The Simpsons: Tapped Out (for iPhone) review

A triumph over the problems of highly monetized mobile games and lame licensed property tie-ins, Tapped Out is a fun and addictive, if shallow, time waster.
Photo of The Simpsons: Tapped Out (for iPhone)
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If I told you about a licensed mobile game tied to an aging franchise and filled with in-app purchases and tap-and-wait style play, you’d rightly expect it to be terrible. The Simpsons: Tapped Out (free, Apple App Store) defies expectations. Instead of a cheap cash-in, it’s a fun, well-made game that, though a bit shallow, will hook current and former fans of the series.

Rebuilding Springfield
When you first download the game, you’re treated to a fully animated cut scene where Homer Simpson, the franchise’s layabout anti-hero, complains about a game on his tablet. “All you do is tap and wait and tap and wait,” he says, foreshadowing much of what you’ll be doing once Springfield is destroyed in a nuclear explosion seconds later.

With the town leveled, you take control of Homer and other characters to rebuild Springfield. You place buildings wherever you like, though they can only face one of two directions. Sprinkle the landscape with trees, rivers, roads, and statues of founding heroes for the complete experience. Of course, constructing all this takes time and money. Time you already have, but money is earned by completing quests and assigning jobs to characters, which take anywhere between a few seconds and several days. Most of these tasks are fun to watch, like Comic Book Guy cosplaying as Spock or Mr. Burns being dragged by his hounds, while others aren’t animated and take place off-screen.

The game quickly falls into a familiar rhythm of assigning tasks, waiting, collecting the money your characters earned, and then spending it on something for the town. It’s not deep gameplay, but Tapped Out strings you along with witty textual interactions between characters, familiar faces and features (I scrimped and saved to build all three sections of the Nuclear Power Plant), and tons of locked content.

If you don’t have time but you have real, actual money, you can invest in Tapped Out’s premium currency: donuts (mmm…donuts). Donuts can be used to hurry any task, or purchase special content. Don’t bother trying to unlock Hank Scorpio’s impressive volcano lair; only donuts will do.

Other Springfields
In addition to tapping and waiting in your Springfield, you can visit other Springfields as well. I’ll skip the game’s sci-fi explanation for this, but it’s how the game handles multiplayer. No friends? No worries! The game maintains an alternate Springfield for you lonely losers to visit.

In other players’ Springfields, you can perform any three actions in a 24-hour period. This usually means completing a task, like collecting a building’s income tax, or defacing a building with spray paint. Massive in-game events add more options, which is adds a little meat to this unfortunately thin feature.

Keeping It Fresh
Tapped Out battles player fatigue with its enormous catalog of quests, characters, and buildings, all of which are frequently updated by the developer. The most impressive additions follow in-game events, like Halloween or the winter Holidays.

For example: starting around November, Springfield changed dramatically with a thick layer of snow and new seasonal jobs for characters, weather appropriate outfits, and “festive” quests like turkey hunting. These huge game events also feature different gameplay elements, like giftcards to collect and gift bags to distribute to friends. Game events also have global challenges for all Tapped Out players, which unlock unique content when enormous goals are met by the entire community.

The developers are a little slower to actually improve the game or fix problems. They only recently streamlined the HUD and added an idle character button, which highlights citizens who are currently not assigned to a job.

The Game Goes D’Oh!
Unfortunately, if you want to use all the features of the game you’ll have to create an EA Origin account, which in turn requires a constant connection to the Internet. The game’s sense of humor manages to overcome a lot of problems in the game, but I grew to really hate the image of Bart with an unplugged cable modem that appears every time your connection drops.

On the iPhone 4s , I found the Origin integration to be slow, awkward, and hair-pullingly frustrating. Surprisingly, the Android version of the game handles things like friend management and account login with deft ease. If I had a choice between the two platforms, I think I’d prefer to play it on Android.

The game can also be painfully slow to startup. I can’t count the number of times I’ve laid my phone aside after getting bored waiting for the game to start. Also painfully slow are the massive updates the game downloads—sometimes over 600MB—which I suppose is the price of Tapped Out’s well animated characters.

It’s also very, very, easy to accidentally spend rare donuts hurrying a task or construction with just a few too many taps. Thankfully, the game is pretty forgiving and you have a few seconds to cancel your action.

A Triumph Over Itself
It’s fair to call Tapped Out a shallow game, but if that’s true then it’s a king among shallow games. It manages to deliver the kind of funny, sarcastic experience Simpsons fans would expect, but non-fans won’t care about the game at all. As a free mobile game, it has a shocking number of schemes to part you from your actual cash, but it does so with a wink and a nudge and never forces you to pay to keep playing.

Tapped Out walks a delicate line between miserable money-maker and actual entertainment. So far it’s done a good job being fun, but it’s a balance that’s easily upset. Just take a look at Angry Birds Go!. Personally, I tired of tapping and waiting and ignored the game for months until a new game event lured me back. Luckily, its shallow nature meant that I could easily ignore it for a quite a while before deciding that, yes, I really need to buy that popsicle skyscraper. I suspect that this will keep happening for some time.

Specifications
Genre Online, Simulation
Platform iOS

Verdict
A triumph over the problems of highly monetized mobile games and lame licensed property tie-ins, Tapped Out is a fun and addictive, if shallow, time waster.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc