The Simpsons: Tapped Out opens in the right way — with The Simpsons. That is to say, the first thing you’ll see after booting up the game is a cartoon cut-scene that could be straight from the desk of Matt Groening.
It’s almost like the game knows its only chance of winning over the fickle (but massive) iOS audience is to latch onto something that plucks their heartstrings and never let go. At the periphery of the experience, that Simpsons-ness leaking into Tapped Out makes it a charming game. Whenever it’s not invoking memories of the show, however, it feels like a shallow amalgamation of the somewhat eye-rolling trends that make up the modern frontier of mobile and social gaming. For now, let’s focus on the good.
Like the Fox show we all grew up with, The Simpsons: Tapped Out is unapologetically self-referential. In a way, the game’s timely commentary on the games industry makes its flaws forgivable — “This blue shaded square looks like a nice place to build the house,” Homer innocently muses as the game begins. There are also plenty of explicit shout-outs to the cartoon. When re-building the city after a nuclear disaster, Lisa takes issue with her father’s desire to build the donut-supplying Kwik-E-Mart just a few yards away on Evergreen Terrace. That’s not where it should be, she argues. Homer counters by recalling how in one episode of the show, their neighborhood conveniently realigned itself to be next to a prison just for the sake of a joke.
One early quote, however, underlies how soberingly banal the actual gameplay can be.
“Cleaning, really? I can’t believe what passes for fun these days,” Homer moans.
The foundation of Tapped Out is less than innovative. You can build any familiar structure you like and grin at the characters’ reactions, but in no time you’ll be tugged by the purse-strings into the same sort of money-mongering, friend-pestering cycles that make up so many Facebook and mobile games today, from Farmville on down. Need to build Cletus’ farm, the game says? Well, just tap here and… oh, wait. You’ll need to wait for your energy to recharge. Want it to go faster? Just invite some of your friends over or, better yet, spend some donuts to speed up the process. The real-money price of these donuts — which publisher Electronic Arts hopes are quite appetizing — soars up to $99.99 for a barrel of 2400. Try to get that same amount with actual gameplay and patience, and you’ll be tapping for months. D’oh!
Our look at Tapped Out wouldn’t be complete without an otherwise tedious discussion of how well it runs. After all, as Frisky Mongoose reported last week, EA only recently put the game back on the market after pulling it from the App Store last spring in the wake of crippling server issues. (For the record, those issues arose mainly because the game was more popular than anticipated.) For a game that all but requires a constant Internet connection, it runs fairly well — granted that you have a decent signal via 3G or Wi-Fi. The occasional hiccup does arise, and the game absolutely chugs when you attempt to suspend it. On a more tactile level, Tapped Out controls fairly well, but the screen can get crowded when you’re building small or detailed structures. For that reason, the thick-thumbed among us may prefer the iPad version. Ultimately, though, Tapped Out is a leaner, meaner beast after its five-month hibernation.
As a show, The Simpsons redefined primetime television forever. While some Simpsons games of yesteryear are genuinely worth remembering, the franchise’s debut on iOS could never be the industry-upending force that its inspiration was, no matter how many updates you’re asked to download upon booting it up. It’s a safe cash-out that cribs its contemporaries and, frankly, lacks soul. But even at that, The Simpsons: Tapped Out is a well-made, good-looking and feature-packed product. Just don’t expect it to show you anything new. In other words: non-Simpsons fans, beware.
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