The Lynchian Landscape of Bart’s Nightmare

Part 7 of a 25-part series looking back at every Simpsons video game ever made.

Video stores proliferated in the eighties as the VHS cassette tape became the dominant medium for viewing movies and television episodes away from the confines of cable and the public airwaves. The other medium to blow up in the eighties was the video game in the form of cartridges. These sturdy entertainment delivery systems made them ideal for lending out to game-hungry kids with small budgets or a need for constant games in the rotation. Companies like Nintendo fought this of course. They argued it stole revenue out of their pockets if customers could merely rent and complete games for just a few dollars. And while the law in Japan agreed and killed the video game rental market, America would have none of that. The bastion of capitalism would let the market decide the fates of game companies and video stores.

Kids in the eighties and nineties benefited from these vast networks of game rental locations, as well as the wonders of hindsight. We could now rent games and find out whether they were worth our time and small amounts of money, abandoning the costly guessing game of picking up games at full price. And the more games we played, the more experience we had in selective playing. Some company names would become synonymous with high quality, fun experiences. Other companies carried the distinct aroma of frustration and boredom. Licenses helped to offset such associations like a spritz of perfume over a sweaty armpit, but even eau du license could carry the scent of failure.

The Simpsons had six games bearing their name published by fall of 1992, and while the show was reaching its fullest potential as an animated comedy powerhouse, the games were still struggling to reach similar heights. Some of that limitation was technology — it was simply impossible to match the visual grandeur of the TV show on the consoles and PCs of the time. And the other and perhaps far more important factor was game design. Acclaim was just not swinging for the fences with their attempts to publish games that were developed within their budgets. They were looking for developers who could create games that were good enough to sell and earn a profit. Maybe it’s tough to design a good game around a show that doesn’t lend itself to the action-platformers that dominated that era. But they tried, God bless ’em, and some kids played them, but not this kid. I’d seen enough to not necessarily dislike the Simpsons games, but certainly to pass over them in favor of something more interesting. This is how I missed nearly all the Simpsons games during my formative 16-bit years, including the appropriately named Bart’s Nightmare. Why risk renting this when I could grab a Super Star Wars or World of Illusion? I was just a risk-averse kid with a penchant for the safe bet.

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Nothing’s safe on these twisted streets.

Outside of a brief flirtation with Audiogenic to develop a strange puzzle game starring Krusty the Clown, Acclaim had been pretty faithful to Imagineering. Every Simpsons game from the company to date had been developed by the New Jersey-based developer. Now as I’ve previously written, those games weren’t always a hit. It’s tough to say if Acclaim’s next move was influenced by quality or cost, but for one reason or another, Acclaim turned away from their partners at Imagineering and shopped around for a new developer to work on their 16-bit Simpsons games. According to Garry Kitchen, cofounder at Imagineering, it was all part of an executive shuffle: “Acclaim was happy, they made lots of $$ and kept hiring us for Simpsons games. By the time 16-bit machines came, there was a new sheriff in town at Acclaim {and} he didn’t like me much. He hired other groups for the 16-bit games.”

Other parties came into the fore as the new console generation kicked into high gear. Paul Provenzano, producer at Acclaim, remembers that the big cheese himself was interested: “Matt {Groening} got more involved. He’d seen the success of the first game but he really wanted to be a part of the second game.” Provenzano remembers that Groening’s input on the project “was sort of a turning point, even for Acclaim.” Another distinct change in Acclaim’s structure was the formation of strike teams within their company who could work with external developers to develop their licensed games. Provenzano, for example, was part of the Black Team that often appears in the credits for Simpsons games of the era.

It certainly seemed like Acclaim was getting serious about their Simpsons games, but somehow I don’t think “make a good Simpsons game” was as high a priority as “make a Simpsons game that looks like it belongs on 16-bit consoles so people will buy it.” So they did like many a pioneer once did and looked to the West, far beyond Jersey’s shores and into the heart of the Great Basin. There they found a developer with the chops and experience to make Simpsons games for the new generation of consoles: Sculptured Software.

Founded in 1984, Sculptured Software staked their claim in the wide world of game ports from other companies, first focusing on ports for computer games and then arcade-to-console ports, with Mortal Kombat chief among them. Sculptured Software also took on licensed games. Some well-known examples are the Jack Nicklaus Golf games, a long series of WWF wrestling games with Acclaim, and the exceptional Super Star Wars trilogy on SNES. Acclaim appeared to make a wise choice working with a company with this kind of catalogue under the belts. The technical chops for impressive 16-bit games was there, but what about the game design?

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Pick your poison.

You have to admit that Bart’s Nightmare is a flashy game. It looks like the generational leap that all players of the era expected when they purchased systems such as the Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis. The sprites were larger, more animated, and represented an ideal to which any developer of the time aspired when translating animated properties like The Simpsons to the pixelated screen. There was also greater variety in the art. Bart was no longer limited to being a small pixel boy in a big, open environment. The game’s Windy World hub world, in which the player guides a small and relatively simplified Bart along a boring neighborhood street, probably comes closest to the visuals of previous games. The player simply walks around and jumps over enemies or uses one of several abilities such as watermelon seed shots, guided bubble gum, and a room clearing soda burp to fight through the ever-growing hordes. Bart’s animation in this area is noticeably lacking with a missing jump animation when the player leaps into the air, but it oddly fits into the hub’s surreal atmosphere.

The environment also gets packed with more strange enemies over time, including flying saxophones, walking television sets, and dream versions of Principal Skinner and Lisa, and they look and sound just as weird as the rest of it. As described by Chris Antista in the interview with Paul Provenzano on the Talking Simpsons podcast, “It is David Lynchian in its presentation of dreams.” What may seem like haphazard level design may in fact be a stroke of creative genius. Provenzano recalls:

The original concepts for Bart’s Nightmare were kind of surreal. The first thing I saw was, maybe everybody calls it that, but we called it Windy World… And the licensing person at Fox was like, ‘What is going on?!’… It came from the mind of a designer who… was incredibly gifted, but also deeply troubled by any criticism or critique. And it just stayed kind of weird.

The most interesting area may be the least interesting part of the game in terms of gameplay, but mastery of the hub world is essential to surviving to the end of the game. It requires collecting items and overcoming enemies in a kind of grind that rivals the most challenging RPGs. If the player loses in one of the nightmare levels, they are returned to the Windy World hub to continue the search for homework pages. The truth is that I had no clue what to do on the hub until I actually read the game manual, which is a sign that something went wrong in the design phase of the game. Bart’s Nightmare is hardly the kind of game that requires that kind of complexity.

Ultimately, the hub’s purpose was to serve as an overly complicated level select menu. Wandering through the Windy World leads to fluttering sheets of paper that Bart can hop onto, which then leads to another scene with two doors, and this is where the real game begins. It’s the six nightmare levels that really show off the technical prowess of the game. Previous games heavily relied on asset reuse to efficiently construct their characters and worlds. Bart’s character sprite in the first level of Bart vs. the Space Mutants was the same as the last. The aliens of one level looked just like the aliens in all other levels. Other games such as Bart vs. the World included a bonus costume or two, but the mandate of the day was generally to be as efficient as possible for the sake of time and memory limitations. The exponential leap in processor speed and memory allowed 16-bit consoles to simply do and show more than the previous generation. In the case of Bart’s Nightmare, it allowed each level to feature unique art and gameplay that went beyond what players had experienced in past games.

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That spicy nacho breath.

No one level plays like another. The Bartzilla levels behind the green door feature Bart as a Godzilla parody with relatively simple goals. Harkening to the future success of such auto-runner games as Temple Run from 2011, the first phase involves a giant-sized Bart sprite automatically walking along an urban landscape, destroying everything in his path. Each button, including the directional pad, performs a different action designed to attack a different part of the screen. This is sometimes just for destroying buildings that are out of reach, but it also serves as a defense strategy against the legions of jets, helicopters, and tanks that frequently appear. It’s necessary to destroy them because Bartzilla can be killed before completing the destruction objective and then getting shrunk down for the next phase: climbing a skyscraper. They figured we got Godzilla, why not King Kong? Cover your kaiju bases, that’s what I say.

The climbing phase presents a vertical scrolling section in which Bart must avoid objects dropped by inhabitants of a skyscraper as well as the hovering menace of Momthra, who must be avoided by dodging high or low and clinging onto the gutter pipes on either side of the building. All obstacles cause Bartzilla to fall down a few floors, and too many falls leads to Bartzilla falling off the screen and losing a life. Bartzilla’s only defense is an electric shock attack, but it doesn’t help much with the common obstacles. Eventually the building narrows and obstacles disappear, leaving only Bartzilla and his ancient nemesis, Homer Kong. Not to be confused with King Homer as featured in the Treehouse of Horror II episode from 1993, the Homer Kong of Bart’s nightmare actually made it to the top of the building and waits to punch Bartzilla in his fat green face. The player has to carefully dodge his attacks but remain close enough to shock him when he reaches down for the swipe.

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Consider yourself pacified.

The next nightmare is the Temple of Maggie, a strange riff on Indiana Jones in which the player moves along a series of columns in a Q-Bert-like fashion. Each column is pressed further into the fiery depths each time the player lands on it, requiring the player to judge their next move wisely lest they die in the pit. Additional obstacles appear in the form of a blue devil that hops around on the columns, a pterodactyl swooping down to pick up eggs, and a Maggie statue’s pacifier waiting to knock Bart into the hellfire. Bart isn’t completely at their mercy; he can wield a whip to fend some of the obstacles. He can also collect some of the pterodactyl’s eggs before they carry them off, with each egg serving as an extra life to try again if Bart takes the plunge. Survive the temple and an altar holding a sheet of homework is the player’s reward. The level must be completed again in a slightly more difficult variation to obtain the second sheet of homework and be done with the temple’s tribulations.

Bartman’s “nightmare” continues with a level based on that most classic of genres, the shoot-em-up, or SHMUP. The SHMUP is characterized by a character or machine moving through an automatically scrolling level while dodging enemies and their bullets, while also firing back at them. This level takes that foundation and adds an overlay of Bartman fighting off various characters from The Simpsons TV show, in addition to dodging other hazards like killer paper planes and radioactive clouds. Bartman’s slingshot fires rocks at a rapid clip but not in a straight line. Instead, the designers added some physics to the equation by having the rocks fall toward the earth in an arc, and the player can hold the fire button to vary the distance they can reach. Sometimes this allows for creative positioning of Bartman on the screen for getting the maximum number of rocks to hit an opponent, but it can be a pain for other enemies that dive in low and can only be attacked by flying back up to the top of the screen. The level is ultimately one long SHMUP-fest that ends with a confrontation against Mr. Burns in a biplane. It’s a repetitive battle like most of them. Personally, I think the mid-level boss fight against a drunk Barney atop a pink elephant is the most inspired boss enemy in the entire game, and perhaps all Simpsons games?

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Look out, look out, pink elephants shoot your brain.

Now let’s retreat from the beautiful skies and drop into the claustrophobic true nightmare of the Itchy and Scratchy levels. It’s not the first time the Simpsons would explore the idea — more or less this same level appeared in Bart’s House of Weirdness on PC, and the TV show would send Bart and Lisa into the world of animated violence in “The Terror of Tiny Toon” from Treehouse of Horror IX. And of course there are entire games in which the player just kills Scratchy over and over again. Most attempts at a send-up of animated cartoon violence unfortunately fall flat for presenting the idea too literally. They don’t make fun of cartoon violence, they merely regurgitate it. Such is the case with Itchy and Scratchy in Bart’s Nightmare. The player guides Bart through a series of rooms in a Simpson house full of hazards in the form of the eponymous cartoon characters and other creepy household ghouls. The player is initially presented with a mallet to use against the enemies but can also discover a plunger gun, bazooka, and fire extinguisher to fight them off. The gameplay consists of killing Itchy and Scratchy ad nauseum until some required threshold is hit, at which point the player may proceed to the next room to do it all over again. There are a couple of enemies that may be considered bosses, such as the giant furnace that shoots out animate fire balls. And… that’s really it. This violent merry-go-round continues until the player unlocks one sheet of homework, then it repeats to unlock a second. It may be the least interesting part of the game.

Finally, and perhaps appropriately, we have Bart’s Bloodstream. This single level presents Bart as a scuba diver in his own blood, free to float around from one corner of the screen to the others. Blood platelets cover the screen but only serve as background to the core action: the war between Bart and the viruses that clog his bloodstream. Bart’s only defense against the viruses is to shove his air pump into them and blow them up until, well, they blow up. The viruses come in multiple forms but are all out to attack Bart before he can accomplish his goal of releasing the homework sheet that appears at the top of the screen. While it is visible early on, the force field around the sheet prevents Bart from grabbing it. This is where this level’s most important character makes his appearance: Smilin’ Joe Fission. This one-note character from the educational film at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant never appears on the show again and only shows up in this one video game, reminding us that nuclear energy is our no longer misunderstood friend. His main function here isn’t to educate but to pick at the force field each time Bart touches him, like some bizarre relay race that isn’t all that out of place in this topsy turvy mad house of a game. Each assault by Smilin’ Joe Fission weakens the force field until the homework sheet is eventually freed and Bart can go pick it up.

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It’s like Home Alone but murdery.

And that’s the tour! One final strange aspect of this already strange game is a dearth of sound. There are sound effects and sound clips of Bart’s and other characters’ voices for good measure, but music and ambient sound are surprisingly scarce. Of the game’s six main levels, three are without any music at all, with just a few bits of ambience and attack sound effects to fill the soundscape. It’s a notable omission and one that carries forward the poor musical reputation of the Simpsons games of the nineties.

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Grading the game’s sound.

Bart’s Nightmare initially released on SNES in 1992, then on Sega Genesis in 1993. Apart from a few minor user interface tweaks and some differences in music due to hardware limitations, it’s essentially the same game. Same Windy World hub, same nightmares, same beginning to a 16-bit era that saw the Simpsons achieve those terrifying lows, dizzying highs, and creamy middles.

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