Krusty’s Fun House is one of those games that was always just… there. You’d see it in magazines, on store shelves, in game bins, at your friend’s house, and sometimes it mysteriously turned up in your game collection. Name a game platform of the early nineties and there it was. It wanted to be owned and played by everyone, existing in all places and realities. Krusty’s Fun House wanted to conquer the world. Krusty’s Fun House just wanted to be loved.
Krusty’s Fun House (or Krusty’s Super Fun House on some platforms) was a strange amalgam of opportunistic game production and intellectual property. The game’s origins are rooted in the Amiga computer development scene of the United Kingdom, where two designers named Patrick Fox and Scott Williams formed a development company appropriately named Fox Williams. The designer-developers signed with a sports game developer called Audiogenic to release their first game on Amiga platforms: Rat Trap. The game combines traditional side-scrolling and platform jumping with the rat herding and block placement mechanics that allow the player to complete a simple objective: kill ’em all. That wasn’t the marketing slogan but it’s the goal for every one of the game’s fifty-plus levels. The premise was undoubtedly informed by the wild success of a game called Lemmings by DMA Design, which also started out on the Amiga platform.
The game would have gone on to release on additional platforms, except our old friend Acclaim swooped in to purchase the rights to the game with the intent to turn it into a different series altogether. They worked with Audiogenic and Fox Williams to turn the cutesy mouse genocide game into the cutesy mouse genocide game featuring Krusty the Clown. The main character, mice, and enemies all received graphical updates to fit them into the Simpsons universe, with additional minor visual tweaks and new screens for the introduction and finale, but environments remained largely similar to Rat Trap.
Audiogenic would go on to be purchased by Codemasters for their sports game development talent, but not before teaming up with Fox Williams for one more round of platformer madness. The final game from the Fox Williams collaboration is Bubble and Squeak from 1993, published on the Mega Drive by Sunsoft and then Amiga by Audiogenic. Like Krusty’s Fun House, Bubble and Squeak features a protagonist (Bubble) manipulating an AI-controlled character (Squeak) to navigate side-scroller platform levels. It’s easy to see the connection between Krusty’s Fun House and Bubble and Squeak. Patrick Fox and Scott Williams would continue to work in the video game industry for some time, but never again as Fox Williams.
It must have been an easy choice for Acclaim to look at their stable of licenses and decide that Krusty would be a good protagonist for the newly christened Krusty’s Fun House. The Simpsons was still a hugely popular TV show in 1992, but Bart’s place as the breakout star had begun to fade almost as quickly as he had arrived. That wouldn’t dissuade Acclaim from releasing more games starring Bart, but they probably realized they had to diversify. The problem was solved when this funny puzzle game called Rat Trap came knocking at their door.
The game’s premise is fitting for a character renowned for his greed and penchant for slapping his name on any product, which in itself is commentary on Fox’s eager shilling of the Simpsons license. In this instance, Krusty owns a fun house that has become overrun with mischievous rats. In an uncharacteristic turn, Krusty decides to handle the problem himself and herd the rats into traps placed in each of the game’s maze-like levels. Bart and Homer assist on trap duty, as well as Krusty’s sidekicks Corporal Punishment and Sideshow Mel. This simply means that the trap machine animations from Rat Trap now include one of the aforementioned character sprites as well. This is, after all, a Simpsons game. And that about covers the objectives. The complexity and difficulty of the solutions increases over time, but the objective is never more complicated than guiding the rats through the levels.
The manner in which the player guides the rats is the puzzle side of this platformer. The key mechanic for the player is the ability to pick up and drop one of several types of blocks that appear in the levels. Most blocks can be used to build steps for the rats to reach other areas and as platforms for the player. Pipe blocks are introduced early on and come in straight and curved configurations, used to complete long pipes which push rats along from one end to the other. There are blowers… glass jars… springs… all blocks with the same dimensions and their own properties. All levels are constructed with these objects as the, erm, building blocks.
And while there is some freedom in the player’s approach to the puzzles in each level, most are designed with a specific solution in mind. Block and rat placement is identical each time the level is loaded. Furthermore, because the rats are autonomous and will just start walking in a given direction, the player doesn’t always have the time to leisurely explore the level to plan out a route to the trap machine. One early example is a level in which the rats begin walking as usual while the player freely explores the level’s labyrinth of tunnels and blocks. What doesn’t become clear until it’s too late is that the rats can eventually fall into a pit from which there is no escape, which might sound ideal when trapping rats but not for a level in which every last rat must be deposited into the death machine. So the level becomes unwinnable and the player is forced to forfeit to return to the world hub, losing a life in the process. This harsh lesson instills a certain anxiety for the player that forces thorough and rapid exploration to ensure the rats don’t end up where they shouldn’t be.
It’s a strange way to ramp up the pressure in a game that already includes other, more immediate hazards. Enemies such as snakes, aliens, flying pigs, and giant birds patrol the levels to harm Krusty, who becomes visibly tired when he’s low on health. These guardians of the rats aren’t too smart or difficult to take out, but the damage they deal over time can certainly lead to the loss of another precious life. Dropping too far a distance (about two screen heights) can also cause damage or just straight-up kill Krusty. There are health items to replenish health of course, and points and Krusty dolls that can be accrued to retain as many extra lives as possible. Then there are the pies and super balls, which can both be used to fend off attackers. Super balls are also used to destroy the crumbling blocks that are sometimes in the way and are handy for their ability to bounce off walls for sweet ricochet shots.
All of this makes for a chaotic puzzle game that certainly has more in common with Super Mario Bros. than Tetris. The art design is similarly chaotic with all kinds of colors and patterns scattered around the environments. Knowing that the game is merely a reskin of a preexisting game, it’s clear that the Fun House concept was derived from the mélange of styles that Fox Williams and Audiogenic had already created. But there’s a method to the madness. The game is divided into five hub sections that each consists of anywhere from eight to fourteen levels per section, and each section’s levels have a unique visual style. For example, the first section is a sort of warehouse motif, while the second section has pipes running everywhere. My personal favorite environment is the outdoor levels of the final section where green trees and a night sky are the dominant landscape. It lends the game a melancholy mood that fits the conclusion of a game about killing hundreds of rats. The character designs from Krusty to all the goofy enemies don’t particularly fit with the environment design, but they do have the trademark Simpsons look to them and are a step above the character art of Simpsons games released prior to this point. It’s a strange triumph but one that is arguably critically important when translating a property as widely known as The Simpsons to a video game.
Rounding out the requisite categories is sound and music, which aren’t exactly shining examples of their respective disciplines but did accomplish their objectives. Sound effects are simple but scattered effectively to fill the large spaces with some sense of place. Surprisingly, the game includes numerous voice clips of Dan Castellaneta as Krusty the Clown, which goes a long way to connect the game to its source material. Of course there is no ambient sound in any of the cavernous levels, making the whole affair perhaps creepier than the designers intended. There to balance out the creepy silence is the game’s soundtrack, which consists of a variety of jaunty tunes that lend the game a carnival feel, fitting for a fun house. Music was composed by a variety of groups for the different versions of the game and while there is some variety in the tracks, it’s not enough variety for all those levels. Originally, however, Acclaim producer Paul Provenzao recalls that Matt Groening wanted a more rich musical landscape for the weird little puzzle game. As he shared in an interview on the Talking Simpsons podcast, “I still have this thing, this cassette that he sent over with suggestions for music for the game. And it was like Nino Rota music, and all this really intense, kind of orchestral stuff.” That would have made an already weird game absolutely resplendent, but alas, Matt Groening’s whims were denied.
There’s the concept in game development of the lead platform, sometimes referred to as the lead SKU (an old merchandising acronym for “stock keeping unit”). This means developing the best version of the game on a specific platform and then iterating out versions of the game for other platforms. Sometimes this means developing on the latest and greatest hardware and then developing versions of the game with reduced graphics or gameplay to run on other systems. Other times, it means creating a game for the lowest common denominator at the risk of game complexity or graphic performance. It’s tough to say for certain which version of Krusty’s Fun House was that lead version, but I’d guess that Audiogenic’s focus on the Amiga means they started there and then branched out into the game’s seven other ports. All in all, the game was released on NES, Nintendo Game Boy, Super NES, Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, Sega Master System, Sega Game Gear, IBM PC, and of course Amiga. Each version has the same number of levels and the same elements, but some platforms naturally looked and played better than others. In addition to Amiga, the best-looking and most playable versions of the game were for SNES, Sega Genesis, and PC. While the games on other platforms still contained the same gameplay, they were hindered by reduced graphics (such as Bart and Homer being completely missing on NES), reduced screen sizes for handheld platforms, and music that sounded noticeably tinny compared to the improved sound capabilities from other platforms. But the core game was always there and players across the spectrum of platforms could get their rat-smashin’ fix as they pleased.
Krusty’s Fun House stands out not for its gameplay but for its audacity to exist. It featured a bit player from an animated sitcom whose stars were too busy to spend too much time in a strange little puzzle-platformer. And when opportunity knocked, the developers decided they’d send in the clown.