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 kids, we roamed to our personal favorite stores such as Software Etc. (a precursor to GameStop) and the legendary K.B. Toys. That latter stalwart of malls across America was the toy store of choice for many a kid and every parent's worst nightmare around Christmas time. It was the K.B. Toys store in Fox Hills where I encountered a box for Virtual Bart on the Sega Genesis. I contemplated it briefly (the first time I'd considered spending my own allowance on a Simpsons game), but that's not why I remember this occasion. It stood out because this Sega Genesis game was hanging in a section with a giant Nintendo sign hanging above it. It was a flagrant disregard for the unspoken rule of the (retroactively named) console wars. You can like the Super Nintendo, and you can like the Sega Genesis, but never the twine shall meet. Even today, retail stores that stock video games make sure to separate each company's games into their own respective aisles. It was a strange and jarring sight but somehow appropriate for a Simpsons game to thumb its nose at society. But for all that anguish, I didn't feel compelled to buy the Virtual Bart game. It would still be some time before I'd take the leap.
The Simpsons predicted VR nausea.
Sculptured Software thrived like so many developers of the era on the strength of licensed games. After all, there was no Google or YouTube available to easily search for fun games to play, and no influencers beyond the marketing dollars of the game publishers and word-of-mouth on the playground. So more often than not, kids or their parents selected games at the store based on familiarity. Long established franchises like Mario and Mega Man were safe bets, but the power of familiar characters like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Bart Simpson were guaranteed to sell some games. Paul Provenzano, the former Acclaim producer interviewed by the team at Talking Simpsons, believes this was one of Acclaim’s core strengths:
Sculptured Software saw a banner year in 1994 with nearly a dozen of their games released in stores alongside Virtual Bart, their last Simpsons game. Their releases include licensed games such as The Ren and Stimpy Show: Time Warp, The Punisher, and Looney Tunes B-Ball. It would be the peak of their company’s production. Acclaim swooped in to buy the studio in 1995 and quickly pivoted the Utah-based company into a development house for hockey and wrestling games. Sculptured Software would eventually be renamed to Iguana West before being shuttered completely when Acclaim faced bankruptcy in the early aughts. It's an unfortunate but unsurprising conclusion. Many studios that succeeded on the backs of 8-bit and 16-bit platforms would struggle to find their footing at the dawn of the 3D era.
«Acclaim had this edge, in my opinion at the time, because one: they were dealing with licensed properties that people recognized, and two: they were dealing with people that had experience in marketing a lot of products and a lot of different things. They were pretty savvy, so you know, it was a good combination for that.»
That's a familiar corndog.
Game designers of the late eighties and nineties were faced with a peculiar challenge: make video games more difficult so that kids can't complete them in a single rental. It's a gauntlet thrown down in service of the company's bottom line, not unlike arcade game designers who tried to shake as many quarters as possible out of kids' pockets by making sure they died often in their games, forcing frequent pauses in gameplay when players died and needed to add another quarter. Home game designers similarly strived to draw out the experience so that they could wring as many dollars out of customers' hands as possible, whether by cajoling them to rent a game more than once or just outright buy it.
That's one possibility that explains the surprising difficulty of Virtual Bart. The other possibility is the designers were short on content and couldn't have players get through it too easily lest they complain about the disparity between a short play time and high cost. I will get into specifics in a minute here, but if we go by the numbers there are six levels in the game, with half of those levels consisting of only one or two stages a piece. The lean levels are generally the levels that introduce variations on third-person action in which Bart sits in the middle of the screen and dodges stuff, throws stuff, or some combination of the two. The latter levels are the side-scrolling platform levels and they are the real doozy. Fortunately, the game includes a practice mode in which players may select any of the game's six levels and play them as many times as they like. The cutscenes are missing but it allows players to develop the skills necessary to complete the game's story mode.
Gameplay begins after short introductory cutscenes lay out the premise teased by the game's title. Bart attends the Springfield Elementary school science fair and gets snared into becoming a test subject in a virtual reality experiment. The final shot of Bart wearing virtual reality goggles and strapped to the machine then segues into the level selection menu. Unlike the intricate hub world introduced in Bart's Nightmare, Virtual Bart merely employs a game of wheel of fortune as Bart spins around in the center of the screen, waiting for the player to press a button and make a selection. Bart's momentum forces him to rotate a bit longer after a button is pressed and landing on one of the six levels in the menu. There is also the seventh bonus slot that introduces the risk vs. reward aspect of the selection menu. The top slot fluctuates between images of a corndog that grants an extra life and a skull that takes away a life. And indeed, while each level has a limited set of lives, so does the level selection menu. Players can eventually figure out the timing of Bart's rotations to land on the exact level they want or even nail that elusive corndog, but the game only allows the player to earn so many corndogs before limiting the bonus slot to only display the skull. Can't reward skilled players too much, eh?
He has no choice but to choose poorly.
The captive Bart rotates clockwise, so let's follow along. The first level after the bonus slot is the Dino Bart level. This first platformer level is also the game's longest and most traditional. The gameplay features a long-necked Bart-osaurus hopping and tail-whipping his way across a prehistoric landscape crawling with dinosaurs and de-evolved takes on various Springfieldians, including an impressive array of voice clips for them. The environments vary from outdoor mountainsides to caverns and then an icy river, but the general feel of the level is that of scaling a mountain to get to the top. There are no puzzles to solve and the only real obstacles are the jumps and enemies that must be overcome to proceed. None of the enemies are especially difficult to defeat but the level is designed to inflict death by a thousand paper cuts.
Everything wants to attack Bart! The game design certainly encourages avoiding enemies where possible and turns the whole thing into a funny sort of survival horror experience. Enemies are oftentimes placed right on the player's path, forcing a confrontation that ends with at least a few slivers of health whacked away by an enemy dinosaur or a caveman’s rock. Bart's tail whip attack has some extra reach that helps with avoiding enemy attacks, but they're all jacked up on caveman speed or something because they are very aggressive. And then some enemies, like Lisa with a bow and arrow or Krusty juggling skulls, will just chip away health at a distance. The game does grant Bart extra health in the form of what I can only guess is the game designer's favorite food: corn dogs. And occasionally, power-ups that grant Bart the ability to roar can be used to clear the screen of enemies. The journey to the top of the mountain and across the glacier ends with an encounter with Moe and Homer atop sheets of ice. It's a dull twist where the player can't attack them directly but must instead whip away the ice sheets until they are at the same level as the player. One final whip causes them both to, um, explode, and the player's reward is a short cutscene showing prehistoric Homer's icy fate.
The next level in line is perhaps the most difficult: Baby Bart. While technically a platformer level, the design is focused on showing off Baby Bart's gymnastic ability. And unlike the Dino Bart level, this one is actually based on a scene from the show. In the fourth season episode called “Lisa's First Word,” Marge and Homer recount their days as a young married couple raising Baby Bart. A montage of scenes ensues in which Bart causes mischief, including the scene where a bare-cheeked Bart swings around on a clothesline. This extraordinary swinging ability becomes the core mechanic for the level. The first stage is a wooded area behind the Simpson house in which the player must guide Baby Bart along a series of branches by jumping and latching onto them. There are a few platforms for Bart to balance upon but not many. Mundane enemies such as squirrels and birds also appear to mix up the obstacles until players eventually reach a clothesline. Unlike the TV episode or that tree stage, Bart simply has to balance on the clothesline tracks and dodge clothing or animals that would cause him to fall. Bart isn't completely helpless as he faces these obstacles; he is granted the ability to fire off pacifiers like he's packing a machine gun.
This leads to a wild aerial chase with Bart hitching a ride on a balloon, but the gameplay is similar: dodge the obstacles and shoot pacifiers at anything that moves. The dodging continues in the stroller race against baby versions of the bullies Jimbo and Kearney, then leads into a ball balancing act where Baby Bart can only bounce on balls balancing on seals' noses. The final act is a trek across a circus tent full of swinging trapeze and bouncy trampolines. This stage takes all the previously utilized designs and combines them into a hellish gauntlet of swinging, jumping, and terrifying clowns. It seems like more trouble than it's worth for some ice cream, but what do I know? Maybe babies know the real score.
Is iguana kosher?
The third and final platforming level is by far the most horrifying: Pig Bart in a Krusty-branded pork factory with clowns as factory workers and corporate big wigs as the final bosses. Fans will recall that Krusty had a heart attack while hocking his pork wares on television, and as a Jewish character has a complicated relationship to pork. But he’s also a dedicated capitalist, so here we see the natural next step in his commercial efforts.
Pig Bart's goal is to free his compatriots from the shackles of their imprisonment using only a few abilities. He can jump as is the way in a platformer, but the player can also perform a bounce jump not unlike Scrooge McDuck's pogo cane in the DuckTales games on NES. Bart must use this ability often as he traverses the terrors of a pork factory. The whole concept is like a cartoon take on novelist Upton Sinclair's seminal work The Jungle, which highlighted the horrors of the meatpacking industry in the early twentieth century. Each stage of the level features pigs being frozen, cooked, and processed into Krusty-branded cans of ham. The player can also face a gruesome end if they accidentally fall into one of the machines, leaving behind a yellow can of ham with Pig Bart's visage on the side. The stages all illustrate a step in the pork production process, starting with the canning room. This first area is full of conveyor belts and funnels leading to large machines. Pigs go in, canned ham comes out.
The clown factory workers serve more as guards, patrolling the halls and ready to attack Pig Bart if he crosses their path. This area also includes a novel idea: puzzles! They take the form of locked doors that can only be opened with a key that matches the color on the lock. It's a bit frustrating to have to hunt down these locked doors when there is no explanation of the task required of the player, but it's a welcome addition in a game where most of the platforming is rote and straightforward. Navigating the canning room leads to the freezer, where pigs frozen in blocks of ice are carried off to meet their grisly fate. The final disturbing set piece is a journey through the broiler area, a collection of fire traps, receding platforms, and hydraulic presses that are all designed to chip away at the precious little health available to the player. The final room is the pork factory’s conference room where a group of Three Stooges-like corporate suits do their best to smash Pig Bart into mashed ham. Defeating the bosses leads to the final release of Bart’s pig buddies and a cheerful end to their story… until you remember that millions of other pigs are still on the chopping block.
Bart was always going to throw the tomato.
And that’s just the first half of the game! But things move along much more quickly after those meaty platform levels, which may be a good thing if you’ve endured the game thus far. The next level is the class picture session. Bart sits in the foreground and then leaves it to the player to toss the limited bushel of tomatoes (and eggs in stage two) toward the kids walking across the school grounds. The gameplay is similar to golf mechanics in other video games. Press the button to charge a throw, then press the button again to toss at that point. Players can also press Left or Right on the D-pad to angle the throw to the sides. And you may need to go for those sharp angles--the first stage sees the kids simply walk horizontally from one side of the screen to the other. Hitting one of the kids removes them from the crowd, whereas allowing them to pass unsplattered will cause them to reappear at a different distance each time. But of course it can’t be that easy, so a squad of adults also march back and forth between the kids. Hitting an adult is an instant game over for the level, so it’s essential to watch your aim. However, Principal Skinner will occasionally bend over to tie his shoelaces, giving you a prime bonus target. This may remind you of a certain scene from the episode called “Duffless,” where Lisa makes the mistake of asking Bart to hold her science fair tomato for a moment. This tomato frenzy leads to the egg barrage on the playground of stage two. The gameplay is identical, but the kids now move in and out of the background, creating a more chaotic space in which your perfectly aligned shots can miss as the kids move closer or further away. Well, there’s always that practice mode.
Speaking of practice, you may find yourself so lost in this next level that you’ll need plenty of it. Mount Splashmore is a seemingly simple journey down a plastic tube full of water, but it turns out to be a hellish maze full of sharks, dogs, three-eyed fish, submarines, blubber butts, and way too many kids. This water slide consists of a series of forks in the path that must be navigated in order to survive to the end. Some wrong ways only end with a face full of Homer’s butt or an inexplicably non-lethal fall into a lion’s mouth, but others lead to certain death off the edge of a cliff or face-first into a sign. All is not hopeless though, and several items can help you survive. Clocks add extra seconds to the stage timer, the ever-present corndogs give extra health, and boogie boards can be used as temporary invincibility against the obstacles. A few differences appear depending on whether it’s the SNES or Sega Genesis version. For example, Genesis players can use the C-button to duck under the water or grab and throw beach balls to fend off other sliders, but SNES players don’t have the option. Conversely, SNES players have a helpful arrow flash at the beginning to tell them which fork in the path to follow, but Sega Genesis players only have the option to stare at the back of a fat, bald man to see some vague arrows pointing the way. Or, you know, just hug the bald man tight and follow him. They’re strange design choices, and the fact that the Sega Genesis version released months later indicates that the designers may have decided they’d made it too easy on SNES. Ultimately, the correct path leads to… a swimming pool. It may be anti-climactic, but maybe the game designers take their water slide narratives seriously.
I'm just going to drive my bike like this, and if you get flattened, it's your own fault.
We follow that cheerful day at the water park with a delightful jaunt on the highways of post-apocalyptic Springfield. The Doomsday Bart level features a leather- and spike-clad Bart doing his best impression of the Road Warrior, riding his motorcycle along abandoned highways toward the ruins of the city. Much like Mount Splashmore, this level is a mere survival to the end of the line. Gameplay for the level is liberally borrowed from that motorcycle combat classic, Road Rash. And just like those helmeted street riders, Bart can kick to the sides to knock the street bullies out of the way. He is also equipped with a water balloon gun to fire ahead as the bullies appear in front of him. The street bullies actively try to take out Bart, but Otto and his bus also appear from time to time to cause massive damage. But no post-apocalypse can be complete without rubble and critters littering the road, creating even more obstacles on Bart’s journey to the end. Players who dodge all these obstacles are rewarded with the best ending in the game: an original couch gag in which Bart enters the ruins of the Simpson house and joins the skeletons of his family on the couch, scattering their bones in the process. Bart stares at the tube and sees what can only be the image of Krusty in his head, whose imaginary voice yells out, “Hey, surviving kids!”, his cackles echoing through the emptiness.
Frankenstein had to start somewhere.
And that’s as apt a note as any to end the game. The finale cutscene shows Bart finally free himself from the virtual simulation only for Homer to step into it, laughing and crying as he twirls and twirls away into the distance, leaving players with the same dizzying sense of emptiness. It’s a strange game that arrived at a strange time in the game industry, marking the end of players’ interest in the virtual life of Bart Simpson but only whetting Fox’s appetite for selling Simpsons games to unsuspecting fans.