The Simpsons: Hit & Run, by all accounts, was a masterpiece. If the internet is to be believed, Hit & Run‘s cultural significance sits somewhere between BTS and the Shroud of Turin – and subsequently, any hint of criticism is blasphemous.
Awkwardly, developer Radical Entertainment‘s 2003 game – which follows Springfield’s finest as they tear the town apart in pursuit of aliens – deserves a tiny bit of criticism. Step out from behind the rose-tinted windshield, and the game’s glaring issues appear: most of the campaign was really just a glorified fetch quest, and much of Hit & Run‘s difficulty was artificially created by brutal time-trials and AI that cheated shamelessly.
By that standard, The Simpsons: Hit & Run was not a perfect game. It’s filled with growing pains caused by the games industry’s exploration of open-world 3D games, and is thoroughly a product of its time: but ironically, that’s what made Hit & Run so brilliant.
Released in September 2003, Hit & Run was heavily inspired by Grand Theft Auto series – a series that, at the time, was still square in the crosshairs of a public locked in moral panic over violence in video games. While Hit & Run never attempted to match Grand Theft Auto‘s gore, Rockstar‘s violent influence was blatant: besides destructive police chases, several missions demanded players turn other motorists into fiery wrecks, and even Lisa’s goody two-shoes were more than capable of punting pedestrians into oncoming traffic. While cartoonish violence is a frequent hallmark of The Simpsons, Hit & Run‘s particular brand of carnage was perfectly suited to the era that California tried to make selling violent video games to minors illegal.
Hit & Run‘s Grand Theft Auto-style mayhem was certainly one of its more entertaining draws, but it wasn’t really the reason Hit & Run became so endearing. For that, much of the credit has to go to the setting. We all know that Springfield is a hell of a town, but Radical Entertainment’s partnership with The Simpsons‘ writers and voice talent really brought it to life in a way that no other Simpsons game managed. There are five playable characters – Homer, Lisa, Marge, Bart and Apu – and a much wider supporting cast, all bursting with gags pulled straight from The Simpsons‘ golden age.
Many of the game’s references and vehicles – from the iconic Mr Plow to Snake’s beloved Lil’ Bandit – are all treasures from the ’90s seasons, but Radical Entertainment knew the mainstream would appreciate them. Between 2000 and 2003, The Simpsons set a viewership record that the show still hasn’t topped – 00s’ society left its heart in Springfield, which was probably why The Simpsons got a whopping seven games – Hit & Run included – during that timeframe. For context, in the 19-year gap since those three manic years of Simpsons, we’ve only had five Simpsons games – and only one of them, 2007’s The Simpsons Game, was anything more than a mobile port.
Hit & Run‘s culture sponging didn’t just stick to the jokes – even the game’s soundtrack oozes noughties. Though each character had their own banging soundtrack, it was Bart’s that truly captured the era – for a free-spirited rebel of the 2000s, what better companion than pop-punk? The theme for Bart’s first level is a track called ‘Bart Goes Downtown’, a guitar-led instrumental that tells you everything you need to know about our 2000s’ obsession with pop-punk. Give it a quick listen and you’ll hear some Blink-182, some Sum 41, and even a prescient dash of Green Day’s cleaner 2000s’ sound – American Idiot wouldn’t be released until a year after Hit & Run came out. All of these bands made their name in the 90s, but were exploring new(ish), peppier territory in those three years – and we loved it.
Of course, the Hit & Run soundtrack also featured The Simpsons‘ most iconic pull: the show’s theme song. Though Danny Elfman is busy shredding The Simpsons‘ theme at Coachella nowadays, back then he was wrapped up in composing some of the most iconic films of the 2000s. If you need a quick reminder, you may be surprised to know that he scored Spy Kids and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man – two cheesy films guaranteed to spring to the lips of any nostalgic member of Gen Z when asked about their childhood. Accordingly, Homer’s levels in Hit & Run scream Elfman: for proof, look no further than ‘Bonestorm Storm‘. We’ll never know if Elfman was secretly pulling the strings of our cultural zeitgeist or just paying bills, but one thing’s for certain: without him, the noughties (and likely Hit & Run) would’ve been a much worse place.
Sadly for Springfield, Simpsons mania didn’t quite reach the end of the decade. In fact, viewership of the TV show started plummeting after 2003, and by 2010 just 7.2million viewers were tuning in – less than half of 2000’s 14.7million. Despite The Simpsons‘ wavering popularity, the religious fervour of Hit & Run fans never died, and cries to remake the game continue to this day. Even The Simpsons showrunner Matt Selman would “love” a reboot, but admits that it’s a “complicated corporate octopus” to achieve.
Perhaps that’s why the corporate powers that be haven’t tried, but hope spring(field)s eternal. Earlier this year, Radical Entertainment was acquired by Microsoft as part of its whopping £50billion takeover of Activision Blizzard – and was one of the few studios specifically named in Xbox’s announcement. Xbox head Phil Spencer has already waxed lyrical about wanting to revive older franchises – isn’t Hit & Run the perfect opportunity?
As it stands, Hit & Run has been left in the rear mirror, gathering dust in the era it represented so well – but does it have to stay there? Go on, suits – let’s take Hit & Run out for another spin.
If you’re craving a cruise through Springfield, you can check out a fan-made remake for The Simpsons: Hit & Run here.