Video arcade parlors had transformed since the heady days of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. The technology evolved in leaps and bounds throughout the eighties, creating unique experiences and gameplay that could not be matched on home consoles. I looked at some of this history in writing about The Simpsons Arcade game, highlighting contemporaries such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and noting that the emergence of Street Fighter II and the fighting game genre altered the course of popular arcade games in the nineties. They were certainly the arcade games that drew me to them as I whiled away my middle school afternoons at local pizza arcades in suburban Los Angeles. Fighting games weren’t the only arcade games available in the last decade of the twentieth century, but they were by far the most common and lucrative. I kept up with the arcade fighting games for a while, but home consoles were capable of matching the arcade experience by the late nineties and I became more interested in saving my money for the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 titles of the time.
The Simpsons Bowling released at the end of this era, and it’s one of those games that I was surprised to discover years after its initial release. I eventually learned of the existence of the game as I researched the catalogue of Simpsons games in the early aughts, but the closest I got to experiencing the game myself was old online articles, screenshots, and subpar game emulation. It wasn’t until 2005 that I finally found a cabinet and played the game as it was meant to be played. And it wasn’t in some neighborhood arcade or bowling alley, but the break room at Vivendi Games. The company was formed from the rubble of what used to be Fox Interactive, and this machine had come along for the merger. I’d been working there for a year or so and had just moved to a different floor of the building where I discovered the arcade in a far corner, never played and always set to free play. It didn’t take much play time to get the gist of the game, but it was a neat work bonus just the same.
Incidentally, the office for Vivendi Games — before its closure in 2008 — was located right down the street from the arcades I frequented as a teenager. It felt like a nice bit of closure to my days as an arcade fiend.
The Simpsons were a notable absence in the video game scene at the end of the twentieth century. Virtual Springfield released on Windows and Macintosh in 1997, and outside of a small LCD handheld game in 1999 from Tiger Electronics, The Simpsons made no game appearances for a few years. Virtual Springfield sold close to two hundred thousand units — or about five million dollars — but those numbers didn’t make for a blockbuster hit by then, and especially not for a company like Fox that was trying to establish themselves as a serious competitor in the game industry. So things went silent again for a while as Fox figured out what to do with The Simpsons in video games.
But they didn’t go dark on all fronts. Fox Interactive continued to publish video games in earnest through the late nineties with Fox properties such as Independence Day, Aliens vs. Predator, and The X-Files, in addition to original titles like the action-platformer Croc series. These were all home releases for consoles and PC, with nary a care for arcades. While established arcade manufacturers like Capcom and Sega could continue to turn a profit from developing new arcade titles, young guns like Fox Interactive didn’t have the infrastructure, nor probably the appetite, to try and enter that market. At least, not on their own.
Fox Interactive finally entered the arcade market in partnership with their old friend, the developer of the game many people regard as the best Simpsons game of all time: Konami. We haven’t seen them in the picture since The Simpsons Arcade and a few PC titles in 1991, but someone decided they’d be a great developer for the first Simpsons game to hit arcades in a decade. The circumstances had changed for Konami since those days. Instead of getting a development team from their headquarters in Japan, Fox Interactive worked with the team at Konami Amusement of America — or KAA — to develop this unique title based on a sport that is most popular in the States. In fact, Konami would be both publisher and developer of record for the game, with Fox Interactive primarily serving as creative producer for the art, writing, and voice cast. KAA only published a few titles independently of their parent company in Japan, so it seems to have been an experimental time for the American arm of their arcade operations.
However it went down, The Simpsons Bowling hit arcades in the summer of 2000 and was the first of a flurry of Simpsons games released in a span of four years. It was a time that coincided with Fox’s reinvestment in Simpsons merchandise, harkening back to those early days of a Simpson plastered on every coffee mug and sitting on every video game shelf. So as always, we can thank sweet lady greed for the re-emergence of The Simpsons in video games.
Arcade aficionados were no strangers to bowling arcade games by the year 2000. Video arcade games with trackball controllers had been around since the late seventies, and while they’ve become more elaborate in their representations with alleys and bowling accoutrement thrown into the mix, they’ve generally been about positioning an on-screen bowler or bowling ball from a behind-the-back point of view, then rolling a trackball forward to launch the ball toward the pins. The Simpsons Bowling is based on the same design and simply adds a veneer of Simpsons goofiness to it.
That “slap the Simpsons on it” attitude represented a notable shift in the marketing strategy for video games starring Our Favorite Family. The show had been in production for ten years by the time this game released, with many characters on the show taking starring roles alongside the core family members. Characters like Apu, Mr. Burns, Krusty the Clown, and Willie the groundskeeper had emerged alongside dozens of others as vital members of the Springfield ensemble, and Fox Interactive realized that the video games were more fun when they threw in as many playable characters and dialogue as possible. So they did just that with The Simpsons Bowling, adding the aforementioned characters along with Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa to round out the cast of eight playable characters (and possibly Grampa if the Internet is to be believed). Each character came equipped with a bushel of jokes and scenes that played out during character selection, during bowling, and in the final scenes after the game is over. As previously shown, technology now allowed developers of Simpsons video games to take advantage of the voice cast and writers to really punch up the quality of the games. More often than not, that was the highlight of a Simpsons game in this era.
The premise of the game is as simple as I described above. There is no side narrative or goal beyond playing the game to win. You and up to three friends choose to play a normal game or spares game, with the spares mode simply a cycle of spare pin setups to see who can get the most cash (in-game points). The normal mode plays like a standard game in which players take turns hurling the ball along a bowling alley to the pins waiting at the end. Players can roll the ball twice in one frame to knock down the ten pins. If the ten pins are knocked over in one roll it is called a strike, but getting a strike means the scores of the next two rolls are added to the strike. If it takes two rolls to knock down ten pins it is called a spare. The player gets ten points plus extra points from the next roll. Players continue playing for ten frames. The one who knocks out the most pins has the highest score, and therefore wins the game. It’s some tricky math but unlike an actual trip to the bowling alley, the game calculates everything for you.
Once a mode is selected, you choose one of the several bowlers, each with their own rating in Power, Straight rolls, and Curved rolls. Some characters have a healthy balance of the three qualities, while others are higher in one rating at the cost of the other two. Willie, for example, has a whopping 9.5 out of 10 rating for both Power and Straight rolls, but his Curved rolls are rated at a lowly 4 out of 10. This puts a Willie player in a tough spot if they need a curved roll to nail a spare or make a tricky roll. But it ultimately doesn’t matter too much in a light-hearted game like this. It’s clearly not meant to be a deep simulation of the bowling experience. It’s more like a drunken bowling hangout with some friends.
The actual bowling gameplay is just a few steps. First, roll the trackball left or right to set the curve for the ball, which can help in causing pins to scatter in a beneficial pattern, or to hit those aforementioned annoying spares. Next, move the character left and right to position them accordingly, then hit the button next to the trackball to step forward. Finally, wait for a meter on the side to be in the green zone and roll the ball at the right time to get an optimal roll. Players will occasionally unlock special balls after scoring three strikes in a row, and although there are no extra points for using one, they look pretty cool. The special balls are a flaming bowling ball, Maggie Simpson herself (babies make great bowling balls!?), a ball full of nuclear sludge, and a bomb ball that causes a big explosion. This is the most fun to watch. Each roll comes with those short character moments I mentioned and, unless you’re a die-hard bowling fan, you’ll probably enjoy those the most.
In addition to the dialogue, the art and animation took a major leap forward with the first 3D representation of the characters in a video game. While The Simpsons hasn’t always shined in 3D, this first attempt did a decent job of showcasing the characters’ designs and personalities. The bowling alley was also notably a 3D space, but there are numerous elements that are shown as 2D textures instead. The characters that appear in the background are as flat as cardboard cutouts at a shooting gallery. But they’re meant to be just set dressing. Some of the playable characters come with a spiffy bowling shirt redesign and goofy animation to match their actions and dialogue. The biggest bummer of the art is how empty the whole place feels. It would have been nice to see other characters bowling in the adjacent lanes and for all active players to be shown seated around the lane as well. They’re nits to pick in a game that’s simple but solid.
The Simpsons Bowling is the first of these arcade-type games that are light on narrative and meant to be a pure dialogue and joke delivery system. It’s the kind of design I went on about in earlier chapters, but now we see that I should have been careful about what I wished for. The characters and voices are there now, but without a narrative it all feels flat and an awful lot like those greedy cash-grabs I’ve been joking about. So we need more than just a Simpsons joke book in a video game. We need the characters to have a reason for being there. The Simpsons show did this to great success with the “Team Homer” episode from season seven in which Homer and his friends form a bowling team and trick Mr. Burns into sponsoring the team, after which he demands to join them and tanks their winning streak. It was certainly this episode that inspired The Simpsons Bowling, and some of the characters even wear their bowling shirts from the episode.
Ultimately, it’s an oddball in the Simpsons game catalogue. The Simpsons Bowling is not nearly as memorable or highly regarded as the original beat ’em up classic from 1990, and the unique technical specs such as reliance on now-ancient CD-ROM drives make it a hassle and a half to emulate properly, not to mention a pain to maintain for a real cabinet. Heck, the emulated version of the game doesn’t even have voices, and that pretty much makes it a pointless endeavor. The machines are scattered about and still maintained by enthusiasts, but it’s getting harder and harder to find (though I was lucky enough to find one at Next Level Pinball Museum in Portland, OR). I’d say it’s worth a dollar or two to roll a few balls and see what the fuss is about. Unless Konami or Fox Interactive are convinced to bring it back in some form, this may very well become the rarest Simpsons video game of all time.