: preg_replace(): The /e modifier is deprecated, use preg_replace_callback instead in /home/gturner/public_html/content/themes/tng_v4/comment.tpl.php on line 31.
December 17, 2007Glenn Turner

I've been playing Simpsons games for nearly as long as I've been watching the show. They started out somewhat decently: Bart vs. the Space Mutants wasn't deplorable. The arcade game was pretty darn fun, as it nicely captured the art and satirical tone of the show (even if it took liberties with some of the supporting characters' roles). I still find numerous copies of Virtual Springfield, an exploration-oriented game, while garage saling, and 2003's Hit & Run was serviceable for a GTA-wannabe. However, the games never manage to capture the energy and smarts of the show, and have proven to be much less consistent too, which didn't bode well for this year's effort: Electronic Art's The Simpsons Game.

However, I think it's safe to say that this is as good of a Simpsons game as we're going to get.

The Simpsons Game captures the essence of the show: It uses the conventions of its genre to satirize it. As The Simpsons show aged it constantly exploited standard sitcom devices, not only to move the plot forward, but to comment on the trappings of the sitcom structure. Sometimes this was intentionally self-reflexive, such as the addition of 'in-your-face' Poochie to Itchy & Scratchy to ridicule the overnight addition of an 'edgy, youth-oriented sidekick' to bolster a show's ratings. Sometimes it was more gently masked, like the couch gag in the title sequence which lambasts the contrived and artificial nature of television titles by incorporating absurd posturing, while utilizing it to establish and introduce characters. The Simpsons Game simply trades sitcom conventions for videogame platformer devices. Using Springfield as the game's hub, we guide Homer, Bart, Lisa and Marge (and occasionally Maggie) through various portions of the town, maneuvering them around 'wacky' collection and run-and-jump antics. Homer enrolls in an eating contest, Lisa saves a woodland area from being forested; it's all rather dull and contrived exposition, until you reach 'The Game Engine' halfway through the game.

The Game Engine level is the first of many overtly self-reflexive levels, literally shoving the Simpsons into the nuts and bolts of their own game. It contains ugly caricatures of Mario, Sonic, and other aging gaming stalwarts 'powering' the game engine, allowing EA churn out, and press their logo onto, a conveyor belt of crap licenses. The level is laden with endless dimwitted Madden-esque defensive enemies, uninspired fighters and other generic adversaries, all of which are pointed out as being insipid and formulaic by our heroes.

But best of all, 'The Game Engine' is capped off with Will Wright ranting madly at the Simpsons, and they rant back, including lampooning him about Spore and its perpetual delays. It's brilliantly mad banter, especially for a boss with the stature of Will Wright, and it's one of the highlights of the game. Sure, take Wright out of the picture and the boss is quite contrived: you leap from one obstacle to another in order to interrupt the machinations of his scheme. Pretty textbook stuff. But the environment, the dialogue, and the sheer fact that it's actually Will Wright spewing out gags left and right elevates the game from bog-standard platformer to that of a metafictional delight.

Inevitably the mediocre platforming, regardless of how self-aware the game is of it, does grate on the nerves. Not because the platforming is difficult – the most trying gameplay elements are controlling Homer when he's become bloated by sucking on a helium tank or trying to pilot Bart as Bartman across some wide caverns – but because it's simply dull. While it's initially amusing when Lisa and Homer quip about how uninspired elemental-based level design is, that doesn't change the fact that you still have to play it. This level, which places nerdlinger Milhouse in the role of Katamari Damacy's The King of All Cosmos, tours you through a standard fire-and-ice level, navigating freezing terrain, leaping over fire pits, and skidding across ice. It's positively yawn-inducing, and involves a decent amount of trial and error flying up and down snowy slopes and lava caverns. Contrast that with how delightful it is to experience Milhouse peeking over the horizon to watch Homer and Lisa, The King's 'crown' draped over his head and calling out: "Liiiiiisssaaa, I'm staring at you. Is that creepy?" This background action not only nicely sums up Milhouse as a character, but Katamari Damacy, The King and the status of the god-like player. Great quip, but I wish I didn't have to endure the level to experience it.

Unfortunately without the lackluster level design and overused, tired platforming devices, half of the game's humor would be lost. Whenever you encounter a platforming cliché, such as "Giant Saw Blades" or "Escort Mission", the Comic Book Guy pops up and sarcastically bemoans the inclusion of such an element, often closing with "Am I supposed to be impressed?" Obviously no one is going to be blown away by such clichés but, without their in-game inclusion, there'd be nothing to riff off of. They're good gags, but amusing enough to make me forget that I wasted fifteen minutes maneuvering through the saw blades?

This strained balance is prevalent through the entirety of the game. As the levels progress they become more pointed, mimicking more games and being aggressive forthright about it, such as switching to an overhead view as you trawl through a dungeon, Gauntlet-style. Although these levels are bolstered by a surprisingly varied array of situational dialogue, the design and mechanics grow tired within a matter of minutes (except for an exceedingly banal Medal of Honor-inspired level, which revels in cheap French jokes and becomes insufferable within a matter of seconds). And while the script becomes increasingly smarter and insightful, including a poignant (albeit somewhat well-worn) closing act involving Shakespeare, Ben Franklin and God, the game simply can't keep pace with it.

What's left is a script too smart for its own game but completely ineffectual without it; a rarity for most videogames. Consequently, it's hard to label The Simpsons Game as anything but a success, since it's effectively brought the show's brand of televisual satire to the videogame world. However, the lackluster narrative contrivances are much easier to swallow on the show since they're less time consuming than a videogame level, help to propel the story forward and make us care more about the characters. And while the reliance on convention and reductive in-game elements works for the script, it doesn't build a compelling enough interactive experience. The story and dialogue is solid enough to keep the player from quitting, and the controls are adequate, but there's no way to elevate a game stuffed with sub-standard devices and cliches into a genuinely mind-blowing gameplay experience. Yes, it's the best and most faithful Simpsons game ever but it, and undoubtably future Simpsons game efforts, will be burdened by the trappings of the show, forced to compromise either the show's essence, or the game's design, in order to provide an extraordinary interactive experience.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

1 comment for ‘The Simpsons Game’

#1 Mitchell Dyer Dec 17, 2007 02:56pm

I couldn't get enough of the charm of this game, but the worthless combat and bland platforming had my banging my head on the wall. I played the entire thing on co-op with my dad, the biggest Simpsons nut I know, and had a decent enough time with it, but it's nothing more than a 6 hour comical adventure. Nothing more. It's worth playing if you're lenient with generic game foundations.