The Simpsons Hit & Run pleased pretty much everyone, and while it wasn’t a perfect game by any means, it was certainly the best game to feature the Simpsons in a long time. Upon its release, I felt certain that Vivendi had struck the kind of gold that ensured at least one more round of the same type of gameplay. Perhaps a sequel with a larger, unified map to achieve the kind of open world they’d attempted in the first game? And certainly more types of vehicles, more characters, more locales. More, more, more. It was quite a time to be a fan of Simpsons games, dreaming of what may be.
I was so certain that they’d try again that I decided I had the opportunity to contribute. I had no work experience in video games, mind you, and my college education opened me up to that type of work but I hadn’t exactly studied game design or programming. Instead, I felt confident that I could get a job as a game tester at Vivendi Universal Games when I graduated from college in early 2004, just a few months after the release The Simpsons Hit & Run. I mean, their office was right down the street in Los Angeles. Surely I’d be an instant hire.
Now I’m not usually that confident in my pursuits, but every once in a while I get it into my head that it can and must be done. So I applied at various game companies just to hedge my bets, but eventually did get the call from Vivendi, and I was hired to start in May 2004. I worked in their game test department for a year, then in online marketing, always waiting and casually asking when that next Simpsons game would appear on our forecasts. I’m sure the odd looks I was getting were not of concern but of admiration for my dogged pursuit of dumb goals. The game seemed certain to warrant a sequel, but the company simply chose not to invest in any further Simpsons games. However, according to Liam Robertson’s look back at Hit & Run, former members of the development team confirmed that a sequel was somewhere in the planning stages before being cancelled. It wasn’t until November 2005 that I discovered the truth: Vivendi had given up the license, and Electronic Arts returned to scoop it up and develop a Simpsons game at their Redwood Shores studio. Well, that pretty much sealed my fate. I left my job and Los Angeles behind in 2007, applied at Electronic Arts, and once again I rearranged my whole life for the chance to work on a Simpsons game.
While I was getting ready to move to the San Francisco bay area, EA Mobile back in Los Angeles was busy. The Simpsons license wasn’t just for a new big console game, but also for the right to develop games for the fast-growing mobile market.
Cue the Benny Hill tune.
Mobile phones were a firmly established aspect of our reality by 2007. They first became popular in the eighties as commercial cellular telephones appeared in the hands of Wall Street bankers and celebrities who didn’t mind lugging those old brick-sized phones around with them. Eventually, these cellular phones shrunk and began to add additional features. The first phones to feature games in them released in the mid-nineties, and included ports of simple games such as Tetris, Scramble, and Snake, all of which could be programmed to play on the LCD screens available on the phones of the time.
Eventually, mobile phones evolved to become portable computers, with complete operating systems and more advanced features that extended the capabilities of the devices beyond just phone calls and text messages. These early feature phones, as they became known, were often programmed to run on the Java platform, and so the games that were released on them were also programmed using that language. By the early aughts, there were hundreds upon hundreds of games being released around the world, many of which rose and fell with the feature phone market. The games could only be so complex, given that feature phone interfaces generally consisted of the number keys and four to six additional buttons known as soft keys which were used to navigate the operating system. This interface limited game designers, and while games such as Tetris worked perfectly in that format, the kinds of character-based action games that console players were accustomed to playing were more difficult to achieve.
But that didn’t stop anyone from trying. Every major publisher spun up their respective mobile divisions to capitalize on the burgeoning market, and that included EA Mobile. The division was based out of Los Angeles and formed in 2004, then later expanded after Electronic Arts purchased the smaller mobile game publisher called JAMDAT Mobile. EA Mobile didn’t just deal in games, but also ringtones (another big source of revenue) and other mobile applications. It was in this atmosphere that Electronic Arts acquired the Simpsons license and embarked upon the first of several mobile games based on the Simpsons.
Lord of donut town.
While EA Mobile was expanding, they didn’t have all the development resources they needed to develop the games in their portfolio. Just as before, the publisher looked around for a developer to take on the task, and in this case EA Mobile struck the deal with a company called G5 Mobile. This prolific developer based out of Stockholm, Sweden goes as far back as the beginnings of the mobile market itself, having been founded in Russia in 2001 to develop for mobile and PCs. They struck gold with games like Fight Hard 3D and hitched their wagon to the license train, developing games based on the Pirates of the Carribean, Scarface, and Star Wars franchises. They were soon working with all the major publishers in the game industry, and that was when they signed the deal to work with EA Mobile in 2006.
The result of this collaboration was The Simpsons Minutes to Meltdown, a game scheduled to release along with The Simpsons Movie and all of its ancillary marketing madness in the summer of 2007. It wasn’t a direct adaptation of the movie, but its own original work, though it did feature the bizarrely popular Plopper the Pig character that was introduced in the movie. I still remember the day that the movie was released. I stopped by one of many 7-11 convenience stores that had been rebranded as Kwik-E-Marts in a cool bit of capitalistic cross-promotion. I picked up a Squishee (the game’s take on the Icee) and then proceeded to the movie theater where I arrived before the showtime, so I flipped open my Motorola Razr to play some Minutes to Meltdown before the movie began. You might think this is peak nerdy fandom, but friend, there were levels of nerdom ahead that I could not even imagine.
One should not be legally responsible for actions of popular pigs.
With the limitations of the feature phone hardware in mind, what did G5 Mobile accomplish? For starters, they were smart in limiting the design of the game to match the hardware. Minutes to Meltdown plays as an adventure game viewed from a isometric perspective, and the player’s only real interactions are to use the arrow keys to move up, down, left, and right, and to use the action key to interact with elements in the environment. This is not unlike the point-and-click adventures popularized on PC in the nineties. Homer is the only playable character and his goal is simple: stop the nuclear annihilation that his beloved Plopper has caused. In an interesting twist geared to the format, the game includes a hard thirty minute time limit to progress through the game’s levels and stop the nuclear meltdown. Mobile phones then, just as now, were often best for playing in short bursts during lunch breaks, rides on buses and trains, or just when someone needed to kill a few minutes. By limiting the game’s progression to just 30 minutes, the game encourages the player to see it through in a short session.
It’s a light premise for a decidedly light-hearted license. It’s enough to get the player into the game and exploring the world of Springfield as presented on a tiny screen with isometric pixel art. But it's a pretty game for what it is. Homer begins in the Simpson house, eager to find his car keys so he can drive to the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant and avert disaster. The house is perfectly laid out, and all of the spaces familiar to fans can be explored, such as the living room, the kitchen, and even the rooms on the second floor. Other Springfield characters also appear and present little moments for fans to discover by standing near them and pressing the action button when the OK prompt appears. There is little actual dialogue text, and instead Homer will see thought bubbles appear over characters’ heads as clues to what he should do next. The NPC characters are also unfortunately rather stiff, and outside of enemies that run around, there isn’t much animation to them. It’s not the joke machine gameplay we saw from previous games, or from any episode of the show, but it works for the format.
Homer's got the shinning.
While Homer can explore and solve simple puzzles to unlock doors and progress further, there are still obstacles. Cops appear often and rather than seek to arrest Homer, they’re all out to beat him senseless. Er, touch him senseless, relying on the tried and true formula of touching equals damage. Homer’s health bar depletes through these interactions and the player must avoid or block enemies in order to evade them, but there are also health pickups such as donuts and soda cans to replenish health.
The first level is simply the Simpson house, and serves as the game’s introduction. The next level takes place on the streets of Springfield and that is where things really open up. It’s still a highly linear game, mind you, but the level is much longer and feels bigger just by virtue of making the player traverse several blocks and encounter plenty of familiar locales and characters along the way. That includes a run-in with Barney the coffee fiend (a reference to his sobering up in “Days of Wine and D'oh'ses:) and a crazed Krusty the clown tossing pies from the roof of a car. There are more simple puzzles required to unblock the path, and navigating hazards such as fires and moving cars. They also introduce brief skateboard sections that amount to simple maneuvering around obstacles. Again, simple but pretty at such a low resolution. Their artists did good work.
Damn right, tear down all the statues.
The final level is the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant itself, and much like before consists of exploring the plant and solving simple lock-and-key puzzles to proceed to the next goal. As always, Homer is chasing down Plopper and avoiding enemies. This level’s goons consist of power plant technicians in full radioactive garb, indicating that perhaps it’s not safe to be there? Anyway, Homer rolls on like the cartoon tank that he is. There are some fun bits with Homer clones assisting in solving puzzles, encounters with fan favorites Frink, Smithers, and Mr. Burns, and even a chopped arm as an inventory item. It’s a goofy little finale for a game meant to be experienced in the span of a lunch break. The consequence of this is it is also quite forgettable, and while an interesting experiment, the game doesn’t really do anything that sticks with the player after they finish it. Its most notable accomplishment is kicking off the series of Simpsons games that would appear exclusively on mobile devices. No one knew it then, but mobile would become the final resting place of Simpsons video games.