Take GTA, tone down the swearing, sex, and violence, and paint it yellow. You’ll get The Simpsons Hit & Run.
“Wow, most licenced games aren’t very good but how will this one turn out?!” pontificates the tired old hack trying to review The Simpsons Hit and Run. Let’s not insult anyone’s intelligence here; licenced games, by-and-large, are mediocre at best, but The Simpsons, in the last 15 years, has had an above-average success rate, especially as they’ve repeatedly taken “inspiration” from Grand Theft Auto, which is a hard formula to screw up on. It’s more than likely that Hit and Run, based off the behemoth success of 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III, is going to be at least tolerable. It’s an open-world game based on the show’s universe utilising three distinct areas of the city of Springfield, with a script written by the show’s writers, authentic voice talents, and the weighty development power of Radical behind it, who previously made Jackie Chan Stuntmaster, Dark Summit, and The Simpsons: Road Rage, three very decent titles. Vegas odds say we’ll be fine. Instead of insulting your intelligence by fawning over the efficacy of this game, we’ll look at what made Hit and Run such a shocking and enduring success, and a true surprise of the sixth generation.
Modern open-world games may stretch to a hundred bazillion square feet, but even in its finite space, the virtual world of Springfield still impresses to this day. The PS2 could handle expansive worlds like that of San Andreas, but when you’re handling something like Springfield, one must be careful to not deviate from the source material too hard, or your run the risk of creating fanfiction. Happily, Radical have brought the setting of the show to life with three different maps that bring Springfield into 3D in a sensible light, while also making alterations to make the game flow smoothly; the Kwik-E-Mart is right around the corner from Evergreen Terrace, which is a stone’s throw away from the elementary school and the grocery store; it all makes sense that these be on the same map as each other; one can’t explain why precisely, but it all feels correct. The three maps range between Suburban Springfield, Downtown, and the Port area with Burns’ Casino and the Squidport, which are all faithful to the cartoon, and are jam-packed with assets and one-off buildings in order to keep it as authentic as possible, and bar for maybe Virtual Springfield, this is as close as we’ll get to the expansive Simpsons universe. Walking through the game and taking it all in is as charming and pleasant an experience as it was when this game came out. The only gripe that one could come up with about the world given to us is that there’s a huge break in flow by having the levels exist as separate maps. One gets the feeling they should have been as one, although this might merely be a technical issue – yet if the PS2 could handle the expanse of Vice City, why couldn’t it do Springfield?
Cribbing the best parts of GTA III plus adding a family-friendly edge makes it so relaxing; sometimes the grimness of suffocation and death in GTA leads to ennui, but this game is always a treat, and eternally palatable at that. The main areas that cross over are mission structure (and as such, wider gameplay), driving, and police presence. Driving is the beating heart of this game; Radical continue what they started with Road Rage, giving us an accomplished arcade-style driving engine that rewards players for drifting, going fast, and generally taking risks on the road. As such, it’s joyfully and unrelentingly fun, and skidding round Springfield and running over its civilians is a treat; the kind of thing that the medium of gaming was made for. As such, this means that free-roaming is the best thing you can do in this game, representing a freeing bit of escapism that some desperately need – when real lives were messy, it was bliss to slip away and lose yourself in the virtual Springfield given to us in Hit & Run – this game’s honestly an achievement in just how pleasant it is to exist in its world. The missions themselves are fine – nothing spectacular, but mostly vehicle-based which plays to the game’s strengths, so expect plenty of pursuits, tailing missions, “lose the vehicle”, and races, which make the game as entertaining as possible even though you’ll more than likely eschew the story and missions for the altogether more edifying free-form gameplay at some point. Still, all the admittedly-stolen elements from Grand Theft Auto make for an excellent package.
This game is a clear labour of love, and that shines through in the attention to detail given by the developers, who clearly loved the show as much as the fans did. If you can think of any joke, be it verbal, written, freeze-frame, visual…the developers put it in. It’s commendable in its way, because Radical certainly didn’t have to do any of this, but because they bothered to make a quality product, this doesn’t just feel like a digital facsimile of the Simpsons world – if you love this show, it feels like home. Signs for a Brad Goodman show! Lemons in the river! A broken monorail! Small-one time gags being used as character dialogue (oww, my ovaries)! The selection of cars! To geek out a little for a second, Hit and Run features 50+ cars taken from the show, from the obvious (the pink Family Sedan, the Canyonero, and the Honor Roller are playable), to cars that only appeared in a limited capacity previously (the Homer, Comic Book Guy’s Gremlin, even The Book-Burning Mobile!) Sadly, the Persephone does not make an appearance. That aside, all these little touches make for a package that not only plays well but is essential to the hardcore Simpsons fan. By the time of writing, that should account for 60% of the internet.
Although, in places, the jump to 3D is a bit jagged and strange, and certainly isn’t the best move for a franchise like The Simpsons, the graphics do shimmer in Hit and Run. The later The Simpsons Game brought the true aesthetic of the show to live with vivid colour and cel-shaded graphics, but Radical’s interpretation of “America’s crud bucket” still has its own merits – the graphics are pleasingly chunky, and a majority of the characters – particularly the fatter ones like Homer and Apu – translate well to 3D, making it a decent-looking title. The only weird sticking point is Lisa’s hair, which just looks plain wrong and should never be seen in three-dimensions ever, ever again.
This game is a joy, smooth as butter in many aspects, but if one frustration had to be pinned down, it is the absolute teeth-grinding difficulty that the later missions offer. Without putting Hit and Run in a box, as The Simpsons has never been solely aimed at kids; you’d think that a game like this wouldn’t be so difficult as a large base of the audience are indeed children. Some of the worst offenders are ‘Never Trust a Snake’ which involves you racing around the Downtown map picking up items and returning to Snake on a really tight time limit, and ‘Set to Kill’, an absolutely blood-curdling mission where Bart must race around the entirety of the Port level. Urge to kill, rising, indeed. However, if you can get through these – and you must, the utter joy of the game at large means failure is not an option – it’ll make your victory at the end of the game’s 50-something missions that much sweeter.
It’s Grand Theft Auto for young people and Simpsons fans. You really cannot go amiss here. Some of the tightest driving you’ll find in an open-world game fronted by one of the best scripts, with an overall warm and funny universe to explore, The Simpsons Hit & Run is not just an achievement for licenced games, but games as a whole.
Verdict: Astounding good fun for fans and non-fans of Groening’s masterpiece alike.