"The whole premise of the game is that the family becomes self-aware that they've been licensed to yet another videogame," says Farshid Almassizadeh, senior director of product development at EA.
And for a moment or two I consider sitting down with it and pretending I've never heard of this new 'kids' game', The Simpsons. Just because I feel like being cruel and cynical. You know, "Why are they yellow?". "Do you think if the game is successful you'd consider making a TV show out of it?".
If a game is so self aware that the player is rewarded for finding gaming clichés like trampolines, exploding barrels and power-ups hidden behind waterfalls, does that excuse the fact that they're an integral part of the gameplay?
I mean, at one point Lisa takes the place of Frogger as she leaps across crocodiles to get to the other side of the river. Is it excusable because it's a sly wink at a classic game? Or is it just lazy game design? Some of the humour in The Simpsons comes dangerously close to the kind of jokes you'll find on a games website that hasn't been updated since the days of the Dreamcast. "You know you've played too many videogames when in real life you wander into a stranger's house, snooping for treasure". Oh, the hilarity!
But as cynical and tired of cash-ins and milked licenses as I am, I still can't hold back a smirk at the simplest sight-gags, let alone the deeper, smart-ass dialogue or ribbing of other games. If it's funny, it's funny, right? How long that holds up over the length of a game is questionable. Despite what obnoxious radio personalities' think, a joke doesn't get funnier the second time just because you say it louder.
On to the game, then. There are sixteen levels with Springfield acting as the hub world, with two pre-determined playable characters in every level. If you're playing on you own, the buddy AI promises to help out and you'll need to switch between the two characters to take care of certain impassable situations. The quality of the AI isn't something we can comment on yet, but in these situations perhaps it's just best to hope it doesn't get in the way, rather than expect it to be making intelligent decisions. The game has been designed with two-players in mind, with co-op throughout the entire game and instant drop-in and drop-out play. Unfortunately - and this could be a real bummer - there's no co-op play online. "We felt that as it's a family game we wanted people to experience it next to each other. It's couch co-op," Almassizadeh tells us, but we can't help thinking that's a pretty lame excuse. Why not have both and give people the choice?
Levels are built on a mixture of classic Simpsons episodes and well-known videogames. "In The Simpsons universe nothing is safe - including EA and any other game-maker out there. We do a lot of tributes to different games that we love," says Almassizadeh. And so we get a level entitled Medal of Homer. Haha, that works. Shadow of the Colossal Donut. Very good. Neverquest. Nearly funny. Grand Theft Scratchy. Hrm.
As you'd expect, all five Simpson are playable and each has their own special powers. Homer bloats up to become a giant, fat, rolling ball. Lisa can use the Hand of Buddha to manipulate the environment .(By 'manipulate' we mean 'move around some boards to create a bridge', because your character dies if he/she goes in the water. There's another cliché! Hoho!)
Elsewhere, all the voice actors from the show are involved and there's over 8000 lines of dialogue. Lard Lad crops up as a boss and you'll have to shoot his ass-hatch. Bart fires cans of 'dolphin unfriendly' tuna at zombie dolphins. Kent Brockman provides an EA Sports-style commentary. Does he keep repeating his lines? Yes, he does! The gags just keep on coming.
The visual style of The Simpsons is one of the strongest draws of the game. The initially flat-looking, cel-shaded world is deep and detailed, really bringing to life a cartoon world. There's no doubt about where you are, and all the characters are well modelled and animated as you'd expect. It's almost understated how complete-looking Springfield and the various surrounding levels are. It looks so good you may not even notice how well made it is.
There seems to be a healthy amount of environmental interaction going on as well, so it doesn't feel like characters are clunking around a pre-rendered world. Air vents will boost Bartman to unreachable heights, so as the player pushes, the game world pushes back. "This is The Godfather engine. We've been working on it for a little over two years and we managed to share technology with The Godfather team," offers Almassizadeh (but don't let that put you off).
Although it's fashionable to mention that The Simpsons show isn't nearly as funny as it used to be, there are elements of the subversive humour that peppered classic episodes - it's not all slipping on banana skins. Medal of Homer sees Bart and his old man parachute into a French village where the occupants surrendered after the German's threw just one stone. It's your objective to snatch all the flags off the cowardly villagers, playing on the old, 'the French always surrender at the first sniff of conflict' stereotype. Medal of Homer is also a better example of the videogame parody, with a building modelled on Wolfenstein 3D, complete with 8-bit graphics and textures from 1992.
Would you play it if you could strip the Simpsons branding off it? That's debatable and missing the point somewhat. The beauty of such a strong license is that it can liven up the most average of games. I didn't play through half of the Futurama tie-in because I was enjoying the gameplay, but because Bender and Zoidberg are just funny. The Simpsons Hit & Run didn't sell forever because it was a great sandbox game, but because you could drive up to and go inside Apu's Kwik-E-Mart. The Simpsons seems fun and cheeky, solid and perfectly playable. Sometimes it's that simple. As simple as laughing at a fat Homer.