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.
But there’s one pair of characters from the era who are especially relevant to this chapter’s game. They were titans of cartoon violence, appearing in over one hundred sixty shorts across nearly four decades. These mute animal protagonists were caught in an eternal chase where a cat hunts down a mouse and always comes close to catching him, but is ultimately outwitted at every turn. I write, of course, of Tom and Jerry. Their film shorts were created and developed by Hanna-Barbera, and distributed by MGM for decades. Eventually, the merger parade caught up and threw all of Hanna-Barbera’s works under the Warner Brothers umbrella, and now Tom and Jerry live alongside their once-competitor characters such as Sylvester the Cat and Tweety Bird. The old Tom and Jerry shorts are available online at the Web Archive, and while the violence in their initial cartoons isn’t too horrifying, their means of maiming each other gets worse over the course of the series. There’s also the aforementioned casual racism in the form of the Mammy caricature who routinely appears to scold Tom for his messes. The cartoons can still be enjoyed, even with an eye on the problematic nature of old media.
Like me, many of the creators on The Simpsons grew up watching Tom and Jerry on their tiny tube televisions. All of the writers in the early days of the show came from traditional live action sitcoms or talk shows, and they slowly learned that they could get quite a lot wackier in an animated medium. The Simpsons themselves were often embroiled in violence, though it was usually Homer getting into a ridiculous fight or Bart getting beat up by bullies. But the writers seemingly wanted to take it to the extreme without breaking the reality of the show (Halloween episodes notwithstanding). And so they created their altered reality: The Itchy & Scratchy Show. Itchy was the stand-in for Jerry the mouse, and Scratchy the counterpart to Tom’s wily cat in pursuit. They shared the same dynamic wherein Scratchy is always trying to catch Itchy, but while Tom and Jerry engaged in light-hearted torture, Itchy & Scratchy outright tried to murder one another, with Itchy usually succeeding with one macabre plan or another. It was not uncommon for Scratchy to be maimed, melted, torn apart, or have internal organs viciously removed. Bart and Lisa love it when they watch this of course. The cartoon violence is dealt with head-on in the second season episode, “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge.” Marge tries and briefly succeeds at getting cartoon creators to ban violence on the show for the sake of the children, but this is ultimately overturned when Marge is unable to justify censoring one artistic medium while sparing another.
While TV writers wrestled with the ethics of cartoon violence, countless children played countless violent video games on their home consoles, and I was among them. Really, Itchy & Scratchy and their progenitors were quite tame by comparison.
Chasin' down the babies.
Itchy & Scratchy translated to video game antagonists quite easily, first showing up as enemies with their own themed level in Bart’s House of Weirdness and then again in Bart’s Nightmare. Someone at Acclaim then decided they were interesting enough to star in their own games, making their first headline appearance in Itchy & Scratchy in Miniature Golf Madness on Game Boy. As detailed in chapter 11, that game featured Scratchy as the protagonist who kills Itchy many times in the game, an odd reversal considering Itchy is always the one who kills Scratchy on the television show. That’s where The Itchy & Scratchy Game comes in. With Itchy as the star, players could finally unleash the kind of cartoon mayhem they’d been watching on The Simpsons for over five years.
Acclaim needed a studio to develop this new Itchy & Scratchy title, and for one reason or another (likely the bottom line) they turned away from their previous collaborators. They wound up making the deal with Bits Corporation (later known as Bits Studios), a game developer based in London. They’d only just started in 1990, but like other studios in this series, their focus was almost entirely on ports and licensed games. They took a stab at licensed fare such as Spider-Man, Terminator, and oddballs like a game based on the 1994 version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And like the other companies, they fared a lot better in the days of 8- and 16-bit games, with seventy-five percent of their catalogue released before the dawn of the 3D era with the PlayStation’s debut in 1995. Bits Corporation continued to release games for about another decade until the company was dissolved by their parent, leaving no trace as their assets and properties were liquidated into obscurity.
Duel of the fates.
Itchy & Scratchy have no lore to speak of, like those previously cited cartoon inspirations. They are merely vessels of the age-old relationship between predator and prey. But of course in this case, the mouse is the vastly superior predator, relentlessly catching and mutilating his cat prey. And this is what the video game presents for players: play as Itchy, and kill Scratchy… a whole lot. That’s all. I understand some players don’t quibble over narrative, but this player always appreciates any thought put toward the underlying story as a character is guided along from one side of the screen to the other. The Itchy & Scratchy Game just presents a series of levels and enemies with no particular motive beyond cartoon murder, which I suppose is appropriate for the characters but does put into question the choice to turn The Itchy & Scratchy Show into a video game in the first place.
The game plays out in a repeated cycle of two stages: first, Itchy must fight through a platforming area full of Scratchy and his myriad weapons, environmental hazards, and small wind-up copies of Scratchy that hunt down Itchy like an army of possessed demon dolls. They’re easy to kill but are just a constant annoyance, always appearing on whatever platform Itchy is standing. Itchy can find a dizzying array of gruesome weapons scattered throughout the stages, in addition to power-ups like extra lives, cheesy speed boosts, health kits, and temporary invincibility. The mini-Scratchys also provide the ammunition for Itchy’s ranged weapons in the level, all of which vary but are identical in their function. They’re simply objects to throw at Scratchy, although they’re not really necessary until the second stage. In fact, the primary strategy of the first stage is to hoard the ammunition so Itchy is better prepared for the boss fight in the second stage. I mean, I guess the player is also supposed to kill Scratchy until his health bar is at zero, but it’s an easy and unexceptional task to complete.
The real challenge in the game--besides suffering Scratchy’s horrible shriek of pain--is the boss fights. They begin fairly easily, but with each successive level the boss fights become more and more challenging, introducing elaborate contraptions and hazards that Itchy must avoid while trying to toss weapons at Scratchy’s vehicle. But the challenge comes entirely from the level design. The strategy is always the same: hang back and lob objects at Scratchy. The only difference is the level of dodging the player has to perform in between those lobs.
Hey! Don't scratch the turtle.
So it’s safe to say that the gameplay wasn’t exceptional. There isn’t even an ending scene or text to congratulate the player. It all just ends with a credit roll. This makes sense on some level: each level of the game is presented with a title card as if it’s a self-contained episode of The Itchy & Scratchy Show. However, when each level is just the exact same gameplay with a change of scenery, well, it kind of dulls the impact. But that touches on the areas where the game succeeds, namely the art and theming of each level. Although the animations and backgrounds are kind of bland and stiff, they’re also big and accurate, a feature that is noteworthy in contrast with previous Simpsons games on home systems. The series thus far has generally been bad at actually capturing the art design from the show. This game is arguably the first outside of The Simpsons Arcade game to really nail down the look of the animated characters. The backgrounds and enemy characters are also well-animated and bright, although the environments give the vibe of a props on a stage instead of real aspects of the environment. Each of the seven levels has a typical video game level theme, ranging from the prehistoric “Juracid Bath” to the mechanized “Disassembly Line.” But this is what players have to look forward to if they attempt to complete the game: it looks good. That’s… something.
Given how brief and simple the game is, one has to wonder if it’s as they originally intended. I can see it now: Acclaim is shipping licensed games left and right, but these are licenses they’ve been peddling in the video game space for years. Each game gets a little more expensive and a little less lucrative. And with The Simpsons, it was clear they’d started cutting costs since the last couple of Game Boy games and Virtual Bart on consoles, where the developers clearly went lean on the amount of content they squeezed into the games. Furthermore, the good folks at The Cutting Room Floor--a web catalog of the hidden content and debug features in video games--revealed that the SNES version of the game actually contains dialogue text from Bart, Lisa, and Krusty the Clown, indicating that the game was originally designed to include framing cutscenes where Krusty introduces the levels and Bart and Lisa comment on them as if they’re watching episodes of the show. This dialogue isn’t stellar, including lines such as “Woo Woo Woo!!! This is the one when Itchy is a red Indian,” so these may only be leftover bits from ideas that were tested early in the design process and abandoned. But really, it’s unlikely that these scenes would have helped improve the gameplay.
Itchy's cartoon invincibility is no more.
There are other signs that The Itchy & Scratchy Game wasn’t quite all it could have been. For one, the version for the Sega Genesis that went as far as being reviewed in game magazines like GamePro didn’t actually make it to store shelves. It’s not clear if it even made it to the factory, but it’s likely that pre-release copies were shipped to reviewers before Acclaim decided it wasn’t worth the expense to distribute a Sega Genesis version in early 1995. It must have been one of these review copies that allowed savvy web pirates to create and distribute a ROM for players to play to this day. But Sega players did get an official release of the game, just on a much tinier screen. The Sega Game Gear game shipped alongside the SNES version, presenting a crunched down take on the game that strips away the game’s one positive quality: its art. The Game Gear characters are smaller by necessity but suffer for it, looking like the characters were thrown into a hydraulic press and squished down to fit. It’s cute in a way. But I’ll tell you what’s not cute--the game has no boss fights. You know, the one challenging aspect of the console games? Yeah, not here at all. The player’s only objective is to hunt down and kill Scratchy in each of the levels and move along until it ends. Also, the underwater high-jinks of level 4’s “The Pusseidon Adventure” are no more--the level was cut. So tinier sprites, no bosses, and one less level… it’s a tough sell.
Roasted on the Game Gear.
The Itchy & Scratchy Game is a notable last game in several categories: the last 16-bit Simpsons game, the last Simpsons game from both Acclaim and Bits Corporation (who only worked on the one), and really the last game from that intense early period of The Simpsons. Season six of the show was in full swing, showcasing episodes from the peak of the classic era. Legendary episodes like “A Star Is Burns” and “Lisa’s Wedding” premiered around the launch of this game into stores, during a time when the show was at its wackiest but the merchandise had begun to die down. There is no clearer sign than the fact that the world went on without a new Simpsons video game until 1997, and even then the game only released for Windows and Macintosh computers, leaving console players out in the cold for six years. Of course, given the reception to the dubious quality of Simpsons games from the early nineties, it might have been a relief.