The Nintendo Game Boy remained a mystery to me for many years with only a few experiences with the handheld before one was gifted to me in my teens. But I do know that my neighbor Jason had one. He and I became friends after my family moved to our longtime residence in 1989, and while we mostly played outside we did occasionally spend some time with my NES or his Game Boy. And this is how I first played the little platformer called Bart Simpson’s Escape from Camp Deadly. As with many of these early Simpsons game experiences, I found it difficult and obtuse. I remember playing it just once before giving up and asking what other cartridges my neighbor had.
Acclaim was riding high on the success of Bart vs. the Space Mutants. Game magazine coverage of the era (and the many, many ports) suggests that the game on NES not only sold extremely well but was a hit at video rental stores as well. It didn’t matter that the game itself probably didn’t inspire positive word of mouth except by those masochistic players eager for frustratingly challenging gameplay, because 1991 was the year of The Simpsons. The characters were slapped onto every conceivable product from mugs to fanny packs and even dining room placemats, and any kid with a game console would have been clamoring to play a game featuring the characters. This bolstered demand and I’m sure left owners of platforms other than the NES wondering when they’d get their Simpsons game.
It’s likely that the first game’s success prompted development of the next wave of games. And where did they start? With that little paragon of handheld gaming: the Nintendo Game Boy. Released in 1989, the Game Boy dominated the handheld game space for the next decade, outperforming its high-powered competitors with low-cost tech that sported a far superior battery life. The handheld famously shipped with a cartridge of Tetris that hooked players of all ages and made it ubiquitous as the platform of choice for anyone looking to kill some time in the schoolyard or during commutes. Really, Game Boy was the ur-mobile device. And while the Simpsons had appeared on a few LCD handheld games by 1991, the Game Boy was an altogether different beast.
It may seem strange for Acclaim to veer away from the success on NES to publish on an additional platform, but recall that Imagineering once strived to churn out Atari games in 3–4 months. I’m sure the relatively limited scope of a Game Boy game lent itself to this hyper efficient development ethos and allowed them to split their attention across multiple projects. And this new Game Boy game would be headed up by none other than David Crane, legendary designer of Atari classics like Pitfall and their more recent NES hit A Boy and His Blob. But how would his next game featuring the Simpsons come about? Whatever the timeline, Crane and his team had a Simpsons game on Nintendo Game Boy by the end of 1991, just in time for the holiday sales frenzy.
The game that became Bart Simpson’s Escape from Camp Deadly took a bold direction with its design. Namely, it wasn’t just a port of the lucrative Bart vs. the Space Mutants. It’s probably due to the relatively limited hardware packed into the Nintendo Game Boy, but as the game with David Crane’s name on it one had to wonder if there was a desire to do something different, and Crane was in a position to make such a decision. In fact, the only Simpsons game to see a port on Game Boy was the puzzle-platformer Krusty’s Fun House. Every other game was an original creation and it all began with this first game from Imagineering.
The game’s premise is as dead-simple as its title implies: Bart and Lisa Simpson have been sent to a summer camp from hell, and they need to get out. The camp is headed by the cruel Iron Fist Burns, kicking off Imagineering’s strange fascination with relatives of Mr. Burns as the villains. But wait, you might say. Isn’t this just the plot of the Simpsons episode entitled Kamp Krusty? I mean, the summer camp horror story, the cruel camp activities, bully counselors who are more foe than friend. But that episode of the show didn’t premiere until fall of 1992, nearly a year after this game. It’s possible that some writer or producer involved in the approval process for Escape cribbed the pitch for their episode from this game, but considering that production of one episode of the TV show takes about a year, it’s more likely a case of serendipitous design. I mean, any show worth its salt had a summer camp episode if kids were in the cast.
The law of mascot games in the eighties and early nineties was that it had to be a platformer. It was safe and provided the best opportunity to get a good look at the characters plastered all over the box. And that is one of the most unexpected surprises of this game — the characters look more like their TV counterparts than the earlier incarnation on NES. I spent enough time ragging on those mutant designs but it’s just such a stark contrast for the sprites on a Game Boy game to look better than NES. And I wouldn’t call these designs amazing or anything but they look pretty good for a game rendering on a screen 160 pixels wide and 144 pixels tall. Familiar characters like Bart, Lisa, and Nelson look good for Game Boy, and common enemies like camp counselors and skeletons look appropriately Simpsony. This idealised perspective crumbles a bit when the entire family appears in the finale like a group of strangely familiar mutants, but hey, I’m sure they’d look okay on a tiny Game Boy screen. Some of the adults early on like cafeteria workers and some weirdo named Mad Man Mort also have that Simpson eidonomy, but once again things crumble when Ironfist Burns himself appears as the final obstacle. It’s almost like the artist had to rush out some final art at the end and just couldn’t get those final characters quite right. But all in all, it’s a good showing.
Then you see the environments and realize how they were able to dedicate so much memory to good-looking sprites. The environments in Camp Deadly are… well, bland. Setting the game in a summer camp never seen on the show gave the artist (that’s one artist, folks) free rein to design simple levels with summer camp vibes. Of the game’s six levels, three take place in variations of a forest with bits of sewer sprinkled in, two take place in a cafeteria, and one vertically oriented level is on the precarious Mt. Deadly. In short, this game’s environments look and feel like they were made with limited time and memory. And, you know, that’s fine. If an art compromise must be made I’d rather they lean into character design over environments. Music and sound in the game are… well, the same as Bart vs. the Space Mutants, which is to say about as bland as the environments in which you hear them. It’s the same tinny variations and bleeps and bloops as Bart vs. the Space Mutants. The only mildly impressive sound work is that the developers squeezed in Bart’s signature line when he dies, and you’ll hear it a lot. It’s not a Simpsons game if Bart doesn’t say some garbled version of, “Eat my shorts!”
The gameplay is as dead simple as the premise. The player is presented with notably dry objective text at the beginning of each level via either bulletin boards or cutscenes. While Bart vs. the Space Mutants made some attempt at fun or humor through the interstitial alien dialogue and prank calls to Moe, Escape simply strips that out. I’d excuse it as a limitation of the platform but Imagineering themselves would prove that they can squeeze humorous bits of dialogue into a Game Boy cartridge just a year later in Bart vs. the Juggernauts. But for now we’re caught in the mire of this straightforward platformer in which the objectives amount to walk to the right, climb to the top, and walk to the right some more. Anyone who came up playing these games knows the score. Bart’s repertoire of abilities while traversing Camp Deadly is surprisingly robust. Rather than simply hop on enemies, Bart is given use of a boomerang to take out foes and spitwads to stun them while waiting for the boomerangs to return. Boomerangs can also be fired at angles dependent on the player’s trajectory, with upward attacks if the player throws while jumping up and downward attacks while falling. It takes some getting used to but it makes for more strategic attacks when dealing with vertically variable enemies. Additional power-ups come in the form of suits that protect Bart from specific enemies. The beekeeper suit allows Bart to walk through bee hives that would otherwise kill him in one hit, the football suit is good for charging through annoying counselor assaults, and there’s even a radiation suit for walking through man-sized atoms. Each of these suit gimmicks is utilized only once in a playthrough but they are only obtained after defeating a trio of treehouse toughs with names like Slipshod Sammy and Rebound Rodney. They are kind of hidden and tough to acquire, providing a nice break in the monotony of forest fighting.
And fight you will, because an entire army of counselors and forest creatures lies before you. The counselors stream in occasionally at first and only along the ground, but they gradually increase in frequency until they’re coming at you like ninjas on parade. They’ll run in from both sides of the screen, jump in at an angle, lob projectiles at you, and just generally do their best to whittle away the donuts that represent your health until nothing remains. This makes for a game that is pleasantly amusing until it becomes a real slog for survival. Other creatures such as wasps, fish, eagles, and spiders serve to fill out the space between counselor attacks, and I suppose I have to credit the designers for their level design choices. The environments may be monotonous but there’s no shortage of obstacles and the difficulty ramp-up is consistent. It’s the kind of challenge a kid could spend a few weekends trying to overcome in 1991, and a player familiar with the game can complete it in 30 minutes.
The game ultimately feels like a product of an era that has continued to this day on mobile platforms. It’s a low-cost, low-energy game designed to capitalize on the popularity of a license that was highly lucrative, and while it improves on the character designs seen in its NES predecessor, the gameplay is a run-of-the-mill platformer slog and lacks any of the charm of the TV show. It’s good business at the expense of, you know, a positive reputation and fun for players. Future Simpsons games on Game Boy will have their ups and downs (mostly down), but they’ll at least try to break away from the formula to try something new.