Ape Escape and the Things We Take for Granted

When I first conceived of my podcast, about four months ago, I had a simple idea in mind.  I wanted to look at critically acclaimed video games of the past and see if they still stood up on their own merits.  I wanted to assess these games as if they were released today, not as products of the times in which they were created.  I wanted to do it this way for two main reasons:

1.  Practicality

By far the best reason to assess games in this way is one of practicality.  Everyone has limited free time, and more ways to spend it on leisurely entertainment than ever before.  So when evaluating a game, the only practical question that matters is whether it's worth playing compared to your other entertainment options.  How good a game was 20 years ago isn’t relevant to whether you want to play it today.

2. Transcendence

If a game is truly brilliant, it can and should be enjoyable outside of the time frame in which it was produced.  It needs to transcend time and space and appeal to us on a deeper level. If games are art, and not just elaborate Pachinko machines, this needs to be true.  So in evaluating these games, we’re trying to find the games that are eternal classics in the same way they exist in literature and film.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t tremendous value in understanding the history of video games.  Its utterly remarkable what video game developers were able to create on tiny memory disks, smaller crunch times and less refined game design philosophies.  Enormous strides in every aspect of video game development were made, and the industry only exists because of what those giants did before them. But ultimately, that’s not the question I’m trying to answer, however interesting it might be.  I want to know if theses game are fun to play today.

Which brings us to Ape Escape, the upcoming episode for the cast.  I’ve been playing through it to completion for next Monday’s episode.  And, oh boy, it has one of the worst control schemes I’ve had the displeasure to experience.

I’m more likely to hurt myself twiddling the damn stick!

I’m more likely to hurt myself twiddling the damn stick!

Ape Escape was the first game released on the original PlayStation that required a Dualshock controller. The game is unplayable on just a D-Pad - it requires the analog sticks to work, which was a pretty radical design choice at the time.  SCE Japan pushed their design boundaries and got very creative in incorporating the analog sticks in the game in a lot of different ways.  Unfortunately, it makes the game control incredibly awkwardly.

The left analog stick is great - it controls Spikes movement, and allows him to move at various speeds while sneaking, essential for any stealth game.  But instead of just mapping the right analog stick to the camera, they instead have it as a radial ‘gadget activation’ stick. So to swipe your net, or activate your spin hoop, you need to move the stick in a particular way instead of just hitting a button.  The camera is instead on the D-Pad.

This might not just sound like much.  The thing is though, it’s a huge pain in the arse for controlling your character.  In a 3D platformer, you want to be able to easily and rapidly adjust the camera orientation.  Its something we’ve learned today, and now take for granted in all third person platformers and shooters.  But back in 1999, they had no well of experience to draw on, and saw no problem in trying something a bit experimental.

So here’s the problem.  You don’t have three thumbs, but you need three thumbs to play this game comfortably.  You want to adjust the camera, you want to control your character and you want to use your various attacks and gadgets.  A modern game accomplishes this by putting an attack on a button, and the attack being directed with the left stick. This does relinquish control over the camera for microseconds as you attack, but still allows you to move your character.  With the camera on the D Pad, however, the only way to move the camera is to relinquish control of your character completely, which is insane in a game about navigating a 3D space. Oh yeah, and it gets way worse in any sections where you need to go underwater, proving once again that water levels always suck.

Never has Hula-Hooping been portrayed in such a sickening way.

Never has Hula-Hooping been portrayed in such a sickening way.

This isn’t the only misstep with the control scheme, although it is the largest one. Multiple gadgets in the game require you to rapidly rotate the right stick to activate them.  So as you’re moving around the world, with no camera orientation, you have to rapidly spin the right stick.  This ends up being the equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your stomach. This is just as bad as the forced motion control stuff that exists in games like Mario Odyssey, all the more frustrating since there’s no reason for it to be like this - pressing a button accomplishes the exact same goal with way less fuss.

Oh, and there’s a rowing boat bit where you have to twiddle the controller sticks to get anywhere.  If that doesn’t want you to throw your controller through a window, I don’t know what will.

Now, I don’t blame the creators of Ape Escape for setting it up like this.  How could they know that the best way to use these analog sticks was for simple, boring camera control?  And if you look at reviews of Ape Escape when it came out they’re basically universally positive, with most even praising the control scheme. The fact remains though -dealing with the controls today is a cruel shock to the system if you’ve been playing more recent platformers.

I’m still mulling over my verdict for Ape Escape as I move towards finishing (what I assume are) the last few levels.  You certainly get more used to control schemes, whatever they are, as you grow familiar with them. And I have a fond attachment to the gameplay that is here.  But I refuse to forgive a game for having bad controls just because it was released 20 years ago. I will continue to play, and debate with myself as we approach the recording date, but I don’t think I’ll know for sure how I feel until I sit down and actually talk to James about it.