The Simpsons franchise is hands down one of the biggest franchises in the entire world. Spanning 29 seasons with a whopping 626 episodes and counting, The Simpsons is still undoubtedly ingrained in modern media. Not only is it the longest-running American animated show and longest running American primetime scripted show, it’s still pulling in over 2 to 5 million viewers every single week. So, it’s unsurprising that throughout its 28-year lifespan we’ve had a few ventures off the small screen. In fact, let me quickly give you a rundown of exactly what we’ve had over the last 28 years. We’ve got a movie, 6 albums, 71 DVDs, 2 Lego sets, 18 long-running comic series (spanning hundreds upon hundreds of issues), Over 20 different board games, an entire theme park world dedicated to The Simpsons And last but certainly not least 27 video games. And out of those 27 games, we’ve got a lot of gems, ranging from Arcade games to GBA games and even Mobile games The Simpsons has almost conquered every single platform in some way or another. But despite the extensive reach and popularity The Simpsons still has to this day we’ve not seen a fully-fledged (non-mobile game) since “The Simpsons Game” in 2007.
So let’s start from the beginning and with a little unknown title called “Bart VS The Space Mutants”. Released for pretty much every console going at the time (Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, C64, Game Gear, Genesis, MS-DOS, NES, Sega Master System, and ZX Spectrum). It’s a side-scrolling platformer set in The Simpsons world and to be honest, it’s nothing spectacular. It came out 2 years after the show had first started hitting our screens and was met with generally favourable reviews. It doesn’t hold up now at all but it for its time it was popular enough to spawn a few more games. In fact, it was popular enough to spawn 4 more games in that year alone and one of those games happens to be “The Simpsons Arcade Game“. This was the first true mainstream video game appearance for The Simpsons, it was the spiritual successor to the insanely popular and beloved TMNT arcade game and has been ported to multiple devices and even remastered on last gen consoles. To put it simply, this was the true start of the Simpsons’ video game legacy. But at its heart it wasn’t anything revolutionary, it was pretty much just a reskinned beat em’ up game much alike Double Dragon and Golden Axe. But that didn’t stop its popularity and clearly, the idea of reskinning genres and games franchises became an integral part of the games design team because The Simpsons arcade game was only the start.
After a flood of poorly reviewed action platformers clearly taking inspiration from the other hundreds of poorly reviewed action platformers on the NES, in 2001 Activision created Simpson’s Wrestling clearly an imitation of the well-received WWF game from the prior year. It’s a terrible game, in fact, it’s stated as one of the worst games of all time. But that is not the point I’m making here. The Simpsons Wrestling was just another stepping stone for Simpsons reskinned games. Not much longer after Wrestling, we got Road Rage a fantastic little Crazy Taxi inspired game that I played throughout most of my childhood. Much alike Wrestling it was just a clear reskin of another popular game. But it itself was popular enough to spawn Simpsons Skateboarding. The Simpsons take on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. The Simpsons had found their niche and that was latching on to other peoples niches. Critically speaking it didn’t work at all, but sales-wise these games were raking in money.
But why were these games doing so well without any real critical success? Well, I said it myself earlier, “I played Simpson’s Road Rage throughout most of my childhood”. Because the Simpsons Road Rage was an easy pickup and play game, it was an introduction to a much more complicated faster-paced game series aimed a slightly older audience. What Road Rage did for me was introducing me to that genre of game and as such led me to play many Crazy Taxi games for years to come. The Simpsons skin these games were receiving was but a gateway to the genre and one that can be made so much clearer by the hugely popular Simpsons Hit and Run.
The Simpsons Hit and Run is, to put it bluntly, Simpsons GTA. It’s very much a child friendly version of the gangster game franchise in which you play as multiple Simpsons characters in various hub worlds doing GTA-like missions, robbing cars, completing escorts, platforming tasks you name the GTA mission The Simpsons Hit and Run parodies it (Although funnily enough there’s no Hot coffee mission). I can’t deny that Hit and Run isn’t one of my favourites ever games because it really is, But that’s because for my generation it was our first introduction into the open world GTA genre. Which is clearly in hindsight exactly what they were going for. The Simpsons were taking games that were either too complicated (Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater) and too inappropriate (GTA) and making them child-friendly. The Simpsons label acts as a sign of being child friendly to both parents and adults, if you’re a parent and your child picks up a game with the GTA 3 front cover even without knowing anything about the game you know it’s not suitable but if your child picks up the Hit and Run game, the cover alone will tell you it is.
But this still doesn’t answer the question of what happened to Simpsons games, we’ve established why they were popular in the first place but yet we still haven’t gotten to the core of why they just stopped.
So let’s jump forward to the year 2004 when The Simpsons copying other franchises finally hit a bump in the road. See while at the core of their plan of reskinning games as Simpsons games, they were skimming over the fact that this was always a bit of a grey area and as such Sega sued EA and Radical for patent infringement on the game, Road Rage. Now, this happened after the release of Hit and Run so it put Simpsons games after that in an awkward position. The case itself was settled outside of court and we never really got a clear idea of what happened but I can only imagine it left EA with a bitter taste in their mouth because it took them a whole 4 years to make another Simpsons licensed game.
The Simpson’s game is, of course, the last full game we got on a console and despite it being a completely new concept it still manages to retain the Simpson’s game formula. This time instead of copying one particular game’s style like before it uses its level design and storyline to copy multiple different franchises and games, parodying not only games franchises like Medal of Honour but also the medium of games themselves. It’s the perfect amalgamation of everything The Simpsons gaming franchise stood for and all in all, is a pretty good swan song. It received good reviews and had great fan feedback, in fact, it did so well that production on a sequel began and it wasn’t until 2011 that EA cancelled it to focus on “More important projects”.
EA then took the leap to Mobile and with them no longer producing any more mainstream games were left with just a few straggling mobile adventures. But even on mobile, The Simpsons reskinning is still apparent with The Simpsons Tapped Out (Simpsons Farmville), it’s evident that The Simpsons games will never change their style. It doesn’t matter what platform they’re on they’ll find a game reskin it and sell it as they’re own, like some strange gaming taxidermy. And I just don’t think there’s room for that in the market at the moment. Not only have we seen a severe drop in mainstream games aimed at a younger audience, movie and tv show tie-in games are also thin on the ground. With The Simpsons also coming up to the end of its run in the next few years, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see another Simpsons game again because there just isn’t a captive enough audience to receive it. I think that’s a shame as well because there are so many untapped genres for them, whether it be an FPS or even a kart racer I can only imagine what games could be curated in The Simpsons world. Who knows what Simpsons games we could have seen and who knows if we’ll ever see one again…
Let us know what Simpsons games you’d like to see in the comments.