Version tested PSP
A gamer's affection for monkeys is almost immeasurable.
So then, let's measure it!
According to the Internet, there are at least three commercial game developers who use the word 'monkey' as part of their name.
There are several monkey game series, including Super Monkey Ball, Monkey Island, and of course Ape Escape, which - despite some obvious confusion - plays host to all manner of monkeys. And, of course, that is to say nothing of games like Donkey Kong and its derivatives, and, on a related note, one of this Christmas's biggest games - a developmental collaboration between one of the world's most bankable film directors and one of the world's brightest game designers - which is about a giant ape.
Meanwhile, 'monkey' (or perhaps 'monk') forms the basis of so many online gamers' handles that a quick search of a website focusing on Xbox Live gamertags alone brings up something in the region of 500 matches.
Monkeys, then, are pretty good gaming currency.
Mini-games have enjoyed a long and profitable alliance with monkeys. Mini-games themselves are all the rage at the moment thanks to the new generation of handhelds, with the Nintendo DS in particular seizing on the popularity of quick-fire tasks. Wario Ware, Feel the Magic/Project Rub and various other compendiums are already available, and surely it's only a matter of time before that's reflected on the PSP.
Indeed, it's already starting! Ape Academy, a collection of simian-centred mini-games, is one of Sony's European launch titles following a successful stint in Japan, and offers upwards of 50 tasks drawing on football, hockey, rhythm-action, paper-scissors-rock and plenty of other ideas. It has multiplayer options, collectibles and cutesy visuals. Good news for Sony!
Oof. There we go getting carried away again. Bad news for Sony: the mini-games are mostly rubbish or badly made, the loading times are atrocious, and apart from issues of quality, design and technical competency, we're also bothered by the need to reset the game every time you want to do as the Apes and "escape" the current game mode. We're not crazy about the ambiguous instructions either. And why does it try to save all the time? And who ordered a yellow UMD? And [okay they get it - Ed].
The idea is simple: pick a character and work your way through the various terms of the titular Ape Academy. Each term offers nine mini-games arranged on a 3x3 grid, and the idea is to complete them successfully to make lines of circles. Doing so unlocks collectible figurines that you can examine later (more or less pointlessly) and moves you along to the next term. Fail and you see an X; too many Xs and you're gone. Mini-games you finish successfully can then be accessed later, and many of them are available for multiplayer either wirelessly or, such is their simplicity, with two players sharing a single PSP. Just remember to strap it to somebody's arm so it doesn't end up falling to the ground; PSPs don't like being dropped.
This is all well and good, of course, but the quality of the mini-games is so poor in general that you won't feel compelled to play it at all. Each takes a surprising amount of time to load - so long that you get bored of reading and re-reading the load screen's control instructions - and the result can be as little as five seconds' actual play. For example, the juggling game where balls are tossed into the air and your charge has to pass them from his left hand to his right hand, with which he then flings them back up. Circle is his left hand, left on the d-pad is his right. He's facing you. We cannot be the only people who accidentally hit the wrong button the first time and failed instantly; to be booted out to the term screen again - following a loading pause - and moved onto the next task.
Other tasks involve swatting monkeys holding the wrong sort of parchment, circling a campfire and firing stuff at encroaching monkeys, or responding to multiple-choice quiz questions - including some of the mathematical variety. We can count fine; we just wonder whether we should have to count out £35 to have some monkey reaffirm that. Meanwhile, those games which aren't simple or simply boring are nondescript - not to the extent that you'll never 'get' them, but often to the extent that you'll foul them up the first time, and perhaps even the second.
There are some better ideas, like monkey air hockey and monkey football, but the execution is poor. Air hockey involves a puck that glides around smoothly, and you'd imagine that having your monkey do the same would be a good idea, but you can only use the d-pad to control him so the result is quite fiddly and irritating. Football is easier, but only because it's turn-based Pong. You move your goalie up and down the line and then fire the ball at the opposite goal; there are monkeys in-between, but they have no real bearing on the outcome. If the goalie is in the way, he saves it, waits a second and fires it back. It's unforgiving when you try to make a save though; presumably because it used to be really easy until somebody said, "What if you had to be pixel-perfect?"
Then there's the paper-scissors-rock game. The idea is to fire paper, scissors or a rock using a direction button, all the while an opponent is doing the same as you both move up and down on opposite sides of the screen. Sounds great on paper, but in practice the first few times are going to be like trying to hold a conversation in somebody else's language. "Scissors! Ah, er, so it's rock, which is directional pad r--dammit!" It's fine after a while, but surely the idea of a mini-games package like Ape Academy is simple, elegant bursts of continuous fun, not fiddly, awkward distant bouts of frustration followed by vague understanding a few hours later when they come round again?
To be fair, there are one or two games that work well. There's one that involves judging currents in the water and then releasing a monkey so that it swims downward riding current after current, out of your control, and eventually either hits rock or collects treasure from a sunken chest. You have to turn the screen on its side for this, and it's quite satisfying to complete... But that's one example of something we liked - and even at that we're neglecting to mention that we got a little confused by the controls at first because of the way they were explained.
It's a launch title, so we can just about forgive the developer the loading times. Perhaps it wasn't obvious how long things would take to load from the actual UMD. But why should you forgive that? And, even if you do, you won't be happy with the quality of the actual content. Ape Academy may be a nice idea, but it's a nice idea supported by lots of reasonable ideas badly executed and badly pieced together. In short, there isn't much reason to buy it - however much you love monkeys. And we love monkeys, which makes us even more cross.
4 / 10
Ape Academy is due out on September 1st in Europe.