Ape Escape initially released on the original PlayStation in 1999. The game was the first on the system to require the dual analog controller that debuted approximately halfway in the PS1's life. Imagine if you will, taking that game, putting it on a system with just one analog input, and releasing as an enhanced port as a launch title. It's a recipe for disaster, right? However, Ape Escape: On the Loose, even being hurt a little by the lack of dual analogs, is an engaging game that is worth the time to play. Here's why.
On the Loose begins with a white-haired monkey named Specter putting on a special helmet that greatly increases his intelligence while also twisting his mind. He uses his added smarts to create helmets for over 200 monkeys and attacks a local laboratory which houses a time machine. Childhood friends Spike and Jake arrive on the scene and along with the monkeys are transported back in time to various periods. Knowing this monkey madness could negatively alter the course of history, the Professor asks Spike to capture as many monkeys as possible, stop Specter, and rescue Jake from Specter's mind control.
There are seven worlds within Ape Escape: On the Loose-- most of which with three levels apiece-- and they put Spike within a wide variety of time periods and locales. From the age of the dinosaurs to the Medieval period, there are a large range of environments and levels for Spike to traverse and capture monkeys in.
Thankfully, Spike isn't left all to his lonesome to nab the mischievous monkeys littered throughout time. The Professor sends numerous helpful gadgets to Spike throughout the game, one usually per world. Through completing a simple training level for the player to get accustomed to a given gadget, Spike earns that necessary tool to assist him on his quest to capture the antagonizing apes.
There are eight gadgets in all for Spike to acquire throughout his journey through time. Each has its own use and are implemented in such a way that they aren't utilized just once and then never seen again. There is a slingshot-type gadget that not only can take down airborne enemies, but it can also hit faraway buttons to turn on machinery, such as elevators and doors. The Super Hoop allows Spike to move faster on land, great for crossing bridges that fall apart once our hero steps foot on them so he doesn't fall with the bridge. Then there's the Sky Flyer, which without question is the most useful gadget in the game. It offers the ability for Spike to reach higher platforms that would otherwise be impossible, perfect for exploration of levels.
Levels themselves start out with but a handful of monkeys to collect. By the end of the game, there are levels that house up to 30 individual monkeys. Each level only requires Spike to capture a set amount of monkeys before he can move on to the next level, but in order to reach the true ending of Ape Escape: On the Loose, all 204 missing monkeys must be collected. This means that returning to levels is a must, especially because Spike won't have every gadget in his possession until the Specter has been beaten the first go-around. Returning to past haunts (i.e. already beaten levels) with newer gadgets opens up areas that Spike could not have reached before and monkeys that were once out of his capturing ability.
Speaking of which, capturing each ape within On the Loose is like its own puzzle. The player has to find a way to reach each ape, coax him or her out, and use the correct gadget to accomplish the task of nabbing the monkey in question. Capturing monkeys in general can be done in a wide variety of ways. Players can have Spike sneak up on unbeknownst monkeys, slowly pushing the PSP's analog nub forward and holding still when an ape gets paranoid, similar to a game of "red light, green light". Spike can also crawl with the R button held down to creep upon apes asleep or with their backs turned to him. Finally, there is my favorite method of disposal, running to a monkey, bashing them on the head with a stun club, and capturing them with Spike's net while they are temporarily dazed.
The analog nub on the PSP is a detriment to On the Loose. It does not offer anywhere near the precision of the PS1's analog stick. Many times I would swing my Time Net at a predisposed monkey only to have my net miss its target by about 45 degrees. While this isn't so annoying in the story mode, doing time trials where you have to beat a specific time to pass them, makes missing monkeys so narrowly and stupidly very irritating.
For those who have played the PS1 original Ape Escape, the obvious removal in the controls is that of the second analog stick. Instead, gadgets are mapped to the face buttons-- with the exception of X, which is used to jump. Simply pressing Select brings up the Gadget Menu, which makes for quick switching between the gadgets mapped to the face buttons and those not selected.
The lack of a second analog stick on the PSP means that camera control is relegated to the d-pad for direct control and the L button for a quick behind-the-back view at any time. The one caveat with this arrangement is that the L button is also used for the first-person view, used when aiming and for just looking around at the environment. One required me to tap the button while the other forced me to hold the button down. In the middle of play, I oftentimes performed one action when I wanted to do the other.
Caveats aside, completing Ape Escape: On the Loose with a full 100% completion percentage is no easy task. Finding and capturing every ape is a challenge all to itself, but then there are time trials to pass in each level and Specter Coins to collect which unlock one of four mini-games, a snowboarding game, a boxing game, a racing game, and a ping-pong game. These can be played locally or online, and the latter is still available to use, though good luck finding anyone randomly online.
On the Loose was one of the more basic looking launch titles of the PlayStation Portable, but the game's graphics still look pleasant enough. The frame-rate has some issues occasionally; and the camera reveals things through a level's geometry and walls, but it's still a competent game technologically. The music is unchanged, but I struggle to remember a theme after a total of twenty hours of play time. The voice work is typical Saturday morning cartoon fare, but the actual dialogue is mediocre at best and the stuff that made me cringe at worst.
Ape Escape: On the Loose may not surpass the quality of the original PlayStation Ape Escape, but the developers used what they had button-wise to create this highly capable and fun enhanced port. It's a return to a game that was entertaining when it released, and it is still entertaining now. Now, if you'll excuse me, all this playing of the PSP port has me wanting to dive into some more monkey madness with later games in the Ape Escape series!