What happens when you put addictively cute monkeys, a plot to take over the world and ridiculous gadgets together? Ape Escape, easily one of the kookiest series produced by Sony. But now, instead of taking over every PS2, Specter and his gang of simians are now branching out to PSPs everywhere. What’s more, they’re looking for a couple new recruits to monkey around with. (Time for me to abandon the bad puns …) Get ready for school, because we’re going to enroll in Ape Escape Academy.
Unlike previous Ape Escape titles, you won’t have to concern yourself with trapping wayward chimps running amok; instead, you’ll take on the part of the helmeted monkeys themselves as they attend their first day of ape school. Specter, the ape evil genius of the game franchise, has established a training regiment to finally create monkey henchmen that will accurately carry out his schemes for world domination. Much more than a simple education in wreaking havoc, Specter runs each recruit through a number of challenging grades overseen by Apes faithful to his goals of conquest – characters that will be familiar to players of the earlier titles.
The grading system is carried out in an interesting way – the “classes” are arranged on a Tic-Tac-Toe board and are actually mini-games in disguise. Forty-plus mini-games are available scattered across four separate game categories: Mind games engage a player's memory and puzzle solving skills. Body games, on the other hand, engage you physically, and Tech games are somewhat of a cross between the two. You’ll be hard pressed to tell the difference between titles in each category, however, because the games do wind up bleeding into each category. Finally, there are Special games that are only unlocked if you successfully pass the mini-games with the three hidden Specter coins underneath at the end of each grade.
Players will have a wide variety of mini-games, ranging from soccer and air hockey tables to karate simulations, bull dodging and even memory quizzes of trivia and international flags. Players are given either a pass or a fail for each game, and are given the chance to replay mini-games in a separate game mode. This is somewhat important if you’re interested in collecting the number of hidden statuettes scattered throughout a lot of games. These figurines are placed in a gallery that you can view at any time outside of the main single player game.
The primary thing that you will realize in playing the game is that only having about 40 or so mini-games winds up diminishing the replayability factor significantly. Apart from the gallery of statues, you’re not unlocking any new features or game modes. Inevitably between grade to grade, you’ll also find that each stage will most likely include a mini-game that you’ve seen on a previous level. Once you’ve seen a game and you’ve started to get a hang for exactly how the mechanics of the mini-game work, you’ll be fine. However, a newly introduced game is so quickly presented that you may need to play it 3 or 4 times to get used to it. This would be much easier if there was a way to immediately exit a grade and re-enter it, but instead you’re almost forced to restart the game if you fail too many games and can’t complete enough lines on the Tic-Tac-Toe board to progress to the next stage.
The mini-games that are included should also start much faster than they do in actual gameplay – at least 15 to twenty seconds between a load to and from the main game screen can be rather jarring when it comes to the gameplay, especially some games that can be solved in ten seconds or less. When you don't have that many games included in the total game, load times like this are rather annoying. Finally, while there are a number of multiplayer modes, including ad hoc play and sharing a PSP, the multiplayer feature is rather disappointing. For one, the number of games that can be played within multiplayer is pared back significantly. For two, the primary goal that you’ll receive in multiplayer is simply more statues for your gallery. If you haven’t paid any attention to this game feature or don’t care about the numerous monkey statues that you’ll find in this game, this really doesn’t matter.
Fortunately, the animated visuals of the Ape Escape series transfer over to Ape Escape Academy quite nicely. Many of the character models and visual images demonstrate the sharp colors and lively animations for the monkeys that have been showcased in previous Ape Escape games, and they look even better on the PSP screen. One of the interesting tricks that Academy pulls is rotating the gameplay screen to run a mini-game vertically, which demonstrates a new twist on gaming on the handheld. There aren’t as many visual jokes or characterizations that you'd find in the console titles, but overall the game does feel like an extension of the franchise. Sound effects and music have been pulled directly from previous titles as well, and the voiceover work for the Ape Instructors feels appropriate – at times over the top, but nevertheless in keeping with the wacky nature of the franchise.
If you're a fan of the Ape Escape titles, then you'll probably wind up enjoying this title, particularly on the go. The quick mini-game presentation can be very engaging, especially for players interested in short bursts of play. However, if you're looking for a large amount of depth or a lot of replayability, you might not be as satisfied with Ape Escape Academy as you would be with the console games.