The year of The Simpsons Game was the whirlwind it appeared to be in previous chapters. There was the movie, the first mobile game, The Simpsons Game itself, meeting Matt Groening at the launch party, and all of the crazy luck that went into getting myself involved in my own small way. It was such a whirlwind that by the end, I was kind of… done. Just done with caring about The Simpsons. My last bit of work as a tester on the game ended in October and I moved onto other, non-Simpsons projects at EA. In hindsight, that winter was kind of a bummer, and part of it was the fact that there was no way to match the dizzying highs of the first three quarters of the year. But I hopped back on enough of the wagon to complete a walkthrough for The Simpsons Game in early 2008 because, hey, that’s what I did back then.
In fact, writing walkthroughs was about the only thing that kept me coming back to games based on The Simpsons for the next decade. The company hosting my fansite shut down shortly thereafter and I just couldn’t muster the motivation to host it again elsewhere, so all the work went straight to GameFAQs. I took a fairly long break as I recall, but I was back at the walkthrough writing game by 2013, and I found a few Simpsons games waiting for me when I returned.
Running through a minefield, a smart and very good decision.
EA never again attempted something on such a grand scale as their 2007 end-all-be-all for Simpsons video games. Their EA Redwood Shores studio shifted focus to the Dead Space horror series and rechristened itself as the edgy skull studio, Visceral Games. No other internal studio bothered with The Simpsons again. It might’ve been the middling reception to The Simpsons Game, or the relatively high ROI (return on investment) for developing smaller games with low-fi art and gameplay. In either case, they still held onto the license and shifted their focus to the fast-growing mobile market.
EA Mobile followed up 2007’s Minutes to Meltdown with a game cut from exactly the same cloth, and by the same developer. G5 Entertainment was still on the rise in the mobile space, and while the first iPhone debuted in 2007, the smartphone app market didn’t exist yet. So they stuck with what they knew and developed another mobile game for Java and Blackberry feature phones. It was one last cheaply developed hurrah before the inevitable rise of the smartphone app.
The sage wisdom of the tutorial elder.
The Simpsons Itchy & Scratchy Land was not an innovative title when it was released in late 2008. The style was exactly what players had seen before in both Minutes to Meltdown and other mobile games: isometric view, pixel graphics, and a playable character who could be moved around on an invisible grid by using the phone’s keys to guide him along. Like Minutes to Meltdown, Itchy & Scratchy Land plays as a simple adventure game in which players progress to the next junction in a level to solve a small puzzle.
However, this more-or-less sequel to the first mobile game (which is actually called “The Simpsons 2” in the filename) did introduce some new mechanics and changes that showed G5 was willing and able to expand on the formula. For starters, The Simpsons was smack in the middle of their twentieth season when EA Mobile released Itchy & Scratchy Land in late 2008. While the video games so far had explored many different facets of the television series, one glaring omission was the renowned "Itchy & Scratchy Land" episode from season 6 in 1994. Sure, it appeared as a setting in mind-numbingly bland games like The Simpsons Skateboarding, but no other game had even bothered to play around in that space. The episode saw the family travel to the Itchy & Scratchy Land theme park and introduced myriad opportunities for the writers and animators to lampoon every aspect of the American theme park experience. While Disneyland was the easiest target, they also took cues from science gone amok movies like Jurassic Park and Westworld to take the typical bad theme park experience to its comedic extreme. This provided a rich backdrop for a video game, and while this mobile game wasn’t quite the best way to explore such a wild episode, it did provide some more interesting and varied material for the developers to mine.
Saving Springfieldians from their own theme park avarice.
The most notable and easy way to leverage that episode’s designs was to create themed levels that match the themed areas in the episode: Explosion Land, Unnecessary Surgery Land, Torture Land, and Searing Gas Pain Land. Each level’s theme is represented in the environment art, such as the crater-ridden mine fields of Explosion Land or blood-splattered hospital beds of Unnecessary Surgery Land. Enemies also appear to swipe at the player. They include Itchy & Scratchy robots, giant axes, and other such recreations of the maniacal robots that appear in the episode. The theme park’s central plaza serves as a hub between levels, as well as a trophy case in which other Springfield characters that are rescued during the course of levels will hang out. These characters don’t have anything to say nor do they animate. In effect, they’re creepy statues of characters you know, like Cletus and Mr. Burns. They are mere collectibles to “rescue” from the theme park attractions, however it does provide more reason to return to the various levels in the game, with rescued citizens tracked as part of the game’s built-in achievements tracker. While each level does have its own distinct theme, the gameplay is copy-pasted between them, sometimes with reskins to apply some level of variation to what the player sees from one to the next.
Homer brave and true.
The Simpson family naturally has a more prominent role in the course of events, although like the last game, the playable character is all Homer all the way. He returns to serve as a kind of conveyance between puzzles, which are dumbed down to serve as little more than traversal puzzles, versus the lock-and-key puzzles of Minutes to Meltdown. Beyond navigating minefields and other hazards, Homer also has a bowling ball mini game in which the player must guide a rolling ball through a field of enemies and obstacles to unlock a gate at the other side. The other Simpson family members all feature only as mini game mechanics (except for Maggie, who is written out of the game just as she was in the episode by being dumped in a ball pit). Bart wields a slingshot and shoots at enemies after being guided by the player’s reticle aiming, and Lisa appears to drop bombs in a similar mini game involving an aiming reticle. As a throwback to The Simpsons Arcade, Marge’s weapon is a vacuum cleaner, and her gameplay varies a bit by requiring the player to suck up ammunition and then fire it at enemies. Her shots also ricochet, adding a layer of strategy that is missing from the other mini games.
Bart graces the scene with his crackshot slingshot skills.
The conclusion of the game takes the player back to the theme park central plaza to actually recreate the scene in the episode where the Simpsons use the flash on their cameras to discombobulate the robots. It’s a nifty finale, but it’s kind of arduous to get there. The game isn’t nearly as short as the thirty minutes of Minutes to Meltdown, but the harsh damage caused by obstacles and the repetition of puzzles to extend the playtime isn’t really all that interesting. The obstacles become more difficult, and there’s even a medal system in which players can earn bronze, silver, and gold medals that are tracked as part of the game’s meta achievements, but it ultimately comes down to how hardcore a mobile player someone was in 2008. It might have been a good way to kill time during a few commutes but it’s tough to go back to it now. This game, like Minutes to Meltdown, is easy to find online and emulate in any number of Java app emulators, so it’s thankfully fully available for the curious to check out. A bit of history to look up in the waning days of Simpsons video games.