Once upon a time in what many older gamers nostalgically look back on as the 'golden age of video games', gameplay was - on the whole - a lot tougher than it is now, graphics were a lot simpler, and there was one rule that companies seemed to follow whenever they tried to make a video game out of a successful movie or TV show. That rule? No matter what the subject matter: churn out a crap 2D platformer.
Maybe it was because they'd spent all the money buying the licence for the film or show and had nothing left to spend making the game. Maybe it was because they were pushed for time to ensure the game's release coincided with the movie launch (not really a valid excuse when it came to TV shows mind). Or maybe somebody in charge of making these kinds of decisions just REALLY liked crappy 2D platformers. Whatever the reason, it became a running joke amongst games fans, and nary a half-decent title was created as a result of the collaboration between the visual medium and the interactive one.
But then all that changed. No-one can really say when, but at some point, possibly due to some kind of evolution in the minds of the people making the decisions, perhaps simply because consumers stopped being so keen to buy duff games, TV and film video game tie-ins started to get better. Not all of them mind, but a refreshing number started to actually try and produce a product with a little gameplay, rather than just a run-of-the-mill 2D platformer. Which is what made me all the more worried when I found out that The Simpsons Game on the DS was going to be - you guessed it - a 2D platformer.
But fret not, for 2D it may be, and platformer it may be, but run-of-the-mill, or - indeed - crappy, it most certainly is not. The Simpsons Game actually embraces the platform genre of old, whilst simultaneously offering a product that's worthy of the power of the technology that it runs on. True, it doesn't offer the 3D majesty of the versions available for the desktop consoles, but it's no less fun for it, and for someone like me who grew up on video games, it actually gains a little something from the 2D treatment.
The game - as you'd expect from a Simpsons product - pokes fun at absolutely everything, from celebrities, TV shows and movies to actual video games themselves. The tone is firmly tongue in cheek, and nothing is sacred - from the classic clichés of 8-bit video games to the corporate policies of EA themselves, anything is fair game to ridicule in the cause of comedy, and comedy there is, in spades.
Each level has a different theme, some based on Simpsons episodes, some on different areas of Springfield, some on movies and still others on classic video games, each done with a huge dollop of Simpsons humour. It's all presented incredibly stylishly, with gorgeous, extremely amusing FMV cut-scenes (which alone are worth buying the game for, if you're a Simpsons fan) and with a plethora of in-game gags and sound-bites, all supplied by the voice-over artists from the show rather than soundalikes. Admittedly, some of the in-game sound bites do get a little samey after a while, but hey, nothing's ever entirely perfect!
You may notice that so far I've said very little about the actual gameplay, and you might perhaps think that this is an indicator that this game succeeds solely because of its visual and audio packaging. Not so. Although this is a 2D platformer, it's a well-designed one. Each episode sees you take control of one of the Simpson family (in some levels, more than one, alternating between them to tackle various obstacles) each of whom has different abilities with more to be gained as you progress. So Bart starts out being able to shoot his foes with a catapult, and then takes on the powers of 'Bartman', with mask and a cape that allows him to float short distances, whereas Homer's eating prowess allows him to transform into 'Homerball', a rolling mass of jelly that can crush (nearly) all before it!
The gameplay itself is formulaic at first for those who are familiar with platformers - simply run, jump and battle your way from one end of a multi-level area to the next, flipping switches and solving simple puzzles along the way. As you progress the levels become more complex and challenging, and various mini-game style episodes are thrown in, such as having to throw hordes of the walking dolphins from one of the Halloween Treehouse of Horror episodes back into the sea using the stylus and the touchscreen, or having Bart take on a screen full of invading aliens, Space Invaders-style.
And when I say that the levels become more challenging, I'm not understating it - some of them seem to be almost as tricky as the old-style platform games that they pay homage to, which for anyone who is used to the fairly forgiving difficulty levels of most modern video games, will come as something of a culture-shock. The fact that the characters can't actually die, and simply reappear back at the last checkpoint once their energy gets sapped, whilst initially giving the impression that the game's going to be a walkover, actually comes as something of a relief on the stages where almost pixel-perfect running, jumping and puzzle-solving against the clock is required.
If you fancy a break from all the 2D platforming, a nice time-out option is to play with 'Pet Homer', which offers exactly what it sounds like - a 'pet' Homer. This consists of Homer sitting on the sofa in his lounge, and allows you to feed, entertain and care for him, in a similar style to the Nintendogs or Petz games. Obviously, this being a 'Pet Homer', he's far more work than a simple puppy, and you'll find that in addition to the usual food and 'play' items that you'd expect (more of which are unlocked by playing through the main game) more unusual objects such as the defibrillator are a must, for when Homer overeats and suffers a heart attack!
All in all, The Simpsons Game for the DS might not look quite as visually impressive as its counterparts on the bigger consoles, but it offers many hours of fun, and - as already mentioned - is worth buying simply for the lovingly crafted Simpsons cut-scenes. If you're a DS owner then you should definitely give this one a look. If you're a DS owner AND a Simpsons fan then get down your local software emporium now!