The Simpsons Game–A Review
While it’s been over twenty years since we were introduced to the new found exclamation of “Do’h” and informed that we should take care not to own a bovine creature, man, it’s sadly been almost that long since we’ve seen a good Simpsons video game. Understandably, the only great titles were those that firmly latched onto the coattails of “tried and true” game series/mechanics. The Simpsons the arcade title was a downright addictive experience, but never strayed from the Konami 4-player arcade formula established in such other titles as X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turles. Radical Entertainment’s highly successful Simpsons: Hit and Run, which sold over three million copies, was essentially a careful transformation of Springfield into a Liberty City/Vice City/ San Andreas of sorts. Like most media enterprises that tend to start outside of the video game realm, the only way in comes in the form of a preexisting template.
Unfortunately, because the Simpsons were one of the preeminent franchises of the 90s, and, while diminished, remain a strong force to this day, the pressure to flood the market with all sorts of dolls, games, toys, etc regardless of quality happened all too fast. Soon Nintendo titles hinged on such flimsy ideas as Bartman, Virtual Bart, and the Treehouse of Horror episodes. And let’s not even talk about Bart Vs. The World. But things have changed, EA has now been entrusted with the house that Matt Groening built, and put their hefty pocketbooks behind a truly new adventure for Homer and the gang, a belated tie-in to the also quite self-explanatory film The Simpsons Movie.
Let’s start with what shouldn’t surprise us, from our past dealings with EA and The Simpsons. As par usual, EA has more than sufficiently flooded the project with cash, and got Groening’s staff to provide the game with over forty five minutes of animation, on par with that of the tv show, as well as scribing the tale itself. The collaboration between the two powerhouses is more than evident, from the voice acting to the frighteningly perfect reproduction of Springfield, to the more than frequent references to obscure episodes (like Mr. Sparkle, for example). The next-gen visuals are at a point where they rival the look of the animated show itself. More or less, EA’s got the presentation down pat, and taken great care to bring all of the aspects of The Simpsons to fruition in the title.
What’s surprising (and by surprising, I mean “bad” surprising) begins first with the story. Instead of perhaps honing in on a specific person/aspect of the Simpsons universe, like most episodes do, or portioning the game into episodic self-contained bursts, The Simpsons Game has taken a new approach. Specifically, the Simpsons family is self-aware that they’re in a video game; they find the manual to discover their moves, and look up a walkthrough on the Internet to discover what to do next. Isn’t that funny? I mean, doesn’t it have you in fits? Oh look, Will Wright and Matt Groening are in the game as themselves!!! Don’t you love how they’re self-consciously aware how stupid the idea of key cards are?
While some games have truly been funny in their self-referential nature on gaming (like the funny, albeit flawed Eat Lead starring Max Hazzard) this smacks of an incessant self-conscious apology. As you go through the game, you’ll be occasionally interrupted by the “Comic Book Guy” as he diminituively points out that you’ve once again encountered/enacted/found a “video game cliche,” of which there are 31 to discover throughout the game. They vary from the protagonist not being able to swim, to the traditional pressure panels that require both party members, to the ubiquitous breakable crate. If these were mechanics were “one-liners” that we could dispense with after hearing, perhaps they’d be, dare-I-say-it, comical. But the truth is that these very elements they joke about are ever present and make up the majority of the gameplay.
The feebleness of the gameplay is masked by the ability to switch between the nuclear characters of the Simpsons family; freely in the hub world, and between the two pre-designated characters within the levels. Lots of characters mean lots of abilities and moves, right? Sure, if you’re up for some fairly mundane abilities spread across four characters. Bart can glide with a Bartman cape, grapple to certain objects, and use zip-lines. That’s right, you’ll be familiar with Bart’s “special powers” if you’ve encountered a ropes course at summer camp. Homer can burp on people to stun them, and roll around as a rotund version of himself. Lisa can play her sax loud enough…to stun people…and can pick up large objects with the power of…*sigh*…Buddhism. Marge can use a megaphone to…*yawn*…stun people, and can order crowds together to attack things. Many games would be completely comfortable with giving a singular playable character in a game this many abilities, were they not so trite and shallow, but the mediocrity is spread out in this one.
Most levels involve running around, finding collectibles to open doors, or breaking down a certain set of structures, or defeating a certain amount of enemies. Boss battles have a “rinse repeat” nature to them, once you’ve figured out the “secret” or “weak point” it is literally only a minute or two before you’ll have destroyed it. And this begs a question: If a game is self-aware of its mediocrity in gameplay, or the over utilized tropes it plays around with, do we approach it with the same stance we would a game rushed to production, hoping its mediocrity will only be discovered once the shrink wrap and security tags are shed?
It provides us with another question as well: Is The Simpsons Game, in actuality, a game? With gameplay that is mindnumbingly repetitive (which is not to say that this is incapable of being enjoyed, aka, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance) and virtually no penality for death, along with perpetual solutions to already frighteningly easy puzzles provided in thought bubbles above the character’s heads, are we actually playing a game? Or are we being pushed through a linear series of events, with an engineered impossibility of failure? Is this a predecessor to the recent eye candy that was Prince of Persia?
While the abovementioned paragraph seems to be littered with a handful of rhetorical questions, the answer to most is a resounding “Yes,” and this appears to be a recent trend in the transformation of popular franchises into video games: basic, yet uncomplicated games, with basically no learning curve, and hardly any penalty for death, based on a preconstructed graphical engine. It’s a “Choose Your Own Adventure” with the poor options taken out. You’re given an accurate presentation of the desired franchise, and a storyline to match such, with no chance of not completing it.
While the review has taken a bit of a macroscopic stance on the implications of games that share a resemblance to The Simpsons Game, allow me to recap. The Simpsons Game is a well produced, and heavily funded title that relies more on fans “getting” soundbite references and meeting bit characters from the tv program, rather than focusing on innovative gameplay and/or an enjoyable story in line with the show. The storyline is too caught up in itself, and the subtlety of the show’s humor (which was never that subtle) is completely lost with its meta-narrative. If you want a good looking Simpsons platformer riddled with basic fetch quests and a camera that will give you fits, the already low price should already encourage a purchase. If you simply have a Simpsons itch that you need to Scratch-y, you’d do better to simply get your hands on one of the earlier seasons on DVD.
Overall score 6/10
Good graphics and presentation
Barely passable story