The Simpsons Game is funny. Actually, it's one of the funniest games I've played in my history as a gamer. It made me laugh out loud, smile until my cheeks hurt and tell others about its gags at the risk of appearing partially insane. It is so smart and sharply written that it nearly reaches the point of being socially relevant. It's the ultimate parody of an industry that is still forging its identity in pop culture.
But through all the laughs, the "oh wows" and the gags, the game can actually be a chore to play. You would need a good laugh to be able to put up with some of the technical issues that end up hindering the playing experience.
In terms of overall plot, The Simpsons Game is essentially a playful jab (actually, it's more like left hook) at the video game industry, flanked by an alien invasion subplot as well as commentary on the meaning of life. Since the story and dialogue are such an enjoyable part of the game to experience firsthand, I'll try not to spoil it here.
The journey starts with Homer Simpson dozing off in front of the television, his mouth brown from binging on chocolate. We enter a dream sequence where Homer is in a virtual land of chocolate, filled by sarcastic talking chocolate bunnies and culminating with a battle on top of a massive cake. A white chocolate one ends up taunting Homer and runs away. This makes Homer a little mad, and he makes it his mission to track down his edible nemesis for a beatdown/snack.
This sequence functions as the tutorial. Through Homer's battle with his chocolate foes, you learn that the face buttons control basic punch attacks (X), the art of double-jumping (A) and projectile-style attacks (B). The game takes this time to introduce you to its concept of collectible items, which are tailored to specific Simpsons; for instance, Homer is the only one who can collect Duff beer bottle caps, while Marge can pick up grocery coupons. Also collectible are "video game clichés," which can range from the double jump to the "obvious weakness." You discover the clichés through experience so they aren't itemized. The more collectibles you get, the more bonuses you earn, like new costumes.
After the dream sequence (where Homer curses reality), we find Bart heading to the game store to purchase Grand Theft Scratchy. He leaves with the game, only to get busted by Marge, who quickly confiscates it. In the middle of Bart's walk of shame, a manual for The Simpsons Game drops from the heavens. Bart picks it up and is amazed to find he and his family have access to special moves and powers — naturally, he wants to try them out.
The first few missions of the game are dedicated to unlocking each of the core family members and getting used to their individual superpowers. Homer is the powerhouse; he can morph into a giant rolling ball, capable of bowling over foes with a speed burst or flattening them with a shockwave-style jump attack. He can also fill himself up with helium and float, as well as turn into a gummy blob later in the game. He's also capable of stunning enemies with powerful burps.
Bart serves as the multifaceted action hero. He can transform into Bartman, using his cape to glide through the air, as well as catch updrafts (all via the right trigger). He's also got his trusty slingshot, a grappling hook (Y), and the ability to zip across wires and climb walls. A special power-up also enables him to become Robo-Bart, complete with a laser blaster that can shoot through glass.
Lisa is mostly the puzzle master, with access to meditation spots which grant her the "hand of Buddha" power. It's a big hand in the sky that Lisa can use to move objects around and annihilate enemies, either by flicking them, freezing them or roasting them with lighting. A power-up temporarily turns her into Clobber Girl, a fighting machine that can take down enemies with a single blow.
Marge is the strategic squad leader, capable of rallying people together with her megaphone and ordering them to attack or destroy specific targets. She's also the only one who can deploy Maggie into small crawlspaces, where the game brilliantly switches to first-person perspective, with Maggie's pacifier cutely jutting out at the bottom of your field of vision.
All of these characters and powers factor in during an extremely diverse playing experience. It feels like the designers used the game's "parody" status as a way to pack in a multitude of various gameplay mechanics and allude to every possible genre, with the exception of RTS and survival horror. In terms of gameplay, you transition from mission to mission by walking around Springfield in a free-roaming environment, much like Grand Theft Auto. There are co-op, escort missions, some overhead POV stuff, squad tactics, platforming, puzzles — The Simpsons Game really does have it all. I even did some turn-based RPG work at one point. Awesome.
My favorite part of the game was its constant wit and charm. Even though it aims to make fun of the industry, you can tell the designers also have a healthy respect for its history, as well as an understanding of its scope. While "The Simpsons" is certainly as mainstream a brand as you can get, I got the feeling that this title was made just for gamers. We've seen the Shadow of the Colossal Donut demo, a reference to Sony's Shadow of the Colossus, where you have to systematically scale and defeat a massive creature. Later in the game, there are also references to Everquest (called Neverquest here), the Medal of Honor series (Medal of Homer), GTA and even a swipe at Japanese gaming culture (a stage called "Super Happy Fun Fun Game"). There's a level called the "game engine," where you will see references to other game characters. There's a blue character that resembles Sonic the Hedgehog walking sadly on a wheel, muttering, "I used to be … so fast …." There's also a money-in-the-bank cameo by someone only gamers would really know … and if you knew him at all, it only adds to the comedic value of his words.
What I wasn't a fan of was the camera/control combo. The weakness of the controls was most evident during a lot of the platforming work. Sometimes characters would grab onto ledges, and sometimes they wouldn't. You'll end up either overshooting or falling short on more than a few jumps and plummeting to your doom. There's one area near the end of the game where I had to transform into a Homer ball and launch myself onto a floating platform. That was hell. Many deaths ensued. Luckily, the game is forgiving enough to simply respawn you in the same spot you were standing right before you died.
The camera was no walk in the park, either. You can manually control it for the most part, but sometimes you'll get a nice shot of the inside of a wall or some other obstacle. When the camera is fixed, the angles it chooses aren't always the best, which can lead to some more senseless deaths.
I'm also a little concerned about the replay value of The Simpsons Game. A romp through all the missions took about seven hours, with only time trials, uncollected items and the prospect of unlockables enticing me to play through the missions again. One weakness of a funny game is that the gags stay the same; they lack the storytelling allure of Heavenly Sword or Bioshock, or the innovation of Portal. However, the game does such a good job of nailing the essence of the series and its source material that fans might end up playing it to death.
Overall, The Simpsons Game ends up being hours of pure, smart fun for me. I haven't laughed out loud at a game in a while (where it was meant to be funny), and I would certainly recommend at least spending some spare weekend time on it.
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