This article was originally published at Kombo.com on November 14, 2007.
When the instruction manual for The Simpsons Game lands at Bart Simpson's feet he discovers that his entire world is actually a video game. Using his new amazing video game powers, Bart runs amok through Springfield and eventually shares the manual with his family. Just a everything seems to be winding down, aliens Kang and Kodos invade the planet. It's up to the Simpsons to use their awesome new powers to save the world, and in the process they'll meet famous gaming heroes, explore other video games, and even encounter creator Matt Groening himself.
The absolute best thing that The Simpsons Game has going for it are the many many references to episode from the television series and the parodies of other video games. Springfield's game store (SequelStop) boasts posters of Bonestorm and Lee Carvallo's Putting Challenge, for example, while Kang and Kodos bring advertising billboards to life and incite a dolphin attack led by King Snorky as part of their invasion plot. Halfway through the game the Simpsons access "the game engine", the factory where video games are made. Parodies of Mario, Donkey Kong, and Sonic the Hedgehog turn up, while posters on the wall of the factory hype games such as Mega Moleman X and Need For Speedo (featuring Homer in scandalous swimwear). Entire levels poke fun at World War II shooters (Homer and Bart join Grandpa Simpson and his Flying Hellfish squadron), Japanese games (Milhouse appears as Katamari Damacy's King of All Cosmos), and Grand Theft Auto (in which Marge and Lisa clean up the gameworld and make it a nice place to live). Matt Groening turns up as an end-level boss who attacks by tossing character sketches that come to life at our favorite family. Fans of Groening's other famous animation project should not miss this boss fight.
Cinema scenes move the story along between levels, and while some of these scenes are rendered with the in-game models, most of these segments are actually new animation that from the look of things seems to have been produced as part of the production The Simpsons Movie, as the extensive color palette, shadow effects, and glorious widescreen format match what fans saw in theaters earlier this year. With the Hollywood writers' strike slowing production of the series to a halt, this new animation may be the only fresh Simpsons material hungry fans will get for a while.
Sadly, while the game's strengths are its humor and animation, it suffers in terms of gameplay and in-game visuals. The Wii version of The Simpsons Game shows all the signs of being another lazy port from Electronic Arts with tacked-on Wii remote motion controls replacing what would be button presses on another console. The gameplay itself starts out slowly with insultingly simple puzzles mixed in with infuriatingly frustrating challenges, although things do even out and pick up speed once the game has presented the entire family as playable characters. The cell shaded visuals look good enough so long as the camera remains at a distance. Zoom close enough and the character models break down into disconnected jagged lines. Speaking of the camera, it has a nasty habit of becoming hung up on walls and corners. It even has a knack for changing angles by itself in the middle of jumping or aiming, resulting in plummeting to one's death or wasted ammo. EA also tossed a few Wii-exclusive mini-games into the mix that make use of motion controls (such as an eating contest featuring Homer and a Pilotwings parachute knock-off with Bart), but they aren't all that exciting or even much fun.
The Simpsons Game is yet another lackluster licensed game. The difference is that this lackluster licensed game has The Simpsons writers and voice cast behind it, meaning that the humor and atmosphere in the game outright nails the source material. The gameplay, on the other hand, is yet another 3D adventure game with frustrating timing, cloudy goals, and spotty controls. Diehard Simpsons fans should definitely check this one out just to see the new animation and revel in the many references from the television show (even if that means slogging through the weaker gameplay moments), but anyone not enamored with the world of Homer and Bart should sit this one out. EA will undoubtedly try another Simpsons game in the future, and when they do here's hoping that the gameplay matches the animation quality (note to EA: that means the gaming elements should improve, not the other way around).