Who doesn't like The Simpsons? All right, apart from you over there, you must be very interesting at dinner parties. Everyone likes The Simpsons and that explains why Electronic Arts is making a videogame set in Springfield.
Of course, just because a game has got The Simpsons in it doesn't mean it'll be any good. Look at The Simpsons: Hit and Run. However, having The Simpsons in it does mean a game is more likely to sell a million billion copies and top the charts for what feels like decades. Look at The Simpsons: Hit and Run.
That's what Greg Rizzer did, and he didn't particularly like what he saw. Rizzer is the lead designer on the new title and a long time fan of the Simpsons TV show, but not the games. "I've bought almost every Simpsons game that's come out and it's been disappointment after disappointment," he says. "Hit and Run was a decent game. I didn't think it was an awful game. But it wasn't a proper Simpsons game."
Having been given the chance to work on his very own Simpsons game, Rizzer made a conscious decision not to create another lazy Crazy Taxi clone. The new Simpsons tie-in is an action platformer complete with lots of running and jumping, exploring and collecting, switch pulling and wooden crate smashing. "There are always exploding barrels near bad guys," adds Rizzer. "And you can't swim until the sequel."
Big in Japan
But doesn't that mean they've just made another platform action game? Well, yes, but the twist is The Simpsons is a game about videogames. It sets out to reference, parody and celebrate the good and the bad. To illustrate this Rizzer shows the cutscene preceding Big Super Happy Fun Fun, a level which pays homage to Japanese videogames.
Lisa is running round in Pokémon-style baseball cap and shorts. She's accompanied by Homer, who's in Final Fantasy getup complete with Studio Line hair. Best of all is Milhouse, looming over them as the King of All Cosmos. Despite their outfits they're all in character. "Okay, I'm in a stupid Japanese game, but I'm not eating sushi," says Homer. "Unless it's covered in chocolate and there's no sushi in it."
This cutscene also illustrates one of the best things about the game: it looks just like the cartoon. That's probably because they were hand-drawn by your actual Gracie Films, which produces the TV show. "It was an amazing effort," says Rizzer. "The visuals of this are beyond anything any Simpsons game has done. I'm sure the fans will be very pleased with the level of detail."
Now we've moved on to the Neverquest level, where Homer is dressed as Link and Marge sports a pointy hat and ears. ("You're one sexy milf!" "The word is elf, Homer.") Other characters make an appearance, including Patty and Selma (as a two-headed dragon), Moe (as an orc called Morc, wearing rainbow braces in a reference only fans of rubbish old telly will get) and the Flanders kids ("Rod and Todd as hobbits just wrote itself, really," says Rizzer).
Having a ball
Now Rizzer's demoing the game's drop-in, drop-out co-op mode. The screen is split vertically and one player controls Homer, who's tasked with taking out Patty and Selma by blowing himself up into Homer Ball and repeatedly rolling into them. The other player controls Marge, and this is where the Pikmin-style element of the game comes in. She gathers a mob and then directs them to stop the evil intruders setting fire to the hobbits' homes.
The game isn't being demoed on a particularly big screen but this doesn't seem to matter. The visuals are big and bold enough that you can easily see what's going on, and because each character has their own objective you don't need to spend ages looking for your partner and shouting abuse at them for being on the wrong side of the level.
In short, the co-op mode looks like fun - which makes it even more of a shame there's no online co-op mode. Rizzer's ready with an answer for this one. "It's okay to laugh alone, but it's a lot more fun to laugh in a group," he begins. "We've created what we think is one of the funniest games ever. It has good gameplay that can be shared by two characters so it's like, let's do co-op splitscreen and make it work really well. I'm completely happy with that."
Whether everyone else will be is questionable, but this game isn't primarily aimed at people who spend a lot of their gaming time online. There's stuff for hardcore gamers here, such as subtle references to ancient games and the billions of collectibles to find. But The Simpsons has been designed to reward players rather than challenge them, first and foremost.
"The Simpsons' audience is massive, and it ranges from casual gamers to the absolute hardcore," observes Rizzer. "We didn't want to make this game so difficult that people couldn't finish it. We spent a really long time creating a proper learning curve."
The Wii version in particular has been designed with more casual gamers in mind. Characters fill their power-up meters much faster than in the PS3 and 360 versions, for instance. Other differences include the inevitable incorporation of Wii remote moves - you jerk it to make Homer do his burp attack, for example - and the inclusion of mini-games which don't appear in the other versions.
These include Bartwings, a Pilotwings rip-off where you guide Bart through a series of rings using the remote. Then there's Bite Night, where you're in a boxing ring facing an opponent across a dinner table. Plates of food appear and you use the remote and nunchuk to either swipe them away (in the case of cabbage, broccoli etc.) or gobble them up (burgers, waffles), scoring points for eating junk and losing them for consuming healthy stuff.
The PSP version of The Simpsons isn't on show today but Rizzer does give us a sneak peek at the DS game. "We're traditionally known for not putting a whole lot of effort into our DS SKUs," Rizzer admits, "So it's great to put together a real companion piece. If you're buying any of the other versions, there's enough of a difference in this product to make it worth picking up."
It does seem they've taken care with the DS version. All the cutscenes from the console versions are here, complete with voiceovers ("This cartridge actually contains more lines of dialogue than any Nintendo DS cartridge ever made," apparently.) One of the neatest features is Pet Homer, a mini-game where you get to care for our hero - feeding him, shaving him and pulling out the defibrillator when he has a heart attack.
Nintendogs with less dogs and more fat men having coronaries, in other words. Like the console versions, the DS game imitates rather than innovates. There might be plenty of laughs here, but isn't a game full of clichés going to be about as much fun as... A game full of clichés? Why not do something different?
Shock and bore
"If you look at videogames right now, it's impossible for you to really say you can innovate to the degree of creating something which has never been seen before," Rizzer argues. "God of War is just one cliché after another. BioShock is just a whole set of videogame clichés that are done over and over again. If you go into a heavy combat area in BioShock, sure as hell there are explodable barrels which can be picked up and thrown at enemies
"We decided we wanted to do an action platformer. That automatically gets you thinking, well, what is an action platformer? It's jumping and navigation, with some combat. You have to work within that."
According to Rizzer, there is innovation in The Simpsons game. It comes in the form of things like the character's power-ups - Homer's burp attack, his ability to inhale helium and float round like a balloon and so on; Lisa's use of her saxophone as a defensive weapon, and the RTS-style Hand of Buddha power which allows her to attack enemies and control environments from a top-down perspective. Then there's Marge Mob, the Pikmin-inspired element. "Yeah, Pikmin's already been done before - but it was fun, it was a cool mechanic. Should we not pay homage to that?
"Personally, I feel like the action platform genre is unfortunately going away. Everything is shooters now... What happened to games like Mario 64, Sly Cooper, Beyond Good and Evil, Jak and Daxter before it became combat racing or whatever the heck that was..."
Rizzer makes no apologies for the fact that The Simpsons takes cues from these games, and he's ready to admit that it's not going to break any new ground as far as platform action gameplay goes. But he sounds confident in The Simpsons as a conscientiously designed, easily accessible and above all fun game which makes the most of the licence it's based on. Whether it has the widespread appeal of the TV show remains to be seen, but if you like platfomers it's one to watch.