Can one game plagiarize another? How similar can one game be to another before that similarity becomes a legal matter? It's a sticky issue, since plagiarism is a literary term, and video games tend to be very short on obviously protectable material such as character, plot, and dialogue. So just how much of a video game's content is intellectual property?
This issue was addressed in a famous lawsuit in 1994. During the height of the arcade fighting game craze, Data East produced a video game called Fighter's History. It was, for all intents and purposes, just Street Fighter II with different characters and backgrounds. It was so similar that Capcom, the makers of Street Fighter II, decided to sue Data East for copyright infringement. The court ruled that not only were the characters not legally similar enough to be actionable, but that basic game mechanics such as the number of buttons and the way in which characters are controlled are not legally protectable.
One can only imagine that most of the game companies breathed a heavy sigh of relief at the ruling. Ever since Namco followed on the heels of Midway's Space Invaders with their own Galaga, the video game industry has been one built on following the leader.
The Simpsons: Hit & Run is a perfect example of this mentality. For anyone who has played Grand Theft Auto III (GTA3), the gameplay will be incredibly familiar. The game is structured with eerie similarity to Rockstar North's title. The game is broken down into two sections: Driving missions, where a character assigns the player some task that can only be accomplished by driving all the way to the other side of the map (and sometimes back); and free roaming, in which the player gets out of the car to run, jump and climb all over the environment in order to track down bonus items. Just like GTA3, the running and jumping sections of the game are almost completely optional and it is, at its core, a driving game (and a very well-made one at that).
In fact, one needs look no farther than the game's subtitle "A total conversion for Grand Theft Auto III" for proof of its pedigree. Okay, I'm lying, it doesn't actually say that—but everything about the gameplay mechanics, right down to the player being able to commandeer any random car on the street, will give anyone who has played GTA3 an unshakable sense of déjà vu.
Actually, had the manual opened with a self-deprecating joke along those lines, it might have been a step in the right direction—in that I might have laughed while reading it. Perhaps I've been misled by nearly 15 years of The Simspsons, but it seems like something with the Simpsons name on it should actually be funny. Yet in the manual, there isn't a single attempt at humor to be found anywhere. Now, I may be reading too much in to this, but for most of the people who buy this game, the manual will be their first experience with the world of the game. If the main purpose of the game is to make the player laugh, shouldn't that be somehow reflected in the manual that introduces them to said game? Make no mistake—the game is supposed to be funny. Perhaps its biggest flaw is that it isn't. At all.
It's been said that there is a Simpsons quote or joke that applies perfectly to any situation. The moment I'm thinking of is the television ad for the forthcoming Itchy and Scratchy Movie. Right at the end of the ad, a voice quickly mentions that the film is only "56 percent new footage." Roll that number down to about twenty, and suddenly the quote refers to the Simpsons content in the game. It's hard to tell which aspect is more annoying—the fact that classic Simpsons quotes are thrown out in totally out of context or that all the original humor is so, well I was going to use the word "dire" here, but I thought that it might be too harsh so I looked it up in the dictionary, and apparently it means "an exciting horror, dismal, or oppressive." So yeah, dire was the word I was looking for after all.
Stranger, though, is the half-hearted way many of the jokes are included. Like a lot of games where the characters spout "wacky" random dialogue, there are nowhere near enough quotes to keep the player entertained. It's possible that had I played the game straight through, only attempting the story missions and never having to replay any of them that I'd have beaten the game without hearing the quotes more than once or twice. Between the fact that I took the time to unlock all of the game's features, and just how challenging the last few stages get, I heard Bart say "Eat my dust, dust-eaters" and all his other quips well over fifty times.
The most ill-conceived comic idea in the game is the inclusion of "gags," which are theoretical jokes that the player can activate in the game's indoor areas. I was actually unsettled by the lack of effort put into these. Here are a few examples of the gags that must be hunted down and activated to obtain a 100% rating in each level: The arm of a slot machine can be pulled; a silent alarm can be pushed, causing a siren to go off; "Frostilicus" (a half-frozen old man) can be greeted, causing him to say one of three comments. Most unforgivable, though, are the occasions where the game should make a joke, but doesn't bother to. In Dr. Frink's lab, there is a set of teleportation chambers with a monkey in one. When it's activated, the monkey moves from one teleportation chamber to another. Doesn't disappear, doesn't turn into a fly-monkey, nothing. Apparently the proper operation of teleportation is now considered a gag.
Even the game's bonus material is hit-and miss. The game is littered with "collector's cards" that each features an item from the show's run. On the collector's car screen, information about the item, the show it was from, and a quote relating to it. Enough of the cards have mistaken details or inappropriate quotes that fans of the show will no doubt be annoyed. Stranger, though, is the lack of comparable information about any of the game's myriad cars and alternate character costumes, all of which look quite good, and most of which are drawn from a specific episode of the show.
Perhaps all of the limp comedy wouldn't be so offensive if the game did anything new in the gameplay department. Being such an obvious rip-off of Grand Theft Auto III both helps and hinders the game. Without the awkward, frustrating combat engine dragging it down, GTA3's driving and platforming is actually very fun and Hit & Run's levels are very well designed, offering a wide selection of jumps, stunts, and hidden areas to explore. They're easily the most satisfying aspect of the game's Simpsons content, as they manage to convey the experience of driving around Springfield very well (except for the puzzling lack of funny storefront names).
The game is at its best when it sticks to the mission-based driving that was the core of its inspiration. The game's story is broken down into seven episodes, with seven missions in each. By forcing the player to change cars frequently throughout each of the levels and offering an entirely new set of vehicles with each new episode and character, the game deftly avoids the boredom that other driving games sometimes incur. After all, no matter how complex or layered the objectives are, most of the missions still boil down to driving from point A to point B within a set amount of time. That universal sameness in the genre makes getting the little details right so important, and Hit & Run does that, to be sure. The cars all have a real sense of weight to them, which makes speeding through narrow alleys and knocking down trees all the more satisfying. Even the simplest driving tricks, such as reversing quickly then spinning the car in a 180 can be downright thrilling in the proper car.
So where does being a rip-off of GTA3 actually harm the game? Well, it happens when the game steadfastly refuses to do anything differently than the game that it was based on did. This is the way that I have defined "rip-off," when used to describe a video game. For example, True Crime: Streets of LA is not a rip-off since it makes a good-faith effort to do something new in the runnin' drivin' n' shootin' genre. The Simpsons: Hit & Run, in a move that actually shocked me, steadfastly refuses to do anything differently that GTA3 did. Here's a perfect example: On two separate, completely unrelated occasions in the game, Bart Simpson is menaced by a giant Tyrannosaur (one mechanical, the other a re-animated skeleton). On both occasions, Bart escapes within five seconds during an animated cut-scene. It must be obvious to anyone that has ever played a videogame the putting Bart at the feet of a fire-breathing mechanical Tyrannosaur is screaming out, like few things ever have, for a Boss Fight. So why isn't there one? Well, the only reason I could think of was that there weren't any boss fights in GTA3, and the developers at Radical Entertainment were copying that game's structure so slavishly that it never even occurred to them to give their game what it obviously needed—which is a pretty good definition of a rip-off, actually.
The Simpsons videogame franchise isn't in good shape just now. Rather than trying to create an original game that is born logically from the characters and premise of the show, they seem satisfied to make Simpsons versions of already popular games (the last three Simpsons games, The Simpsons: Road Rage, The Simpsons Wrestling, and The Simpsons Skateboarding were, respectively, the Simpsons version of Crazy Taxi, and two cynical attempts to cash in on hot genres). What used to be a name that represented cutting edge satire is now a sign of intellectual theft. Perhaps the most depressing aspect of all of the game's ripped-off content is the fact that the so-called "original story" about a couple of aliens making a reality show about Earth's wacky citizens was done as an episode of South Park last year. Yet despite all the problems that the mishandled franchise brings to it, the game's core driving and simplistic platforming mechanics remain solid, playable, and always entertaining—which probably explains why they were ripped off in the first place.
(Note – Between the time this review was written and the time it was published, Sega filed a lawsuit against Fox Interactive and Radical Games over the similarities between Road Rage and Crazy Taxi. The lawsuit cited, among other fact, reviews in the video game press that commented on the identical premise and gameplay of the two titles. While precedent is obviously stacked against Sega, I can't help but hope that this lawsuit might finally serve as the impetus for the industry to finally shift away from "me too" titles.)
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.