The year is 2003. Grand Theft Auto III released only two years ago, and still is making waves within the video game industry. Canadian studio Radical Entertainment has just ended development on a sports video game for the GameCube, using the Disney's Monsters, Inc. license. The classic prime time television cartoon series The Simpsons is currently airing their 15th season, and is still wildly popular. In a matter of mere months, all these factors will combine, leading to one of the most beloved licensed video games of all time.
The Simpsons: Hit & Run released in September 2003, making itself out to be a parody-slash-clone of the open-world, car-focused formula of GTA III, mixed with some early 2000's era platforming, and featuring The Simpsons label slapped on it. The game could have easily been a simple cash-grab, much like how The Simpsons: Skateboarding was just an awful clone of Tony Hawk: Pro Skater, designed purely with intentions of raking in easy money, or how The Simpsons: Wrestling was...a game, sort of, that people definitely paid real money for, at the time.
But developer Radical Entertainment wanted to make something more than just a clone. Of course, they previously had attempted to take a game and give it a Simpson's flair in the past, with The Simpsons: Road Rage--liberally borrowing ideas from Crazy Taxi--which resulted in a game so similar to the latter, that SEGA filed a lawsuit over copyright infringement. This time around, they planned on using modern gaming trends to their advantage, while still making a game that stood on its own merits.
At the time, The Simpsons: Hit & Run was seen as a pretty decent game, getting, for the most part, positive reviews and praise. With a multiplatform release on the GameCube, XBox, PlayStation 2, and PC, millions got to experience Hit & Run during the heyday of the sixth console generation. Now, years since its original release, fans have been clamoring for a return to this classic game. Was it truly as amazing as our memories seem to recall, or is this just another nostalgia-hazed desire for something familiar and comfortable from long ago?
In 2003, I was only just allowed to watch The Simpsons on old VHS that my parents had of the series. My overprotective mother had once told me that I'd have to be Lisa Simpson's age (8), in order to watch the show, without it possibly corrupting my morals, or turning me into some nefarious member of society, I suppose. That never stopped me from hiding behind the couch to sneak a few minutes of the show before quietly tiptoeing back upstairs, unnoticed, and totally awake past my bedtime. It wasn't long before I got caught, and my parents gave up and let me watch the show, where it quickly became one of my favorites. So, at age 7, my uncle, someone who loves rebellion and loves The Simpsons even moreso, brought me a gift one day: a brand new copy of The Simpsons: Hit & Run for my PlayStation 2.
It took all of 10 minutes, not counting the PS2's atrocious load times, to fall in love with the game. Buried in what feels like a GTA clone at first glance is a true love letter to The Simpsons; adoration for the series in its purest form.
The Simpsons Hit & Run kicks off with you playing as Homer, who absolutely, positively needs some Buzz Cola. Mmmm, cola. Buzz Cola... drools. Along the way, a weird plot begins to unravel, as you play as members of the Simpsons family (and Apu) throughout various locations in Springfield.
As this is a Grand Theft Auto clone, you can walk across Springfield on foot, or you can drive in style. You only start out with one vehicle--Homer's--at the start of the game, but as you progress, you'll unlock dozens of cars, all taking from years of Simpsons history. Want to drive Barney's Plow King truck? Otto's school bus? The Car Built for Homer? A life-sized version of the Malibu Stacy car? Snake's beloved car, Bandit? What about a random piece of the Monorail, from that one episode in Season 4 Episode 12? Yes. Yes, you can, and yes there's even more to choose from. If it was onscreen within the first 10 seasons of The Simpsons, it's almost certain that the developers threw it in, either as an actual unlockable, or a secret gag vehicle for dedicated players to find.
Don't have a cow, man
There are plenty of things to do and discover on foot, but a majority of your time will be spent from the driver's seat, either racing other citizens of Springfield, playing demolition derby to try to destroy your opponent's car, or trying to collect items littered within the area before time runs out. It's here where the fun is, in enjoying the lovingly-recreated city, laughing at gags and jokes, and discovering each and every throwback and reference to the show.
Where this game doesn't actually take from Grand Theft Auto is the fact that this isn't an open-world game. It wants you to believe it is, and the developers managed to pull it off as an illusion of an open-world in a tricky way, but each of the locations within the game are race tracks, all of which eventually connect in a perfect loop. The levels are all well-designed, letting you get out and find tons of secrets in places your car couldn't normally access, while still being fun to drive through at high speeds, with plenty of shortcuts to find while rolling around town.
It is absolutely obscene just how many small details were packed into this game. Each level has a set amount of collectibles, ranging from cards, new vehicles, costumes, and gags that you can find, with the menu keeping track of your progress. All of them are classic throwbacks to different Simpsons episodes. Sometimes just standing around admiring the scenery will reward you with a funny joke that you might have otherwise missed. You'll need to be a fan to appreciate every minute detail, but for those that are, it's hard not to love just how much care went into making this game.
These elements are great, certainly, but what makes this game really special is that every voice actor from the show reprises their roles here, with dialogue written by the same writers from the cartoon, and some hilarious lines improvised and thrown in by the veteran voice cast. To this day, certain mundane things will trigger quotes from the game to the forefront of my mind, usually resulting in an honest to goodness random laugh out loud. Some of my personal favorites are lines yelled out when you accidentally crash into a random NPC. As they go cartoonishly careening into the distance after being hit at a ridiculous amount of miles per hour, Homer will yell out "I have no insurance!", "Okay, that's a lawsuit", or "Please don't sue!". It never fails to make me laugh.
As mentioned before, you'll be progressing the game through various story missions along the way. For the first level, these missions are mostly a tutorial, showing you the ropes, letting you get a feel for things, before introducing you to a brand new location. There are seven levels in total, though most of them are just palette-swapped "evening" or "nighttime" versions of previous stages, with slight changes. You won't really notice this until the fourth level of the game, but once you start to feel like things are getting a little stale, the game begins to rapidly deteriorate. It's clear that the developers used up most of their time and effort on the earlier stages, and the latter half of the game is there purely to pad the story out, culminating in more and more frustrating missions.
Had the game ended after the fourth level, I would have considered The Simpsons Hit & Run to be short, yet sweet. Instead, you're forced into some of the most ridiculously needlessly difficult missions in a video game that I've ever had the displeasure of dealing with. Time limits that were once slightly challenging become insane speedrun requirements, dooming you to failure if you even make a single mistake. The game's final mission is one that will forever haunt me, plaguing me for years after the fact; still to this day do I dream of radioactive barrels falling off the back of my car for no explained reason. Considering the glorious first few levels, these later levels feel tacked on and completely and entirely unnecessary.
That being said, despite the flaws in the latter half, the game still holds up remarkably well, and truly deserves the praise that has surrounded it for over a decade...just so long as you pretend the game ends earlier than it actually does. Because if you're a Simpsons fan, those first few hours are spectacular, and are an honest joy to play. If, for some unknown reason, you love The Simpsons, yet haven't yet tried this game, I implore you to give it a try.
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