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.
I began with Star Wars and other video games all through high school but reached my Simpsons collector persona in college. It was light collecting I'd say, buying whatever games were released in stores at the time and occasionally picking up oddities on eBay. But I didn't have a completionist mindset. I was happy to download ROMs and cracked builds of old games on PC to play them all. I have no idea what some of the rarer Simpsons games even cost back when I began in the early aughts because I never bothered to look them up. My guess is they would've been a lot cheaper than they are now.
And so we come to Bart and the Beanstalk on Nintendo Game Boy. I didn't own an original Game Boy until the Game Boy Pocket was in stores, and even then I only really played cornerstone games like Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening and Pokemon Red. Most of my Game Boy play time was in emulators on a PC. Then when I did buy a Simpsons Game Boy game such as Escape from Camp Deadly, it was only because it was so common that I couldn't avoid it. Bart and the Beanstalk didn't enter my radar until after I'd forgotten about Simpsons games for close to ten years and then returned in full force, ready to complete a collection I'd begun nearly twenty years before. I was surprised to see that a complete box of Bart and the Beanstalk was now selling for close to three hundred U.S. dollars! The game came from Acclaim at a time when the market already had nearly a dozen Simpsons games available. Perhaps the game sold so poorly that the first print run was the only set of copies in existence. And sure the cartridge alone sells for cheap, but who wants that? There may have been other options to obtain a copy, but complete sets appeared to be so rare that I bit that bullet and purchased it from eBay when a complete copy popped up. I'd become a fan of video series about old video games like those from journalist and web archivist Jeremy Parish, who occasionally warns viewers of the perils of being a completionist with old game collections. I thought he'd said it in a tongue in cheek manner but now I wonder if it was a serious P.S.A…
But the fact is that I do own it now. The itch has been scratched, the box sits on a shelf, and I'm left to wonder if a half hour game with zero replay value was really worth the trouble. Consider thee warned.
I'll be so poor that I'll only have Simpsons video games to comfort me.
Bart and the Beanstalk came about in the waning years of Simpsons games for 8-bit platforms. The Game Boy alone had already seen three releases in three years and though the Game Boy was feeling long in the tooth by 1994, it was still a platform that allowed for small scope games with matching small budgets. Acclaim still held the Simpsons license and it felt like their real budgets for Simpsons games were going into games like Bart's Nightmare and Virtual Bart, with Game Boy and Game Gear games being churned out to bring in a few extra bucks. Bart and the Beanstalk was the first of these extra buck games.
Acclaim turned back to the UK to find a developer for Bart and the Beanstalk, ultimately choosing to work with a developer called Software Creations out of Manchester, England. It may seem strange for Acclaim to veer off and find a new developer after years of working with Imagineering and Sculptured Software, but producer Paul Provenzano recalls that it was just business: “Acclaim, at the time, worked exclusively with outside developers. It was a pretty standard list of guys that we just rotate around to various projects.” So Acclaim was in the market for a new developer to add to their stable.
Like many of the development companies we've seen so far, Software Creations began as a developer of computer games in the eighties before pivoting to licensed games across a wider variety of platforms in the nineties. In fact, games based on popular comic and movie licenses became a key part of Software Creations's business. Other notable titles from Software Creations that shipped the same year as this game include Spider-Man and Venom: Maximum Carnage and The Tick, both colorful punchfests on 16-bit consoles that were fun to look at but difficult to play. They were quite different from Bart and the Beanstalk. For one, those games had sizable teams of fifteen to twenty-five people. Bart and the Beanstalk appears to have had a core team of a handful of people with others developers pitching in where necessary. The size of the team doesn't dictate the quality of the game, but it certainly shows that the budget was not high. There are some shared names between all of Software Creations credits but one name from Bart and the Beanstalk stood out: lead producer and designer Brian Ullrich. He had only worked at Software Creations for a few years but had been credited in the same role on other notable titles like Zoda's Revenge: Star Tropics II and Plok. It looks like Bart and the Beanstalk was headed up by Brian with a small team of people to help knock out this quick project on Game Boy. The limited team size and budget would be reflected in the game itself.
A humble beginning... and middle and ending.
The previous Simpsons game on Game Boy, Bart vs. the Juggernauts, was a surprising and refreshing entry in the series. It was a mini game collection at its core but the change in format and extra bits of funny dialogue felt like an elevation of the games beyond the platform-fests we've seen for most of this series, which makes sense when the same developer is tasked with making the same game over and over again. They were looking for a change.
So with that in mind we get this game: Bart and the Beanstalk, which sees a new developer take on the license for another joke-free platformer bereft of any of the show's charm and humor. As the title implies, Bart takes the place of Jack in the fairy tale of the boy who gets swindled for a pile of magic beans that grow into a massive beanstalk to the clouds. The boy climbs the beanstalk, steals a golden goose away from a giant living in a castle, and returns to his family as a hero. The Simpsons version of this story is much the same, with short storybook scenes utilizing text and the occasional illustration to advance the story. It fits the fairy tale nature of the game but is also clearly an economical choice to avoid pricey animation and cutscenes. It is somewhat amusing to see Simpson characters like Homer and Mr. Burns take on the roles of the story's characters, but it amounts to some vandal Simpsonizing the illustrations in a storybook.
Psst, kid, want a Game Boy game?
The gameplay is the simplest platforming and shooting you can imagine. The player must guide Bart along a series of platforms while using a slingshot and other weapons to fight off a cadre of giant insects and rodents. The movement physics and animation are unfortunately stiff and not the most fun character controls, but serviceable for the game. Bart can also climb vibes, bounce on clouds and springs, and the final level introduces a downward slalom in which Bart parachutes down along the beanstalk and avoids obstacles. These small movement changes intro welcome variety in a game full of platform jumps and a surprising difficulty curve.
The first level of Bart and the Beanstalk has a similar problem as Bart vs. the Space Mutant but for different reasons. Bart vs. the Space Mutants introduced the game with an obtuse design that incorporated light adventure game elements and a challenging gauntlet of enemies, discouraging most players from continuing further into the game. Bart and the Beanstalk opens by doubling down on the gauntlet approach with a vertical slog along a treacherous beanstalk full of enemies, spikes, and precarious jumps over death pits. It's a cruel start and the few players who purchased the game back in 1994 were undoubtedly ready to quit before they ever reached the giant beetle boss at the top.
Hang on, there's only twenty more minutes of game to go!
Those who did make it beyond the first level and the subsequent tromp through the clouds arrived at the giant's castle, which is the best part of the game. The three middle levels all feature giant-sized silverware and miscellany that do far more to kickstart the imagination than the previous levels, though they feature the same gameplay. This part of the game contains the player's primary goals beyond the gold coins collected in every level: the living harp and golden goose. These macguffins are right out of the fairy tale and provide more interesting objectives than "get to the end of the level," though that's where they are found. There is also a short but amusing portion where Bart jumps across lumps of food floating in a soup while collecting more gold coins, all while dodging a salt shaker's bombardment from above.
The final two levels cover Bart's escape from the castle with his stolen booty. First is a autoscrolling section in which the player guides Bart back through the cloud area but at a faster pace, striving to stay to the left side of the screen lest the giant reach and crush them. It's a high-pressure chase and probably more fun than the initial slow-paced infiltration level. The final level is a similar mirror flip of the first level with Bart floating down along a vertically scrolling map. Platforms come back to haunt the player one last time by serving as barriers to be avoided before the player is trapped by the top of the screen. The developers made sure to provide a path of gold coins to help navigate back to the ground, where an axe to chop down the beanstalk lies in wait.
A spit take in video game form.
If you did the math, that's seven levels at five to ten minutes minutes a piece. Novice players may find their playthrough a bit lengthier but it's simply quite a short game. And the aforementioned rote platforming makes it feel like a smaller slice of the same game Simpsons fans had received for years. But the game does have a certain vibe that I appreciate. Bart and the Beanstalk actually feels like the closest they get to the Super Mario series. By abandoning any sense of logic from the Simpsons universe and dwelling in a surreal place where Homer and Mr. Burns's faces can be slapped onto beetles and clouds, the game becomes a kind of fever dream, matching the nightmarish tone of the games that appeared on 16-bit platforms. It's perhaps no surprise that I'm a big fan of the show's Treehouse of Horror episodes, where the show accomplishes the same feat with the television series (albeit at a different level from a cheaply made Game Boy game). These nonsensical stories break open the rules of the show's characters and their universe. Bart can have psychic powers, become a vampire, or converse with the spirit in a haunted house. This game strives to also break the rules of what a Simpsons can be, but in a far more limited way. I can't help but think that if they'd thrown the dialogue over to a writer from the show to punch it up, the game's short length and high difficulty might have been more enjoyable than what we actually got. It's another case of failing to live up to the high bar set by outstanding source material.