Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about what video games are for: why I play them, what they mean to me and to society, etc. I blame that crazy liberal arts education of mine; it makes me believe that art should transcend mere escapism and strive to leave an impression the minds of its audience, be it emotional, political, or whatever, and games are not exempt from this requirement. As storage space increases from cartridge to CD to DVD, there is more room for development of character and story over the course of a game’s playthrough; as processing power of machines advances, there is more capacity for artists, musicians, and programmers to create an aesthetic experience for the player that’s just as rich, intense, and valid as any film or sculpture can provide. All that remains is for some studio or developer to make the creative leap and create the game that connects with people in such a way that the debate can finally progress from asking whether games are art to asking what kind of art games are and what kind they will be.

Then I play a game like Ape Escape 2 and am reminded that I’m just a pretentious loser.

Here is a list of some of the game’s primary components:

  • Cheeky monkeys.
  • Monkeys wearing funny helmets.
  • Disco monkeys, pirate monkeys, astronaut monkeys, ninja monkeys, etc.
  • Monkeys wearing funny pants.
  • A cute baby monkey. With angel wings.
  • Monkeys falling down.
  • Chocolate-chip cookies.
  • Running after monkeys, bonking them on the head with a bat, and catching them with an oversized butterfly net.

This is basically a can’t-miss recipe for pure childish enjoyment, to be accompanied by uncontrollable giggling — and these are just the staple ingredients in this game.

The focus of Ape Escape 2 is on the hundred-plus monkeys you need to capture, and they are given a fair amount of personality, as befits their primacy. Each monkey has a name and a little motto, which gives the developers room to sneak in lots of little throwaway jokes: the ice-skating monkeys are named Torvill and Dean, and machine-gun-toting Vincent demands a “Royale With Cheese”. I was sent into stitches by Snap, who hums “Rhythm is a Monkey” to himself (mostly what this says is that both the developers and I were listening to the wrong radio station in 1991). Different monkeys also have different strategies for avoiding capture, from running and hiding to fighting back with varying degrees of ferocity. The AI in the game, while limited, is a nice step up from the simple back-and-forth movement patterns of the Koopas and Machine Gun Joes you remember in platformers of yore.

The core “gotta catch ‘em all” concept has been proven addictive time and again, and it’s done well here. The impish monkeys will often taunt you into chasing them, only to run away (or launch a barrage of missiles in your face) as you start waving your net in their direction. Levels are small enough to get through in a relatively brief time, which leads the player into the “just one more” cycle of continuous play. There are also lots of extra monkeys for you to come back for later, if you’re one of those platformer completists who simply must get all the stars or orbs or whatever a game expects you to collect.

Ape Escape 2 is chock full of other elements designed to release little bursts of endorphins. The special weapons, like the remote-control car and the speed-boosting hula hoop, are designed to go zott, sploosh, thwakk, and zip in the most satisfying possible manner. The difficulty level is set to a kid-friendly easiness to minimize frustration, to the point where your sidekick will occasionally pull you up when you mistime a jump. Unlockables are drawn from a big slot machine, � la Smash Bros., but instead of pulling a lever or pushing a button to set the wheels spinning, you smack it with your bat to get the goodies out, pi�ata-style. And of course, there is a giant robot you can use to knock monkeys around with extreme prejudice.

Despite its high happiness factor, this game is not perfect by any means. The lack of frustration that the level design affords leads in many places to a lack of challenge, as you mindlessly jump from platform to platform and smack around the clearly inferior enemies that surround you. The weapons are fun to mess around with, but all but a couple of them are of extremely limited use. A lack of free camera control in 3D games is one of my pet peeves, and causes frequent problems here; constant recentering of the viewpoint gets old after a while. And when you get right down to it, most of this game’s ideas have been seen before, and many have been done nearly to perfection by games released in just the last couple of years. Let’s face it: Jak and Daxter, Ratchet and Clank, and Sly Cooper have spoiled the appetites of a lot of people for merely competent executions of the 3D platformer formula.

Nitpicking and comparing Ape Escape 2 to the best in its class is beside the point, though. Video games like this don’t want to be critically analyzed and taken apart. They want to provide a good time, a diversion from the pressures that truth and beauty impose on the mind (maybe it’s just my mind; maybe other people don’t have this problem). Actually, “mind” has nothing to do with this game; it’s mindlessness at its best.