“I don’t wanna look like a weirdo. I’ll just go with a muumuu.”
-Homer Simpson, King-Size Homer (SE7 EP7)
Ah, je suis Les Simspon, or Al-Shamshoon if you’re Arabic, Los Simpson if you’re Spanish, I Simpson if you speak-a Italiano, Семейство Симпсъ in Bulgarian, or if you particularly don’t like the show it’s Die Simpsons in German.
The point is, The Simpsons are everywhere, icons across the world whether you like it or not, and they’ve been on tv since the television was first invented. They’re a bottomless pit of pop-culture reference, parody, and satire, and they’re on their 27th season (at the time of this writing). But of all the things The Simpsons have done over the years since their inception in 1989, none of their contributions are greater than their very first video game: a side-scrolling beat ’em up arcade game.
Back when Konami made video games, this 4-player cabinet appeared in shadowy Chuck E. Cheeses everywhere:
It’s an average day in Springfield, and Smithers is robbing a bank? He bumps into Homer, causing the diamond he heisted to fly through the air and land in baby Maggie’s mouth like a pacifier. Rather than simply pull the faceted jewel from her mouth, Smithers just takes the whole baby?
That leaves the other four members of the Simpsons family to give chase and rescue baby Maggie, while fighting off everywhere citizen in Springfield for no reason. Ok, so the premise is pretty thin. But you’re not playing a beat ’em up for narrative.
The Simpsons allows up to four-players and you can choose from Homer, Marge, Lisa and Bart. Homer comes in swinging with his fists, Marge uses a vacuum cleaner, Lisa wields a jump rope and Bart carries his skateboard. Besides for the basic jumps and attacks, a player-character can execute a combined assault by linking up with another character. For example, if Homer and Marge team up, they can perform a damaging cartwheel and roll around the stage.
Clobbering foes through downtown, the Simpsons run through multiple stages. There are a total of eight stages in the game, featuring several locations from the show: downtown Springfield, Moe’s Tavern, the Nuclear Power Plant. The most memorable stage for me was the Dreamland level with the giant bowling ball boss.
The bosses are all pretty fun and memorable, actually, and I miss how games from this era made boss sprites flash to indicate when their health was low and they were close to being defeated. The final boss of the game is not Smithers, but his manager, Mr Burns, who rides in some kind of atomic-powered mech-suit. Why does this guy want a diamond so badly? He’s rich, right?
At the time, The Simpsons animated sitcom had only aired two seasons. That means that while this very first Simpsons game did its best to reference the show and its characters, it only had a small selection of episodes to pull from. If you’re a fan, you’ll spot a handful of the thousands of Simpsons characters in the background, but don’t expect too much. A little Sideshow Bob here. A little Blinky the Three-Eyed Fish there.
If you’d like to play this game, you’ll either need to find it in a local arcade (good luck), buy the cabinet (better luck), or dust off your Commodore 64. You could also play it on MS-DOS. Oh, and it was available on PlayStation Network and the Xbox Live Arcade, until they maliciously removed it for no reason. Too bad. Online multiplayer would’ve been awesome. Poor move by Sony and Konami. No official notice has been released as to why this game (and others) were pulled from sale.
The Simpsons arcade game is standard side-scrolling beat ’em up fare, but it consistently makes lists of best entries in that genre.
The 8-Bit Review
It was 1991, the year the Super Nintendo was released in North America, the year Street Fighter II was released in arcades, the year the first Starbucks opened in California, and video games managed to reach the point where they resembled colorful and detailed Microsoft Paint art. The shadowless backgrounds and unshaded characters in The Simpsons remind me of my early days of doodling on that CPU program. In retrospect, of course it looks awful by comparison with modern games. But then again, it looks a lot better than some others did at the time. What’s more, the game did a surreal job of capturing the personality of the animated sitcom of the same name.
With the theme song of the tv show calling like a siren from across the darkened arcade, The Simpsons also boasted a little voice work that sounded just like the characters were supposed to. Sound clip wise, the “spring-like” noise that plays when you hit an enemy is still one of the most endearing and distinctive attack noises I can think of. Sort of like a high-pitched “boing”.
The music itself is pretty frantic and all over the place, even for an action-packed brawler. Each song opens with a rambunctious prelude a few seconds long, and the rest is just bombastic rhythm. This is getting a high score more for the sound work than the music.
I still hold that the side-scroller beat ’em up is one of the funnest genres of games ever. It’s a shame that they’ve waned from common to rare among new releases. The gameplay for The Simpsons is everything one would want from this kind of game. Plenty of items can be picked up and thrown, and there are many things that can be interacted with in the background: healing items fall from trees when struck; jack the tires off a car; get thrown into the foreground if you stand in front of a door as it’s being opened. The playable characters even walk at a decent pace, meaning you can skip your wish for a dash feature (take that, King of Dragons). And between stages, a few scattered mini-games alleviated the growing banality of continuous side-scrolling.
Four players is the only way to play this game, and it made for many the high-fived stranger turned insta-friend back in the day. Multiple players also meant you could attempt to unleash the dual attacks I explained earlier with your characters. Co-op was the mantra of choice for the arcade, which is where the best version of The Simpsons existed.
Put in a quarter, walk forward, punch enemies or get punched and lose health. Doesn’t get much more simple than this.
While it wasn’t the hardest beat ’em up ever released, or the most complex in terms of levelling up characters or choosing between different upgrades or storyline paths (The Simpsons had none of that), the game made you want to keep playing it, through some kind of subconscious factor. It just did. The boss fights are fairly unique and fun, so dying on a boss was less frustration than it was just grabbing your coin and tossing it into the slot before your timer ran out. This is a highly replayable game.
Without doing anything to really innovate or further the beat ’em up genre, The Simpsons still gets a high uniqueness score for being the first game to capitalize on the characters. It still shines as the best game with those characters, in my opinion.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
I miss this game a lot. Sometimes when I day dream about being inordinately rich with a low level of scrupulousness to match, I think about what arcade cabinet I would buy. It would be this one, especially considering its absence on modern consoles. I don’t own a Commodore 64, and last time I checked, nobody else does. Least nobody I know. That means the only way to get my fix is to watch a few videos and playthroughs, and simply reminisce about this anachronism.
Aggregated Score: 8.5
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