Bart Simpson wants to meet Zelda. Lisa thinks marketing money should go into making better video games and Mario and Sonic are trapped in endlessly-spinning EA-owned hamster wheels. Find parody funny? Good. There's a lot more where that came from in The Simpsons Game.
Those of you looking for the game of the movie, move on. Looks like we won't be getting that. This is a standalone third-person platform puzzler which sees the world's most famous dysfunctional family gain super powers after the game's manual drops out of the sky and into Bart's lap. Suddenly Bart can turn into Bartman, Homer can turn into a giant ball, Maggie can lift cars, crates and other bits of the scenery with the hand of Budda and Marge can control an angry mob with a megaphone. There's not much of a story, or a plot. Rather than bother with that stuff, EA has concentrated on parodying as much of the game industry as it can, and no-one is safe from the virtual piss take.
Sequel Stop, Toast Recon: Cinnamon Force, Bite Night, Metal Gear Soiled 4, Medal of Homer, Neverquest... the list goes on. The level Mob Rules sees Marge battle her way through the streets of Springfield, and violence-crazed teenagers, on a quest to force Mayor Quimby to ban the car-jacking game Grand Theft Scratchy (yes, it made it in the game, despite what you may have read). Inside the town hall, the Mayor and an unnamed EA executive are bathing in a jacuzzi while sorting out the bribe that will ensure GTS's success. You eventually expose Mayor Quimby and force him to ban the game. Funny huh?
In Enter the Cheatrix, you're transported via a portal into EA's game engine - a game-making factory jam packed with references that are as hit and miss as the show itself. You're attacked by hordes of American football players, obviously a reference to the Madden games, as well as fireball-throwing clones of Street Fighter 2's Ryu. Behind glass are parodies of Mario, Sonic and Kooper, caged like hamsters on a wheel. You need to enter pipes, complete with Super Mario Bros-esque sound effect, on your way to obtaining a strategy guide that will help you fend off an alien invasion of Springfield. It's the biggest in-joke we've ever seen in a videogame. Shame it's not a funny one.
But it should be. The game has an original storyline, courtesy of writers from the TV show. And we really shouldn't be surprised that the game is as self-referential as it is, since that's what the show has been doing, week in, week out, for over a decade. It's all a matter of personal taste of course. I found the gags, the popular culture references and the gameplay piss takes about as funny as an episode of the show from the last few years, that is, nothing to write home about. But if you find new episodes of The Simpsons show funny, I guess you'll find the game funny too.
The game and the show are more similar than you'd think too. The rendered cutscenes are as high a quality as the movie, and the cel-shaded art direction looks great, especially on the next-gen versions of the game (less so on PS2). It's even got loads of voice acting from the real voice actors, too. If you walked in on the game during one of the cut scenes, you'd think you were watching Sky One in the evening. This brings with it its own problems though. The Simpsons Game feels like an episode of the show with a rushed game tacked on. It's more fun to watch than play.
In single-player mode the levels require you to constantly switch between two members of the family to solve the various puzzles. So, for example, in one level Lisa needs to use her Budda hand to move pipes so Bart can ride steam to the top of a tree-munching factory. In another, Homer uses his considerable weight to make the head of a dinosaur skeleton go down, thus raising its tail so Bart can reach a high platform. In two-player mode, the screen splits vertically down the middle, and, admittedly, it does add something to the experience. But truth be told there's nothing here that will stick with you once you've finished the game.
The camera is a nightmare, often getting stuck behind some invisible barrier or randomly switching to new and more disorienting angles. The collision detection's had a nervous breakdown, the puzzles are as laborious as a two-hour queue in the freezing cold and the combat has about as much depth as the shallow end at your local swimming pool. The controls make me want to gouge my own eyes out with a spoon. The level Around the World in 80 Bites, which sees Homer and Bart use their powers to cheat in an eating competition, almost made me snap the pad in two. The game will constantly point the finger at the very gameplay mechanics it employs. For example, Comic Book Guy will interject whenever you encounter a game cliché, including the double jump, wooden crates, pressure pads, giant saw blades, explosive barrels and invisible barriers. But just because you're aware of your failings, it doesn't make them excusable.
It's even more disappointing when you consider the opportunity EA had here. Rather than giving the Simpsons boring powers and chucking them in levels where you're doing the same platform puzzle-solving over and over again, why not parody other games by making the levels play like them? So for the Medal of Homer level, instead of having Bart and Homer run around collecting white flags from a village in 1940s France, how about a Simpsons take on a WW2 FPS? Instead of a level where Marge gathers other Springfield characters into an angry mob to confront Mayor Quimby, how about a better version of The Simpsons Hit and Run?
EA will of course say that the gameplay is as refined as it needs to be for its target audience, which is probably Simpsons fans on the younger end of the gamer demographic. And, admittedly, in two-player co-op mode there is some fun to be had. But with all the game references surely there's a bit of it that's aiming at a more hardcore player. For these gamers, The Simpsons Game, unfortunately, won't cut it. And with an RRP of £49.99, I can think of much better games to spend my hard-earned cash on this month. Rent if you have to, otherwise avoid.