Making a name for itself by being the first game designed for use with the then-new concept of dual analog sticks, Ape Escape has never truly been at the forefront of platforming action. Take away the newness of its features (or just take away the dual sticks, as the PSP re-release of Ape Escape has) and what's left is an uninspired effort that can't hang with the big boys of the genre.
Taking this bland simian source material and doing its best to steal the mojo from Nintendo's WarioWare, SCEI studios has only succeeded in crafting another mediocre entry in a line of mediocre games. A sad effort, Ape Escape Academy for PSP proves to be just as underwhelming, unmemorable and unimpressive as the rest of its head-scratching, banana-biting brethren.
Basically a collection of minigames held together by the premise of training the evil monkeys that star in the Ape Escape series, Academy features six levels laid out like tic-tac-toe boards (or like the set of Hollywood Squares, if you prefer…), each ruled over by an "instructor" who graded my progress. Each square has a minigame assigned to it at random from the game's 40-ish total, though it seemed like the same twelve or fifteen kept popping up every time. Levels are completed by successfully making lines across the board.
This unorthodox structure isn't a bad idea at all since failing a game or two doesn't automatically mean failing the level. A blue "X" in the center can be counteracted by three red "O" marks across the top, or down the side. Anyone who's ever played tic-tac-toe will grasp the concept immediately. However, Academy wastes no time in revealing the many flaws in its design. The first I ran across is that it's impossible to quit a level that can't be won without exiting all the way to the PSP's menu screen. It doesn't take a genius to see when tic-tac-toe failure is inevitable, so I really wonder why the developers forced me to keep playing even when it was impossible to succeed—this isn't WarGames, and I'm not Matthew Broderick.
The minigames themselves are a wildly mixed bag. A few were somewhat charming (skewering falling fruit on a sword), but most were either heavily flawed (handing out roses to passers-by) or just plain bad ideas in the first place (diving for salvage in heavy currents). More than anything else, these vital, core components of Ape Escape Academy just reeked of inconsistency. The developers gave informative demonstrations explaining the point of a minigame before play at times, and completely skipped it at others. Some of the events were over in a moment or two (the 1-meter dash), and others were much more complex (soccer). The difficulty curve and design of the minigames was like a roller coaster; there were a few that seemed impossible to lose, and others that I didn't ever win.
As I mentioned earlier, it's quite clear that Academy wants to be WarioWare for the PSP. But in playing through, it only serves to highlight what a polished and refined experience Nintendo's attention-deficit games are. In WarioWare, although the events can be completely bizarre and unexpected, they all share consistency with regard to the input required, the time allotted to each event, and absolute focus of each minigame's goal. It's also a huge benefit that there are no load times to deal with in creating the game's rapid-fire sensory-overload pace.
Looking at these qualities (and it's impossible not to compare the two titles directly), Academy stumbles everywhere that WarioWare shines. No frantic rhythm is ever developed with the mishmash of messy minigames, and it's pure hassle to try and deal with the lack of control in exiting or restarting a game. Throw in a constant barrage of small load times and a very small number of events to see, and the little fun that could have been had through sheer nature of its monkey-ness is sapped by bad decisions and poor craftsmanship at every turn. For every fifteen seconds of fun, there were several minutes that were massively off the mark.
To put it bluntly, Ape Escape Academy is a textbook case of monkey-see, monkey-do; it goes through the motions and mimics the best it can, but lacks the intelligence and understanding required to imbue its efforts with any sort of elegance. Hose down the cage and ship this one off to its new home at the cosmetics testing lab… the novelty of having a monkey in the house has worn off.