Ahh and so we return to our epic(-ish) quest through the best genre of all time…right? Anyway let’s not waste any more time and get right into it shall we?
The Ape Escape Trilogy
Okay, so I may have a confession to make to other children of ‘the PlayStation generation’ (that’s a thing right?), until I started this journey I had never played Ape Escape, any of them. In fact, my only experience with the franchise up until this point comes from a bonus mini-game that came included with Metal Gear Solid 3 on the PS2. Many people of the right generation will be wanting to strangle me right now as Ape Escape has some of the most fervent supporters in the history of anything ever.
Now back to it. The Ape Escape Trilogy comes to us from SCE studio Japan, Sony’s own in-house development studio, starting in 1999 the series continued all the way until 2010. There are actually a surprisingly large amount of games in the series (especially if you include the Japanese exclusive titles), so to keep things brief I’m only going to be covering the first 3 main games in the series.
The story follows the exploits of Specter, a monkey who puts on an intelligence boosting helmet and uses his similarly enhanced monkey friends to take over a lab and send monkeys back through history in a time machine…you know, normal video game stuff. As the protagonist, your job is to go through time and capture all the monkeys before they can irreparably change human history, and defeat the evil monkey Specter before he can take over the world. The story of the following two games are also variations of this where Specter puts the helmets on monkeys and wreaks havoc on the world or a TV studio, depending on which one you play.
The controls are surprisingly solid, although very, very odd. You control your character with the left stick and use the face button to switch between several different gadgets that you can use to help you capture the monkeys. With a gadget equipped you use the right analogue stick to swing or point the gadget in any direction, meaning that it’s a lot easier to hit your target thanks to the extra precision that this system gives you. The main gadgets you have are an electric net to capture the monkeys, an underwater vehicle that shoots nets to help capture underwater monkeys, and what is clearly just a light saber (because there is no situation that can’t be improved by a light saber) so you can beat the crap out of the monkeys to make them easier to catch.
The main change throughout the series comes from the size and scope of the different levels, the style and the quality of the graphics and occasionally small variations of the game play, although this is usually pretty minor. Mainly the series sticks very closely to ‘hit monkeys with a light saber then capture them with a net’, and comes off all the better for it too.
The level design is pretty good as each new area in all the games gives you something new to look at or explore, and each game manages to have a gentle upwards curve of how hard it is to find each monkey in the level. In the beginning you can find all the monkeys basically by just looking around carefully enough, but as the levels go along you have to find your way through underwater passages or across pathways through the sky to find monkeys hiding in nooks and crannies. It gives you a very good sense of rising tension and difficulty and manages to keep the game constantly challenging enough to be interesting, without becoming frustrating enough to want to stop playing.
A final major note is the sound design. All of the sound effects fit their intended purpose very, very well and music is still fun to listen to once you finish playing the game. Instead of just being an annoying loop that gets stuck in your head because of how much you’ve been playing the game, the music is something that you’ll usually be happy to be humming days after you’re done with the game.
Overall: A series that is still as quirky and as fun as it was when it was first created. The wacky humor is Quintessentially Japanese and the music is some of the PlayStation’s finest. Even if you don’t play video games, you should give this one a try.
Banjo Kazooie + Banjo Tooie
Finally, we start to move out of my PlayStation comfort zone and into something a little more different. Banjo Kazooie comes from Rare, a company who were famous back in the day for games like Conker’s Bad Fur Day and Donkey Kong Country. These days their exploits are a little less…exemplary, they include things like Grabbed by the Ghoulies, Perfect Dark Zero, and Kinect Sports (god help us all), nevertheless, Banjo Kazooie comes from a time when Rare where at the peak of their game development career.
The story concerns a bear and a bird called Banjo and Kazooie respectively, who have to save the bear’s little sister from an evil witch who is trying to steal the little sister’s beauty for herself. Oh, also the evil witch is called Gruntilda and can only talk in rhymes….that’s amazing.
The controls are very satisfying as they respond instantly to your touch which is very useful in a platformer game. You have the standard double jump, crouch jump combo as well as various attacks and abilities that you unlock throughout the game. The worst thing that could be said about any of these abilities is that the stationary attack is completely useless, it has no reach at all and basically cannot hit anything with getting damaged yourself. There’s almost no reason to have it as you have a roll ability which shoots forward and is better in pretty much every single way, seriously just forget you have a different attack.
The main point of the game is to explore the different worlds and collect puzzle pieces that unlock new levels, musical notes that give you extra lives and unlock doors, and magical tokens that turn you into animals with different abilities. The levels start out quite small but open up really quickly as you get further into the game, to the point that some of the later levels feel genuinely huge.
A final major note is the music and sound design is just fantastic. It was done by Grant Kirkhope and he recorded a lot of the voices himself which really gives them a personal touch, as well as a sense of humor. It’s a joy to pick up the different tokens and collectibles to hear little stings, and the opening theme is something that people are still talking about, covering and remixing to this day.
The sequel Banjo Tooie is very similar to first game, with a different story line and some new powers thrown into the mix. This time, Gruntilda has been freed by her two sisters (who also speak in rhyme) although she is in a skeletal form now, and after mercilessly killing poor Bottles (NO! NOT THE MOLE!) she embarks on another tirade of evil across the land. Now, Banjo and Kazooie must embark on an epic tale of revenge for their beloved friend Bottles.
A lot of the new abilities stem from the fact that on certain occasions Banjo and Kazooie get separated and must act on their own, meaning that you have a whole new suite of abilities available only to Banjo or Kazooie, but not when they are both together, which is sort of strange when you think about it. Nevertheless, this does help to add some new variety to the gameplay, and to keep the sequel from getting a tad stale.
Overall: The first game is famous for a reason, and the music is a massive part of that reason. You should play both of these games, right now.