When I think of The Simpsons arcade game, I think of purple hippo trash cans. These terrifying monoliths were the favored receptacle of the video arcade in the main plaza of the city of Tepatitlan, in the state of Jalisco. The video arcade was a wonderland of animal-shaped architecture, the smell of fried chips doused in hot sauce sold at the front counter, and even an old ball pit that would see an occasional and exceptionally brave visitor dive into its depths.
But the main draw, the reason we spent our parents’ hard-earned pesos there, was the arcade games that lined the walls. You may be familiar with some of them. The wild west shoot ’em up of Sunset Riders, time-traveling brawlers in World Heroes, and even brutal gun cabinets like Lethal Enforcers. And far in the back corner was The Simpsons. We’d play other games but to me, that was the crown jewel of the joint.
I had seen The Simpsons arcade game before, though never in the glow of an American video arcade. Such places were deemed a waste of quarters by my parents. I’d see the game in a swapmeet cafeteria, or in the back corner of a gas station. And frankly, I could never hope to have enough quarters to get very far in the game. But in Mexico, in that little arcade in the plaza, the American dollar went far. So it came to pass that I, my brothers, and our cousins came together to tackle the game with all the tokens we could ever dream of. It was my first time actually reaching the finale until the wonders of arcade emulation brought the arcade game back into my life many years later. As a fan of The Simpsons and video games, it was always on my mind.
It is woefully inadequate to call The Simpsons a phenomenon. The show, developed by Matt Groening and famed producer James L. Brooks’s Gracie Films for the Fox network, started as a series of interstitial animated shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show. The shorts quickly outgrew Ullman’s variety show and premiered as an animated sitcom of their own. The subversive humor, dysfunctional family dynamics, and bizarre character designs took the world by storm, blowing up immediately after the premiere on the Fox Television network on December 17, 1989.
The popularity brought a level of success that demanded more than just revenue from television advertising. The savvy heads of merchandising at Fox knew a cash cow when they saw one. As the chairman of Fox told his vice president of licensing and marketing, “The show will debut on January 14 — go to work.” And work they did, signing deals wherever the money was available. Matt Groening himself was also eager to see his creations licensed as widely as possible, with final approval on all products running through he and Gracie Films. Merchandising revenues were estimated to be upwards of $750 million by the end of 1990.
It was in the middle of this merchandising frenzy that Fox signed multiple deals to release video games based on The Simpsons. The companies developing electronic games in the first years included handheld game manufacturer Tiger Electronics; game publisher Acclaim Entertainment (we’ll dive into their catalog in later chapters); and Konami, the renowned powerhouse known for its high-quality and highly profitable hits both in arcades and on home consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was Konami who would develop the first — and what many fans consider to be the best — game based on The Simpsons ever made: The Simpsons arcade game.
According to the official timeline from Konami, development of the game began in February 1990, just one month after the premiere of the series. The executives at Fox couldn’t have chosen a better partner to develop an arcade game. Based in Kobe, Japan, Konami had grown to be a juggernaut of the video game industry based on successful games like Metal Gear, the Gradius series, and other licensed games such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or TMNT for short. These games weren’t just profitable, they were fun! Although The Simpsons television show and characters wouldn’t be familiar to Japanese television viewers until years later (and even today are primarily known as advertising mascots for a soft drink called CC Lemon), it was the Japanese developers at Konami who were tasked with creating the first arcade game using only a few months’ worth of scripts, animation, and character information. Armed with top-notch designers and hardware that no console or home computer could match, the team was off on the right track.
The developers settled on a core concept for the gameplay: a brawler game, with a joystick for movement, one button for attacks, and another button for jumping. The aforementioned TMNT arcade game was a similar brawler released in 1989 that captured the essence and art style of the license perfectly, and its four-player configuration transposed nicely to the core cast of the The Simpsons: oafish Homer, bratty Bart, studious Lisa, and industrious Marge. Maggie, the baby of the family, would serve as the “princess in another castle” who must be rescued. It may seem strange for a sitcom family to become brawling vigilantes, but the exaggeration is simply part of the animated show’s ability to “elastically expand,” like the surreal and reality-breaking Treehouse of Horror episodes, or anthology episodes of biblical and literary stories featuring characters from the show. This elasticity will apply to the ever-wackier premises and antics in future video games based on The Simpsons.
It is interesting that although there is a lineage of brawler games at Konami before The Simpsons, few of the staff on The Simpsons development team had experience with the genre before the project, and fewer still went on to work on more brawler games, with just a handful going on to work on the notable sequel to TMNT and a Bucky O’Hare game in 1992, and a X-Men game in 1993. The shift to different genres was likely a response to the burgeoning fighting game genre after the release of Street Fighter II in 1991, but one has to wonder if working on strange and cartoonish Western properties had lost its appeal for Japanese developers. The Simpsons arcade game would be the only game based on The Simpsons to be created by a company based in Japan until Konami’s return to the license ten years later.
The premise is refreshingly simple. The Simpson family is out on a stroll through their hometown of Springfield when they literally bump into Waylon Smithers — lackey of the nuclear power magnate, C. Montgomery Burns — just as he flees a jewelry store with a diamond the size of a pacifier. The diamond flies into the air, lands in Maggie’s mouth, and the only sensible thing for Smithers to do is take back the diamond, baby and all.
With the excuse for clobbering goons out of the way, players are free to select their Simpson and go to town. Each character has their own unique abilities. Homer’s fighting style involves the most standard of brawler weapons: his fists. This limits the character’s range and makes his attacks the most visceral, going head-to-head with the legions of goons in his trademark “kick some back” style. Next on the character selection screen is Bart, who rides his skateboard and wields it like a street skater from the nineties out for blood. Lisa’s weapon is her jump rope, which I suppose is more respectful than using an expensive saxophone to bash heads. And finally there’s Marge, whose role as the homemaker justifies her use of a full-on vacuum cleaner to strike foes in the gut. Personally, I appreciate Marge’s reach with that vacuum cleaner and always select her, much like choosing Donatello with his extended bo staff in the TMNT games. The characters can even team up to perform special tag team attacks: Homer and Marge roll around in a marital wheel, Bart and Lisa hold hands to clothesline enemies, Homer can pick up the kids on his shoulder for double firepower, and Marge can toss them for a powerful projectile attack. As the earliest game, The Simpsons arcade game was created before Bart-Mania took hold of Americans’ minds and wallets. As such, each character enjoyed equal billing. It made for a holistic experience in which the entire family plays a prominent role in being the hero of the story.
And cartoonishly brutal as they are, both the Simpsons and their foes are all impressively animated, with dynamic poses and hilariously off-model reactions to the varying attacks. Even doing nothing is a joy by just watching idle animations or waiting for a giant white glove to appear and attack players who fail to move along to the next encounter with enemies. One popular piece of trivia is that some of Marge’s animations (her electrocution and the vacuum getting caught in her hair) show a peculiar set of rabbit ears attached to the top of her head, referencing an intended early joke by Matt Groening in which Marge would be revealed to be sporting rabbit ears hidden in her tall hairdo. Such wacky possibilities were only possible at the early stage of the show’s production when the rules of the show weren’t quite as defined as they would become over the subsequent seasons.
The main villain is the cartoonishly super-villainous Waylon Smithers, sporting a dark cape over his casual business attire and cackling with a hilariously inaccurate voice. He appears at the end of each stage like a dollar tied to a string, pulled along just enough to keep the story moving. When he greets the player with a coarse whiskey-tinged, “Welcome to my world!”, it’s the highlight of the eight-level chase to stop him. Sorry, Harry Shearer, but this is my preferred Smithers.
Before that, however, the Simpsons must fight their way through the goon parade. The common goons come in two varieties: suit guy and pink shirts. The suit guys come in a closet’s worth of suit colors, with each color indicating the type of attack the goon will perform, such as throwing a hat or simply punching away. The pink shirts, on the other hand, are all identical in appearance and ability, with a bit more health to chip away than the suit guys. The levels are even filled with so many background characters from the show that you may as well check them off a list of characters from the first season of the show. Beyond them are a swath of level-specific enemies such as firefighters, ninjas, and even zombies performing what is undoubtedly the dance from the “Thriller” music video featuring Michael Jackson. The reference may be in poor taste now, but at the time there was no one cooler than Michael Jackson and The Simpsons.
The bosses in the game are all incredibly indulgent in their size and designs. In this Simpsons reality, wrestlers and alcoholics can be nine feet tall, and it’s totally fine for Mr. Burns to appear inside a mech as the final boss of the game. While none of the bosses are particularly inventive in their attacks (except, perhaps, for the giant bowling ball that serves as the boss of the Dreamland level), they’re perfectly suited to face off against a family of brawlers tearing through town.
The Simpsons arcade game presented the first and best version of an interactive Springfield for quite some time. Naturally, most levels were designed after locations from episodes in the first season, including Moe’s Tavern, Springfield Butte, Dreamland, Channel 6, and the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. Moe’s Tavern connecting to the Springfield Discount Cemetery via underground bootlegger’s passage may seem bizarre, but is it any wackier than the tunnel from the Squidport to Moe’s Tavern that appeared later in the series? Other levels were unique creations for the game. Downtown Springfield is your average American Main Street, while Krustyland is a unique creation by the designers at Konami. That Cemetery may have been inspired by early looks at the Treehouse of Horror episode that premiered in season two. Every locale simply feels cohesive and pieced together naturally. It’s a remarkable feat for a team that created the game from concept art and early episodes of the television series.
While the levels look pretty, they’re designed to give the player hell. The enemies are relentless and the levels full of hazards just aching to reduce a player’s lives to zero so they are forced to pony up another quarter. This dichotomy between difficulty and fun is the business plan of the video arcade, and unfortunately players of the era were forced to pay up or go home. Players could also strive to achieve high scores if they tired of simply playing through for kicks. Home releases of the game either gave the player enough credits to survive to the end or simply provided infinite credits. Challenge be damned, I’d rather check out all the cool art, gags, and music without breaking the piggy bank.
And boy, what music! Composer Norio Hanzawa (credited as N. Hanzawa) put together a magnificent soundtrack, with music that riffs on the theme by Danny Elfman as well as a number of unique compositions just for this game. Hanzawa’s work turns away from Alf Clausen’s orchestral ditties and instead presents the battlefields of the game with cacophonous chiptune combos that would ill-fit the show but are perfect for a version of The Simpsons that doesn’t quite fit into the same reality.
The sound effects of the game are equally rich, with bits of dialogue sprinkled throughout to really impress players of an era when voices in a game were still a novelty. The voiced dialogue wasn’t going to win any comedy awards, but it’s goofy enough and most of the lines are voiced by the actual actors. Those few lines that are clearly not the original actors are so strange that they’ve become legendary. Smithers’s exclamations are one example, but there’s also Mr. Burns’s raspy threat during the final battle, “Welcome to your grave, suckers.” Yep, that’s a villain in a mecha suit alright.
The Simpsons released to broad acclaim in North America after location tests in Chicago, IL from December ’90 to January ’91. The game was available in the standard four-player configuration that most players are familiar with, but Konami also released a two-player cabinet, as well as cabinets for other regions such as Japan. Exact revenue numbers are unavailable but the persistent and widespread popularity of the game even today speaks to its quality and the game’s legendary status as the best Simpsons game ever. It became the bar against which all future games in the series would be measured, and as we’ll see in later chapters, many failed to measure up.
The game’s legacy cemented what are immutable properties of a good Simpsons game:
- The show is built on its strong cast of characters. Each member of the family must receive equal time for the game to feel like a Simpsons game.
- Springfield is a character in and of itself, and all events should transpire within the context of the town. Although the arcade game arrived early in the show’s history, its levels are so dense with rich scenery and oddball characters that it feels like a complete world in and of itself.
- Jokes! The Simpsons is a show packed with hilarious dialogue and gags, and while The Simpsons arcade could only squeeze so much dialogue into its brawling, it is nonetheless rich with sight gags and funny moments, not to mention references, that make it feel like the creators understood what players would expect from a game featuring this world.
Players like me couldn’t get enough of the game and after seeing releases of Konami’s TMNT arcade games on home consoles, we felt certain a home version of The Simpsons was close behind. It wasn’t until 2012 that console players saw a home version of the game on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but PC players of the early nineties had a couple of options. The game was ported to IBM PC and Commodore 64 computers by a Hungarian company called Novotrade a year after the original arcade launch. The IBM PC version looked amazing for the time and I can easily imagine it playing on a NES or even 16-bit consoles. The Commodore 64 version… well, it’s impressive that they even managed to squeeze the game onto the platform, but it’s not the version of the game that I’d choose to play unless you’re okay with the Simpsons looking like pixel cyclops.
It’s a shame that the game was never ported to home consoles such as the NES where other Konami arcade hits like TMNT found great success. This is likely due to Fox’s deal with Acclaim Entertainment, which published all console games based on The Simpsons for the next several years. At the time it was not unusual for licensing rights to get carved up between different publishers across console, PC, and handheld platforms (see Tetris). This explains Konami’s PC publishing with the arcade ports and Bart’s House of Weirdness, but nothing on console. Fortunately, the 2012 releases included uncompromised emulation of the original arcade game, online multiplayer, both USA and Japan ROMs, requisite trophies, and cool extra stuff like a historical timeline of development with key dates. Sadly, these releases were removed from their respective stores just two years later, which allowed those who already owned a copy to retain access to the game but prevented anyone else from purchasing it. It’s unclear whether the game will ever release again but as with all licensing, it comes down to money.
The Simpsons would go on to appear in many games in this early era of the show, most featuring Bart in a variety of action-platformers. Few would rise to the lofty peaks that arose from this game’s crust.