Simpsons geeks can rebuild Springfield
Depending on who you believe, social games played on mobile devices or via networks such as Facebook are either the cause of, or solution to, all of modern video gaming's problems.
The cause of much eye-rolling and head shaking amongst so-called "hardcore" gamers, the recent rise of casual, friend-focussed games such as Farmville have nevertheless injected huge amounts of revenue into the industry, and changed the way games are made and marketed along the way. Even the more specialised end of the spectrum is now obsessed with urging players to invite friends, share the fun and spread the word on social networks.
The recipe for success has been a simple one - broaden the appeal of video games beyond the usual male, 13-35 demographic and watch the money roll in. Suburban housewives and tech-savvy retirees who wouldn't usually pick up a console controller make up a significant portion of the market for phone and tablet-based games, and developers are keen to appeal to many of them as possible.
With this in mind, licensing one of the world's most popular TV shows, especially one that rates highly with viewers of both genders and from almost every age group would be seem a pretty shrewd move - and that's exactly what EA has done with The Simpsons: Tapped Out.
After a Homer-induced nuclear meltdown destroys the Simpsons' hometown of Springfield, you're tasked with restoring the city to its former glory in a game that sits somewhere between Sim City and the aforementioned Farmville.
One of the best things about The Simpsons is its huge supporting cast, and Tapped Out manages to squeeze in an impressive amount of them. As you rebuild the town, completing each iconic building unlocks associated characters, so constructing Springfield Elementary will give you Principal Skinner; the power plant opens up Mr Burns, and so on. Each of these characters can be given personal tasks, from Ned Flanders' Bible studies to Apu feeding his octuplets - these jobs earn cash which can then be used to construct more buildings.
Simpsons geeks like me will get a real kick out of the attention to detail and the game is crammed with hundreds of nods and references to some of the show's best lines and moments. The use of actual writers and animators from the show gives the game an authentic feel that has been missing from almost every Simpsons game tie-in to date.
Tapped Out is a "freemium" game, meaning that although it costs nothing to download and play, to get the most out of it you'll need to purchase currency (in this case, radioactive donuts) to access premium content or move more quickly through the game's lower levels.
Rather than nagging at you with constant encouragements to buy in, or trying to mask its intentions, Tapped Out instead makes a joke of the whole thing, in exactly the kind of cynical and satirical style you'd expect from The Simpsons. There are tongue-in-cheek references to blaming the kids for microtransactions, and at one point Homer exclaims, "Wow, I'd spend money - real money - to have a town like this!" Although the reminder to spend up large is always there, it's perfectly possible to play, and enjoy, the game without ending up as broke as Gil Gunderson. I've managed to get by without spending a penny so far, despite the ever-present temptation to splash out on Hank Scorpio's volcano lair.
Although simplistic and relatively repetitive, Tapped Out is as addictive (and as potentially damaging to your wallet) as tomacco. The experience of seeing your own version of Springfield take shape and interacting with each reintroduced resident is surprisingly compelling and perfectly paced for the kind of short, snack-like gaming experiences that work so well on mobile devices.
Although some will insist that the show lost its soul sometime in the late 90s, The Simpsons remains a pop culture juggernaut with genuine global appeal.
The prospect of its enduring popularity combining with the unstoppable rise of the iPhone/iPad and an emerging market for social games for casual audiences means that it could be one of the year's most popular mobile titles.
The Simpsons: Tapped Out
From: EA Games
Free to play
The Nelson Mail