According to the appropriately-titled episode “Whacking Day” (Lynch, 1993), the 10th of May is celebrated throughout the fictional town of Springfield as a day to drive snakes into the town square and mercilessly club them to death. Accordingly, as a massive fan of The Simpsons (1989 to present) I feel that this is an appropriate date to talk about one of the many videogames based on the award-winning show.
Released: 8 February 2012
Originally Released: 4 March 1991
Developer: Backbone Entertainment
Original Developer: Konami
Also Available For: Arcade, Commodore 64, MS-DOS, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
The Simpsons began life as a series of short cartoons created by Matt Groening for The Tracey Ullman Show, with Groening hastily naming each of the family members after himself and his own family and the characters coloured yellow by colourist Georgie Peluse simply because it was deemed amusing. In 1989, Groening was approached by a team of production companies to produce a series of half-hour episodes focusing on his dysfunctional family for the Fox Broadcasting Company. Groening jumped at the chance to produce an alternative to the “mainstream trash” that was currently airing and The Simpsons eventually premiered in late 1989. The show became a multimedia juggernaut after “Bartmania” gripped the nation; in addition to the long-running series, The Simpsons featured in every piece of merchandise imaginable, from action figures and comics to videogames.
While the majority of these early videogames are notoriously poor, one stood out for its high quality graphics and addictive beat-‘em-up gameplay and that was the arcade game produced by Konami. It was surprising how well the developers adapted the Simpsons concept to a sidescrolling beat-‘em-up however, while the game was somewhat restricted by the relatively short run of the show at the time, what really gave the game its prestige was its obscurity. I’ve been lucky enough to play this out in the wild over the years so, naturally, I jumped at the chance to get it when it was finally re-released on the PlayStation Network in 2012; sadly, the game has since been delisted, meaning there is no easily accessible way to play this classic beat-‘em-up title.
Whilst out shopping, the Simpsons accidentally bump into Waylon Smithers as he is stealing a giant diamond for his employer, the greedy and malicious Charles Montgomery Burns. When the diamond lands in Maggie’s mouth, Smithers kidnaps her and the Simpsons are forced to pursue him to rescue her.
The Simpsons is a 2D, sidescrolling beat-‘em-up in which up to four players travel from the left side of the screen to the right through a variety of familiar Simpsons locations while pummelling wave-upon-wave of goons and other assorted enemies. Unlike some four-player beat-‘em-ups, any player can select any character and you’ll even be able to pull off unique double team moves with each member of the Simpsons family.
There are four characters to choose from (Bart, Homer, Marge, and Lisa) and, though each one controls exactly the same, it does seem as though each one has slightly different pros and cons and each one attacks in a slightly different way. For example, Bart and Lisa are smaller and faster, making it easier to manoeuvre around the screen and to avoid enemy attacks, while Homer and Marge are much taller and slower. Bart glides along on his skateboard, which he also uses to attack enemies; Lisa skips around using a skipping rope (which she also uses to attack); Homer attacks with his fists (and seems to have the shortest range as a result); and Marge whacks enemies with her vacuum cleaner, giving her the longest reach but a slightly slower attack than, say, Bart or Lisa.
Gameplay couldn’t be simpler: you just move to the right and attack enemies until you reach the end of the stage where you’ll battle a boss. There are no special moves or complicated button presses and combos to worry about here; X jumps and Square attacks and that’s pretty much it. You can perform jumping attacks and each character has a unique combo attack (Bart whirls around like a spinning top and Homer flails his fists in a frenzy, for example) that is performed by simply mashing X but you can’t grab or throw enemies and there’s no dash function but you can pick up and throw items and objects at enemies.
While 99% of the game is a mindless, monotonous beat-‘em-up, The Simpsons livens things up not just with its bright, cartoony graphics, quirky features, and sound bites but also through its level variety and a couple of Bonus Stages. The first of these has you mashing buttons to pump up a balloon and the second has you doing the same thing to slap your character back to consciousness. It’s not much, and the computer-controlled opponents are ridiculously hard to beat, but it helps to break things up a little bit.
The quirkiness of the game helps with that, too. Since the game was made so early in The Simpsons’ lifespan, much of the show’s characterisations and format had yet to be properly established. As a result, Smithers is a maniacal villain and many of the obscure and fleeting inclusions from the show (such as the bear, Homer’s dreamland, Princess Kashmir, and Professor Werner von Brawn) are much more prominent over characters like Abe Simpson, Milhouse Van Houton, and Otto Mann (who all show up in brief cameos to drop off weapons or health items) and some (like Kent Brockman) are missing entirely in favour of numerous cameos by Groening’s rabbit, Binky. Still, similar to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Konami, 1989), cartoony slapstick and a vibrant aesthetic keep the game enjoyable to look at and play: characters will fly at the screen when smacked by doors, use speech bubbles to shout at you to wriggle the joystick when enemies grab them, and the game does a decent job of recreating certain locations from the show even if some are a little more obscure than others (such as Krustyland and Springfield Butte).
Graphics and Sound:
The Simpsons is a bright, vivid, and lively beat-‘em-up full of big, colourful sprites, cartoony effects, and a decent amount of detail packed into every animation and location. Each character has several frames of animation, even when standing idle; they’ll quickly grow impatient with you if you leave them too long and often speak using both sound bites and word balloons. Additionally, when attacking or being attacked, each character has many frames of animation that allows them to attack in a flurry, be sent tumbling backwards, or return to life in the guise of a superhero.
Considering, as I mentioned before, how early into the show’s run the game was produced, stage variety is commendable…if a bit wacky, at times. Stage one is, naturally, the streets of Springfield but, while you’ll pass by the Noiseland Arcade and the Rusty Barnacle, other prominent locations from the iconic Simpsons introduction and various episodes are missing. Similarly, Krustyland is quite different to how it appears in the show and appears to be more like an amusement part, Moe’s Tavern is greatly expanded into something more like a casino and a strip club, and Springfield Butte appears to only be included because a handful of early Simpsons episodes occasionally ventured into the wilderness outside of the town.
Things get really surreal when you visit Dreamland on stage six, which features all kinds of weird background elements and brief inclusions of what I would consider to be more prominent Simpsons landmarks (like the school and the Simpsons’ home). While many of the stages are quite short and relatively barren, the game packs in a bunch of cameos and little details here and there: Howie walks out of the arcade (and will smash you into the screen if you get too close); frogs hop around in the cemetery; and various supporting characters (from Sherri and Terri to the original design for Sideshow Bob and even obscure characters like Doctor Marvin Monroe) show up to drop off health or power-ups.
The Simpsons does a great job of recreating the look and feel of the early episodes of the show and this is helped all the more with the game’s commendable recreation of the iconic Simpsons introduction (which includes a brief rundown on each playable character) and theme tune. The game’s plot, such as it is, is told through the use of both motion comic-like cutscenes and in-game graphics, with a few sound bites thrown in here and there. This allows for a surprising amount of non-playable characters (NPCs) to briefly appear onscreen at once and a few amusing little animated sequences to play out, such as your characters getting swept over a waterfall, Smithers blowing himself up, and Maggie placing her dummy into the unconscious mouth of Mr. Burns.
Enemies and Bosses:
As you embark on your journey, you’ll battle against a seemingly endless wave of men in suits whose sole mission in life is to pummel you to death. Some of these also throw their hats at you or wield brooms or other weapons; they’re also capable of grabbing you to drain your health and get progressively aggressive as the game goes on. You’ll also battle fatter enemies, who can attack in teacups or throw boulders at you, and enemies will drop from trees dressed as ghosts and toss bombs at you in the cemetery.
There are also a handful of unique and quirky enemies to contend with, some of which act as mini bosses of sorts: in stage one, for example, you’ll have to fight past a fireman, Binky and fake Krusty the Clown’s regularly crop up in Krustyland, zombies burst out from the cemetery grounds, you’ll encounter Bigfoot a number of times at Springfield Butte, and Channel 6 even has you fighting ninjas and a laser-spewing robot! Easily the most surreal enemies are found in Dreamland; here, you’ll encounter anthropomorphic donuts and saxophones, Marge heads made of clouds, and nuclear technicians who continue to attack you even after you knock their heads off!
As mentioned, most of the game’s stages end with a battle against a gigantic boss; these are generally pretty easy and all come down to a simple case of dodging and piling on the attacks. The first boss, Professor Werner von Brawn, fills most of the screen and attacks with punches and belly flops (but his trunks have a nasty tendency to fall down, leaving him vulnerable to your attacks) while the second boss is a gigantic Krusty balloon that tries to slap at you and rains bombs down onto the arena. In each case, though, victory comes from simply utilising any weapons dropped off before the fight, using your jumping attacks, and relentlessly pounding away until they are defeated.
Stage three doesn’t actually have a proper boss battle but, at the end of Moe’s Tavern, you’ll have to fight a cracked-up DJ who punches at you and breathes fire! However, his tendency to stop and taunt makes him an easy fight, as is the giant fake bear that awaits you at the end of Springfield Butte. The hardest thing about this boss is that it surprises you by bursting out of a cave, which can cause you to get hit by logs, and boulders rain down into the area, which can be annoying. Similarly, the large Kabuki Warrior who awaits you at the end of the Channel 6 stage is made more cumbersome by his long reach (thanks to his spear) and the fact that he conjures a ninja or two to distract you during the fight.
Dreamland, however, ends with a particularly annoying and tough boss battle against a huge anthropomorphic bowling bowl that attacks in four different phases: in the first, it simple rolls and bounces around; in the second, it grows arms to bounce higher; the third sees it grow legs and shoot bowling pin missiles; and the fourth and final phase sees it grow one large, stretchy arm to swipe at you. It’s quite a laborious boss battle, especially considering that every boss before this was relatively short and simple, but is just a taste of things to come.
When you reach the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, you’ll simply walk right through the stage and into Mr. Burns’ office for the final battle, which is preceded by a fight against Smithers. Smithers attacks with his cape and maniacally dashes around the office tossing bombs at you. Thankfully, you can throw some of these back at him and he goes down relatively quickly as long as you can get near him and avoid being chargrilled by his bombs and death animation. Defeat him, though, and Mr. Burns bursts through the wall in his mech suit for another four-phase boss fight. At first, Burns attacks with retractable pincer-like arms and spits out the odd nuclear bomb, then he rises up onto treadmill-like feet and starts shooting missiles at you. In his third phase, he switches to a hovercraft-like base and adds a spiked rod attack and, in the fourth phase, having had his exosuit smashed off throughout the fight, Burns simply resorts to bouncing around the screen and scattering bombs everywhere. This is definitely a fight made easier with another player or in Free Play mode as Burns is a damage sponge and can easily smack the life out of you in just a few hits.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
As in any self-respecting beat-‘em-up, the Simpsons have a variety of options when it comes to restoring their health; NPCs will drop off burgers, hot dogs, donuts, pie, and roast chickens and you can also shake apples from trees, each of which will allow you to keep fighting a little longer. Some of these can also be found right before boss areas so, if you’re low on health, it’s worth picking them up.
Similarly, you’ll find and be gifted a variety of weapons throughout each stage; one of the most prominent is the slingshot, which allows you to fire a limited number of projectiles at your enemies, but you can also grab bowling balls, a hammer, bar stools, brooms, bottles, drink cups, and even Snowball II, Santa’s Little Helper, and the original design of the Space Mutants to launch at enemies.
The Simpsons has twelve Trophies for you to earn, each of them actually requiring a bit of skill and effort on your part as they task you with reaching certain stages, acquiring a certain number of points in specific game modes, or teaming up with other plays on- or offline. The difficulty of these varies quite a bit; it’s not much to ask you to finish the game four times, once with each character, but finishing the game in thirty minutes or less or on the “Expert” difficulty with limited continues is a bit of a tall order.
When playing this version of the game, you are presented with a variety of gameplay options. You can choose to play in “Free Play” mode (which gives you unlimited continues), “Survival” mode (which gives you one life an no continues), “Team Quarters” (where you share forty continues), and “Quarters” mode (which gives you ten continues). You can then select between Easy, Normal, Hard, and Expert difficulty modes (with enemies increasing in number and difficulty the higher the setting), select any stage you like (though, as I finished this game a long time ago, this may need to be unlocked so I forget if it’s available right from the start), view characters and artwork in the gallery, apply different borders and screen settings, and have access to a sound test.
You can also choose to play the Japanese version of the game, which differs somewhat from the worldwide release. For one thing, it adds the nuclear bomb item to certain stages, which allows you to clear the screen of enemies. It also allows you to use weapons in mid-air, ups the power of the slingshot, adds a “Vital Bonus” score at the end of every stage, allows you to increase your health beyond its limit, and adds a number of different enemy, item, and NPC placements within every stage which can help mix up subsequent playthroughs.
The Simpsons is not an especially deep or feature-laden arcade title; the lack of special moves, relative emptiness of the stages, the enemy variety, and the short length of the game all, arguably, make it somewhat inferior to other arcade beat-‘em-ups released around the same time. Yet, thanks to its colourful graphics, quirky animations, and simple pick-up-and-play formula, it’s a classic of its genre through and through and easily one of the most enjoyable beat-‘em-ups out there. Of course, much of its appeal comes from nostalgia and its rarity but none of that detracts from the fact that it’s a blast to play and never outstays its welcome. A sidescrolling beat-‘em-up may not necessarily be the first genre that springs to mind when you think of The Simpsons but it works really well here; even though the show was still in its early days, the game does a great job of capturing the spirit of The Simpsons and including a number of cameos and call-backs to the show. It’s a shame that The Simpsons wasn’t more commercial available through ports to home consoles and that this particular version has been delisted from online stores as it’s a great way to waste an hour or so and the additional features and options help to spice the experience up. It was a great little package for a long-forgotten game and I can only hope that, one day, it’ll reappear on the Xbox so I can experience it all over again.
Are you a fan of The Simpsons? Have you have played this game out in the wild or did you first experience it through emulation or the PlayStation and Xbox ports? Which of the playable characters was your favourite? How do you feel the game holds up today, especially compared to other beat-‘em-ups? Would you like the see the game re-released again or do you think it’s better left in obscurity? What is your favourite Simpsons game? Do you have a favourite character, episode, or moment from the show? How are you celebrating Whacking Day today? Whatever your thoughts on the world’s most famous yellow family, feel free to leave a comment below and be sure to check back in for more Simpsons content!