Home > Chronological Challenge > Chronological Challenges Reviews – Ape Escape / MGS: Special Missions

Chronological Challenges Reviews – Ape Escape / MGS: Special Missions

Hello! This week’s reviews are a day late because E3 has messed up all my schedules! Hooray!

Anyway, here are two more 1999 games! Enjoy!

Ape Escape
Publisher: SCE | Developer: SCE Japan Studio | Year: 1999
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS2 (original PS1 disc)

Goal: See how far I can get in a single session

Actual Outcome: I think I got to the Ice Age before quitting

The late 90s was dominated by Pokémon. By the tail end of the decade, it was hard to enter a shop or watch TV or do anything without Pikachu’s stupid adorable face staring back out at you. Kids around the world were addicted to the concept that that had to catch ‘em all. And in fact, catching ‘em all quickly became a theme for companies who weren’t Nintendo.

Sony never adopted the ‘mon phenomenon, but they did make a game about catching ‘em all. Namely, catching all them monkeys. Because monkeys are inherently funny, apparently.

Tenuous cultural links aside, Ape Escape is also well-remembered for being the first game in PlayStation history to make it mandatory to play with a DualShock. The game was physically unplayable on an old-fashioned digital controller, and you had to fork out for Sony’s fancy analog sticks instead. Which was a good move, as now I don’t think anyone could do without sticks for controlling their games these days.

So how was this first fully-analogue PlayStation title then? Pretty good, actually. Ape Escape is a 3D platformer where you play a small boy named Spike who has to catch monkeys in a big transdimensional net. You travel through time. You get a bunch of gadgets that allow you to spank monkeys. It’s pretty neat.

In terms of gameplay, Ape Escape is hard to fault. You wander through a series of small levels solving puzzles and exploring, looking for the escaped monkeys you’re trying to round up. Catching them involves a number of factors from solving puzzles, pulling the monkeys out of hiding places, sneaking up on the deadly ones and bonking them to knock them out long enough that they don’t evade the net. There’s a surprising amount of variety on offer here, and the game is excellent at keeping you on your toes.

The game can feel a little awkward to control today, however. While it may have been a pioneer in dual-stick controls, its control scheme doesn’t follow the standards that modern games follow. The left stick controls Spike, sure, but the right stick isn’t in charge of camera, it’s in charge of attacking. Jumping is on a weird shoulder button, the face buttons are all weapon selection (akin to Zelda’s use of the C-buttons), and when you’re as used to modern control schemes as I am, it can be a little disorienting. This is less a fault with the game’s design, however, and more evidence of its age.

On the whole, Ape Escape is fun, but a little unremarkable. The small levels, the sometimes overly cutesy aesthetic and the terrible voice acting (except Specter, who’s fantastic), all combine to take this from being amazing to a somewhat average game with some clever puzzle design. That’s not to say it’s bad, in fact it’s on the very good end of the 3D platformer scale, but it’s just not got much in the way of standout moments until near the end of the game.

Ape Escape is an interesting bit of video game history that’s still worth playing today, even if it does leave you feeling a little underwhelmed over some of its design choices.

Metal Gear Solid: Special Missions
Publisher: Konami | Developer: KCET | Year: 1999
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS3 (PSN release)

Goal: Clear all missions

Actual Outcome: Cleared many missions, ended up somewhere in the 80% range before I struggled with the remaining missions

Metal Gear Solid: Special Missions, also known as VR Missions or Integral, is a weird beast. It was an add-on for the original Metal Gear Solid, with some copies standing alone while others required data from the original MGS disc to run (or in the case of the PSN release, a pointless bit of menu-fiddling). It’s basically the original game’s training mode extended to a significantly larger selection of missions, and…that’s about it.

For those who are unaware, Metal Gear Solid had a “VR Training” mode, which was a way to guide players into the experience of playing the game. As Snake, you completed a series of short missions that relied on your stealth skills to complete, all in the setting of a series of glowing blocks floating in a techno-void. Special Missions takes this by giving you even more mission types, including weapon training, quirky puzzle missions, bizarre murder mysteries and even a small number of missions where you play as the iconic Cyborg Ninja .

It’s an interesting experience, I’ll give it that. Using the same engine as the original game, Special Missions is as fluid and easy to control as the main game. Snake stalks around in a top-down view and you can crouch, choke and punch as always. If you liked how the original game played and want to play more, then Special Missions is literally more of that.

There are also some genuinely interesting missions here. The murder mysteries are ludicrous and simplistic, but they provide some great entertainment, especially in the final mission which has you exploring an office and examining pretty much everything results in a dramatic camera angle and the iconic “!” noise. The ninja missions are a fun variation when you finally unlock them, although in these post-Rising days, it feels a tad limited and stiff (and begins to explain why Kojima shipped Rising off to Platinum instead of making it himself). Many of the puzzle and special missions are intriguing brain teasers that I highly approve of.

But there’s always a nagging sense that this is an obvious placeholder. If this had been in the original game as a full VR Training mode, it would have been a delicious cherry on an already amazing cake, but as a standalone product it feels limited and somewhat hollow. Unlike MGS, which tied its weird sense of humour and stealth mechanics together with a twisting and turning storyline, this is just a series of disjointed missions that don’t feel like they have a wider purpose beyond “here’s more MGS until we finish the actual sequel on upcoming hardware”.

It also stands to get very repetitive very quickly. While the Mystery, Special and Puzzle modes are genuinely interesting, getting to them takes a while as you play through a series of incredibly samey stealth and weapon levels, of which there always seems to be too many. What’s worse is you have to play all of these twice – once as a “Practice” and then once in a real Time Attack – which does little to help the repetitive, hollow feeling of the overall package.

But it’s not a bad package, just a limited one. If you liked Metal Gear Solid, it’s a great way to extend your time with it, but hardly measures up to the real thing.

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