Worst video game ever.
-Matt Selman, Tim Long and Matt Warburton, The Simpsons: Hit & Run (2003)
“The following is a contributor post by the Purple Prose Mage“.
It is the 31st October 2003. “Be Faithful” by Scatman Scoop featuring The Crooklyn Cran is the UK No. 1 single. The Matrix Revolutions opens to the top of the Northern American box office. Springfield is experiencing a zombie apocalypse caused by an alien invasion: The Simpsons: Hit & Run has been released worldwide by Vivendi Universal Games.
Oh yes. We’re finally doing this game. The Simpsons: Hit & Run is the one game that everyone of my generation has played on account of it being both a Simpsons game and a Grand Theft Auto game at the same time. How many licensed tie-in games can you think of that aren’t just cheap and lazy? In fact, how many Simpsons games can you think of that aren’t just cheap and lazy? Having already attempted a skateboarding game and a lawsuit-inducing “homage” of Crazy Taxi, they decided to try a game that involves exploring a detailed recreation of Springfield, combining arcade racing with on-foot action.
For many of us, our day consisted of waiting until the end of school so we could go home, play The Simpsons: Hit & Run, take a break to watch The Simpsons at 18:00 on Channel 4, then get straight back to playing The Simpsons: Hit & Run. Today, the game has its own wiki separate to the main Simpsons wiki and its own cult following of modders releasing open source versions.
Being an action-adventure game that also has lots of platforming and urban Easter egg hunting, the racing aspect is still the core gameplay mechanic.
There are seven levels taking place on one of three maps. Each overworld is circular, essentially being glorified circuit tracks (and no, they never explain how Springfield residents travel from one to the other). The seven levels follow one of five characters: Homer in levels one and seven, Bart in levels two and six, Lisa in level three, Marge in level four, and for some reason, in level five, Apu. They also each have their own car, with Homer and Bart having one for each of their two levels: Homer has the Family Sedan and 70’s Sports Car, Bart has the Honor Roller and Ferrini Red, Lisa has the Malibu Stacey Car, Marge has the Canyonero and Apu has the Longhorn. The Car Built For Homer and Mr. Plow are two of the cars that must be purchased for specific missions, giving Homer the highest number of cars at four. Other cars can be bought from Gil on the street, unlocked by winning street races and even discovered by exploring. Civilian vehicles can be hitch-hiked, putting you in control of the driver.
The coolest feature in the game is the phone booths that appear throughout the maps: they can be used to spawn unlocked vehicles, some of which will be driven by their associated characters.
Damage a car too much and it will explode, leaving just a chassis – but even that can still be driven, very slowly, to the nearest spanner, which will restore it.
Although it’s not actually possible to kill pedestrians, Hit & Runs can still be achieved. Around the map is a meter, and causing destruction, like hitting other cars and driving through clutter, adds to that meter. It’s constantly emptying but causing so much destruction quickly enough will fill it up, and when that happens, you’ve got a Hit & Run. The police will begin chasing you – and if they obstruct you for long enough, you get busted and will be fined 50 coins. They’re almost impossible to shake-off, coming at you from every direction and easily spinning you out of control in an already challenging environment with sensitive handling physics. As it is, if you have less than 50 coins, upon being busted, your count will simply reset to 0, so the joke’s on them. It helps to only save up when you actually need something, instead of collecting all those coins just to lose them.
As for how the driving is utilised in the story? There are a limited number of mission types, which are re-purposed frequently, though sometimes they’re combined in various ways. The story linking them is completely forced, making the missions themselves totally arbitrary – especially the reasons for acquiring certain cars in order to even start them.
But in the case of this particular game, I don’t consider that much of a problem. It’s basically a glorified arcade game, and the story is just an excuse. Personally, playing through it from beginning to end was never about the narrative, it was about how each character responded to the particular mission type combined with how the particular car being used made it different. In fact, I now have more fun with it than I did before by shuffling missions: picking each one at random and playing them out of sequence, in no particular order. Playing it that way breaks the illusion that the story matters because it changes the context of how the game is being experienced by eliminating the idea that each mission needs to be connected.
Of course, the missions can still be played chronologically, but, in my experience, fans of the game don’t play it for the story. Ask one of its players what their memories of it are, and they’ll tell you about kicking Marge all the way down the street or pushing Millhouse off a cliff. Even if they remember a certain mission, it’s for how difficult it was or some of its funny quotes, not for its significant plot developments. The fact there’s a mission skip feature, which becomes available if you fail the same mission five times, shows that not even the developers think the missions should get in the way of actually having fun.
It’s simply not about story. It’s about using the various elements of the Springfield mythology to create a cohesive, expansive world. All of it’s there, it’s just about bringing it all together to form an open world game. That’s why my personal favourite missions are those that put two characters together, because then it’s all about their chemistry. If I were to highlight any particular missions, I’d select: Bonestorm Storm, in which Marge drives Homer in the Canonyero; Kang and Kodos Strike Back, in which Homer drives Bart in the 70’s Sports Car; and Alien “Auto”topsy Part III, in which Homer drives Grandpa in the WWII Vehicle w/ Rocket.
Even when exploring, using a phone booth to summon a car driven by a particular character can often yield the same results, so sometimes, entire sessions can be spent experimenting with different character pairings by putting the character from the level you’re playing in the passenger seat next to another character.
However, four of the five major characters do get to finally appear together in the Bonus Game. Upon finding all the Collector Cards in a level (which refer to particular items from Simpsons episodes with a brief description of their role in that episode, like the Bonestorm game Bart stole in Marge Be Not Proud), that level’s corresponding Bonus Game race will be unlocked. The Bonus Game is a series of karting-style tracks themed on each level, with two of the other racers controllable by other players as a multiplayer mode, and every car you’ve unlocked can be selected – even traffic vehicles.
It’s an area of the game many players won’t have ever reached because they never found all the Collector Cards on one level. But for those of us that did, it’s a great minimalist addition that really should’ve been expanded and spun-off into its own game. It’s a real shame that it never happened.
The Simpsons: Hit & Run is a game that was a great success, and definitely one to be proud off. It remains just as popular with its original players today as it was upon release, who’ve come to appreciate its attention to continuity, detail, sense of humour and fun driving mechanics, even if the story is weak. And yet, it’s an even bigger success than that. It’s a game that has evolved beyond its original form, transcending into an ever-changing, ever-reinvented sandbox of experimentation and modification from players who loved it so much, they wanted to take it apart and see how it works, making it different – and even better – in the process.
I don’t, however, think they’re the great remasters of the game everyone else seems to think they are. The Donut Mod, as hyped as it is, only makes missions more complex than necessary and the changed ending is a total joke. The mods are amusing for a while, but they don’t compare to the base game. I never felt that they enhanced the experience in any way. Perhaps I’m only as impressed as I am because I know little about games development. If I knew more, would I find the various mods underwhelming? Who can say. Either way, it’s important to remember that these mods are being developed and played by the people who are keeping the game relevant, and without them, it would’ve probably faded into nostalgic obscurity.
The Simpsons: Hit & Run remains so popular because it faithfully adapted the spirit of a beloved franchise into an open world that allowed the player to experience it however they want. It’s the distillation of everything great about its source material into a fun experience that can be played as an open sandbox or as a story-driven, completionist treasure hunt. 16 years later, it’s still the best Simpsons game ever made, and its version of Springfield is a town I can go back to and find that nothing’s changed at all.
The mission I’ll use to close is Level 1’s Bonestorm Storm, in which Marge, with Homer as passenger, takes her Canyonero out into Evergreen Terrace to prevent the delivery of said violent new video game into the district. If only kids would play more video games about sharing.
The Purple Prose Mage is the author of the Racing Game of the Week column and is currently working on a documentary about the Driver series for its 20th anniversary on 25th June. He also likes reviewing the latest book he’s read on his own blog at alexsigsworth.wordpress.com.
Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming a Warrior of Light and join us in restoring integrity and quality to games writing through thoughtful, long-form reviews. We’re a community aspiring to pay our contributors and build a fairer and happier alternative to mainstream games writing and culture. See our Patreon page for more info!