The Simpsons Hit and Run Inventor Celebrates 20 Years of the “GTA for Kids”

Since The Simpsons: Hit & Run came out two decades after what is often regarded as the show’s most successful period, few could have anticipated the kind of affection and appreciation that 2003’s Hit & Run still receives today.

The Simpsons: Hit & Run was created by Canadian firm Radical Entertainment and made available for the PS2, Xbox, Nintendo GameCube, and PC (and later on Windows). Both casual and devoted gamers agree that this game is a classic because of its popularity across generations.

Hit & Run is still the best-reviewed Simpsons game ever. The Simpsons: Hit & Run lead game designer Joe McGinn tells GamesRadar+.

“If I sound proud of that, I kind of am. The fact that people still adore the game astounds and pleases me greatly.”

Celebrates 20 Years of the "Gta for Kids"
                                                    Celebrates 20 Years of the “GTA for Kids”

I recently delivered a discussion about my job in computer science to some high school students, and I was shocked to learn that several of them had played Hit & Run. When it was released, they hadn’t even been born!”

The path to Hit & Run’s release, however, was anything but easy for McGinn and the Radical Entertainment crew. However, Radical had created scores of games before 2000, including renditions of other well-known franchises like Rocky & Bullwinkle, Beavis & Butthead, and The Terminator, its fortunes altered before it was introduced to the city of Springfield.

You Only Move Twice

McGinn continues:

“Three months into my first gaming job, our publisher cancelled all four of the studio’s games on the same day. Welcome to the game industry. But Radical was a great company, they didn’t lay off a single employee [and] we started making demos and game pitches.”

“We heard Fox Interactive was looking to make a Simpsons driving game. Many other studios also pitched games to them, but our cancelled games actually worked to our advantage, because we had the person-power to make a proof-of-concept demo, where everyone else was pitching on paper. We won the contract and never looked back.”

Yet, The Simpsons: Road Rage, a Radical game published in 2001, didn’t exactly meet the expectations of its creators. The pressure was on with only a year to bring it to life among a team still getting to know one another, developing their first game as a group and their first game as individuals on new systems.

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In the world of officially-licensed games, Road Rage might not have been the biggest hit, but it did give the Radical Entertainment development team a chance to learn from its mistakes with that game’s spiritual successor, The Simpsons: Hit & Run.

Looking back, McGinn can easily recall the point when that process began. He says, “Do the physics first.”

“Before building a single road, we needed to know how the vehicles drive and feel. We had three pillars that we talked about incessantly until we drove the team crazy, and then we still talked about them: fun driving gameplay, exploring an immersive Springfield city, and to never forget we are making a comedy.”

Last Exit to Springfield

Radical Entertainment didn’t just use its initial effort at a Simpsons game as a learning experience when creating The Simpsons: Hit & Run; it also drew inspiration from the beginning of a new golden age for video games, as per reports of Gameradar, McGinn added, large game budgets allowed for the development of substantial 3D games with little opposition from those allocating funds.

Radical was allowed complete freedom to approach Hit & Run as it liked, except for regular meetings and playtests with Simpsons creator Matt Groening. The team was influenced mainly by the initiatives abroad that inspired them.

“There’s no question Hit & Run was inspired by Grand Theft Auto 3, which we were all playing at the time,” McGinn explains. “We pitched the game to the publisher as ‘GTA for kids’. As game developers, the key concept we saw in GTA was exploration.

Not only exploration of the game world, but of a possibility space. It may seem obvious now, but it was revolutionary then: GTA was one of the first games that gave you the freedom to solve a mission how you saw fit.”

“While we didn’t have the richness of gameplay mechanics to offer the same level of freedom, we embraced the principle. For example, I remember one debate about whether you should be able to drive any car, even the boring NPC cars. The publishers thought players should only be able to drive the carefully modelled character-cars. We were able to argue that this was a case where the gamer’s freedom should win: every car in the game is drivable.”

“Two other big influences: one was Driver. The original Driver, on PSOne, because the cars were just so much fun to drive with the action-movie-style drifting they perfected. That was the driving physics we were going for and our physics and vehicle-tuning team just nailed it. We knew we had a solid foundation to build upon when the car was fun to drive on an empty, flat surface.”

“The other influence was Super Mario 64. That’s the ‘kids’ part… taking all the nasty out of GTA and replacing it with platforming. And mechanically Mario 64 was the best platformer that had been made by that time, where we learned a lot about character control and camera.”

Celebrates 20 Years of the "Gta for Kids"
                                                    Celebrates 20 Years of the “GTA for Kids”

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A Star is Burns

Outside its primary influences, The Simpsons: Hit & Run has also distinguished itself with smart decisions in other areas. Like Road Rage before it, Hit & Run saw the benefit of letting players assume the roles of every Simpsons family member, and it even included beloved series regular Apu.

“Homer and Bart were obvious playable characters, [but] the team was getting to an age where some of us were having children, and some of us had daughters,” explains McGinn. “So we pitched to the publisher that the whole family – well, ok maybe not Maggie – should be playable.”

“At this time there were not a lot of developers thinking about making games accessible beyond the traditional gamer market (i.e., boys), and the publisher wasn’t too keen. But in the end we won with a money argument.”

“We had the real Simpsons voice cast, and for no small amount of money, [so] we said ‘we’re spending all this money for Marge and Lisa voice work, we can get our value out of it if they are playable characters’. That sold the publisher on the idea.” 

“Lisa became my favourite. Because we got four hours of each actor’s time, and Yeardley Smith only does the one character, so she had a lot more variety of dialogue than Homer. Although we did hear that the actor’s voice got tired because we gave Lisa more lines in our game than she would perform in a whole season of TV – sorry, Yeardley!”

The Simpsons: Hit & Run was considered a success for Radical Entertainment and publisher Vivendi Universal Games despite only achieving moderate revenues by today’s game production standards. However, this success was not enough to prevent either company from eventually closing its doors.

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McGinn states unequivocally, “I would love to see it,” while lacking knowledge of how likely an official remake could be.

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