It’s all about the hot takes nowadays, so this article is like a scientific expedition to the Arctic to bore out ten-meter cores of pack ice to study atmospheric carbon levels in the cretaceous period. I’m saying it’s not a hot take. Who remembers 1999 PSX platformer Ape Escape?
Towards the end of PSX’s domination of the console sphere and just before Sony cocooned their headquarters in calciferous spittle to begin pupating the PlayStation 2, mascot platformers were riding high. Naughty Dog had brought out Crash Bandicoot: Warped in 1998, Spyro the Dragon got a game every year from 1998 to 2000, 2000 saw Rare’s Banjo-Tooie, and people were still talking about the father of them all, Super Mario 64, released back in 1996. It must have seemed like a grand time to launch a level-based 3D platformer about a red-shirted preteen catching apes scattered throughout time and space.
It wasn’t. 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III waited on the horizon, heading up a charge of open worlds and grittier, more “mature” content. Soon Crash Bandicoot had all but retired, Spyro was in hibernation, Sonic was off his tits on prescription sedatives, and a new generation of platformers, mainly Zak and Daxter and Ratchet and Clank, huddled in a downtown gelato parlour listening to Don Mario regale them about the good old days. Ape Escape was hardly a failure, spawning a few sequels and spin-offs well into the mid-noughties, but it was both too late to be genre-defining and too early to embed the new design possibilities the PS2 era brought with it. Its main innovation was a variety of different control schemes using the then-novel Dual Analogue Controller – but it missed out on the now ubiquitous left-stick move, right-stick look control scheme, which Alien: Resurrection employed in 2000.
So Ape Escape is both largely forgotten and utterly inconsequential. Which is why instead of analysing it as a videogame I went and asked a zookeeper if I can rely on the training I got from replaying it last week if I am ever faced with a real ape escape scenario.
Zak Showell is the Animal Records Registrar at Twycross Zoo in the UK. Twycross’s claim to fame, as well as holding the largest and most diverse selection of higher apes in the UK, is that it was the home of the PG Tips chimps. For non-British readers, the following is entirely representative of UK advertising:
Right into the early ’00s British children were given to believe they would join a workforce composed partially of chimpanzees, prone to bouts of dangerous forgetfulness and breaches of safe working practice when presented with a pot of tea. You can understand how in these circumstances Britain waltzed into the post-truth nightmare of Brexit.
I digress: Zak’s core responsibility as a registrar is to ensure accurate records for Twycross Zoo’s enormous animal collection, as well as overseeing transfers of animals to and from other zoos and compliance with legislation. It’s a senior role that requires knowledge of all aspects of animal husbandry, biology, and legislation. This kind of expertise is essential when fact-checking a seventeen-year-old videogame marketed at children.
I started by investigating the central conflict of Ape Escape, a time-travelling ape rebellion masterminded by a white ape named Specter. He’s a slender, foppishly coiffed creature, presumably a Lar gibbon. Zak is the studbook keeper for Siamang Gibbons, responsible for the genetic health of the species’ population across all European zoos, so he has particular expertise in gibbon-lore. Is a gibbon a likely demagogue to lead a simian uprising?
“Cognitively they’re not as developed as the great ape species. Examples of tool usage, an indicator used when measuring cognitive capabilities of species, is limited in gibbons. Gibbons also have less complicated social structures than the great apes, typically forming monogamous pair bonds in which the female tends to be the dominant individual, whereas in gorillas and chimpanzees there are very well studied social hierarchies within troops of many individuals. All in all I just don’t think gibbons have the leadership qualities to lead an ape rebellion.”
Specter benefits from an intellect-enhancing magic hat, but I don’t mention this to Zak. He is acting as a scientific expert and magic hats are outside the purview of this consultancy. Firearms do exist however, and the apes in Ape Escape have gotten their hands (paws? talons?) on a batch of TEC-9 automatic pistols. What’s the risk factor of heavily armed simians?
“There’s no analogue in the wild for projectile based weapons, but the great apes have pretty good aim. Keepers will attest to this after having faeces chucked at them. But if an ape ever did get a gun to fire, more through luck than judgment, I imagine the loud bang would terrify them and they wouldn’t go near it again.”
The apes in the game are indeed prone to bouts of panic, hooning around and flailing their arms, or hiding inside igloos or giant eggshells when startled. This doesn’t paint a picture of the ape as a credible threat, which rather undermines the core dramatic tension of Ape Escape, but Zak warns against complacency.
“First we can consider size; an adult male chimpanzee can weigh over 70kg, an orangutan 75kg, and a gorilla 180kg. Due to their arboreal lifestyles they have significantly more muscle mass than humans as they have to haul themselves up and around the tree canopy to forage or travel. In the wild they can easily break branches off trees a human would struggle to move. In zoos we’ve seen them bend metal parts of the enclosure that we couldn’t even conceive budging. A best guess would be that a chimp is two to four times stronger than a human.
“Unfortunately apes have attacked people in the wild and in captivity. This isn’t because apes are malicious but because of failures in adequately managing or caring for them. Famously a pet chimp called Travis who had appeared in American TV shows and commercials mauled one of his owner’s friends. She required massive surgery to reconstruct her face and hands after the attack. Chimpanzees are not just powerful but completely unsuited to be kept as pets.
“Worst case scenario? Death, easily.”
“A big part of this is the disparity between our two species. Apes just want to be left alone, but can and will defend their mates and territory if they feel threatened. It’s part of their social structure to fight this out, and humans don’t stand a chance against something so much more powerful. Worst case scenario? Death, easily.”
Perhaps I should be more concerned for Ape Escape protagonist Spike’s safety. He is a ten-year-old human boy, facing down an insurgency of superhuman, face-peeling muscle machines. Spike at least has some gaily colored ape-catching gadgets to help, such as a time-net (it’s like a net, but… well, you can figure it out), the stun club, and a monkey radar. Zak appraises them for me.
“Spike would have to have pretty good reflexes to perfectly time netting an ape.” I don’t mention the time-travel part, and I suppose if you do catch an ape in a conventional, non-time-travel net what you’re then faced with is a net full of raging chimp. “I can see two scenarios with the stun club – either it would break when you hit the ape, or you would be relieved of said stick and potentially hit with it.” Poetic, at least. “The radar is an interesting proposition but it would rely on all the apes being tagged with something for you to track.” A possibility for Spike, as all the apes in the game are escapees from Monkey Park and might have been tagged with radio transmitters.
The game also contains a slingshot, used to dislodge brachiating apes from the canopy (“This could work, given enough power it’d certainly get their attention and potentially cause them to lose their grip”) and an RC Car which “might distract them, I suppose, but you may end up being snuck up on while you concentrate on the controls.” The less said about Spike’s magic hula hoop the better.
So Spike is on a fast track to getting himself maimed. Ah well. He is an overly chipper little oik. But as I have no desire to copy him, I ask Zak what I should do in the event of an IRL ape exodus.
“What actually happens in a zoo situation when an escape occurs is very different. Zoos drill for such instances and have rigorous processes to recapture the animals.” I assume these don’t involve ill-equipped preteens. “As part of having a zoo license in the UK you have to have protocols to respond to escaped animals and the appropriate equipment to deal with them. The goal is always to ensure the safety of the staff and visitors in the area and recapture the animal as quickly as possible. So should a few apes escape their enclosure at a local zoo, no you’re not in danger.
“Unlike a lot of films, games and TV the drugs used to anaesthetize animals (and people) take time to work. It doesn’t happen instantly, and when an animal is full of adrenaline it can take longer, up to 10-15 minutes, for the drugs to fully kick in. This came to light last year with the Harambe incident with people asking why wasn’t he anaesthetized. In that situation shooting an animal with a sharp dart, with drugs that would take up to 15 minutes to work, would have just made the situation worse.”
“If something were to happen and all the apes banded together then fleeing to the North may be an option.”
It’s points like this, where the serious side of human interactions with animals come to light, that have given me pause when reflecting on Ape Escape. It is a cartoony game, quite well-pitched for a preteen audience in terms of challenge, peril, tension, and humor. Yet it’s also a game about beating chimpanzees with sticks. This is abstracted to the point of comedy and it would benefit us little to think too much about that point – children’s entertainment is violent and reductive and probably wouldn’t function if it was neither. Yet here I am with the image of a foolish boy brutalizing a chimpanzee, surely only a moment away from his own dismemberment. So naturally I ask Zak a silly question to get it out of my head. What do we do if the apes really do rise up?
“All ape species are from tropical climates and therefore wouldn’t cope very well with the temperatures we get in the UK. If something were to happen and all the apes banded together then fleeing to the North may be an option.”
Which is reassuring. I live in Yorkshire and it gets right nippy. Take that you Southron bastards.