July 11, 2007 - NOTE: This preview is based on the PS3/Xbox 360 versions of the game -- stay tuned for specific PSP vesion coverage as soon as we get our hands on that version.
A Springfield so fully realized, you can feel your own butt itching.
The designers in charge of the latest game based on The Simpsons acknowledge that most previous Simpsons videogames have sucked. In fact, the plot of this first videogame in EA's new licensing deal for the show is based on exactly that: the Simpson family has become trapped inside a bad videogame, and now must fight through a virtual Springfield steeped in even more inanity than their own real toon home. It's a funny concept, something that pokes fun at the license and yet fits right in with any typical episode of The Simpsons, and that's the whole idea behind the game -- make it funny and yet make it fun.
For the funny part of the game, The Simpsons Game employs real writers from the show, as well as real lawyers to make sure that what the team comes up with can go in the game without EA being sued out of business. (And no, we're not kidding about the lawyers.) The game has a joke for everything, including the masters holding the leash at EA. In our short time with the game, we were pummeled by Simpsons jokes, cultural jokes, videogame jokes, sight gag jokes, dirty jokes, in-jokes ... this game packs it all in. There's everything from the amusingly sly signs for "God of the Wharf" chowder (featuring a pissed-off looking warrior of godlike proportions holding a bowl of soup with the salesmanship of a deity) to the shockingly insulting (yet funny, so hey, it stays) gameplay sequence where young German boy Uter innocently throws a rock at a Frenchman, starting a panic attack of raised surrender flags all across town that the Simpson family must quell.
But jokes aren't gameplay, and in the past, games that have tried to be funny have been funny once and then deathly annoying ever-after. So how do you make a game that's funny that people still want to play? Well, for one thing, you do your jokes in bulk volume, and lots of it. Every inch of the game's world (which includes a virtual Simpsons home and an approximation of Springfield, although not in the open-world way that a GTA game or the 2003 The Simpsons: Hit & Run -- there will be exploration of Springfield and things to do around town, but gameplay is instead focused into 16 dedicated episodes of levels and bosses) is filled with funny references and jokes, delivered via billboards and character dialog and cameos. Each of the game's "episodes" is a take-off on a famous videogame, loosely establishing the setting of each section and allowing the designers to riff on a gerne of games through one of the standard bearers, never stuck to that one game or even game setting but still keeping it all familiar.
Another trick is to build jokes that also serve the gameplay. The best example here is in the dubious "Cliché" awards that you'll suddenly find yourself earning. For example, in the epic boss battle Shadow of the Colossal Donut, you must battle a towering Lard Lad statue. Those doughy features that previously lured you into a donut overdose are now hovering above you, threatening you butter up a coffin for you to slide into. His beady eyes, they're staring you down with the hunger of a Homer; his roly-poly belly could fit a Canyonero. Lard Lad looks to have no weakness, but when he turns around, you see the hinder hatch on his overalls. It's your one chance, the Achilles' Heel of this globular giant, and you take aim ... wait, this sounds awful familiar for a boss fight, doesn't it, that the boss is only vulnerable on his butt? Well, too late -- the Comic Book Guy comes barging into the game to announce that you're now part of perpetuating a videogame cliché. That's a funny way of joking about a game, but that's also a collectible -- the game is loaded with these collectible "cliché" achievements, some of which are easy but some of which will take a game brain to find.