The Simpsons in “Sega, Please Don’t Sue”

Part 18 of a 25-part series looking back at every Simpsons video game ever made.

The year 2001 was a tumultuous one. In the world of video games, the PlayStation 2 had already been available for a year, and Nintendo’s next system — the Gamecube — was due to release at the end of the year alongside a new competitor, Microsoft’s Xbox console. Sega’s longtime presence in the game hardware industry ended that year when they accepted the commercial failure of the Sega Dreamcast and ceased production, abandoning hardware development to focus on software. It was also perhaps the last significant shift in graphics capabilities, with the PlayStation and Nintendo 64’s chunky polygons and blurry textures evolving into the much more eyeball-friendly graphics of a new generation.

It was the year I graduated from high school. I had a part-time job, a car, disposable income, and college loomed on the horizon. I could buy games, hardware, and even a decent PC for the first time. The Internet was in full swing and I was becoming acquainted with people from around the world through the virtues of chat and fansites, not to mention the possibility of simply downloading games instead of having to buy a cartridge or disc from a store. It felt like that rite of passage that so many speak of but often eludes us in the transition to adulthood. The year might have passed as a fairly eventless in the grand scheme of things, but I and the rest of the United States were in for a shock that no one saw coming. The tragic destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001 occurred in my first few weeks of college. The first class to resume after the attack was my public speaking class, and instead of making presentations about movies, personal goals, or even video games as I might have done, most of the class discussed loved ones or friends of friends who perished in the attack. Most students wept or sulked. It was the first sense of vulnerability for many of us.

Companies marched on with their entertainment products, patriotically obeying president George Bush when he warned that we shouldn’t allow America to become a place “where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop.” Some movies, games, and television shows delayed their releases if their content was too close to reality, but by the end of year, we still had those new consoles to focus on. If anything, video games served a purpose they would often find in times of tragedy. An escape, a release from the challenge of living through dark times.

But the video game future was bright indeed. Of the three next generation consoles available by the end of year, I only owned the Nintendo Gamecube, which was released in November of 2001. To date, it is the only console I preordered and picked up on launch day, along with a copy of the mouthful that is Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader. I went to the mall to pick up that preorder in defiance doctor’s orders after a tonsillectomy, because what better way to pass the convalescence than with a new game console? It remained my only Gamecube game until December, when Electronic Arts released a certain clone of Sega’s Crazy Taxi series that I never would’ve looked at if not for its goofy yellow characters.

Image for post
Image for post
Please kill him.

As we found out in the last few chapters, The Simpsons was back on the merch scene with a variety of licensed products releasing to stores. The strategy was as transparent as making as much merchandise with these characters as possible, hearkening to the mania of the early nineties. The show itself was now in its thirteenth season, and well into a period where old fans were bemoaning its drop in quality while other fans transitioned into the period believing it was still a better show than any other comedy on television. The year had already seen a Simpsons game on Game Boy Color and another on PlayStation. Releasing games on those platforms were safe bets that did yield some commercial success, with each game selling over two hundred thousand copies, even if the critical response was less than ideal. The question now was what about the next generation? What does a Simpsons game mean on the latest and greatest hardware?

It’s strange to realize that these games were in development at the same time as The Simpsons Road Rage. Each game was published and developed by different companies, with only Fox Interactive serving as the connective tissue between them. One can imagine the rigorous approval process each publisher experienced while preparing their respective releases, but while Fox Interactive would undoubtedly exercise control of the representation of the characters in the video games, it seemed like game quality was left entirely to the publisher and developer. The first two attempts were seen as strikeouts, or at best foul balls. But the third pairing of publisher and developer would be an unexpected home run.

Electronic Arts may have been the publisher of record here, but their creative influence seems to have been minimal. The credits highlight that they provided certain services such as marketing, packaging, and game testing, all of which are common when a publisher takes on distribution duties. As we’ve seen before, Fox Interactive had become skittish about taking on the risk of product distribution, and it seems likely that they sold distribution rights to Electronic Arts for a percentage of sales. So then, what led them to propose this particular product for distribution? That’s where Radical Entertainment comes in.

Image for post
Image for post
Enabling Marge’s hauling of ass.

Radical Entertainment was a veteran company in the video game industry by 2001. They began life as a game developer a decade earlier, when Distinctive Software employees Rory Armes, Dave Davis, and Ian Wilkinson broke away to form the company. Rory Armes was actually the development producer on Bart’s House of Weirdness, and while only Wilkinson remained with Radical when they returned to the license in the early aughts, it’s an interesting connection to see between games that are a decade apart. During their early tenure, the company focused on some licensed games and a wide variety of sports video games such as the NHL Powerplay series and NBA Basketball 2000. Ironically, this concerted effort to compete in the sports video game market was met by the dominant force of the EA Sports division of Electronic Arts.

Most licensed games of the era began life as a publisher seeking out a developer to develop the license they acquired. However, Radical Entertainment had a different idea. According to Radical designer Joe McGinn, after Radical suffered some losses as projects were cancelled, then-president Wilkinson marched forward with the edict that the company would develop demos and prototypes and use the technology to pitch new types of projects to publishers. The turn of the millennium bears this out as we see sports games from Radical cease in 2001, and the company’s output shifted to licensed fare. As McGinn wrote on the Donut Team forum, the pivot “was actually instrumental in getting the Road Rage contract, because we had a driving car demo with physics and such running in real time, while our competitors only pitched ideas on paper.”

So it was Radical who conceived of The Simpsons Road Rage and sold it up the chain. They proved to Fox Interactive that they had the chops to make a fun driving game featuring The Simpsons, and they eventually settled on mimicking the gameplay of the Crazy Taxi series in which players guide their cabbie around large maps, picking up passengers in exchange for money in a limited amount of time. Fans noticed the similarities, and so did Sega when they decided to file a patent infringement lawsuit against all parties involved to remove The Simpsons Road Rage from the shelves and receive the money they were due. The case settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, leaving the question open as to whether they really had a case. The game sold nearly three million copies across the various platforms on which it was released, so it’s safe to say that Sega’s eyes were full of dollar signs when they realized their gameplay concept was making so much money for someone else.

The fact that it sold so well implies the game was far better than its predecessors, but was it a matter of releasing at the right time on a new generation of consoles, or was the game indeed a renaissance in Simpsons game design?

Image for post
Image for post
It’s more efficient to get dropped off in the middle of an intersection.

In many ways, The Simpsons Road Rage is simply a continuation of the type of Simpsons game we’ve seen in this new era. It features the Gang’s All Here design in which players have their pick of plenty of characters from the television show beyond just Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. In addition to the family, there are twelve Springfield regulars such as Moe and Apu, many of whom must be unlocked by progressing through the game’s story. And like The Simpsons Wrestling, this format allows the player’s selected character to interact with a variety of other Springfieldians, creating many opportunities for characters to drop one-liners and funny conversations. Some of the dialogue also began to match lines you might hear on the more mature-rated television show, such as this, er, gem when Bart picks up Krusty the clown:

Krusty! What’s up with Springfield’s greatest entertainer?

Plenty, thanks to Viagra!

The story itself is more of a light premise. Mr. Burns, the ever-reliable evil millionaire of the Springfield universe, purchases the city’s mass transit system and immediately dismantles it, replacing the city’s buses with nuclear-powered death traps. Lisa rightly declares the buses a “threat to public health,” prompting Homer to trigger another Simpsons Did It moment when he pulls an Uber and hires himself out as an unlicensed cabbie for all the citizens who need rides in Springfield. The goal becomes apparent at the first character select screen: Springfield citizens want to earn enough money to buy back the bus system from Mr. Burns for the amount of one million dollars. It’s a short introduction and Bart puts the fine point on it when he says, “Just get to the game already!”

As noted earlier, the gameplay is more or less lifted straight out of Sega’s Crazy Taxi. That game allows players to select a character who must dash about a large city in order to find passengers who are willing to part with some cash in exchange for a ride to a different part of the map. A timer in the corner of the screen means the player has no time for leisurely lollygagging, requiring a certain level of manic racing and destruction to actually reach the destination before the timer runs out. This fast-paced score attack style of car racing was popularized in the first arcade release of Crazy Taxi and carried through onto consoles soon after.

Image for post
Image for post
Something something evil plot.

If The Simpsons Road Rage can be knocked for copying an already existing series, it can be praised for its faithfulness to the source material. The game retains the high framerate of its inspiration, as well as the responsive controls and physics. Each character’s car controls differently from the others, but they are all fun to maneuver across and over the environments, which are themselves designed to be a large scale playground for car stunts and otherwise impossible feats of vehicular prowess. Some characters’ cars are lightweight and fragile but quite easy to zip around in, such as Bart’s soapbox racer that originally featured in the third season episode, “Saturdays of Thunder.” Other vehicles, such as Reverend Lovejoy’s Book Burning Mobile, are slow as molasses but virtual tanks, capable of plowing through traffic on their way to the next drop-off. Like that so-called wrestling game, only a certain number of characters are available from the start, and unlocking new characters brings improved vehicles along with them, ensuring the player receives a satisfying loop of unlocking new characters and cars that in turn allow for improved drop-off times and better time and cash bonuses for each run through the map.

The car gameplay may be loose and fun, but the environments are there to put a damper on the joy. Each of the game’s six locales presents a different area of Springfield, starting with the Evergreen Terrace neighborhood where the Simpsons reside and gradually moving on to other unlockable locales such as Springfield Dam and the Nuclear Power Plant. Like a visit to Disneyland, it can be fun to simply visit these environments and gawk at the familiar names and places. The game even provides a Sunday Drive mode that allows players to leisurely explore the maps without restrictions. While the game’s maps are separate and unlocked over time, the designers once dreamed of a single, unified map that allowed players to explore the entire city with no loading times between regions. Video game archivist Liam Robertson interviewed Vlad Ceraldi, technical director on the project, who revealed why they had to remove such a beloved feature:

The speed of the {PlayStation 2} drives in the retail units were not as efficient or as reliable as the dev units. So, we could not get the data fast enough off the discs in order to populate the world the way we had designed everything.

This problem caused the radical change that led to the game’s multiple levels. In addition to tech woes, feedback from Fox and Gracie Films also forced significant changes as development was well underway. Robertson cites game historian Andrew Borman in revealing that the world’s art design had a “brighter, more cartoony” look, but that Matt Groening wanted Road Rage to “stand apart from the show and look more like a video game.”

Image for post
Image for post
Hi little boy, hop in.

Dividing the world into smaller maps created a new set of unlockables for the player, but the maps demand dedication to obtain them all. The standard Road Rage mode requires players to attempt to ferry characters around while facing an intense clutter of cars, trees, rocks, signs, benches, pedestrians, and other objects that sometimes bounce away like beach balls but often just serve to slow down the player car’s momentum, ensuring that the player surely but gradually loses time from their run timer, leading to diminishing returns until the player can no longer sustain their progress and ends their run with whatever cash they obtained. There’s also the antagonism from Mr. Burns’s limousine and his fleet of buses, all of which actively seek out the player to crash into them and sort of bump them around since cars can’t actually be destroyed. This cycle of playing through the maps and gathering as much cash as possible is the core loop and can begin to wear on players who don’t appreciate the repetitive nature of score attack racing games. Fortunately, the maps also include elements that aid the player in playing as long as possible before time runs out. Playing long enough reveals that character pick-up spots never vary, ensuring that anyone who plays long enough can develop certain routes that prolong a run. The HUD (heads up display) also includes helpful elements such as a radar and a three-dimensional hand that always points the way to the destination.

Lest you think this sounds like a game lacking depth, there are certain strategic factors that promote the long term investment required to actually achieve the game’s one million dollar goal and the ending it unlocks. Certain routes between character pick-up spots can be short enough that they may be linked together to create a loop or infinite route, allowing players to beat the level design and actually gather up massive amounts of cash in short periods of time. There are also bonuses to be found by committing acts of destruction, avoiding crashing into anything, and destroying Burns’s bus stops. It’s not a level of strategy a hardcore player would want, but it’s deep enough for a mass market Simpsons game.

But there’s more to the game than the core Road Rage mode. The Sunday Drive mode mentioned earlier is a fun little practice mode where players can simply wander around the maps and take in the scenery. The Head to Head mode presents an opportunity for two players to compete against each other as they each try to ferry passengers around or even steal passengers from each other. It’s not the meatiest multiplayer mode but certainly a fun way to pass time between Road Rage runs. The final mode is a more elaborate and structured set of challenges called Mission Mode. Each of the ten missions presents a specific character and either racing or object destruction challenges. It’s a light diversion from the game’s primary mode and leads to unlocking The Car Built for Homer, the only unlockable outside of Road Rage mode.

And that’s ultimately where the game leads the player. The goal is always to get back to Road Rage mode and keep earning that cash. It’s an odd bit of capitalistic gameplay, and although one score is as arbitrary as the next in a video game, the greed aspect is perhaps most fitting for the world of Springfield. Americans’ consumerism and enterprising attitude is just the lowest hanging fruit on the mockery tree.

Mid-air drop-offs are not advised.

Players around the world purchased almost 2.5 million copies of The Simpsons Road Rage between 2001 and 2005, guaranteeing its success and eventual follow-up. Seeing an opportunity to capitalize on a sure thing, Fox Interactive proceeded to license out the concept to another publisher and developer combo who would bring the game to the Game Boy Advance. THQ returned to take over as publisher for that port and contracted the work to Altron, a Japanese developer for hire who has been in the industry since 1983.

This one Simpsons entry on the Game Boy Advance is chock full of visuals reminiscent of the SNES’s famed Mode 7 technology, allowing for the illusion of 3D visuals on hardware that couldn’t hope to achieve such graphical fidelity. After all, the platform was known as the game system that was keeping the dream of the nineties alive at a time when games were powering forward toward the highest possible 3D fidelity and HD resolutions. This most often resulted in cheaply produced games that yielded decent profits for the investment. The Simpsons Road Rage did indeed clear such a bar, selling nearly half a million little cartridges.

Image for post
Image for post
Barney’s tripping on arcade HUD design.

The gameplay did its best to achieve what succeeded on console, and it was a pretty dang good approximation of the experience. The game is colorful, fast-paced, and includes the same modes as its console parents, including a Head to Head mode possible by connecting two GBA systems using the platform’s link cable. The one drawback of this port is that it’s missing what shines brightest on the more powerful platforms: dialogue and voices. That one critical quality was always missing on those Simpsons games from the early nineties, and that limitation is once again present in this throwback to the era. It hurts the enjoyment of the GBA port and perhaps speaks to the superficial nature of most modern Simpsons games. They threw in characters, jokes, and voices, and expected that to be enough to bring in sales. It worked out okay in the skilled hands of a developer such as Radical Entertainment, and indeed they would further expand upon their success in just two short years. But a dark cloud still loomed over the Simpsons and their video game appearances… and this cloud rode a skateboard.

Longtime denizen of the Internet, and video games, and the overlap between the two. More at

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store