The Simpsons has had an interesting journey in the hearts and minds of a large portion of the western world. The majority of you will be familiar with the rags-to-riches rise that took the cartoon-short from bit part on the Tracy Ullman show to a series in its own right. From there it seemed our four fingered yellow friends could do no wrong, often getting away with more cutting political comment than many a high brow current affairs programme. After riding high for a good few years, these high expectations almost became its undoing as the core writing talent become distracted by other lucrative projects, and their crucial voice actors had to strike for better remuneration. Thankfully, sanity seems to have prevailed and we are now enjoying some of the best writing and production since those early years, something that is reflected in the long awaited arrival of The Simpsons Movie.
As with any Hollywood franchise we of course have the associated merchandise, not to mention video game tie in, which conveniently brings us to the game in hand: The Simpsons Game on the PS3. As we have mentioned, the Simpsons brand brings with it not only an expectation of those familiar yellow characters but of something genuinely inventive. Combine this expectation with the usual results from movie-to-console productions and we have a real mountain to climb for the developers.
At a first glance all is decidedly formulaic. We are presented with some familiar footage from the more popular episodes and some over egged narration from Bart and Homer. The action then kicks off with the obligatory tutorial and we find ourselves in a very straightforward action platformer. This really has all been seen before, and often in more polished form. As we continued through the first few levels, the standard predictable fare of switches, doors, gaps and jumps came dangerously close to putting us to sleep (which ironically is what Homer is doing throughout the tutorial).
Surely this sort of heavy handed, ham fisted approach can’t hold throughout the experience? Happily, a bit of perseverance provides a glimmer of hope. Although the game essentially continues along the same prescriptive lines of a thousand other games, at least here we find it to be self awareness of these shortcomings. There is something somehow fitting that the Simpsons writer’s comedic awareness comes to rescue the production of their game. The game tries its best to escape its bland and predictable beginning by parodying the very game they have just created. All very post-modern we know, but it at least provides some interest in an otherwise unsurprising game.
As you progress through the game you are awarded a series of gaming cliché’s. These take great joy in poking fun at the various devices our much loved games employ to get you through each level. It is again testament to the writing talent that these clichés are well observed. However, this would have been all the more cutting if the game itself wasn’t relying on the very cliché’s it was parodying. It’s a trick that manages to raise some interest for a while, but soon wears thin as you realise this is just window dressing on an otherwise average production.
Then there are a series of take offs of a variety of different well known game genres. Games as diverse as Grand Theft Auto, Medal of Honor, Katamari Damacy, EverQuest, and Shadow of the Colossus are held to ridicule and general tom foolery for their various gaming conventions. For those of us with a keen eye, these more obvious gags are then fleshed out with some subtle references to games such as Gauntlet and Joust. Any writer knows that the first rule is to know your audience, and The Simpsons Game’s writing is a demonstration that they have achieved just that; this is a game with a knowing wink for gamers. Whilst it nice to have the odd warm fuzzy moment of being included in the ‘in joke’, it all seems a little self referential at the end of the day and doesn’t really add much in terms of genuine gameplay.
Visually, the PS3 version of the game looks the best of the bunch. Whilst this is not a game that demands anything like the sort of horsepower available in Sony’s beast, the action holds to a solid frame rate and easily matches the broadcasts for quality. In fact, this may well be the first time many of us have seen the Simpsons in High Definition (HD), and hopefully will spur Fox to get on and release the series in their preferred HD format.
The graphics of the Simpsons are all smoothly replicating those familiar TV characters, enabling the playing to control them whilst avoiding jumps and skips between the different moves. This is something for which the game should be praised, you are rarely aware that the movement is being pulled from an animation bank on the fly. The smoothness of transitions and special moves all attest to skill and understanding the team have of both the subject matter and animation in general. It is unfortunate that the in game camera often struggles to provide a decent view of the action. Camera man duties are largely left to the player themselves, and we spend many levels missing a jump or switch because of a bad viewing angle. If only the camera placement skills of the cartooning team could have been leveraged as well as the writing skills we are certain this aspect of the game would have been improved.
As Fox were made painfully aware when their actors staged a walkout over pay, the Simpsons without the voice talent simply isn’t the Simpsons. Thankfully, all those dulcet tones are present and correct in the game. Whilst there could have been a greater variety to the dialogue, what we do have is well delivered and maintains the same comic timing we have all grown to expect. Prolonged play does mean some phrases are heard too many times, and some lines are only funny the first 20 times. The voice work is backed up with all the appropriately familiar music and orchestral work. The biggest testament to this is that it just fits. Not only is it well timed with the on screen action, but it too works to create that authentic Simpsons world we know and love so much.
As the game develops you discover that you can take the helm of a variety of different Simpsons characters in each level. In the game world, they each gain a special ability that is either tied into their specific character traits, or particularly famous episodes in which they appeared. Bart for example gains his Bart-man powers from the related episodes and his ‘Do the Bart-man’ early 90’s single release (anyone, anyone?).
The majority of the levels, bar the tutorial, put you in charge of a duo of characters. You need to work with both characters to find safe passage through. They key usually being to figure out which character’s powers suit a particular platforming conundrum, and when to switch between them to enable the crucial switch to be flipped at just the right time, Whilst this may not sounds like a big deal, this is the one aspect of the game that brings something new to the table, apart from the aforementioned parodying. These Simpsons duos enable you to bring a second player on board to take up the reigns of the second character. This essentially turns the game into a more complex co-op experience. Not only is this more fun and rewarding as you try and get the other player to tow the line and get you through the level, it also changes the gameplay dynamic substantially and explains why some of the later levels involve so much character swapping. In co-op you can both play your part simultaneously which makes for more coherent progression.
Sadly though, apart from these few high points we have an average game that is admittedly well executed (bar the dodgy camera), but that never manages to rise above the masses. Whilst it manages to replicate the look, feel and sound of the Simpsons world, it misses that subversive aspect of the series that made for such compelling viewing. If only the imagination of the aesthetic had been brought to bear on the game mechanics itself this could have been a very different story. As it is we have an average action platform game with some, admittedly very shiny, Simpsons coloured gloss.