silly to expect a lot of Ape Escape Academy; it is, after all, a collection of monkey-themed mini-games, and nothing more. The look and feel of the game captures the Ape Escape series pretty well – not a hard feat, as this series has never been known for its detailed graphics, but there is some charm to the cartoon-like art style. The animations are full of energetic monkey character, and the sound effects aren't realistic, but they sure are cute. Again, nothing really impressive, but there's nothing wrong with it either – a young player would probably find this game's aesthetic hilarious.
At the start of the game, the meat of the play is in Academy Mode. This mode is loosely cobbled together with the premise that your monkey is at some biologically impossible "Academy" that makes apes out of monkeys, but that's really neither here nor there. The point is that in each class, there are nine randomly selected mini-games sorted in a three-by-three grid of panels. Pick one at random, and it's off to the races; win the game, and you win the panel, tic-tac-toe style. Lose the mini-game, and the panel gets crossed out. At the end of each level, the number of tic-tac-toes you get dictates whether or not you get to move on.
Ah, but here's where that problem rears its ugly head. The PSP doesn't have a lot of memory, see, so when the mini-game is selected at random, it has to load it in – this means load time. It's not a lot of load time, actually, but in this case, the amount of it is unimportant. This type of gameplay randomness works best when it's quick and without pause; pacing is absolutely key to this type of thing being fun at all. In the case of Ape Escape Academy, there are pauses, and when the game is over in 30 seconds and everything loads again, it feels like you're being cheated out of an experience.
So it's up to the Game Collection mode to save us, and in some respects, it does. This mode stores every game you've played in Academy mode so you can pick and play your favorite ones for as long as you'd like. In this mode, you're not loading in and out of the various games, so it works a little better. Of course, in any mini-game collection of this type, some of the games are going to be keepers (like the roshambo space combat game, or the matador game) and some are total junk (like the frustrating monkey tower and anything quiz-based), but if you're playing the good ones, this mode works well. It certainly doesn't help that there aren't that many games, though (I counted less than 50) – it makes the bad ones seem like wasted space, and the good ones feel few and far between. And then there's the other problem that being on the PSP created for this game: it retails for that premium handheld PSP price of 40 bones.
It's honestly not worth that price to have to struggle through the stop-and-go play of the Academy to unlock your favorite games to play without loading. Once you get sick of the few that you like (and this may happen rather quickly), you're left with nothing but a stack of simple and uneven monkey-themed toys. Now, if this game were on, ahem, another one of those handheld gaming devices, it would have maybe thinned the price tag and lost the loading and thus been recommendable. Hence, that only deal-breaking factor in this whole proposition is that Ape Escape Academy is on the PSP.
There are attempts at adding value made here. There's a showcase that lets you look at figurines that randomly appear in games, but this random appearance makes them a chore to collect. Even when you get them, they mostly seem to be nearly identical monkeys in slightly different poses, which is hardly worth the effort. There are some bonus games too, which have cute names reminiscent of other Sony titles, but Gran Turismonkey, a mini-game where you polish a car, is not nearly as fun as the name implies. There are some multiplayer modes as well, some of which allow up to four people to stand around the PSP – a true recipe for a broken PSP if I've ever heard one. That short list of games playable on multiple PSPs requires multiple copies of Ape Escape Academy, though, and believe me, one copy isn't worth it, let alone two to four.
It's almost unbelievable to me that some very small problems, all related to the nature of the system the game chose to appear on, can turn a mediocre but charming game into a mess with little play value, but that's certainly what happened with Ape Escape Academy. What would have been a bunch of fun little mini-games are killed by the pace-destroying power of the PSP's necessary loading, which in turn kills the value of the PSP's suggested game price point. It's a domino effect that collapses the title into the realm of a non-recommendation. If you need a collection of mini-games on the go, I suggest that, for now, the PSP does not hold your solution. If that's all you've got, or you're a young monkey-loving child, more power to you – but even then, I can't say for sure you'll enjoy Ape Escape Academy.