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.
Spending the big bucks.
Acclaim was raking in the dough from its Simpsons game releases throughout 1991, but the company's games were conspicuously absent from home computer platforms. That would be because Konami, who had their own Simpsons hit on their hands from the early 1991 release of The Simpsons Arcade, was the only game in PC town. Konami’s Simpsons game publishing was a brief run: The Simpsons Arcade for IBM PC and Commodore 64, and Bart's House of Weirdness exclusively on IBM PC. The former were conversions of that eponymous arcade game that were fairly impressive just for re-creating the experience of the arcade game on home platforms (although not exactly eye-popping in the case of the Commodore 64 port), and all three games were released to the North American PC market in early 1992. There's no record to support my belief that Konami did hold exclusive rights to publish Simpsons games on PC, but Konami's brief monopoly can only be explained by an early deal with Fox to make Simpsons games on the platforms that Acclaim hadn't already scooped up.
Development duties were contracted out to Distinctive Software Inc., or DSI, which was established by teenage entrepreneurs Jeff Sember and Don Mattrick in Vancouver, BC in 1982. The company spent the eighties growing into a game publisher and developer employing more than seventy people to work on projects for various clients, including a whole boatload of games for Konami. In 1991 alone--the year of development for Bart's House of Weirdness--you’ll find Mission: Impossible, Bill Elliott's NASCAR Challenge, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Manhattan Missions. The team for Bart's House of Weirdness was relatively small, but comparable to the team sizes on other Simpsons games of the era with about a dozen people assigned to the project.
DSI's work on Bart's House of Weirdness looks to have wrapped by the end of 1991, which would be their one shot with a Simpsons game before being acquired by Electronic Arts that same year to become EA Canada, maker of sports games and home to the biggest game test center in North America. Matrick and the other studio heads would get their payout and go on to become big cheeses at EA and other companies in the game industry.
Easy for you to say.
I'm going to start with the obvious: the game looks amazing, both for a Simpsons game and a PC game of this vintage. Although not developed internally at Konami, the game exhibits the same level of quality and care that Konami poured into their Simpsons Arcade project. That is a credit to DSI's craftsmanship and a stark contrast to the work coming out of the Simpsons games developed for consoles. I won't judge Imagineering too harshly - few NES games could hope to compete with PC games on a graphical level. The hardware on a typical IBM PC in 1992 was just inherently more powerful than the NES's dated processors. Still, Bart's House of Weirdness, as well as the PC version of The Simpsons Arcade that launched alongside it, set a graphical standard for Simpsons games that wouldn't be matched until the 16-bit games.
I was curious about the source of the art on display, and one name stands out in the credits: Athena Bax, who was credited as a co-designer and sole artist on the game. She remains an active member of the arts community in her native Vancouver and notes in her bio that her career began at DSI in 1987. This is a big deal as I research early Simpsons games because there are virtually no women credited at these development companies of the eighties and early nineties. It's also significant that Bax is the sole artist on what is undoubtedly the best-looking of the first wave of Simpsons games. Improved hardware may have enabled the level of art polish on display but skill is skill.
And that skill is on display from the get go. Bart's House of Weirdness begins with its own take on the heavenly cloud reveal from the TV show and includes a few scenes lifted straight from the show. It may appear crude now but this was the best video game version of the introduction on a home platform. The game offers versions of the game for Tandy, EGA, and MCGA graphical displays, and while MCGA is the best option for anyone on a modern computer, the other versions still look impressive for their time. Gameplay art is just as good-looking as the intro cutscene with big sprites that actually look like the characters and enemy sprites that are big and expressive, providing a bestiary that's fun to look at while you get pummeled by them. It's also clear that the artist paid special attention to the environments. The scenes are all packed with enough detail and visual gags that make it clear the creators understood and cared about the source material. If I have any criticism, it's that environments look too perfect, like drawings made with a ruler firmly in hand for each and every line. Some scenes just lacked a certain Simpsons wonkiness, the curves and imperfections that characterized a Simpsons episode of the early seasons. Some people may have found the wild inconsistency of the art direction on the TV show grating but I've always enjoyed it, and this game could've done with a little of the same wonky magic.
Look both ways before killing space mutants.
The game's user interface, on the other hand, is designed to be all wonk, with garish colors and wobbly fonts right out of a Lisa Frank catalog. The game's HUD covers all the key information such as health and weapon cache in an interesting way that beats the heck out of the white text on black that always felt like an afterthought in other games. The overall area for displaying the actual characters and environments is reduced as a result and I have no doubt that this was a decision made in the wake of the adventure game boom and as practical measure to reduce the amount of art they needed to generate for each screen.
Another aspect of the game I love is the sound design, and specifically the music. The game has an actual soundtrack! In a Simpsons game! They're not all bangers but the sound desert of past (and future) Simpsons home releases sits in stark contrast to the breadth of music available in the Bart's House of Weirdness. The designers were so proud of their soundtrack that they provide a Walkman in Bart's room just for the player to check out each of the tracks. Composers J. Daniel Scott, Traz Damji, Michael J. Sokyrka, Brian Plank, Krisjan Hatlelid, and Tara deserve the praise. Sound effects during gameplay were not as impressive but accomplish their task, and perhaps most notable is the inclusion of some pretty high quality samples of Nancy Cartwright's voice as Bart. CDs were still a few years away as the medium that unlocked disk space for voices galore, so it's impressive that DSI squeezed even this modest voice acting onto the 1.2 MB of space available on the 5 1/4 inch floppy disks.
Bart's dream, your nightmare.
The game's six levels and myriad hub areas are all structured as a series of distractions to pass the time after Bart is grounded to his room. It's a simple opportunity for Bartesque hi-jinks and feels like a premise pulled from the animated interstitial shorts on the Tracey Ullman Show, or the first season of the sitcom at the latest. Enemy characters like the Babysitter Bandit and Sideshow Bob are pulled right out of that first season of the show, although there are hints of characters and jokes from season two as well. The developers clearly understood the source material and threw in all kinds of visual nods and gags, but there is a notable absence: dialogue. I've previously called out the serviceable but dry dialogue in past games, though I still appreciate their attempts. Bart's House of Weirdness skips it altogether, choosing instead to convey simple instructions and otherwise move the simple plot forward with silent slideshows of scenes traced in from animation cells. The bulk of the plot is instead written into the manual for players who needed an extra bit of incentive on their journey through Bart's ten-year old psyche.
I've been avoiding this topic but it looms over everything, and ultimately decides this game's place in the pantheon of Simpsons titles: gameplay design. Bart's House of Weirdness looks like a typical side-scrolling action game but the designers made certain choices that make the game as difficult as all get out and creates an experience quite different from the Simpsons games released to that point.
Let's start with a real doozy: the controls. Players have the option to plug in a joystick or use the keyboard to guide Bart through each of the areas in the game. Joystick is a good option to try out but I found the keyboard more amenable to my methodical approach. And methodical is good when you're faced with a side-scrolling action game in which the player character is locked into canned animations with no physics involved at all. This style of movement was popularized in cinematic platformers such as The Prince of Persia and Another World, but the transposition to Bart’s House of Weirdness just didn’t fit with the fast-paced combat. The player has the option to jump straight up, jump forward a short distance, and jump forward across half the screen. And… that's it. This might work well in those games with more open and exploratory environments, but a game in which each screen absolutely bombards the player with hazards should require more finesee in its movements.
Another aspect of player movement that really grates is Bart's knockback animation when hit by enemies. Bart is flung back in a huge arc that the player has no control over, forced to sit back and watch as Bart glides into a pit or sewer acid. The game constrains movement so much that it almost feels like a tactical game. Each screen is an assessment of the hazards and the optimal path forward, that is when the cruel design allows even a moment to take in the scene before being forced to react. I complained about controls in Bart's NES outings as well, but they were at least more intuitive with the ability to hold buttons to gain height and distance, providing more dynamic gameplay. Bart's House of Weirdness is content to leverage the PC's legacy of save scumming as a means to deal with the difficulty, and perhaps this design methodology is justified when dealing with a game that can be completed by experienced players in twenty minutes.
Bart said fuck tha police.
The game's screen-by-screen design is rooted in a fundamental limitation of PC games that had to run on older hardware: side-scrolling. PC games were notoriously incapable of accomplishing a feat that consoles mastered by the late eighties. Even Nintendo, masters of the sidescroller, were unable to release a port of Super Mario Bros. on PC that included scrolling levels. This forced the designers to approach Bart’s House of Weirdness as many designers of PC games did, with individual screens each jam-packed with enough hazards and enemies to justify the price. Nonetheless, the level design felt quaint by 1992. Players who did traverse the wilds of Bart's imagination were greeted with few secrets but enough that there was encouragement to try again after each inevitable and swift death. They even fell back on that old standby: scores and leaderboards. Perhaps they simply foresaw the future of speedrunning… but it feels more like the designers' minds were firmly rooted in the past.
I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords.
The adventure culminates in Krustyland with a feeble fight against Sideshow Bob. The fight requires a precise number of hits with Bart's big burp gun because there are precisely thirteen burp bullets in the entire level, no more, no less. If the player fails to find all the ammo or simply misses a shot, it’s time to start the level over again. And this final act of malicious design sums up what the game is all about. It's an exercise in memorization of enemy patterns and repetition, repetition, repetition. It looks and sounds amazing and it's the kind of game that any kid who owned a PC would have loved to boot up as a means to fill out the summer days, but now it just feels like a masochistic journey down the Springfield gutter.