I imagine most people don’t note the coming and going of games from digital distribution fronts. If a game appears on Steam or the App Store today, and then it disappears two years from now, it’ll go mostly unnoticed. Such is the ephemeral nature of digital entertainment. It is hosted by someone, generally on behalf of a publisher, and then it disappears when said publisher no longer has the rights to sell it or is unwilling to spend money to update the game when it breaks.
But there are a few people who will notice. Sometimes a lot of people. In fact, some games gain more notoriety for the fact that they’ve been delisted from a digital store than from their initial release. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game is a fine example, having released in 2010 and then gotten delisted in 2014, followed by six years of fan complaints and pleading until publisher Ubisoft finally brought the game back to modern platforms at the end of 2020.
Games based on The Simpsons aren’t generally available on digital storefronts, but few of them garner the kind of intense fan following that prompts a publisher to spend the money to bring it back. Konami’s The Simpsons Arcade was, of course, finally brought to consoles via XBLA and PSN in 2012 just to be delisted less than two years later. Those who purchased it can still download it onto their Xbox 360 or PS3, but it is just gone otherwise. Sites like this, Delisted Games, and YouTube videos help to archive the existence of such games after they’ve disappeared, but it’s always just a challenge to simply play the games as they were released.
And then there’s the other The Simpsons Arcade game. It’s lesser known than its progenitor but still generates some interest by the fans who remember playing it on their parents’ iPhone or iPad.
The smartphone was well underway by 2009, but not so far away that the feature phone was dead. It was a classic transition period in which the old hardware is still readily available around the world even as new, sleek hardware makes its way into the pockets and bags of those who can afford the latest and greatest. For game publishers and developers, it can be a challenge to know when to cut off support for older hardware, but it wasn’t quite the time. After all, more ports on more platforms means more money!
And so the folks at EA Mobile continued their publishing shenanigans on both feature phones and the new iPhone hotness after the previous release of The Simpsons Itchy & Scratchy Land in 2008. The iPhone 3GS had just been released and EA was raring to go with a new game that utilized the touch input of smartphones while still supporting the button-based controls of Java and Blackberry feature phones.
Their developer this time around was a newbie to Simpsons games and a relatively new member of the game development community as well. IronMonkey Studios, based in Melbourne, Australia, focused entirely on mobile game development since they began in 2008, and worked with publishers such as Jamdat, which became EA Mobile, and so the marriage of IronMonkey Studios and EA Mobile was inevitable. Their first games with EA Mobile were mobile ports of Need for Speed: Undercover and The Sims 3, major franchises that they managed to successfully translate to mobile phones.
The company was a shoe-in to take on the next Simpsons game from EA. In a cheeky bit of marketing, they decided to create a game they knew would generate nostalgic interest. After all, if fans are clamoring for The Simpsons Arcade, why not give it to them? Sure, it’s not The Simpsons Arcade that would release to XBLA and PSN in a few years, but I suppose they figured that any ol’ Simpsons Arcade game would do.
IronMonkey’s star was on the rise and it was only a year later that they were absorbed into EA Mobile to become a first-party studio. They merged with another local developer, Firemint, to become Firemonkey Studios in 2012, and they still make mobile games to this day.
The studio’s first at bat with the Simpsons license was an interesting experiment in expanding the production values to make use of the expanded memory and graphic capabilities of the iPhone, while also making something bite-sized enough for people to want to play on the go. After all, the original Simpsons Arcade could be completed in under an hour, which feels just about right for a quick game session or two during a commute. The beat ’em up is also a fine genre for just tapping away to beat up bad guys. It was a good start toward something fun and worth playing.
The premise is about as dinky as the original beat ’em up game, albeit way more dumb. In the original game, the Simpsons all banded together to allow four players to go out in pursuit of Maggie, who’s been kidnapped by Mr. Burns after she replaced her pacifier with his stolen diamond. This time, Springfield’s version of the Illuminati have come together to hide some kind of secret plot to “steal all of Springfield’s… uh, I don’t know, natural resources or something” on a USB thumb drive, which Smithers then hides in a donut. He steps out into an alleyway and bumps into Homer before running away with the donut. Homer’s stomach leads the way as he fights his way through the subsequent levels in pursuit of that donut. The plight of the common man, you know.
Unlike the original game, this mobile take on The Simpsons Arcade omits multiplayer and includes no playable characters other than Homer. It seems like an odd choice now, but the state of the App Store and online mobile gaming in general was still in its infancy in 2009, so it may have been a technical challenge the publisher was unwilling to tackle with the budget they had. So it becomes a single player romp in which Homer’s fisticuffs are the primary means of interaction with the world. He has additional abilities, such as a ground stump that stuns enemies and a headbutt charge, but it’s all fairly restricted to Homer’s abilities as an overweight angry guy.
The recipients of said fisticuffs are a new and wide-ranging variant of the besuited thugs that attack players in the original game. This game, however, does a far better job of not just having variety in the appearance of the thugs, but in their abilities as well. The base thugs only punch Homer, but new and more challenging thugs appear with each subsequent level. Some of them jump kick, others point their noggins toward Homer and charge in for a headbutt, and then of course there’s a guy who just throws a boomerang. Introduction of new thugs is steadily paced and allows for a gradual learning curve in defending against each new type of attack. In addition to common thugs, the game has a much greater variety of bosses. The cast are all a little less interesting than those wild randos introduced in 1991, but the mechanics to defeat are also more varied. The first level sees the Mayor of Springfield calling in thugs while he hides in the trunk of his limo, forcing the player to wait until they can drag him out of the trunk while still defending against common thugs that continually stream in. Each level also introduces both a mid-level boss and a final boss, effectively doubling the number of such encounters when compared to the original game. The characters playing the roles of bosses are across the spectrum of Springfield’s beloved regulars, from the Squeaky-Voiced Teen as a mall employee to the Rich Texan as the head of the GOP Headquarters, all before finally encountering both Smithers and Mr. Burns as the expected final duo. It’s a fun bunch alright.
The levels themselves are not as vibrant as one would hope, lacking the little touches like animals and background characters that were integral to the charm of the older game. However they are very much derived from locales and story elements that developed over the course of nearly two decades on the TV show. The first level is the bog standard Downtown Springfield from nearly every Simpsons game ever made, but they then branch out into new and different locations. There’s the Springfield Mall, GOP Headquarters (my personal favorite), and Channel 6 Studios among them. All together there are six fully fleshed out levels, two less than the original, however they are all generally longer and the mid-level boss fights introduce some extra fleshiness that makes the overall level account less of a concern. In fact, a full playthrough of the mobile version of the game is longer than the original arcade game.
Overall, there’s just a bit of polish that’s missing from this version of the game. Latter-day Simpsons games always show when they’ve had pro animation and visual support, and this game doesn’t look like one of the games that got such support. It’s okay, I guess, but could’ve been better. Audio is bare and there are only a few sound bites scattered throughout the game, with none of the dialogue receiving any voice acting. It surely made the game cheaper to produce, but also makes it feel a bit lacking.
It wasn’t just the iPhone that saw this game grace its App Store. EA Mobile and IronMonkey created crunched down versions of the game for Java and Blackberry feature phones that featured more old school pixel art and pared down boss encounters. The art does have a certain charm to it, but overall the game just looks simpler and even more barren than the already dumbed down designs of the iPhone version. They kept all the levels and generally the same gameplay, but Homer could no longer jump, which is a crucial feature whose absence is felt when certain enemies gain the ability to stun lock the player if they can’t jump out of a corner. It’s a decent effort for the reduced capabilities of the limited hardware, but the iPhone version (perhaps played on an iPad) is absolutely where it’s at if someone has to play this game.
The Simpsons Arcade for mobile was a good attempt at keeping the license relevant among casual players, but it just lacked the replayability that would make it a memorable game for the hardcore set. Coupled with the game’s disappearance from the digital stores due to compatibility issues just a couple of years after its debut, the game just didn’t have a chance at sticking around. Now, it’s only a few curious folks who search for the game on YouTube that show any interest in the game’s existence. And, of course, your humble Simpsons video game archivist.