I’ve established that I joined the legions of fans whose comedic sensibilities were shaped by the antics of a town full of dopes and their cynical brand of humor. And while I enjoy the classic episodes as much as anyone who grew up with them, I’m also in that fan club of people who were especially delighted by the annual Halloween specials, collectively known as the Treehouse of Horror series. These horror-themed episodes began as parodies of the horror and science fiction films and television series that the writers grew up with in the sixties and seventies. Older viewers may have understood and appreciated the references to shows such as The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, but children of the nineties were unlikely to get those jokes behind the jokes. It’s a testament to the quality of the show that these classic parodies retold through the medium of The Simpsons could still feel like funny, original stories that introduced a new generation of viewers to horror and science fiction of a different era. The source material evolved as the show progressed through the decades, moving ahead to more recent material such as the supernatural teen angst from Twilight or the technology angst from Black Mirror.
The structure of each Treehouse of Horror episode has remained unchanged for over thirty years. Each Halloween (and even one Thanksgiving), The Simpsons premieres an episode consisting of three short tales of terror. These comedic takes on popular stories wedge the characters from the show into the narrative, packing in the mile-a-minute jokes and references that audiences have come to expect. Some episodes feature a wraparound or introductory segment as a framing story for the shorts, but the majority of the episodes are simply three short stories presented in the span of twenty-two minutes. The episodes are famously difficult to produce, requiring extra work from the writers and a higher budget for art and animation, given that these episodes introduce new character designs, backgrounds, and sometimes even a change in the style of animation. “Treehouse of Horror VI” famously produced a short called “Homer3” in which Homer and Bart enter a world visualized as a 3D wonderland, with characters themselves rendered as 3D models for the first time in the series’s history. It was a groundbreaking event for a primetime television show in 1995, and it joined other notable 3D pioneers like Toy Story and the ReBoot animated series in introducing computer generated animation to the masses.
I personally loved all of these episodes, and even though I stopped keeping pace with the release of the regular series, I continue to watch the Treehouse of Horror specials each Halloween. It’s perhaps no surprise that I became as interested in the video games as I did. The video games are simply variations on the same theme: bizarre collections of stories in which characters from the show get super powers, fight aliens and monsters, and travel through twisted versions of the reality of the show. It took a while, but video game developers eventually realized that combining the Treehouse of Horror episodes and video games was a perfect fit.
Fox Interactive made a distinct change to their business model after a few years of operation in the late nineties. They retained their position within the greater Fox entity as the division that focused on video games, but they stopped trying to be the sole publisher. Virtual Springfield from 1997 remained their sole credit as publisher of record for a Simpsons game. As we saw with The Simpsons Bowling, Fox Interactive had transformed to become more of a caretaker of the license. They provided direction and eased the licensing hurdles between the game publisher and Gracie FIlms, which had taken on a greater role in reviewing and approving the design of video games based on The Simpsons.
The early aughts saw Fox Interactive take a different approach from their predecessors in the early nineties. Instead of working with one publisher, they diversified, establishing relationships with multiple publishing partners and signing deals for a game at a time instead of multi-title deals that locked them into extended partnerships. We saw the drawback of this approach when Fox allowed Acclaim to publish their Simpsons games for four years. Few of their games achieved critical success, and sales were only as strong as the hype of Simpsons Mania. The Simpsons was a decade old by the year 2000 and a change in strategy was necessary for video game merchandise based on such a well-established but settled property.
Fox Interactive also seemed interested in what some might consider non-essential platforms for a video game business. Perhaps Fox Interactive was so risk averse that they thought it would be better to release games onto established platforms instead of investing in development for next-gen hardware. The Simpsons Bowling released in arcades at a time when arcade popularity focused on fighting games and dance simulators. At the same time, they signed deals with additional publishers for games set to release on home platforms in 2001. The first of these home releases was with THQ as publisher for a game on the aging Game Boy Color and featuring designs based on the Treehouse of Horror shorts.
THQ was a well-established company by 2001. Initially founded in 1990 as a toy company, THQ radically shifted their business by the mid-nineties, focusing on video games entirely. They were known as an aggressive competitor who acquired a variety of development studios to develop properties such as Destroy All Humans!, Darksiders, and Saints Row. They were also a major presence in the licensed game field, with multiple sports contracts and too many licensed cartoon games under their belt to name. One notable license they held was the Rugrats cartoon from Nickelodeon, and the company they worked with to develop these games has already appeared before on a Simpsons title: Software Creations.
Software Creations previously appeared as the developer of the 1994 dud for the original Game Boy called Bart and the Beanstalk. While a competent platformer, the game was bereft of Simpsons designs and had little to distinguish it from a generic game based on the fairy tale of Jack and the beanstalk. Software Creations continued to till the licensed game soil in the six years since they worked on Bart and the Beanstalk, including development of the aforementioned Rugrats game series across Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance. While none of the developers from Bart and the Beanstalk appear in the credits of the Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror, there are numerous names from the Rugrats games that do appear. The similarities don’t end with the credits. When comparing Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror to the Rugrats games by Software Creations, it’s clear that the designers already had a pipeline in place for churning out these games, including reuse of assets and fonts so they wouldn’t have to start from scratch. More than one of the Rugrats games have art that appears in Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and I’m sure the efficiency of reusing art allowed them to create the game on a tight budget, but it does make for some generic designs that don’t all fit the world of The Simpsons.
However they achieved it, Software Creations was all wrapped up with the game by early 2001. THQ released a few images and some information to tease the game but otherwise didn’t do much marketing, and the game released in March of 2001 to positive reviews. It went on to sell a quarter of a million units, which wasn’t bad for a small game on the Game Boy Color. That may be why we’ll see THQ pop up again in the future. Software Creations, however, was purchased by that old stalwart of the industry: Acclaim. They were renamed Acclaim Studios Manchester and survived long enough to be shuttered as part of Acclaim’s bankruptcy in 2004. This was their last Simpsons game.
All that history brings us that which Software Creations has wrought. For all its baggage, Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror is a refreshing take on a 2D Simpsons game with varying gameplay between levels. And for the first time, the entire family is playable in a story-driven game. (Light as that story may be). The premise sees the Simpson family’s souls trapped in the titular treehouse of horror, and each of them must escape their respective nightmares in order to proceed to the end of the night and escape the treehouse. The story and gameplay for the game’s seven levels is themed around a particular Treehouse of Horror short, with clearly identifiable links to the source material. It’s the first time a Simpsons game so literally translates episodes of the show to a video game, while still introducing new elements that must have been required in order to lay out a complete level.
Gameplay varies by level, though one broad note for all levels is the game’s unfortunate lag. The controls are just a bit slow, with button presses taking precious milliseconds to process and perform the intended action. It can manifest as a distraction to the gameplay in the levels where characters need to jump to avoid being hit by enemies. It certainly ain’t no Super Mario Bros., which is a lesson no Simpsons game developer ever seemed to learn. If you’re going to make a platformer, follow the best of the bunch. But knowing that this game is built on the tech they developed for Rugrats, perhaps it’s an unfortunate restriction. One clearly common element with the Rugrats series is the camera’s design. While many 2D games keep the player character in the center of the screen, the Rugrats titles shift the camera toward the direction that the player is facing. It can feel a bit disconcerting and perhaps nausea-inducing for some players, but obviously makes it easier to look ahead on a screen limited to a resolution of 160 by 144 pixels. Night of the Living Treehouse Horror keeps the same camera and considering some of the tricky jumps, it’s nice to have the extra visibility. And if players just can’t get through the game’s drudgery, they have the option to adjust the difficulty in the Options menu at the start of the game.
The game’s art is noticeably crude, with text fonts that look a bit slapdash and character sprites that aren’t quite on-model. However, compared to the previous entries in the 2D Simpsons game lineage, this is a work of art. The developers’ pedigree with the Rugrats series clearly inspired many of the game’s visual designs, especially those that weren’t tied to a particular Simpsons location. Homer’s journey through Mr. Burns’s castle, for example, looks nothing like the castle that appears on the television episode, but it still looks quite good, capturing the feel of a Castlevania level’s dark and spooky atmosphere. Other levels are more faithfully designed, like Lisa’s journey through Springfield Elementary consisting of hallways and classrooms that do look like those on the show.
The game also updates the old 2D platformer formula by introducing a password system that allows players to resume progress from a given level when they enter the correct password. The password system in video games was very old hat by 2001, so it certainly feels dated, but it’s a step that at least gives the player the opportunity to skip to their favorite levels. It was also undoubtedly designed as a cost-saving measure, since save files require extra programming time and a battery, all of which could add up to significant costs for a project that was clearly lean on the budget.
The first level eases the player into the game with “Bad Dream House,” a 2D platformer level inspired by the story of the same title from the first Treehouse of Horror episode in 1990. But unlike the majority of their rote platformers, this level requires the player to explore the titular haunted house in order to find fuses that light up rooms in the house, and that in turn allows players to collect all the keys necessary to reach the attic and save Santa’s Little Helper, the family dog. Players face enemies in all areas and a tight timer, which is a feature in all levels. However, Bart is equipped with a slingshot that does help clear out enemies… at least those in the lit areas. The unlit rooms contain a ghostly broom enemy that shows no quarter in its attack of the player, and this broom actually reappears in the attic as the final boss. It’s all straightforward in hindsight, but first-time players will undoubtedly struggle to figure out the order of events to light up rooms, as well as the slingshot’s tricky aiming. This level also reintroduces another common problem with the 2D Simpsons games: ear-splitting music. The tinny, forever repeating Simpsons theme song appears again here, making the audio a grating trap that most of the levels lead the player into. It’s wise to have other tunes in the background while playing through the level.
The next level is a respite from jumping in “Flying Tonight,” a level based on the “Fly vs. Fly” story from Treehouse of Horror VIII. That’s also the latest episode to be featured in the game, ensuring that all the levels are derived from episodes in the so-called golden era of the show. This story saw Bart turning into a mutant with the body of a fly and his own head, whereas his human body saw itself topped by a giant fly’s head. They flip the script in this level by introducing Maggie as the playable character, her first outing as anything other than art in a cinematic or background. The gameplay involves maneuvering Maggie-Fly from a 2D side view through a kitchen fraught with perils such as wasps, steam from a stove, and electric bug zappers. And like the previous level, Maggie must complete various objectives before proceeding into the teleporter at the end. The player must gather three microchips required to fix said teleporter, as well as flip various switches in order to deactivate the steam vent and proceed. The level is notably easier and shorter than the last, and there isn’t even a boss at the end. It’s a bit of a breather in a game filled with challenging levels.
Marge makes her only appearance in the third level, “Plan 9 From Outer Springfield.” Based on the popular tale of “Dial ‘Z’ For Zombies” from Treehouse of Horror III, this level changes to an isometric perspective to fully embrace shooting hordes of the undead. Marge shoots her way toward the top of the screen in gameplay reminiscent of classics like Capcom’s Commando and countless other shoot ’em up games in which the player controls a ship instead of a person. Marge is equipped with a nondescript cannon and unlimited ammo, and she can also pick up fertilizer and water upgrades to give her shots some extra oomph against the zombies. The player must proceed through the Evergreen Terrace neighborhood dodging regular zombies and fighting zombified versions of Springfield denizens Apu, Moe Syzlak, Principal Skinner, and Krusty the Clown. Each boss fight features the characters shooting Marge with their respective weapons just like Marge shoots them, but each fight’s pattern is progressively more difficult until the final fight against Krusty at the Simpson house. It’s a relatively short level when players realize they can just dodge all the regular zombies and focus their attention and ammo on the bosses.
Homer must have had a particularly bad piece of nougat because he’s the playable character of three out of the game’s seven nightmares. The fourth level sees him in a Castlevania-esque quest to defeat the vampire lord Mr. Burns in “Vlad All Over,” a take on the classic vampire story from Treehouse of Horror IV’s “Bart Simpson’s Dracula.” The game returns to 2D platforming and even gives Homer a crossbow that works just like Bart’s slingshot in the first level, although it’s not nearly as useful. Most of the enemies cannot be hurt by the weapon, and it’s only real use is in taking out annoying bats and other creatures that stand in the way. The castle’s guards and living statues must simply be dodged in order to proceed. The castle itself has its own devilish machinations that require the player to hit switches that unlock doors leading to other doors. It’s a confusing design choice that does stretch out the time it takes to get through the level. The castle’s other hazards include a section in which deadly vines rise from the ground and constantly nip at Homer’s heels as the player tries to jump over them, and the castle’s outdoor section is a gauntlet of arrows and spear-toting guards that can drive one mad. The one offensive weapon at the player’s disposal is inexplicably taken away during the boss fight against Mr. Burns. However, when players figure out that they only need to open the overhead windows to let in the sunlight, it becomes less of a boss fight and more of a vampire corral.
Homer’s nightmare continues in “If I Only Had a Body,” a level in which Homer’s head is placed on a robot body as part of Mr. Burns’s efforts to stop wasting money on useless things like human employees. The original tale, featured in “If I Only Had a Brain” from Treehouse of Horror II, saw Homer’s brain placed into a robotic skull, but in this instance he’s been completely dismembered and must journey through the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant to recover his arms, legs, and torso. Homer has no weapons here and can only jump over the power plant workers who are out to stop him. The body parts are hidden in things like barrels and fire extinguishers and require the player to actively search for them until they find a body part, represented as a bone. Once a part is collected, it must be returned to the surgery table where the level began before they can search for more parts to complete the level.
Lisa tags in for a stealth mission against cannibalistic teachers in “Nightmare Cafeteria,” based on the story of the same name from Treehouse of Horror V. Unlike the original tale in which no one survives, Lisa takes the proactive approach in this level and sets out to save five of the children who are waiting in cages to be preyed upon by hungry teachers and school personnel. Lisa can’t attack anyone, and instead relies on her ability to, um, press against a wall. This stealth mechanic allows the player to press a button when Lisa’s in front of a flat wall to make her invisible to the teachers who can’t be bothered to turn to the side. Using this ability, players must explore the school hallways and classrooms to find the keys that unlock the cages, then seek out the correct cage for each key to free the five children. The teachers who patrol the hallways chase after Lisa if they spot her and can only be avoided by ducking into a different room. It plays similarly to the first level, and handy trackers in the top-left portion of the screen make it easy to track progress through the level.
The final level brings back Homer for a final round of horror in “King Homer.” This level is based on the story from Treehouse of Horror III that plays as a parody of King Kong, with Homer as the titular King Homer. It’s also an interesting reversal from the level in 1994’s Virtual Bart where Bart is a kaiju on a rampage and must battle King Homer at the end. This time, Homer is the protagonist who must charge through town and destroy all tanks and airplanes that dare to mess with him. Players will also recognize a stark similarity to the fists-and-fury gameplay in that classic Atari franchise, Rampage. Players must traverse the side-scrolling level while destroying as much as possible until they reach the skyscraper on the far right. There, they must dodge attacks from airplane fire and fight it off as the final boss. Once cleared, King Homer proceeds to the top of the building to play yo-yo with his beloved Marge. (No, that’s not a euphemism.)
The game’s rough edges make it difficult to recommend to anyone but the most faithful Simpsons devotees or someone who’s already played the far more fun fare on Game Boy Color. I say this knowing that this is also one of the best 2D side scrollers in the Simpsons game oeuvre, besting many of the games featured earlier in this series. I only wish Software Creations had the same luxury that they had with the Rugrats series: a chance to make multiple games. Those games showed that, over time, they were able to refine their designs, add more content, and introduce a wider variety of gameplay. Unfortunately, the Game Boy Color was at the end of its life by 2001, and Software Creations wouldn’t last much longer either. It’s another example of The Simpsons getting short shrift in their efforts to do well on home platforms.