Something was going on with Game Boy games from Acclaim in 1994. The previous Game Boy game in the series — Bart and the Beanstalk — saw a limited print run that resulted in a rarity now worth upwards of three hundred dollars. Itchy & Scratchy in Miniature Golf Madness is in the exact same position, with a complete box fetching between two and three hundred dollars on eBay. And as we’ll learn, the value has nothing to do with the gameplay.
Being only ten years old when the game released, and not owning a Game Boy, I missed this game completely. So in this regard I was like most people who didn’t pay attention to its existence until their collector vice prompted them to seek it out. I own a copy now but I first learned about it when I seeked it out many years later in my quest to write walkthroughs for all Simpsons games. One curious aspect of writing a walkthrough for a game is how easily it is forgotten. I have few lasting memories from the many walkthroughs I wrote, and it’s simply because writing a walkthrough is work. Not in the building a fence sense of work, but just the way you approach the game. You analyze it, break it down, and write what are essentially instructions for making your way through the software. That doesn’t leave much room to take in the experience as a player would in a more natural setting. And so I can say I completed Itchy & Scratchy in Miniature Golf Madness, but I barely remembered the experience. It wasn’t until I actually played the game without the aid of save states many years later that I saw the wonder of what they had accomplished.
The year 1994 marked the last gasp of Acclaim’s firm grip on the Simpsons license. They had just released Bart and the Beanstalk and would soon follow this game with Virtual Bart, the last big effort for a triple-A Simpsons game on consoles. Itchy & Scratchy in Miniature Golf Madness feels like more of an oddity in light of the fact that Acclaim had another Itchy & Scratchy game in the pipeline for consoles that they would release in early 1995. It’s clear that someone thought games featuring Bart Simpon (or heaven forbid, the entire Simpon family) were no longer interesting enough for these side platforms. They had already sold a game featuring Krusty the Clown, so why not Itchy & Scratchy? These two characters hail from the Tom and Jerry-style animated shorts featured on the show, and their myriad violent adventures seemed perfectly geared toward an era of video games in which gameplay often featured cartoony animated characters committing wanton acts of violence. A worthwhile game design in theory, but perhaps not in practice. In fact, according to producer Paul Provenzano, it was Matt Groening himself who sometimes pushed for more of the gore:
The interesting thing about Matt being more involved is it’s sort of like The Simpsons show. You know, Matt’s version of The Simpsons… is kind of different than what the show evolved into being. He wanted more, like, throttling Bart, you know the early season, those kind of really over the top violent antics.
Like with the previous Game Boy game, Acclaim put out feelers to find a new developer for Itchy & Scratchy’s first outing. They reached all the way out to Melbourne, Australia to work with Beam Software. The game developer was first founded in 1980 and focused on computer games, with titles such as the text adventure The Hobbit from 1982 and Way of the Exploding Fist from 1985 setting the stage for their fifteen year run as an independent success in the game industry. The company shifted to console development in 1987 and released two or three titles a year until their productivity exploded in 1990. Like many of the developers we’ve learned about, the company went through a period of rapid growth as 8-bit and then 16-bit consoles proliferated around the world. The company took on ports of other companies’ hits, licenses such as NFL and George Foreman’s KO Boxing, but perhaps are best known for their adaptations of Aussie Rules Footy and Shadowrun. Itchy & Scratchy in Miniature Golf Madness stands out as the company’s only Simpsons game, released amid eight other games from Beam Software in 1994. Ironically, that was the same year they released another game featuring a cat and mouse duo: Tom and Jerry — Frantic Antics for Sega Genesis.
The mid-nineties were a tumultuous period when developers were forced to adapt to a radically shifted game industry. 32- and 64-bit consoles were the new hotness and 2D side-scrolling was quickly replaced by 3D exploration as the best-selling medium. This required new skills and talent, longer development periods, and significantly increased budgets. Beam Software continued to release games independently until 1999 when the company was acquired by Infogrames and renamed Infogrames Melbourne House, beginning a period of frequent mergers and acquisitions for them.
Their one Simpsons game did try to change the formula by introducing a miniature golf angle to the tried-and-true 2D action-platformer, but how successful was this mix of genres? I’d say they were significantly over par.
The player takes on the role of Scratchy, the larger black cat that is often the victim of Itchy the mouse’s psychopathic pranks and assaults. It’s an interesting choice to feature Scratchy as the protagonist versus an army of AI-controlled Itchys when the animated shorts on The Simpsons always show Itchy as the aggressor. One episode in particular — ”Homer Goes to College” from season 5 — plays up the fact that the Itchy & Scratchy Show would finally show Scratchy getting Itchy. It’s played up as a major television event and is used as a source of comedic blue balls when the TV is accidentally shut off, depriving Bart and Lisa of the once-in-a-lifetime TV event. And then along comes Beam Software who so boldly declare, “You wanna see Scratchy kill Itchy? Here, just do it a few dozen times.” Acclaim corrected this odd role switch in the next game featuring the gory duo, aptly and succinctly titled The Itchy & Scratchy Game, which stars Itchy as the protagonist fighting off an army of Scratchys in myriad bloody ways. Of course that is a more straightforward action-platformer, with none of this game’s mini golf stylings.
Of those two core tenets of the game design, the game leans heavily into the action-platformer. The game takes place over the course of nine levels, each a labyrinthian miniature golf course in which the player must guide a golf ball along while avoiding or killing Itchy a few dozen times. He appears at specific points and attacks with all kinds of horrifying things like bats, bombs, and bazookas. Scratchy does have a limit on lives so some skill is required to ensure he doesn’t die too many times. However once Itchy is removed, the course is clear for the player to whack the golf ball along. Hitting the ball involves standing at the ball and charging the typical power meter seen in classics like Nintendo’s Golf and Lee Travino’s Putting Challenge. And while there are some sections that require precision putting, most of the journey through the game consists of power drives to move the ball along. The courses are also littered with obstacles such as trick doors and warp holes to slow down and confuse the player as they traverse the mazes and attempt to stay under par. Because, remember, this is still mini golf.
The Simpsons is no stranger to the world’s finest miniature sport. Homer and Flanders famously conducted a cold war when their sons competed in a miniature golf tournament, and Homer worked at the local miniature golf course, where Bart was conceived in a miniature windmill. Scoring in this game is much like regular golf, where the point is to get the ball into the hole with as few strokes of a club as possible. Like golf, each level has a par, or number of strokes that are required to reach the end of the course. The goal is to use less strokes than the par amount in order to maintain a negative value, and the lower the value the higher your score at the end. There are also aids scattered throughout the level to help lower your number of strokes. Erasers lower the number of strokes by one for each eraser discovered, and secret holes in the environments either give Scratchy shortcuts to the end of the level or contain weapon power-ups to use against Itchy.
As in mini golf, each course has a theme, and in this case each course begins with a cringe-worthy pun like those used for episode titles on The Itchy and Scratchy Show. The theme informs both the layout of the course and the art direction. For instance, the first level is titled Grim Furry Tales, a play on Grim Fairy Tales. The level takes place in a forest and underground cavern setting with common fairy tale elements such as Humpty Dumpty, Mother Goose, and the old woman who lives in a shoe. The themed art is scarce and one can assume that the Game Boy’s technical limitations prevented more elaborate art design. The rest of the levels go on this way: Pirates of the Scratchibbean aboard a pirate ship, 9 1/2 Shrieks and its ghost-filled haunted house, or the Arabian-themed I Scream of Genie in which the Indian character Apu makes a poorly considered appearance. (One of many ill-considered conflations of his Indian heritage with other cultures.)
Levels do become more challenging over time, introducing environmental hazards such as water traps, cannon balls, and radioactive acid drops, as well as trick doors and cannons that send the ball to unintended parts of the level. These hazards are most perilous for causing the player to use more strokes on the ball’s journey toward the hole, resulting in a lower score at the end of the game. It may feel stressful to navigate the levels with so much in the way, but the good part of the game’s design is a complete absence of a time limit. Players are free to ignore the ball completely and explore the area, and in fact that’s the best strategy for dealing with Itchy. The game takes on a twisted hunting mechanic if the player chooses to venture out into the level to find and eliminate all the instances of Itchy, which always spawn in the same places and don’t return when Itchy is killed. This breaks the game down into two distinct phases that may not be as fun as a chaotic game of mini golf with Itchy in the mix, but is by far the best strategy for achieving the best score.
It’s really a bizarre entry in the Simpsons game oeuvre, both for its mash-up premise and the oddly successful take on miniature golf. At the very least, Beam Software didn’t grab the lowest hanging fruit on the tree as the developer of the other Itchy & Scratchy games did. Beam Software reached a little higher and achieved a unique take on the cat vs. mouse formula, even if it wasn’t an entirely mind-blowing marriage of genres. And anyway, I’m pretty sick of games starring Bart Simpson. At first he was cute and funny, but now he’s just annoying.