When I think of The Simpsons arcade game, I think of purple hippo trash cans. These terrifying monoliths were the favored receptacle of the video arcade in the main plaza of the city of Tepatitlan, in the state of Jalisco. The video arcade was a wonderland of animal-shaped architecture, the smell of fried chips doused in hot sauce sold at the front counter, and even an old ball pit that would see an occasional and exceptionally brave visitor dive into its depths.
This may shock you, but I didn't care for early games based on The Simpsons. It may be no coincidence that my first memory of those early games was a brief moment in time with Bart vs. the Space Mutants. It was a gloomy, smog-tinted summer afternoon in Los Angeles, CA. My mother dragged me along to visit her friend, who had a daughter of my age that was also in my elementary school, though she was in a different classroom and so our social circles were worlds apart. While my mother and her friend chatted, we were left to our own devices. We hung out in her room and she wore the kind of frilly dress that only kids with no control of their lives would wear. We grasped at the straws of childhood conversation.
The Nintendo Game Boy remained a mystery to me for many years with only a few experiences with the handheld before one was gifted to me in my teens. But I do know that my neighbor Jason had one. He and I became friends after my family moved to our longtime residence in 1989, and while we mostly played outside we did occasionally spend some time with my NES or his Game Boy. And this is how I first played the little platformer called Bart Simpson's Escape from Camp Deadly. As with many of these early Simpsons game experiences, I found it difficult and obtuse. I remember playing it just once before giving up and asking what other cartridges my neighbor had.
I was in college when I discovered the existence of Bart vs. the World, or the fact that there were more than, like, five Simpsons games altogether. I'd been writing game walkthroughs for a bit and decided these poor, neglected Simpsons games needed some kind of coverage, and Bart vs. the World was among the first that I selected. My expectations were low, but that was just the way to experience the best Simpsons game on the NES.
There are few games whose existence has surprised me. There's James Pond: RoboCod, a game that seemed too fun to have flown under everyone's radars. The King of the Hill game on PC was a doozy. And of the Simpsons games, it is the appropriately named Bart's House of Weirdness that shocked me. Here was a game published by Japanese company Konami, only released on the IBM PC platform, and so richly drawn and animated that I couldn't believe it just released and disappeared like so much abandonware. It was the first retro Simpsons game I actively sought to find on eBay and it's been in my collection for 18 years now. And it's a shame it wasn't better than it turned out to be.
Krusty's Fun House is one of those games that was always just… there. You'd see it in magazines, on store shelves, in game bins, at your friend's house, and sometimes it mysteriously turned up in your game collection. Name a game platform of the early nineties and there it was. It wanted to be owned and played by everyone, existing in all places and realities. Krusty's Fun House wanted to conquer the world. Krusty's Fun House just wanted to be loved.
Video stores proliferated in the eighties as the VHS cassette tape became the dominant medium for viewing movies and television episodes away from the confines of cable and the public airwaves. The other medium to blow up in the eighties was the video game in the form of cartridges. These sturdy entertainment delivery systems made them ideal for lending out to game-hungry kids with small budgets or a need for constant games in the rotation. Companies like Nintendo fought this of course. They argued it stole revenue out of their pockets if customers could merely rent and complete games for just a few dollars. And while the law in Japan agreed and killed the video game rental market, America would have none of that. The bastion of capitalism would let the market decide the fates of game companies and video stores.
The Game Boy was the perfect handheld gaming device. Bring it and a few game cartridges along and you're all set for those long road trips in the back seat. But with so many choices at a relatively low price, it could be a challenge to limit the number of games to bring along. Nintendo standbys like Mario Land, Link's Awakening, and Metroid II were all but guaranteed, but why not try some funky new game? That is where the Simpsons titles on Game Boy come in. They were "other" Game Boy games, recognizable with their big yellow visages on the box but always a toss-up in terms of gameplay. Will it be good or will it be crap? Kids who played Bart vs. the Juggernauts may have been pleasantly surprised.
At this point in the series I get to reveal my origin story. I was in college I suddenly had to make decisions. Who would I become in this new world? Well, it turns out I'd really lean into that ol' Internet, and in particular the video game message boards at the GameFAQs website. I began as a regular boarder and realized that I could contribute more than just pithy college-aged quips like "peez out." GameFAQs was also a repository of those titular FAQs and walkthroughs, and I soon noticed that my longtime interest in The Simpsons was represented in that vast digital archive. There were so many Simpsons video games, far beyond what I could have conceived. I missed most of those games but found a chance to read about them and, more importantly, play them. And once I started playing them I couldn't help but notice that very few of them had walkthroughs. It was a calling! It was momentous! It was… something to focus on at a strange time of my life. I considered my approach through that first semester of college and started writing in January of 2002.
I'd never been a dedicated collector as a kid. There were a few flirtations with pogs and comic trading cards, but those were brief and tied to schoolyard fads. The closest to collecting that I'd come is buying video games, but even then I traded away games without a moment's hesitation and was happy to buy just the cartridge or disc if it was cheaper. Old things were nice, sure, but there were so many new things. This changed when I finally became interested in Star Wars in 1997. LucasFilm had just released the special edition versions of the original trilogy and it suddenly clicked that this sci-fi space opera was pretty cool. I was also a teenager by then with more disposable income than I'd ever had as a child. So I watched the movies… read the books of the expanded universe… bought the toys… and played the video games. And because I was already especially interested in video games, that was the category of collectible that stuck with me the most. I hunted down Star Wars video games from the past and present, and buying games complete with box and manual suddenly mattered. Those physical artifacts just lent a certain something to ownership of the objects. It was the genesis of my collector brain.
Chapter 11: Itchy & Scratchy in Miniature Golf Madness
15 Aug 1994
Something was going on with Game Boy games from Acclaim in 1994. The previous Game Boy game in the series--Bart and the Beanstalk--saw a limited print run that resulted in a rarity now worth upwards of three hundred dollars. Itchy & Scratchy in Miniature Golf Madness is in the exact same position, with a complete box fetching between two and three hundred dollars on eBay. And as we'll learn, the value has nothing to do with the gameplay.
My personal lack of history with Simpsons games continued through the mid-nineties. I was twelve by 1994 and while still very much into The Simpsons TV show and also into video games, I leaned toward more action-friendly franchises such as Sonic and X-Men. The Simpsons just didn't move me to buy their games. However I have a distinct memory centered around Virtual Bart for Sega Genesis. The American concept of the shopping mall continued unabated during this period, with grand malls gracing the landscape every few miles in my native Los Angeles. Our local mall was the Fox Hills Mall in Culver City, CA.
As I was a kid in the eighties and nineties, I was there for the tail end of comedic animated violence in its full glory. There were countless television shows that repackaged old cartoons from Warner Brothers, Disney, and Hanna-Barbera, among other studios, to fill half-hour slots on television stations that needed to pad out their daily programming blocks. This is how I usually caught what used to be short animated films that played before theatrical releases. I learned how Mickey Mouse used to be a mischievous fiend before he was watered down and turned into a corporate mascot, and that Warner Brothers shorts are rife with gun-totin’, anvil-droppin’, quip-spewin’ characters who routinely gave each other black eyes and concussions that disappeared in the next scene. I also learned how casual racism and sexism were thrown in alongside the casual violence, making rewatches of these so-called “classic” cartoons a hard pill to swallow.
Oh, jeez, we’re up to 1997. I have to think back. Where was I? A fifteen-year-old, just starting high school, and not into the old Simpsons games at all. I was perhaps playing Resident Evil and Tomb Raider on the PlayStation, trying my best to play the mature stuff. That said, I was absolutely still watching The Simpsons on TV. That’s the year when Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein ended their time as showrunners and Mike Scully came aboard to run the ship. That’s also when I took the leap into recording episodes.
Video arcade parlors had transformed since the heady days of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. The technology evolved in leaps and bounds throughout the eighties, creating unique experiences and gameplay that could not be matched on home consoles. I looked at some of this history in writing about The Simpsons Arcade game, highlighting contemporaries such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and noting that the emergence of Street Fighter II and the fighting game genre altered the course of popular arcade games in the nineties. They were certainly the arcade games that drew me to them as I whiled away my middle school afternoons at local pizza arcades in suburban Los Angeles. Fighting games weren’t the only arcade games available in the last decade of the twentieth century, but they were by far the most common and lucrative. I kept up with the arcade fighting games for a while, but home consoles were capable of matching the arcade experience by the late nineties and I became more interested in saving my money for the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 titles of the time.
Chapter 16: Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror
26 Mar 2001
I’ve established that I joined the legions of fans whose comedic sensibilities were shaped by the antics of a town full of dopes and their cynical brand of humor. And while I enjoy the classic episodes as much as anyone who grew up with them, I’m also in that fan club of people who were especially delighted by the annual Halloween specials, collectively known as the Treehouse of Horror series. These horror-themed episodes began as parodies of the horror and science fiction films and television series that the writers grew up with in the sixties and seventies. Older viewers may have understood and appreciated the references to shows such as The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, but children of the nineties were unlikely to get those jokes behind the jokes. It’s a testament to the quality of the show that these classic parodies retold through the medium of The Simpsons could still feel like funny, original stories that introduced a new generation of viewers to horror and science fiction of a different era. The source material evolved as the show progressed through the decades, moving ahead to more recent material such as the supernatural teen angst from Twilight or the technology angst from Black Mirror.
Disappointment. Do you remember it, that first sense of something having profoundly let you down? People often do, though we must try our best to forgive them. Politicians make it part of their lifetime vocations. And entertainment, why, I’d say we expect it. Every piece of media, every work of art, has the potential to just bomb and let us down. Something that’s free may not sting, but when it costs money, hoo boy.
The year 2001 was a tumultuous one. In the world of video games, the PlayStation 2 had already been available for a year, and Nintendo’s next system--the Gamecube--was due to release at the end of the year alongside a new competitor, Microsoft’s Xbox console. Sega’s longtime presence in the game hardware industry ended that year when they accepted the commercial failure of the Sega Dreamcast and ceased production, abandoning hardware development to focus on software. It was also perhaps the last significant shift in graphics capabilities, with the PlayStation and Nintendo 64’s chunky polygons and blurry textures evolving into the much more eyeball-friendly graphics of a new generation.
College is a unique and expensive time in a young man’s life. You pay the institution loads of money to ostensibly provide an education that will prepare you for the real world, both in terms of earning potential and molding you into a citizen of the world. But in truth, at least in the United States, it is often just an extension of high school, itself the former source of skills required to live in the world. College ‘kids’ go to class a little more free than they used to be, learning what it means to decide one’s course while accruing mile-high debt and still working a part-time job. At least, that’s what it was for me.
Life trudged on in 2003. The endless war of our times intensified as the United States and its allies invaded Iraq and ended the decades-long regime of Saddam Hussein, the world was enraptured by the whirlwind romance of Bennifer, and Clay Aiken won the hearts of the nation even as he came in second place to Ruben Studdard on American Idol. The Simpsons was in its fifteenth season by the end of the year, while fellow Fox Television Network sitcoms such as The Pitts, The Grubbs, and soon-to-resurge Family Guy all fell by the wayside into the cancellation ditch.
The Simpsons Hit & Run pleased pretty much everyone, and while it wasn’t a perfect game by any means, it was certainly the best game to feature the Simpsons in a long time. Upon its release, I felt certain that Vivendi had struck the kind of gold that ensured at least one more round of the same type of gameplay. Perhaps a sequel with a larger, unified map to achieve the kind of open world they’d attempted in the first game? And certainly more types of vehicles, more characters, more locales. More, more, more. It was quite a time to be a fan of Simpsons games, dreaming of what may be.
I’d unwittingly stumbled into a fandom when I started watching The Simpsons on television, recorded episodes onto VHS tapes, and then found my own particular niche in the form of writing walkthroughs for Simpsons video games and creating a fansite to host those walkthroughs. Somehow, that wasn’t enough, and I got it into my head that I needed to work on a Simpsons video game. I’d already grown up in Inglewood, CA, a suburb just a stone’s throw from Big Hollywood and all the video game and television production jobs I’d ever want. And while my stint at Vivendi Games was my foot in the door for video game work, it wasn’t quite what I’d hoped. After all, I didn’t just want to work on any video games. It had to be a Simpsons video game.
The year of The Simpsons Game was the whirlwind it appeared to be in previous chapters. There was the movie, the first mobile game, The Simpsons Game itself, meeting Matt Groening at the launch party, and all of the crazy luck that went into getting myself involved in my own small way. It was such a whirlwind that by the end, I was kind of… done. Just done with caring about The Simpsons. My last bit of work as a tester on the game ended in October and I moved onto other, non-Simpsons projects at EA. In hindsight, that winter was kind of a bummer, and part of it was the fact that there was no way to match the dizzying highs of the first three quarters of the year. But I hopped back on enough of the wagon to complete a walkthrough for The Simpsons Game in early 2008 because, hey, that’s what I did back then.
I imagine most people don’t note the coming and going of games from digital distribution fronts. If a game appears on Steam or the App Store today, and then it disappears two years from now, it’ll go mostly unnoticed. Such is the ephemeral nature of digital entertainment. It is hosted by someone, generally on behalf of a publisher, and then it disappears when said publisher no longer has the rights to sell it or is unwilling to spend money to update the game when it breaks.
I’ve worked in video games for a while, and what I’m going to write next is probably a product of a career spent mostly in the world of traditional video game products. Make a game, release a game, be done with the game. That’s how I like to work and that’s the kind of game I personally like to play. I had a few brushes with working on them, such as the Sims series in which a base game is released and expansion packs follow for years and years. I knew immediately that I had to get out of that. The model in which a game becomes a service or platform--constantly fed a steady stream of content and features--is about the last thing I want to be a part of. And as far as playing those games, when does it end? I need it to end.