Picture this: a towering, King Kong-size Millhouse costumed up as Katamari Damacy's King of All Kosmos -- complete with crown and pink and green cups sticking out where ears should be. From that one image you get a pretty good idea what The Simpsons Game is all about. As we saw in prior demos of levels like "Grand Theft Scratchy" and "Medal of Homer," this isn't just a game featuring the Simpsons; it turns the clan loose on videogames, in a videogame.
If you think of each level as an episode, the game becomes a season of the show during which the Simpsons figure out that they've been licensed out to be in a number of games. It all begins with Homer in what he thinks is one of his favorite dreams visiting the Land of Chocolate. The video that introduces the level erases any doubts about whether the production lives up to the standard of the TV show. The animation looks terrific in HD, and with the regular show writers and voice talent on the job, it's just like watching another episode.
Except this time, after watching Homer's eyes light up at the sight of everything in chocolate, and his taking that first bite off the corner of a building, the animation transitions into a fully 3D game world with you in control. For this tutorial level, a white chocolate bunny appears to guide your proverbial journey down the rabbit hole. The basic combination of jumping and gathering collectibles exposes the game underneath the Simpsons veneer as a classic action-platformer.
And from what we played of that level with King Millhouse, called Super Happy Fun Fun, the gameplay works well. As one of the later levels in the game, it expects you to have a good idea how to play with Lisa and Homer. In one of the first puzzles of the level, Homer needs to protect Lisa while she meditates to access her Hand of Buddha. This power pulls the camera back like she's having an out-of-body experience and grants her the power to pick up things in the environment, as well as freeze or lightning strike enemies. With Homer on guard, she must find three lanterns and return them to their stands to open the way forward. It was almost more fun, though, to freeze the sumo-samurai guys attacking her into ice cubes and then pick them up and shatter them on the ground. And the in-jokes only got started with Katamari. Later in the level we were dropped into arenas to battle it out in a Pokémon spoof.
While we've played with the easy back and forth swapping of two onscreen characters before, this time we tried out the two-player mode in split-screen. Because of the cooperative nature of this level, it felt particularly natural. Playing together definitely holds a lot of potential for this game, and while we get that the game has been designed for two characters at a time, we can't help but wonder how much fun a four-player mode might be.
Throughout our time with the level, we saw the details that make for a polished platforming game. Collectibles for the different characters were well-placed -- you could see and figure out how to get to them, but it still would take a little work to reach them. And back at the Simpson's house in Springfield, each character has a place to check out their collection. Comic Book Guy also gets in on the action in the role of this guy who makes fun of videogame clichés you run into. For instance, if you butt heads against the invisible wall at the edge of a level a few times he pops up to quip about it. And yes, they're funny. That might be the biggest thing going for the game. Games trying to be funny often struggle, but the Simpsons taking shots at videogames, from inside one, seems to click. How well that holds up for a full game we'll find out in our upcoming review.