This may shock you, but I didn’t care for early games based on The Simpsons. It may be no coincidence that my first memory of those early games was a brief moment in time with Bart vs. the Space Mutants. It was a gloomy, smog-tinted summer afternoon in Los Angeles, CA. My mother dragged me along to visit her friend, who had a daughter of my age that was also in my elementary school, though she was in a different classroom and so our social circles were worlds apart. While my mother and her friend chatted, we were left to our own devices. We hung out in her room and she wore the kind of frilly dress that only kids with no control of their lives would wear. We grasped at the straws of childhood conversation.
“I have a Nintendo,” she finally said. She should’ve said so! She rifled through her older brother’s Nintendo cartridges and it was there that I first encountered Bart vs. the Space Mutants. I’d seen the character on more T-shirts than there were kids in our school, but a video game was something new. That’s a next level of merchandise. We sat on the shag carpet and dove in, goofing around in a first level with way too many objectives for two seven-year olds to enjoy. We tried it for a few minutes before she suggested we go outside and play on the swings in her backyard. We never spoke of that day again.
Konami got in early on that Simpsons merch parade, but they weren’t alone. Although they locked in the Simpsons game rights for arcade and PC, an upstart game publisher called Acclaim Entertainment scooped up the rights for home consoles. This process of carving up publishing rights between different groups may seem strange, but it was common at a time when license holders, like, say, a television broadcast company, barely understood the video game industry. It’s also likely that publishers hoped to pay less for the licenses by only publishing on specific platforms. It’s ultimately not clear why Fox decided to loan the license to different publishers, or if Konami was even offered the opportunity to purchase the home console rights. However as the book Tetris Effect showed us, it wasn’t unusual for publishing rights to become a spaghetti bowl of contracts and agreements. We can be certain that Fox signed whatever deals earned them the most money from The Simpsons.
Acclaim itself wasn’t yet a developer and they needed to find someone to take on the task. Acclaim may have been founded by former Activision developers, but their business was strictly a publishing affair. Greg Fischbach, vice president at Acclaim, set about acquiring the hot property shortly after it blew up in 1990. Once acquired, he had the task of finding someone to, you know, do the work, and with little time to turn it around. For that we have to go West, young reader, from Acclaim’s New York headquarters to the wilds of New Jersey, home of the company that developed the game: Imagineering Inc.
Imagineering was a development subsidiary of an umbrella company called Absolute Entertainment, named so it would be alphabetically listed above competitor Accolade. Both companies were founded by former employees of Activision, which itself was founded by former employees of Atari. Atari, Activision, Accolade, Acclaim, Absolute… my pattern sense is tingling. In any case, Imagineering was presumably created to separate the company’s development work from its publishing business, and not to infringe on that other, much more successful Imagineering that works on Disney theme park rides. Imagineering’s brief but prolific output included many a license other than The Simpsons, and their volume suggests an aspiration to mediocrity and profit, a goal that likely aligned them well with Acclaim. And this brings us back to the question: how much time did they spend on Bart vs. the Space Mutants? One interview with Alex DeMeo, the Vice President/Producer/Game Designer at Absolute Entertainment, suggests that the team may have been trying to churn out games every three or four months, which would explain their prodigious output. However, Garry Kitchen, cofounder of the studio, revealed that it wasn’t Imagineering’s idea to develop in such a short timeframe.
That’s not to detract from Imagineering’s ability to create a fun and interesting video game. Its two legendary co-founders, Kitchen and David Crane, built impressive careers in the eighties as designers of fun and successful video games on platforms like the Atari 2600. One of their original and most successful creations at their new company was called A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia, and it’s easy to see the connection between this game’s adventure-oriented level design and the inventive elements of Bart vs. the Space Mutants. Kitchen credits designer Barry Marx for recognizing the value of The Simpsons and the potential for a great video game. While their ambition was great, the realities of the schedule settled in quickly. Recalls Kitchen, “I think we started July/August. We had to be done by Oct to ship for holidays. We killed ourselves but didn’t get Nintendo approval til Dec, shipped Jan. Nintendo was involved (not concept, more mechanic). I didn’t want Bart to feel like Mario, they wanted Bart to feel like Mario.” So while The Simpsons Arcade had nearly a year of development time, Imagineering was saddled with three months at best. This explains the rather rushed feeling of the design in later levels and the overall lack of polish. It was an unfortunate start for what could’ve been a great game series.
Unfortunately, those shortcomings led other, less inventive elements to dominate the game experience, and those experiences were the stuff of young NES players’ nightmares.
Bart-Mania took hold of America early and inspired much of the merchandise of that era. It seemed that every kid either identified with Bart or just thought he was the character they should slap onto their T-shirts and lunch boxes. And so when it came time to select a protagonist for the first home console game, there was no question that it should be Bart in the spotlight. According to Kitchen, “We brainstormed a game where each level you were controlling a different character, doing skills appropriate for who they were & Brooks loved it. We went home and Acclaim threw a fit. They were 100% right. It was all about Bart on a skateboard.” His nemeses on the other hand are a head-scratcher. Aliens have invaded Springfield, and apparently the only person who can stop them is a ten year-old kid with x-ray specs. Bart must defeat the aliens by eliminating the items they need to build their ultimate weapons, including purple trinkets, hats, and EXIT signs, while using his x-ray glasses to find and eliminate the alien invaders. This alien invasion premise pulls liberally from the 1988 Roddy Piper vehicle, They Live.
The gameplay of Mutants is in line with the order of the day, which was side-scrolling action platformers. Bart runs, Bart jumps. He can hop on (some) enemies to take them out, and he can shoot (some) enemies in levels that allow him to use projectiles. His physics are slippery, just like Mario, but he controls like he can’t make up his mind. Should Bart run, or should he move faster? It’s difficult to do both simultaneously unless the player holds down the jump button while in the air or the all-purpose attack/select button which may accidentally use some of the limited resources available for weapons or the spray paint.
The game’s complicated control scheme may be forgiven when considering the item selection menu. Imagineering opted not to include a menu overlay like the one seen in The Legend of Zelda or any console RPG ever. Instead, the player must tap the Select button to scroll through the item list (and the pause option), then press that all-purpose B button. Perhaps it’s this need to keep the B button available that led to the less sub-par control scheme, but it is a mind-boggling compromise in any side-scrolling platformer released after Super Mario Bros. The template was there and Imagineering chose to take a hard left.
Level design varies wildly from ambitious adventure game to rote platformer. The first level is infamous for its multi-layered approach to accomplishing the goal of covering up the purple objects that the space mutants are so desperate to find. Bart can walk on a clothesline to knock down towels that cover playground equipment below, use a wrench on a fire hydrant to ruin a freshly painted awning, or even use a coin with the public pay phone to pull a prank call on Moe the bartender so that he’ll step outside and Bart can spray his purple apron. The player can also collect coins and purchase a variety of beneficial items in the shops of Downtown Springfield in the first level. This complex array of solutions makes the first level feel like the proof of concept that won the contract for Imagineering. The last level at the Nuclear Power Plant also has some level of thought put into it with its maze of corridors, locked doors, and randomized locations of characters. But then there are the three levels in the middle, all designed to make players pull their hair out with their tiny platforms over dangerous pits and invincible enemies. To the developers’ credit, there are checkpoints in the levels that allow players to recover from the game’s many unfair deaths but they are few and far between.
The game gives players two chances to take a hit before losing a life, and those hit points remain constant. There are no opportunities for upgrades and no hit point recovery items. It’s the kind of anxiety-inducing difficulty curve that some developers adopted to prevent players from finishing a game too quickly. After all, you had to give a kid their forty dollars’ worth of video game by dragging it out as long as possible. It harkens back to punishing action-adventures like Ghosts and Goblins that were falling out of style by the early nineties. There were no quarters to burn here, just the good will of fans of The Simpsons.
The game’s art style is… not quite abysmal, but certainly disappointing. You can tell you’re looking at the Simpsons, and some of the boss enemies such as Sideshow Bob match their television visages fairly well. But what in heaven’s name happened with Bart? His sprite looks flat, lacking any kind of outline or attempt to match the show’s designs. Every game developer understands that the player character — the one piece of art the player must constantly stare at — should be the best looking art in the game, but not Imagineering and not their Simpsons games on NES. Later versions of the game would do a better job both with the characters and environments, but the first and most memorable release on NES just looked like something dragged out of the eighties. Players and fans of The Simpsons deserved better by 1991. Speaking of those environments, the first level is the only recognizably Simpsons area, with distinctive buildings like Moe’s Tavern and the statue of Jebediah Springfield. With the possible exception of the nuclear power plant at the end, every other level is so generic that it could have been designed for any one of Imagineering’s many generic platformer games. The museum in level four in particular is just full of enemies that are banal and appropriate for the setting, but not for The Simpsons. Again, later ports by other developers would do a better job with their art design.
The game’s sound is serviceable with the appropriate beeps and boops that are another example of eighties computer game design on display. The notable aspect of the game’s sound is that they managed to squeeze in some character voice samples at a time when that was still an impressive feat on NES. The other noteworthy bit of sound design is that they got the rights to Danny Elfman’s theme song from the show. And they’ll let you know that they acquired it when they play it at the title screen, during the intro cutscene, in every level, as a short loop in the boss fights, and in every other conceivable place where you might otherwise expect some background music to the action. It certainly feels like they only had budget and/or time for one music track and they’re going to flood your brain with it.
Imagineering shot for the stars and missed, ending up in the swamps of New Jersey.
David Crane, co-founder of Absolute Entertainment, once told a programmer who’d created a port of one of his games that, “It looks nice, but take out all that creative stuff”. By his estimation, a port — or adaptation as he calls it — should be exactly like the original game without embellishments. The developers of the ports for Bart vs. the Space Mutants agreed.
The game may have been a rough prospect when it first launched on NES, but as the first and best known of the early games it received a lot of attention that translated to significant profits. There is no greater evidence of the market’s demand for Simpsons game merch than the fact that Bart vs. the Space Mutants was and remains the Simpsons game ported to the greatest number of platforms. From micro computers to consoles and even a LCD handheld version, it’s a wonder that the game didn’t actually end up on all the platforms, with handheld systems like Game Boy notably missing from the list.
But the rest of the gang were all here. North America received ports for IBM PC, Sega Genesis, and Sega Game Gear (with Sega platforms published under Acclaim’s Flying Edge label), but that pales in comparison to Europe’s showing on additional platforms: ZX Spectrum, Amiga, Commodore 64, Atari ST, Amstrad CPC, Sega Master System, and LCD handheld. International releases were handled by that infamous hoarder of licensed titles, OCEAN Software, and all other ports of the game were developed by Arc Developments in the UK. The notable improvements in later ports of the game would include much improved visuals on Sega Genesis and IBM PC, as well as improved sound and music. Some of these may have crossed the pond but by and large there was a swath of Bart vs. the Space Mutants ports that Americans were lucky enough not to see.
Ill-regarded as it was, and tied to a license that began its abysmal home console record right here, Bart vs. the Space Mutants remains buried in the past, joining its middling licensed brethren in the first and forgotten category of game history. But Acclaim and Imagineering were just getting started. After all, according to Kitchen, “It sold very very well, and wasn’t a bad game, but it could have been superb, given more time.” Bolstered by the unquenchable thirst that led to astronomical sales of merchandise featuring The Simpsons, the games would keep on comin’.