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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thursday Night At The Arcade: The Simpsons Hit & Run

Occasionally, something comes along that revolutionizes pop culture as we know it.

We've all seen it. I'm sure everyone who was around during the 1980s would cite Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince as just three of the many musical artists who revolutionized pop music as we knew it. Sometimes, the revolution can spread through the movie world, as the release of Avatar popularized the idea of 3-D movies (though recently I'm seeing a bit of a mini-backlash towards this technology).

Television is another area where something can air that changes the way that television is presented for years. Just take a look at Survivor. It started off as a simple television show taking a group of people and stranding them on a deserted island. Now there are dozens upon dozens of reality shows (some good, some bad, some really ugly) showcasing thousands of people in various situations ranging from the practical to the bizarre. Eleven years later, the reality television juggernaut is still going strong, much to the chagrin of those who believe that reality television is anything but 'real' (and yes, I am inclined to agree with this).

The same deal with talent shows. Twenty years ago, the idea of a talent competition airing of television and getting huge ratings would have been enough to make all the network executives howl with laughter. So when FOX took a chance on a little show known as 'American Idol', it's amazing just how huge a success it became. Now we have lots of talent shows where aspiring singers, dancers, songwriters, models, and even chefs can compete to become the next big star.

(Though seriously, unless your name is Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, or Carrie Underwood, those chances even are still slim.)

And would you believe that this has also happened in the world of animation? And that this will lead into my Thursday Night At The Arcade topic?

If you turn on the FOX network on any given Sunday night, you'll likely see that the majority of the prime time spots have been devoted to animated programming. In the past, you saw King Of The Hill and Futurama in that time slot, and nowadays you'll see Seth MacFarlane's trilogy of animated programming in the form of Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, and American Dad.

The granddaddy of this animation block though is The Simpsons, which have captivated audiences all over the world for nearly a quarter of a century. When they debuted on the Tracey Ullman show in 1987, they only had a few 2-minute snippits to their name, and admittedly, creator Matt Groening still had some doubts over what the characters were supposed to look like, as they were rather crudely drawn back in '87 as compared to now.

On December 17, 1989, the first full-length Simpsons episode aired on FOX, and that episode was the starting point to a series that as of 2011 is still airing today, and likely was the show that kicked off the Sunday animation block on FOX television. Considering how long the Simpsons have aired, and the amount of merchandise that has supported the franchise from comic books to T-shirts, it's a safe assessment that the Simpsons have shaped pop culture. Through parodies of all sorts of commercials and products, and by the Simpsons themselves endorsing such products as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Butterfinger, and MasterCard, the Simpsons have become a real mainstay.

However, there is one piece of merchandise that for whatever reason hasn't really left the Simpsons in a good light.

Video games.

For whatever reason, most of the video games that have been released starring the Simpsons family have crashed and burned.

One of the first video game appearances for the Simpsons was the 1990 video game 'Bart Vs. The Space Mutants'. The game was ported to both the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Game Gear, but didn't exactly get rave reviews. I personally didn't mind the game so much, but I found it so incredibly frustrating and difficult at times. I remember how relieved I was when I beat that game. Another game, Bart Vs. The World, wasn't much better.

Then when the Super Nintendo was released, 1993 saw a couple of new Simpsons releases. Bart's Nightmare showed Bart trying to find the missing pages of his homework in a sleep-deprivation induced nightmare, while Krusty's Fun House was a puzzle game where you had to kill off all the rats scurrying around the place. Both were failures.

Even as we reached the PlayStation era, the Simpsons seemed to struggle with coming up with a decent game, as The Simpsons Road Rage was nothing more than a Crazy Taxi game with a different look.

But then 2003 came around, and with that, the release of a Simpsons game that was quite fun to play, had brilliant graphics, and had quite a few fun sidequests that could allow the player to unlock certain features within the game.

The Simpsons Hit & Run video game was released on September 16, 2003 in North America, and was originally designed to be a parody of the video game series Grand Theft Auto. What made the game fun was that it was a game that could be played by people of mostly all ages, and had quite a few background jokes mixed in for dedicated fans of the Simpsons, such as myself.

The game is essentially a game where you have various Simpsons characters driving around various parts of Springfield doing certain tasks that will help you advance to the next level. Each level has seven missions, with a bonus eighth mission that will allow you to upgrade your vehicle to a sleeker, faster model.

The playable characters include Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa, as well as Kwik-E-Mart store owner, Apu.

The game is set in Springfield during the week of October 25-31, and in the first couple of days, the events that the characters have to go through are pretty mundane in nature. The first mission shows Homer driving to the Kwik-E-Mart for a container of ice cream. Other missions include dropping off Lisa's science project off to school, helping Marge stop a shipment of Bonestorm games from corrupting the minds of young children in Springfield, and returning belongings that Homer 'borrowed' from Ned Flanders.

The first level really has nothing to do with the main plot, but it sort of mirrors a typical Simpsons episode where the first act has absolutely nothing to do with the leading storyline. There are some hints that all is not right though. There are gigantic cameras buzzing around that look like huge wasps, and while destroying them will land you a whole bunch of golden coins (which can be used to buy clothing items and bonus cars), it's still unknown why they even came to Springfield in the first place.

It isn't until the afternoon of October 26 (level two in the game) that we really get into the main plot of the game. This level has Bart jamming up cell phone frequencies, collecting monkeys for Dr. Nick Riviera, and keeping out of the view of Principal Skinner, who wants to catch Bart to throw him in detention. At the end of level two, Bart gets abducted by a spaceship, and isn't seen again until the end of level three, where Lisa finds him in a dazed state on a boat at the Springfield Squidport.

By October 28 (level four), Marge comes upon the truth after she manages to get through to Bart. Bart tells him that aliens came and abducted him and said something about using cola to brainwash the people of the city. With Krusty pushing Buzz Cola on television commercials, and an unusually high number of Buzz Cola trucks and mysterious black Sedans on the streets, Marge comes to the conclusion that the cola is responsible for the strange happenings that have been going on in town. Most of the missions for Apu's level (level five, set on October 29), go about trying to stop the shipments of cola from being distributed at a Buzz Cola promotional party at the Squidport scheduled for October 30 (level six).

Before the end of level six, we discover the reason why aliens are so interested in the town of Springfield, and Buzz Cola. Kang and Kodos (the space aliens who have made quite a few appearances in the television series) believe that they have the makings of an interplanetary reality show starring the citizens of Springfield. By sending the wasp cameras to Springfield, they've been entertained by the daily dealings of the townspeople. Their grand finale was to spike the supply of Buzz Cola with a special ingredient that turns average Springfield citizens into mindless zombies, and can have the ability to bring the dead back to life.

Setting the stage for the final level of The Simpsons Hit and Run, which takes place on Halloween. And kudos to the art department of that final level. It really does resemble a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror special!

I would absolutely recommend this game to everyone. It really is a lot of fun to play, and some of the missions in the game can be quite challenging. There's one mission in Apu's level that gave me headaches because I kept running out of time. It was only by chance that I managed to finally complete it.

There's a whole lot of inside jokes in the Simpsons universe as well. Anyone who has watched the show can pick out little references from the series. Kamp Krusty appears in the game, as do Krustylu Studios, the Duff Beer factory (though I wish Duff Gardens was included), Mr. Burns' mansion...even some minor references like the popsicle stick skyscraper referenced at the end of the episode Marge Vs. The Monorail. The skyscraper appears twice. In Level Two, we see it ablaze, and by Level Five, it's a smouldering pile of rubble. Because levels are revisited twice (or in the cases of levels one, four, and seven, thrice), it can sometimes be a game to pick out all the differences between each playthrough.

So, try it out! You may be pleasantly surprised.

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