Friday, November 23, 2007

The Simpsons Game

The Simpsons Game is funny. Sometimes it's even ha-ha funny. But to enjoy those good-time laffs you're going to have to wade through a whole heapin' helpin' of awful, awful game design.

I played the XBox 360 version, and it's fair to say that The Simpsons Game is a good looking game. It looks, more or less, just like the series, making smart use of cell shading to produce artwork that would fit perfectly in the TV show. The game's take on Springfield may not be quite as large as in the excellent Simpsons Hit & Run but it's still entirely convincing.

The sound quality is likewise excellent. All voices are provided by the TV show's voice cast - and there's a lot of voice work in the game, including level and location specific comments for each character and a hefty swag of cutscenes. The music is exactly what you'd expect from something bearing the Simpsons label.

The game alleges that it features work by "the writers of the TV show". That's a writing credit so vague as to possibly denote any combination of up to several dozen different individuals, but there's no denying that it does feel like something recent seasons of the TV show might come up with. Which is to say, a contrived and awkward plot that stumbles through a succession of comedic misses in order to occasionally achieve some brilliant laugh-out-loud hits.

You'll be so convinced that this is the authentic Simpsons experience that you'll be absolutely unable to avoid realising how stupid it is to waste such a great licence on a lame platforming game.

Which, in case subtext is not your thing, is what this game is. If you've ever run, double jumped, and collected your way through a brightly coloured mascot game before, then you'll feel right at home with the Simpsons. Presuming, of course, that your home makes you regularly scream with homicidal rage. The Simpsons are in fact so-ill fitted to this type of game that some kind of monster shoehorn must have been used in its creation.

The game sees Bart discovering a manual to "The Simpsons Game" in an alleyway, which informs him that he and his family members in fact have a range of super powers. Bart can turn into Bartman in order to glide, grappel, and use a slingshot. Homer can turn into a giant ball capable of obtaining some pretty high velocities. Lisa can interact with statues at key points in each level to use the "Hand of Buddha", effectively turning the game temporarily into a god-sim and letting you pick up and move around nearby objects from above. Marge can use a loudspeaker to recruit nearby locals Pikmin-style, as well as deploy Maggie to infiltrate all manner of ventilation ducts.

Marge's set of powers are actually rather cool and could easily have formed the basis for a complete game; they also fit in nicely with her existing character without coming across as silly. The voice acting for her command-issuing function is some of the best in the game; she starts out as her usual conservative self but gets more and more involved as the game goes on. Hearing her incite Ralph Wiggum and Rod and Todd Flanders to "drink the enemies' blood!" is priceless (Todd: "Just like Cain killed Abel!" Ralph: "Murder makes me level up!").

The other "unique upgradeable powers" the characters get are, for lack of better words, just plain stupid. They're one of the grossest concessions to gameplay over atmosphere you're likely to see in a game, and it's all the more grating for the fact that the resulting gameplay is still rather poor. While suspension of disbelief has never exactly been a driving goal of The Simpsons, Homer's transformations into a rolling ball of lard are nothing but weird, and "Bartman" looks out of place every time you use him.

The basic gameplay is generic platforming - fight some enemies, do some jumps, solve some puzzles, find some collectibles. Fighting enemies mostly just involves mashing the same buttons repeatedly until the enemies fall down. Sometimes the enemies have hilarious banter while you're fighting. (Orc-Moe, during the "Neverquest" level: "Help me out - am I chaotic neutral or neutral evil? Anybody?"). Sometimes, however, their scripted lines are so inane or uninspired as to make you want to avoid enemies so as to not have to listen to them.

Jumps are often tricky, but not because of good level design or challenging gameplay. Mostly it's just the awful camera perspectives, which rarely let you line up the camera either behind or directly above your character, and quite often lock off the perspective to some horrible three-quarter view. You've got infinite lives and fairly frequent checkpoints, but still, falling to your death because a fixed camera doesn't let you accurately estimate distance isn't a challenge, it's a bug, which should have been ironed out in playtesting.

In fact, you'll get the strong impression that there actually wasn't much playtesting of the game, period. For example, the final boss fight on the XBox 360 features a sequence that forces you to use the controller's d-pad instead of the analog sticks, to input a series of "left, right, up"-style keypresses. The 360 d-pad unfortunately isn't designed for that level of accuracy, and if you're like me you'll regularly fail what should be a droolingly easy scene just because the game thinks you're pressing "up-left" when you're only pressing "left". There's nothing like a poorly playtested and artificially hard final level to take the fun out of finishing a game. (*cough* Halo *cough*).

Speaking of which, the ending of the game is rubbish.

So with all this hideous gameplay, why would you play the game? Well, because it's The Simpsons. Because it features a cameo by game designer Will Wright, who gets to say the line "I'm Will Wright, bitch." Because you can take on Matt Groening in a boss fight, where he's defended by Futurama's Bender and Zoidberg. Because it features Milhouse dressed as The King of All Cosmos from Katamari Damacy. Because it'll throw a reference to LonelyGirl 13 at you when you're least expecting it. Because you can kick the crap out of "those guys from Madden", and rescue Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario from being enslaved by evil game developers.

Because the game is absolutely packed to the brim with gaming humour, and getting to see The Simpsons turn their trademark wit at your favourite hobby with the highest level of their clever dialogue, spot-on timing, and pop-culture savvy is a thing worth sitting through a few hours of sub-par level design in order to see.

I don't regret buying it. But I do regret that The Simpsons as a video game property has yet to really reach above the sub-par genre clones that it's been dragged through to date, and it's left me wishing for just that little bit more.

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