The Sims on PC was a massive success, selling somewhere past the 10 million mark. Electronic Art were eager to cash in on their new hit series, so by 2003, the tap had been turned on and the ports and spin-offs had begun to flow. There were two separate 2003 releases on console alone, and it was also the year that the series would make the move to the portable format; specifically the Game Boy Advance. The Sims Bustin’ Out would be the first of four games on the console, and it sets the tone as a divergence from the console and PC versions. While those versions leaned heavily into the life simulator genre, the Game Boy Advance didn’t quite have the horse power to replicate that formula and had to make some concessions. The result is a series that strays closer to the adventure genre, with retained elements of the life simulators it came from.
The game opens with you arriving at the farm of Uncle Hayseed. It’s the summer, and your parents are looking to get rid of you. Your uncle is eager to get you out of the house and into a place of your own (the barn), because you’re abrasive, have terrible hygiene, and frankly, no one likes you. Get a job, you freeloader. From there, you complete various goals to progress through the game’s 5 chapters.
The Sims on console had similar goal based progression, but Bustin’ Out on GBA is completely different. Oh, sure, you need to maintain your needs, build skills, make friends, and maybe you’ll decorate your pad with various accoutrements that make all this easier, but that’s where the similarities end. In Bustin’ Out, you’re given free run of the town of SimValley, and spend way more time outside your home than in it.
You’re given direct control of your sim, rather than directing them using a hand of god pointer, which drastically alters the game. Work is now done by mini-games, social actions are through a dialogue system, and skills are… well, they’re built up by watching a progress bar, same as before. Features like create-a-sim and home decorating have been scaled back considerably, and others, like build mode, have been omitted entirely. The focus has shifted entirely to the completion of goals, which, for better or worse, makes it a very unique experience. Waking up in the morning, heading out into the world to try and accomplish as much as possible before needing to return home to recharge is a pretty engaging gameplay loop.
STREETS OF SIMVALLEY
The goals themselves show decent diversity. Some of them are what you’d expect, such as making friends with someone, getting a promotion, or increasing a skill, while others are less straightforward, like capturing a killer rooster, solving a ghost’s riddles, or finding an object that fell from space. Nothing strays too far away from the game’s core mechanics, but the fact that you’re not just building your skills and progressing through careers is a nice improvement.
The jobs that you can take to earn Simoleons are a bit of a mixed bag. They’re basic and simple takes on professions like mowing the lawn, cliff diving, and bartending. None of them are particularly good, but they’re short and it’s not mandatory to play any single profession, so they avoid being too painful. There’s also a dearth of furniture to buy, so you generally only need to jump into a job when the plot demands you progress a certain distance up a career ladder.
The social system is pretty awful. Rather than selecting an action to use, such as compliment or hug, you’re instead presented with a list of phrases that you can say to the character you’re interacting with, most of which follow a certain phrasing formula that makes it clear when you’re telling a joke or spreading gossip. However, you’re only given a maximum of three options at any time, and it’s not guaranteed that an NPC will respond well to any of them. If you know that the NPC won’t like anything you have to say, you must exit dialogue entirely, and re-enter to be given a new list. The dialogue can be amusing at times, but because the social mechanic is so tedious, you’ll likely end up just skimming past it most of the time.
Another way that the portable version of The Sims Bustin’ Out diverges from its console predecessors is in its personality. Bustin’ Out on consoles was pretty weird, but its humour was rooted to the franchise. The portable version, on the other hand, is so tonally different, that with a few tweaks, it would be unrecognizable as a Sims game.
It’s designed in an oddly compelling sort of way. Characters frequently break the fourth wall in subtle and amusing ways. There are some dark moments that seem to imply that a character is being threatened with death, and the game’s climax takes a sudden and abrupt turn, concluding in a simply bizarre and unexpected finale. The writing comes across like the designers had a certain amount of disdain for the project, and rather than simply go through the paces, wanted to see what they could get away with. The result is something that isn’t so much mean spirited, as it is cheeky.
One facet that I found interesting about the game was its strange way of handling romance. Among your social options, you’re capable of choosing flirty interactions, but only to members of the opposite sex. This is weird, since there’s no real advantage to flirting that I could tell, but also because you can only choose to be flirty with members of your sim’s opposite sex. This isn’t so much a complaint, as it is something I find interesting; throughout The Sims series, sims have always been rampantly bisexual. To have sims be strictly straight is something of an affront to the franchise. It would be weird enough if this was the case in the usual hand-of-god formula on PC and console, but it’s even more striking when it happens while you have direct control over your sim; when it’s your avatar, so to speak.
The Sims Bustin’ Out lays out an intriguing formula for translating a game that would otherwise be too complicated for the handheld. It’s not perfect, but it’s a pretty compelling and enjoyable experience that incorporates aspects of the core series with an adventure series to provide something of an adventure anchored by downtime. Taking care of your sim helps ground the gameplay and keeps it glued together. It unfortunately doesn’t ever cash in on this excellent formula. At the end of the game, I was left with an overwhelming “that’s it?” Which isn’t to say it’s a brief experience or that it’s deficient in content, it just sputters out without ever fully realizing its potential.
Is it worthwhile? Yes, but you should probably keep in mind that there were sequels that utilize the Bustin’ Out gameplay formula.
This review was conducted on a Game Boy Advance Game Player, as well as a Game Boy Advance SP and Game Boy Advance Micro using an original cartridge copy of the game. It was paid for by the author.