At this point in the series I get to reveal my origin story. Why video games, why The Simpsons, why Simpsons video games? 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.
That first fateful writing project became a walkthrough for this game: Bartman Meets Radioactive Man, and let me tell you, it's been a weird and amazing eighteen years. Remember, kids, you too can pursue your nerdy interests for no pay at all!
A dog day afternoon
It may have been the beginning for me, but little did I know that Bartman Meets Radioactive Man represented the end of an era. Imagineering Inc. kicked off the Simpsons games on home consoles when they developed Bart vs. the Space Mutants, and this fifth Simpsons title from the company--released nearly two years after the first game--would be their last Simpsons collaboration with Acclaim. According to Imagineering cofounder Garry Kitchen, in a Twitter Q&A hosted by Indie Gamer Chick, “Acclaim was happy, they made lots of $$ and kept hiring us for Simpsons games. By the time 16-bit machines came, there was a new sheriff in town at Acclaim (they were too big for me to deal directly with Greg) & he didn’t like me much. He hired other groups for the 16-bit games.”
And this hurrah on the NES is a strange one. Looking through the credits and some of the developers' websites, it's interesting to see that David Crane--legendary developer of Pitfall and previously discussed in the Bart vs. the Space Mutants chapter--doesn’t list this Bartman Meets Radioactive Man in the credits on his site. Garry Kitchen only lists Bart vs. the Space Mutants. I have to speculate that this game was a contractual obligation by this point, meant to wring a few more dollars out of the NES. It also has the sense of a game relegated to a B-team at Absolute Entertainment--parent company of Imagineering--while the company’s big names moved on to bigger things. This game's credits are also notable for the variety of new names that weren't included in previous Simpsons titles, including a dedicated team from Acclaim themselves, who were previously not credited very much in the games. Commenting on a perceived drop in quality with the controls, designer Dan Kitchen notes, “Unfortunately, it’s due to a different programming team. By the time Radioactive Man was in development, the lead programmers were busy on larger titles and we put less experienced guys on the game. It was a business decision I wish we hadn’t done.” The times were certainly a-changin'. Later that year, Imagineering's staff would be absorbed back into Absolute Entertainment and Imagineering would cease to exist, ending Imagineering's short but prolific place in the annals of game development history.
Care to dance?
Audiences familiar with The Simpsons might have recognized Bart's heroic alter ego in 1992. The mantle of 'Bartman' first appeared not as a costumed character but as the title of a pop song called Do the Bartman from the 1990 album The Simpsons Sing the Blues. Written by music producer Bryan Loren and with vocal support from Michael Jackson, the single climbed to the top of several countries' song charts. The song blew up in the U.S. in 1991 when the Brad Bird-directed music video for Do the Bartman took over MTV and received a nomination at the MTV Awards.
That same year, the writers for the show ran with the concept of Bartman by briefly introducing Bart's heroic alter-ego in the second season episode, “Three Men and a Comic Book.” The character's cowl and cape are a clear reference to Batman, who was back in pop culture's fickle grip after the release of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. The joke in the show is that any person wearing a superhero costume can enter a comic book convention for free, but they don't recognize Bart's homemade costume. This episode also marks the full introduction of Radioactive Man, the World War II-era comic hero who Bart and his friends idolize. Both Bartman and Radioactive Man would appear again in various forms on the TV show and enjoy full prints runs through Matt Groening's Bongo Comics imprint, as well as appearances in various video games. Many a game designer looking for a way to give Bart more advanced powers would find an easy crutch in Bartman.
Ain't no party like a limbo party.
Bartman Meets Radioactive Man arrived during a transition period in the video game industry. 8-bit consoles--and by extension game design informed by the limits of that technology--were on their way out. The world had already seen a more diverse approach to Simpsons game design with Bart's Nightmare on SNES and Sega Genesis, and along comes this relatively simple action-platformer, on outdated hardware, featuring characters that were used to poke fun at comics and their fans. Unlike the show's writers, the game designers took a self-serious approach in designing a quest in which Bart must don his cape and cowl to rescue Radioactive Man from his imprisonment in a place called the Limbo Zone. It's The Neverending Story meets Superman with none of the trademark humor from the TV show.
Bartman made brief appearances as a bonus power-up in Bart vs. the World and the lead persona in the flying shooter level of Bart's Nightmare, as well as later releases such as The Simpsons Game, but this is the first and only time that Bartman is the star character in a video game. Dan Kitchen recalls how that came about: “We finished The World and then Acclaim approached us for yet another Simpsons title. This time they wanted us to focus on Bart's alter-ego, Bartman. They wanted this to appear as an interactive comicbook.”
The designers leveraged the persona to extend Bart's abilities and make things more interesting for the player, with some success and some mediocrity as a result. For starters, the designers continued their exploration of the action-platformer genre and ignored further attempts at the overly intricate puzzles and inventory management from Bart vs. the Space Mutants. They also gave Bart an ability that was somehow missing until this game: melee attacks! The player can press the attack button once for a punch attack, or two and three times to execute a combo attack. It's a small but significant improvement that adds to the action element of the game. Bartman also has what the game manual calls mighty-powers, which are limited to the currently assigned power-up. This type of limitation can feel annoying when a different power-up is desired but is a standard design introduced in action-shooters like Contra. The most common power-up is the laser beams, granting Bartman the ability to shoot lasers from his eyes. The cold breaths power-up grants fewer shots but they are more powerful and actually required to progress through certain levels. These two mighty-powers are available through power-ups scattered throughout the game and are sometimes just available by default. While they're not innovative abilities by 1992, they definitely were a leap forward for Simpsons games on 8-bit systems. Bart can also pick up a temporary tornado power-up that grants invincibility and allows Bartman to charge through enemies without a care, and the temporary flying power-up that first appeared in Bart vs. the World returns here to give Bartman flying ability in the platformer levels.
If you say so.
Gameplay is spread out across three chapters consisting of two to four levels a piece followed by a boss fight. The fourth and final chapter skips more levels in favor of a final battle with the brain in a tank known as Brain-O the Magnificent. Of course the bosses aren't the only enemies. Each level comes with its own gallery of rogues, from the tiniest rats to giant crabs and a wild assortment of goons. Enemy design isn't the most inspired, with their attacks limited to the usual patrols across platforms and simple projectiles. And while their patterns are simple, enemies are frequent and dangerous enough to make the game a tough trek for any player.
And here we get to a baffling choice in level design. The game's main three chapters are comprised of various levels that implement new mechanics and challenges for the player… just not right away. The first level, for example, is a journey through a long and monotonous junkyard with simple enemies and many, many pits to avoid. It has little in the way of new mechanics and seems designed to really just introduce players to the core gameplay. The problem is it's so boring compared to later levels. The second level of chapter 1 is almost worse with its sewer pipe labyrinth that offers no interesting environments or challenges, simply another long slog and too many dead-ends. There's an old tenet of game design that proposes the best way to engage players is to come out strong with your best stuff and end it the same way, leaving the saggy middle to guide the player along to the exciting conclusion. This game doesn't follow that. The first two levels are just so off-putting. The third level and boss fight against Swamp Hag of the first chapter turn it around by introducing a flying level and interesting platforming challenges, but I have to wonder how many players were willing to trudge through the beginning of the game to get there.
Darling it's better, down where it's wetter.
The second chapter through Dr. Crab's underwater lair ramps up the interesting gameplay by allowing the player to swim freely as they navigate the tunnels and gullies, then a section with a spotlight looking to shoot Bartman as he passes in front of the crosshair. The final part of chapter 2 is not quite as fun with its return to rote platforming, but it's bookended by some of the best parts of the game. The final battle against Dr. Crab is probably the coolest boss fight. Instead of attacking directly, Bartman holds up his fist to punch Dr. Crab as he descends for a flying lunge onto Bartman's head. Several of these hits cause Dr. Crab to crash through the wall, after which the player must repeat the attacks to defeat him for good.
Chapter 3 takes place in the hellish caverns of Lava Man's lair. This level is generally focused on platforming but introduces a vertical descent element that's kinda neat. Bartman can extend his arms to slow down his falls through lava tubes, which is just different enough to make it interesting. The second level takes place in another labyrinth through a ruined city, but unlike the dreadful sewer of chapter 1, this labyrinth leads the player on a search through various doorways and tunnels to hunt down the exit door. The environments are also far more interesting than the drab green walls of that sewer. The chapter eventually ends with a confrontation against Lava Man himself. This battle harkens back to the Swamp Hag fight with the use of cold breaths to freeze falling obstacles. This time, freezing the obstacles is the only way to hit Lava Man as he appears in the lava below.
With Radioactive Man freed and only one enemy left to fight, the two heroes team up to take on the mastermind behind his imprisonment: Brain-O the Magnificent. Bart can fire laser beams at the tank to no effect, but if the player hits the tank at the right angle and waits for Radioactive Man to fly overhead, the laser beams will rebound off Radioactive Man and hit Brain-O's soft spot. It's a long battle and not that interesting a boss fight, but anyone who has survived this long will be glad to get it over with. The ending is similarly banal, although players of the prototype version of the game available online (or at The Cutting Room Floor) will find a distinctly different (and far better) ending.
Game Gear's just getting started.
The age of mass porting was at an end for Simpsons games when the NES game shipped in 1993 and the game only appeared on one additional platform: the Sega Game Gear. It was a mostly faithful port from Teeny Weeny Games that slightly improved the visuals but of course squished everything down onto the tiny handheld screen. This required the developers to limit the player view and implement a camera shift in which the camera moved toward the direction the player was facing, and even moved down when Bartman ducks so the player can see enemies or obstacles below. The one major gameplay change was in the spotlight level of chapter 3, where the player must avoid a spotlight and target in an otherwise pitch black labyrinth. The Game Gear version of this level simply requires the player to swim into light bulbs scattered around the area in order to keep the level lit. Otherwise, there were a few notable visual changes like enemy costume colors changing from blue to red, or extra characters appearing in the ending screens. This late port of the game--it didn’t ship until about March of 1994--arrived amid a couple of Game Boy releases and Virtual Bart on Genesis and SNES, so nearly at the end of the first rush of Simpsons game releases. And somehow, this wouldn’t be the last Simpsons game on Game Gear.