Burp Clouds and Thunderbolts from Heaven: How The Simpsons Did Wrestling
Disappointment. Do you remember it, that first sense of something having profoundly let you down? People often do, though we must try our best to forgive them. Politicians make it part of their lifetime vocations. And entertainment, why, I’d say we expect it. Every piece of media, every work of art, has the potential to just bomb and let us down. Something that’s free may not sting, but when it costs money, hoo boy.
Such was the case with my first purchase of a video game based on The Simpsons. As I mentioned before, I loved the television show, but didn’t come around on the video games until much later. The way I figure it, I didn’t have the disposable income necessary to bet on a Simpsons game during the 16-bit era, and then didn’t have a PC during the time when Virtual Springfield was in stores. It wasn’t until 2001 — my senior year of high school — when I finally had money and a willingness to buy a Simpsons game based on name alone. I don’t exactly recall where I bought a PlayStation video game in the year our of lord 2001 (likely at the Gamestop in the Fox Hills Mall), but I remember powering through the game’s wrestling circuits, playing in two player mode with my brothers, and realizing, “Oh, this is bad.” The bitter taste lingers to this day.
The new millennium kicked off a game of musical chairs with different publishers shuffling the Simpsons license between them. Konami started things off, then THQ for their Game Boy Color entry, and now Activision. This fervent pimping of the license was perhaps a desire on Fox’s part to vary the publishers and types of games associated with the license after a decade of being stuck with only one or two game makers. Or, and probably more likely, they were out to diversify their sources of video game cash during their renewed wave of Simpsons merchandising.
Fox Interactive had some publisher duties on their games at this time, but they were still scared to go it alone and brought in Activision to distribute. This was Activision’s first and last go at the Simpsons license. The company was, of course, a behemoth in the industry by the early aughts. After being founded by David Crane (who we met back in the NES and Game Boy days) and other former Atari employees, the company met early success with titles such as Pitfall! on the Atari 2600 selling millions of cartridges before the video game industry crashed around 1983. Activision scraped by in the eighties and was eventually purchased by a group of investors including Bobby Kotick, who fired nearly everyone and rebuilt the company to become a profit-driven game factory. To their credit, Activision’s development studios were putting out interesting games such as Vigilante 8 and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater at this time, although Activision wouldn’t rely on any of their internal studios for their newly acquired Simpsons agreement. Instead, they turned to a studio primarily known for their license collaborations with LucasArts: Big Ape Productions.
Big Ape was a fresh-faced kid relative to all the other parties involved. Founded by game designers Mike Ebert and Dean Sharpe after working on Zombies Ate My Neighbors and Metal Warriors at LucasArts, the company’s first game shipped in 1997 for both PlayStation and Sega Saturn. Though working at their own company, the new project — a Grecian adventure tale dubbed Herc’s Adventures — was once again published by LucasArts because why shop around for a developer when you can just nepotism? The game is now considered a cult classic from the height of the PlayStation’s reign, although interestingly not a 3D showcase at a time when 3D was all the rage. This changed when Big Ape worked with LucasArts again to develop the game adaptation of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999. This clunky 3D action-adventure game was actually a fair match for the clunky pace of the movie, and although it’s not a highly regarded game in the Star Wars franchise, it still had some interesting sequences to experience. This second collaboration with LucasArts was also the last, and Big Ape moved on to work exclusively on licensed fare for the remainder of their brief existence. The Simpsons Wrestling followed in 2001 on the distinctly aged PlayStation platform, then a final chance to flex their wrestling muscles with the PlayStation 2 version of MTV Celebrity Deathmatch in 2003. The company shuttered in 2003 with licensed wrestling games quietly ending their time in the game industry. Herc’s Adventures remains their most notable title.
One other notable credit is the final appearance of Jamie Angell as dialogue writer. He fell into a rapid succession of games based on The Simpsons, with all three of his credits (The Simpsons Bowling, Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror, and The Simpsons Wrestling) releasing within a year of each other. In the early days, it felt like writing was a crucial aspect of the show that was entirely missing. Angell, a writer of some of the Simpsons comics from Bongo as well, was finally bringing a professional hand to the characters’ voices. In fact, according to Big Ape designer Mike Ebert, it sometimes wasn’t quite what they were looking for, with some lines described as “too graphic and offensive for games.” It’s worth noting that while Angell was contributing dialogue and in-game text for the games, he wasn’t developing stories. Looking at the stories of these games, it’s clear they were at best light, at worst a flimsy excuse for characters to compete against one another and throw out some zingers for the fans. The publishers of these games were banking on character appeal selling copies to players, much like they expected Bart’s face on a mug to sell. It was a step in the right direction, and we’d see what a fully developed story-based Simpsons game looks like just a few years later.
Wrestling hit a certain stride in the late nineties. The WWF — World Wrestling Federation — entered its Attitude Era and changed the brand from family-friendly and patriotic athletic displays to adult-oriented stories about rivalries and betrayal. In other words, they aged up wrestling to keep up with the aging demographic. They also brought wrestling back to network television via the successful Smackdown program on the UPN network. This all served to stir up excitement about wrestling again and brought it into the video game realm with hits such as 1998’s WWF War Zone. Wrestling was simply in the air and Big Ape caught a whiff.
The Simpsons Wrestling is set up as a tournament-based fighting game with two characters facing off in a best of three match. The player selects a wrestler from a starting cast of eight characters: Homer, Bart, Lisa, Marge, Barney, Krusty, Apu, and Willie. Not content to stop there, an additional eight characters can be unlocked by completing the game’s circuit challenges: Bumblebee Man, Moe, Professor Frink, Flanders, Smithers, Kang, Itchy, and Scratchy. That’s a hell of a turn-out and it speaks to the focus of this game’s design. The designers decided that the reward for playing a game featuring the cast of The Simpsons is not the story, or even necessarily the jokes, but the characters themselves. You’re just here to see Barney and listen to him burp, right? Or to hear him tell you that he’s “going to jump all over you like brown on beer.”
The characters do more than hurl quips at each other (though that can be fun in the right circumstances). All wrestlers (and I use that term loosely) possess the same basic set of abilities for whomping each other. They can jump about twelve feet in the air, punch and kick, throw ranged weapons and special attacks, and pin each other when health is low enough. They also have a couple of unique powerful attacks and taunts that can be unleashed when a character’s stamina bar is sufficiently filled. They all move at roughly the same speeds, so choice of character comes down to a player’s favorite or a need to beat a particularly powerful opponent. For example, the whole wrestling tournament is orchestrated by the aliens Kang & kodos for… reasons, and Kang is the final match of each circuit. They are tough to beat, but certain characters are so obviously overpowered that it only makes sense to select them for such tough wrestling matches. Flanders is the prime example. He possesses a special attack during which he summons the wrath of God to repeatedly shoot lightning down on his opponent, inflicting massive damage in the process. Flanders also has the holy ability to revive after being pinned, effectively doubling the time required to lose his health enough to be pinned. Beyond the broken characters, there was also the inevitable reliance on jump kicks to an opponent’s head, an annoying but effective spam maneuver that inflicted significant damage.
I could continue to gripe about the poor sense of balance between the characters’ strengths and weaknesses, but again, I don’t think the developers were focused on that at all. They clearly thought it would be fun to make some characters too powerful for a normal match, and knew no serious fighting game fan would play this for real competition. They also had no qualms about pitting adults against children like Bart and Lisa. There’s nothing quite like seeing Homer Simpson beat up and pin down his own children. Interestingly, Fox had some thoughts on the game’s original level of violence. Mike Ebert recalls the lesson: “Be sure the licensee is aware of the violence level of the game. It’s really hard after the game is at Alpha to go back and make it so some characters can not attack others.”
Gameplay aside, the game’s technical aspects are very much of the era. The art features colorful but compromised designs, with both the 3D models and 2D characters that sit like cardboard cutouts on a television set in the background. Each map is centered on a wrestling ring with character art slapped onto it, a cast of said cutouts scattered outside the ring, and backgrounds featuring familiar locales such as the Simpson house and Moe’s Tavern. One map you won’t see is Springfield Elementary School. Current events required it to be removed, as Ebert notes, “Try to avoid having the ‘Columbine Massacre’ make you cut levels involving schools.” Yes, let’s not have child massacre references, please.
The visuals might have barely passed muster on the old, bulky CRT televisions of the nineties, but the 256 by 224 resolution doesn’t scale up well when played on modern televisions. Couple that with the low resolution art and it’s a recipe for one ugly game. This is where we pause to consider that the game shipped two years after the arrival of the PlayStation 2. The first console was such a massive success that it may have made sense to ship the game anyway just to bring in some sales from the millions of PlayStation owners out there, and the game did manage to sell over two hundred thousand copies. As Ebert points out, “If you’re going to make a bad game, at least be happy that it made money!” So perhaps it’s not fair to complain about visuals in any game on the first PlayStation, but I’ll find a way when the source material is so much more vibrant and carefully designed. Granted, it wasn’t an easy journey for the developers. As noted above, they faced quite a few challenges. Among them was the loss of their already inexperienced producer midway through the project, removal of features and content at the behest of executives, and just the fact that this “wrestling” game really wasn’t a wrestling game at all.
Complain, complain, complain. I do have good news! The CD format of the PlayStation allowed all of the key actors on the cast to go all out with their one-liners, and the voice recordings are exceptional. They even feature the voice of the infamous curmudgeon, Harry Shearer, whose critical roles include Flanders, Smithers, and Mr. Burns. This highlight goes a long way to make a playthrough of the game enjoyable. In addition, a multiplayer mode was thoughtfully added so players could fight against each other and probably get into real fights after spamming overpowered moves to the annoyance of the other player.
The Simpsons Wrestling has the distinction of being one of those games that could have been ported to a variety of platforms if the publisher had faith in the game. Its sole outing on the PlayStation at such a late stage of the console’s life tells the tale, and other such Simpsons games remain on the horizon.