Franchise Festival #59: The Simpsons

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be embiggening even the smallest details of The Simpsons‘ video game history. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.

Please be sure to visit the end of the article for an interview with Retronauts and Talking Simpsons podcast host Bob Mackey on his experience with the series.

Table of Contents

Background
The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space Mutants (1991)
The Simpsons (1991)
The Simpsons: Bart’s House of Weirdness (1992)
Bart Simpson’s Escape from Camp Deadly (1991)
The Simpsons: Bart vs. the World (1991)
The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Juggernauts (1992)
The Simpsons: Bartman Meets Radioactive Man (1992)
Krusty’s Fun House / Krusty’s Super Fun House (1992)
The Simpsons: Bart’s Nightmare (1993)
The Simpsons: Bart and the Beanstalk (1994)
The Itchy and Scratchy Game (1994)
Virtual Bart (1994)
Itchy and Scratchy in Miniature Golf Madness (1994)
The Simpsons Cartoon Studio (1996)
Virtual Springfield (1997)
The Simpsons Bowling (2000)
The Simpsons: Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror (2001)
The Simpsons Wrestling (2001)
The Simpsons: Road Rage (2001)
The Simpsons Skateboarding (2002)
The Simpsons: Hit and Run (2003)
The Simpsons Game (2007)
The Simpsons: Minutes to Meltdown (2007)
Itchy and Scratchy Land (2008)
The Simpsons Arcade (2009)
The Simpsons: Tapped Out (2012)
Spinoffs
Conclusion
Interview with Bob Mackey

Background

The Simpsons is the longest-running prime-time television show in the United States at the time of writing in mid-2019, with 662 episodes produced since 1989. Its cultural ubiquity was hardly self-evident, however, when the animated franchise’s core characters debuted in a series of shorts on the Tracey Ullman Show from 1987 to 1989. Creator Matt Groening soon amassed a team of excellent animators, writers, and voice actors to produce a thirty minute version based on the success of the shorts. In spite of an inauspicious mid-season debut in December 1989, Groening’s cartoon would rapidly establish itself as one of the most popular satirical voices of its era.

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The Simpsons looked… less than polished in their Tracey Ullman Show debut. Source: Wikipedia

The series concerns the foibles of the working class Simpson family in a small American town called Springfield. Family members include Homer, an oafish father; Marge, a put-upon mother; Bart, a mischievous son; Lisa, a studious daughter; and Maggie, a pacifier-obsessed baby. Though early episodes are more concerned with situational comedy subjects common to the genre, the premises soon grew increasingly elastic and absurd alongside an expansive cast of side characters.

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Ah, that’s more like it. The Simpsons settled on a look early in their TV show run and stuck with it, give or take the aid of computer animation beginning in the late 1990s, to present. Source: Wikipedia

Simpsons Mania was in full swing by the early 1990s, as the show successfully competed with the extraordinarily popular Cosby Show during the summer of 1990 and would be noteworthy enough to attract criticism by US President George H. W. Bush by early 1992. Merchandising was the next natural frontier. The Simpsons Sing the Blues album was published in September 1990, companion magazine Simpsons Illustrated was released quarterly beginning in April 1991, and a host of children’s educational books co-written by Groening and his daughter Maggie would be on bookshelves before the end of that year. The series simultaneously leapt feet-first into interactive entertainment with no fewer than five unique video games published across a variety of hardware in 1991.

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The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space Mutants (1991)

The first Simpsons game does not make a good first impression. Produced by American studio Imagineering – known at the time for Atari home console ports of arcade classics Double Dragon (1988) and Ikari Warriors (1989) – and British studio Arc Developments, Bart vs. the Space Mutants was published by Acclaim and Ocean Software across a staggering nine platforms: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, SEGA Master System, ZX Spectrum, SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive, and SEGA Game Gear. All ports are similar to one another, though the ZX Spectrum version is notorious for lacking an appropriate color palette and consequently depicting Simpsons characters as insubstantial outlines.

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Using the x-ray specs reveals which humans are actually aliens and – as such – subject to a stompin’. Source: NintendoComplete

The plot is threadbare and derivative of the film They Live (1988), focusing on Bart’s attempts to identify invading aliens by donning a pair of x-ray glasses and defeating them with his family’s help. This articulates in a set of strangely complex gameplay systems which blend genres. Through five side-scrolling stages interspersed with lightly animated cutscenes, Bart must collect items, engage in platforming obstacle courses, use an x-ray filter to discover which wandering townspeople are secretly aliens, and defeat boss characters drawn from the TV show’s first season.

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Boss fights, like this one with the show’s sinister first season babysitter, feature the assistance of other Simpsons family members. Source: NintendoComplete

Few of the mechanics work as intended, as jumping is imprecise and enemy hit boxes are poorly defined. This results in an exceptionally high challenge level for a licensed game, even within the high difficulty standards of the era. The visual design of most versions is unobjectionable, though, and along with the inclusion of Danny Elfman’s score render the game at least somewhat salvageable as a brief diversion for fans of the show.

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The Simpsons (1991)

While Imagineering and Arc Designs were working on Bart vs. the Space Mutants, Konami was developing a radically different game on the other side of the globe. This Japanese studio had been producing arcade games since the late 1970s, and had recently demonstrated its success at adapting licensed properties to the beat-’em-up genre with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989). Konami’s lack of access to Simpsons episodes in its native country would prove no impediment to it producing the best Simpsons game of the decade.

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It’s everyone’s favorite Simpsons character – some drunk from Moe’s Bar! Source: NintendoComplete

The Simpsons arcade cabinet is a beat-’em-up in the style of Double Dragon (1987), Final Fight (1989), and Konami’s own aforementioned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Up to four players take control of Simpsons family members as they punch, kick, and otherwise bludgeon their way through eight side-scrolling stages. The plot is deliriously divorced from its source material, as it concerns Maggie being kidnapped by millionaire Mr. Burns’ assistant Smithers following a diamond heist. Bosses are likewise drawn from characters either peripheral to the show – a drunk that can be spotted briefly in Moe’s bar during an early season episode, for example – or are entirely made up for the game, as is the case with a kabuki warrior fought at a news studio.

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Interstitial minigames, like this one in which the player must mash buttons to inflate a balloon, appear between some stages. Source: NintendoComplete

As with other arcade releases of the era, the difficulty level is high and clearly intended to encourage players to drop quarter after quarter into the machine. A strong sense of presentation, including a full recreation of the television show’s opening sequence using sprites and the participation of voice actors Yeardley Smith, Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, and Nancy Cartwright reveals the commitment of Konami to delivering a quality adaptation. Consistently punchy feedback also serves to mitigate any potential frustration players might feel. Levels are similarly successful, offering a variety unmatched in most contemporary beat-’em’-ups; the Simpsons travel through a theme park, a zombie-filled cemetery, a wooded mountain, a surreal dream sequence, a TV studio, and a nuclear power plant.

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A pixellated remake of The Simpsons‘ iconic opening sequence sells the game in the arcade cabinet’s attract mode. Source: NintendoComplete

Novotrade soon developed ports for the Commodore 64 and MS-DOS operating system, but the game would otherwise become largely inaccessible past the early 1990s. Its next appearance would be as a port available on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 digital distribution services by Backbone Entertainment in 2012. Sadly, this version was delisted in 2014 and the game remains unavailable for purchase on any modern platform at the time of writing in 2019.

Note: Arcade cabinet image sourced from Game Plan Entertainment

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The Simpsons: Bart’s House of Weirdness (1991)

The Konami-published Bart’s House of Weirdness is a rarity in terms of early Simpsons games, as it was only released on a single platform: the MS-DOS operating system. This may account for its comparatively strong presentation. Colors pop, backgrounds are richly detailed, and characters are rendered with more fidelity to their television counterparts than any early Simpsons title aside from Konami’s arcade entry.

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In “The Secret of the Attic” stage, Bart does battle with bats and bees in the Simpsons’ attic. Note the Cool-O-Meter in the lower-left corner. Source: Maskaman

Still, its gameplay is as opaque as Bart vs. the Space Mutants. The player takes the role of Bart as he escapes his house after being grounded and has adventures around Springfield, moving between single-screen environments and battling enemies using various projectile weapons acquired throughout six stages. A life gauge – humorously called the Cool-O-Meter – can only be restored by finding “cool” items after Bart sustains damage. Stage goals are not explicitly identified to the player, and instead must be inferred from stage titles like “The Quest for Maggie’s Ball.”

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Players are rewarded with charmingly off-model animations between some stages. Source: Maskaman

Contemporary press seems to have been fairly positive, though the game swiftly disappeared into obscurity. No port was ever produced for another platform. Thanks to Konami’s loss of the publishing rights and its absence on any modern operating system or hardware, though, it has become easily accessible online as a piece of emulated abandonware.

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Bart Simpson’s Escape from Camp Deadly (1991)

Imagineering’s attempt at adapting one of America’s most popular sitcoms into a video game was not limited to Bart vs. the Space Mutants. The small studio would also launch a title in late 1991 exclusively on Nintendo’s portable Game Boy console. For better or worse, Bart Simpson’s Escape from Camp Deadly hews more closely to established game design trends of the early 1990s than its misguided if ambitious console cousin.

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Bart avoids sketchy camp counselors with his sister’s help. What’s she doing up in that tree? Who cares? Nerds, that’s who. Source: NintendoComplete

Bart Simpson’s Escape from Camp Deadly is a straightforward platformer featuring chunky sprites and intermittent projectile combat. Players step into the role of Bart as he navigates a handful of side-scrolling stages set within a sinister summer camp run by Ironside Burns, Mr. Burns’ nephew. Non-player characters (NPCs) aid Bart by offering power-ups and weapons, as the character’s standard moveset is otherwise limited to climbing background objects and jumping. Reception was fairly poor, though the game at least benefited from tighter controls and more easily understood mechanics than some of its Simpsons‘ contemporaries.

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The Simpsons: Bart vs. the World (1991)

Imagineering’s second Simpsons entry on the NES, Bart vs. the World, was released in the same year as its previous NES Simpsons title. Ports for the Amiga, Atari ST, Master System, and Game Gear were subsequently published by Arc Developments in 1993, as had been the case with Bart vs. the Space Mutants. This connection with the two studios’ slightly earlier software output would prove to be appropriately inauspicious.

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Bart vs. the World serves as a scathing satire of poor medieval workmanship in this early stage set on the Great Wall of China. Source: NintendoComplete

Bart vs. the World appears at first to be a sequel to Bart vs. the Space Mutants, not least due to the similarity of its name. The majority of the game also takes the form of a side-scroller in the style of the NES’ Super Mario Bros. (1985). The two titles diverge, though, in Bart vs. the World‘s greater gameplay variety. A framing plot sees Bart winning a contest on The Simpsons’ Krusty the Klown show and then competing against a once-more mis-characterized Waylon Smithers in a worldwide scavenger hunt for various artifacts. Stages can be chosen from a selection and feature several mechanics, including trivia contests, exploratory sections, auto-scrolling skateboard sequences, and boss battles with Mr. Burns-inspired enemies newly created for the game. Settings include China, the North Pole, Egypt, and the United States.

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Simpsons baby Maggie begins a lifelong gambling hobby in this Three-Igloo Monty minigame. Source: NintendoComplete

Reception to Bart vs. the World was middling at best, though the international settings led to Entertainment Weekly memorably describing it as featuring “a nice multicultural touch.” Criticism tended to emphasize the poor physics and loose controls which had characterized earlier Simpsons games. Still, the presence of more interesting environments and varied gameplay couldn’t help but result in the best of Imagineering’s and Arc Developments’ Simpsons releases.

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The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Juggernauts (1992)

Imagineering would develop the strangest of its Simpsons adaptations for the Game Boy in 1992. Bart vs. the Juggernauts makes use of Simpsons characters – particularly emphasizing newscaster Kent Brockman and psychiatrist Marvin Monroe as amusing between-stage commentators – but is otherwise a satire of the television show American Gladiators. This articulates as a variety of nominally sports-oriented minigames featuring different gameplay mechanics.

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Bart has ‘versed’ more than a few enemies in his time, but none are greener than the Juggernauts. Source: NintendoComplete

The framing device sees Bart participating in a series of events on a televised game show, reaching and then defeating the titular Juggernauts. Stages include but are not limited to a 2.5D skateboard jump somewhat reminiscent of the Great Wall sequence in Bart vs. the World, an isometric platforming section in which Bart avoids enemies as he navigates a grid and dunks a ball through a hoop, and a duel between Bart and one Juggernaut on a miniaturized Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. Controls are as loose as the studio’s earlier efforts and the central conceit, while inventive, is less directly connected to the source material than any Simpsons game so far. Critics offered mixed reviews, with most highlighting the variety of minigames and amusing between-stage banter as highlights within an otherwise forgettable gameplay experience.

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The Simpsons: Bartman Meets Radioactive Man (1992)

The last of Imagineering’s Simpsons games was released for the NES in 1992 and ported to the Game Gear by Teeny Weeny Games the same year. It is among the more traditional platformers in this set of early Simpsons games, featuring side-scrolling or vertically-scrolling stages broken up only by auto-scrolling flying sequences and boss battles. Imagineering’s uncharacteristic reliance on standard game design, unfortunately, does not translate to an engaging experience.

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Where does the platform end and the background begin? It’s impossible to say. Source: NintendoComplete

The opening cutscene depicts Bart entering a comic book at the behest of Radioactive Man’s sidekick Fallout Boy and transforming into Bartman, a superhero alter-ego who had rarely appeared in the Simpsons TV show, to rescue Fallout Boy’s partner from a team of villains. Bartman must rely on a basic repertoire of moves, including jumps, punches, and kicks, as he navigates 2D stages full of enemies and traps. Acquiring power-ups allows Bartman to fire projectiles, though this power is lost if the player character sustains damage.

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2D flying sequences are perhaps less challenging than platforming stages, as the player does not need to worry about ambiguous hitboxes. Source: NintendoComplete

Though this type of game should have been a slam-dunk in the twilight days of the 8-bit console generation, Bartman Meets Radioactive Man is a textbook case of how one ought not to design a platformer. Hitboxes are unclear, resulting in quick and unpredictable failure. At the same time, a slightly off-center perspective presents terrain as 2.5D and reduces the precision of critical jumps in a manner similar to 1998’s Mega Man 8. The Simpsons would produce more questionable titles in the years ahead, but Bartman Meets Radioactive Man remains notorious for its failure to adhere to the fundamental rules of its genre.

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Krusty’s Fun House / Krusty’s Super Fun House (1992)

Krusty’s Fun House was developed by Audiogenic Software and published by Acclaim on the NES, Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), Game Gear, Master System, and Genesis/Mega Drive in 1992. Virgin Games published ports for DOS and Amiga computers, while Acclaim released a monochromatic Game Boy version in January 1993. Though 16-bit versions were titled Krusty’s Super Fun House, all ports are functionally identical.

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The Amiga’s Rat-Trap is on the left while the SNES version of Krusty’s Super Fun House is on the right. Sources: Mingos Commodore Page / tarquinnff3

Krusty’s Fun House was based on a 1991 Amiga game called Rat-Trap and represents a simple graphical swap. The game mechanics from Rat-Trap are all present in Krusty’s Fun House, including side-scrolling 2D stages in which the player character wrangles rats using tools and environmental features. Rather than playing as an anonymous child clearing an infested mansion, though, the player steps into the oversized shoes of the Simpsons‘ Krusty the Clown as he eradicates the rat population of his titular fun house.

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Krusty places a box to prevent these rats from getting stuck, lest they avoid Bart Simpson’s boxing glove-based slaughterhouse. Source: TheLegendofRenegade

Reception to Krusty’s Fun House was fairly positive. It was successful as a puzzle-platformer in the vein of Lemmings, even if failed to offer quite as much devious challenge as that PC classic. Time has been kind to the game, at least, and it ranked highly in GamesRadar‘s 2017 series retrospective.

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The Simpsons: Bart’s Nightmare (1993)

Sculptured Software released the only new Simpsons title of 1993. As the first Simpsons game to be built from the ground up exclusively for 16-bit home consoles – the Genesis/Mega Drive and SNES specifically – Bart’s Nightmare might have represented a break with the series’ mediocre past. Unfortunately, a handful of interesting ideas fail to help the game meaningfully improve upon its predecessors.

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While this still image from the SNES version goes some small way in conveying the distinctly Lynchian vibe of Bart’s Springfield nightmare, I strongly recommend checking out the source for the full experience. Source: NintendoComplete

The framing narrative is a bad dream Bart experiences after falling asleep while doing his homework. In the dream, Bart wanders a surreal interpretation of Springfield and is accosted by side characters from The Simpsons TV show as he searches for lost pages of his homework assignment. Once Bart finds a page, the player chooses to participate in one of two minigames randomly assembled from a total of five possibilities. These minigames include a riff on Godzilla (1954) and King Kong (1933) called Bartzilla, a parody of The Fantastic Voyage (1966) in which Bart navigates his own bloodstream, a bifurcated minigame in which Bart battles Simpsons show-within-a-show characters Itchy and Scratchy, a scrolling flight sequence starring Bartman, and a pseudo-isometric platformer sequence called Indiana Bart. The number of minigames Bart completes before either winning or reaching a fail state through losing his health points (represented by Zs) determines which of several endings the player sees.

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The journey through Bart’s bloodstream is as mechanically unpleasant as it is challenging to look at. At least it features one-time Springfield Power Plant mascot Smilin’ Joe Fission repeatedly proclaiming his catchphrase “Hi there.” I wonder why he didn’t catch on. Source: NintendoComplete

Though a commendably dreamlike presentation and a non-standard win/fail state are effective at staking out a unique identity, Bart’s Nightmare features the notoriously loose gameplay for which the franchise had unfortunately become known. A contemporary review from Entertainment Weekly was positive, but more recent coverage on the podcast Retronauts establishes the game as very hard to enjoy at a distance of 25 years. If nothing else, it was an ambitious misstep.

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The Simpsons: Bart and the Beanstalk (1994)

By 1993, the Game Boy had collected an impressive library of Simpsons games, including originals Bart’s Escape from Camp Deadly and Bart vs. the Juggernauts as well as a port of home console title Krusty’s Fun House. Software Creations Ltd., a British game studio known primarily for puzzle-platformers Solstice (1990) and Equinox (1994), would put its stamp on this somewhat undistinguished series of releases in 1994 with Bart and the Beanstalk. Like Bart vs. the Juggernauts, the game’s narrative and visual cues are drawn from a combination of The Simpsons and another piece of pop culture – in this case folktale Jack and the Beanstalk.

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Whatever its problems, Bart and the Beanstalk features some impressively evocative spritework. Source: NintendoComplete

Gameplay takes the form of a standard side-scrolling platformer as Bart climbs a massive beanstalk and collects coins throughout seven stages. Once all coins have been acquired in a stage, Bart battles a boss using whatever weapons he has managed to acquire during his exploration. Unfortunately, Bart and the Beanstalk‘s impressively detailed character sprites are unable to overcome its unreliable controls and the franchise’s characteristically unforgiving difficulty curve.

Note: Cover image sourced from Retro Game Cases

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The Itchy and Scratchy Game (1994)

The Itchy and Scratchy Game was developed by British studio Bits Corporation and published by Acclaim on the SNES and Game Gear in 1994. Based on the cartoonishly violent fictional show of the same name in the Simpsons universe, it puts the player in the role of anthropomorphic mouse Itchy as he seeks to kill anthropomorphic cat Scratchy. Each of the game’s seven side-scrolling platforming stages culminate in boss battles on the SNES version, though these climactic fights were cut from the portable Game Gear version.

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Can you imagine picking up the Game Gear version and missing classic boss fights like the Pirate-Scratchy Mech? Source: RickyC

As with earlier Simpsons platformers, controls are loose and fail to convey mastery of Itchy’s on-screen movement. Weapons can be picked up but are similarly challenging to use. Interestingly, though the violence of the source material is muted in this adaptation, the circulation of an otherwise identical canceled Genesis version confirms that more gratuitous animations had been cut from the versions published on the SNES and Game Gear shortly before their release.

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Virtual Bart (1994)

Following two traditional platformers, Sculptured Software, Inc.’s Virtual Bart is a minigame collection in the style of Bart vs. the Juggernauts and Bart’s Nightmare. An opening cutscene depicts Bart exploring a school science fair – likely a reference to The Simpsons episode “Duffless” – and being trapped within a virtual reality headset. Once strapped in, Bart must complete six different minigames selected at random from a wheel.

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Stages are randomly selected from a medieval torture device. Source: NintendoComplete

Minigames include three platforming challenges and three unique quasi-3D stages. The former see Bart exploring side-scrolling obstacle courses as a baby, a pig, and a dinosaur. The latter roughly map to a handful of genres which increased in prominence during the early 1990s. Bart throws tomatoes at his classmates in the style of a fixed-position first-person shooter, travels through a post-apocalyptic landscape on a motorcycle in an echo of Road Rash (1991), and navigates a twisting water slide in a manner reminiscent of FMV rail-shooter Sewer Shark (1992).

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The quasi-3D stages are the highlight, but their gameplay is extremely rudimentary. Source: NintendoComplete

Reception was generally poor, as Virtual Bart featured the unpolished controls which had become synonymous with Simpsons games. The SNES version was the superior of the two, though, as it emphasized the depth of its quasi-3D sections using that hardware’s famous Mode 7 graphics. If nothing else, its visual design was stronger and more faithful to its source material than some earlier series releases had been.

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Itchy and Scratchy in Miniature Golf Madness (1994)

Developed by the surprisingly venerable Australian studio Beam Software, which had built a reputation on text adventures and action games for personal computers before running into financial difficulties as home game consoles took off in the late 1980s, the Game Boy’s Itchy and Scratchy in Miniature Golf Madness is among The Simpsons’ strangest adaptations. Like The Itchy and Scratchy Game before it, this series entry focuses on show-within-a-show characters Itchy the Mouse and Scratchy the Cat. Unlike that earlier title, the player takes on the role of Scratchy for this adventure.

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Scratchy can use his club for good, as seen here when he lines up a shot. Source: zapfsaeule

Gameplay involves playing miniature golf from a side-scrolling perspective while dodging attacks by Itchy. Using weapons acquired throughout each course, Scratchy can kill Itchy (though the mouse always comes back shortly thereafter) and open up a path to strike his ball towards the goal. As each stage is comprised of a series of platforming challenges, much of the difficulty lies in clearing areas of enemies in order to hit the ball as few times as possible before reaching the goal.

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Scratchy can also use his club to inflict pain on Itchy. Looks like someone switched this cat to evil. Source: zapfsaeule

Itchy and Scratchy in Miniature Golf Madness managed to overcome its franchise’s problem with poor controls and performed well with critics. It’s hard not to be charmed by a game that mixes two disparate genres – golf and platformer – while depicting the former from a perspective rarely seen in other sports titles. Still, The Simpsons’ fading cultural ubiquity from the mid-1990s on would see the first great deluge of tie-in video games slow to a trickle over the coming years.

Note: Cover image sourced from The Game is Afoot Arcade

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The Simpsons Cartoon Studio (1996)

Surprisingly, the franchise’s next entry represents IP owner Fox Interactive’s first self-published Simpsons release. Though heavily modified and featuring all-new assets, The Simpsons: Cartoon Studio is actually based on the engine of developer Big Top Productions’ previous title The Felix the Cat Toolbox (1994). As with that earlier release, The Simpsons: Cartoon Studio allows PC users to combine elements of the TV series to create lightly animated vignettes.

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If you don’t use the program to make a fez-wearing Homer drive a small car through the Simpsons’ living room, you’re using it wrong. Source: BattleDamaged

Customizable elements include dialogue, characters, settings, and music. The resulting product could be sent to friends via email or floppy disc. Unfortunately, a relatively limited number of assets and voice clips led to mixed reviews and prevented the game from achieving what might have been possible with the greater memory available to developers a decade later.

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Virtual Springfield (1997)

Virtual Springfield, the first core series entry developed internally by Fox Interactive following, was published for Windows and Macintosh operating systems in 1997. Users navigate Springfield from a first person perspective and collect secret items hidden around town while encountering with Simpsons characters. Though the core experience is only lightly interactive, a handful of minigames are included.

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Video games within video games? Now I’ve seen everything. Source: NintendoComplete

Of particular note to long-time fans of the source material is the presence of new dialogue recorded by the TV show’s cast. Voice acting in the game, as in the show, is directed by Bonita Pietila. Though this trend would become near-standard in Simpsons games produced following the turn of the millennium, Virtual Springfield remains unique for the inclusion of dialogue recorded by fan-favorite guest star Phil Hartman.

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The Simpsons Bowling (2000)

Konami returned to The Simpsons in 2000 with a new arcade cabinet developed in collaboration with Fox Interactive, an in-house studio opened at the show’s production company in 1994. The Simpsons Bowling is a sports game in which up to four players choose one of eight Simpsons characters and compete against one another in a bowling match. If a player performs three strikes in a row, he or she gains access to special balls; these include nuclear waste, a bomb, or a rollable Maggie Simpson.

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The Simpsons Bowling offers a surprising level of fidelity to the TV show on which it’s based – given that it’s otherwise a straightforward bowling simulator – but this Homer animation is rough. Source: Ferrox

Inputs are entered using a spherical trackpad, simplifying the mechanics and attracting a more casual audience who might not have sought out earlier Simpsons games. Color commentary by the characters ensures that the game remains amusing even when not feeling dramatically different from less cartoonish bowling titles. As a further connection to the source material, and perhaps a winking in-joke to long-time fans, the characters’ bowling outfits are direct references to The Simpsons‘ episode “Team Homer.”

Note: Cover image sourced from IMDB

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The Simpsons: Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror (2001)

Publishers THQ, Activision and Electronic Arts (EA) gained the license to produce Simpsons games following the turn of the millennium. The first of the resulting titles was developed by Software Creations, a British studio which had previously produced Bart and the Beanstalk (1994). THQ released The Simpsons: Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror for the Game Boy Color in North America and Europe in early 2001 following roughly one year of development time.

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RoboHomer explores the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant in a poignant reminder of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead observation on why the souls of the dead haunt banal environments: “Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.” Source: NintendoComplete

Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror primarily represents a refinement on the side-scrolling platformer mechanics of Software Creations’ earlier Simpsons release. The player takes on the role of each member of the Simpson family as they navigate seven stages drawn from the TV show’s annual “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween specials. Bart explores a haunted house, Lisa battles cannibal schoolteachers, Maggie plays as a housefly, and Marge dodges the undead; Homer is the protagonist in the three remaining stages, which are drawn from “Treehouse of Horror” vignettes featuring vampires, robots, and an homage to King Kong.

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The vast majority of the game is a side-scrolling platformer, but Marge’s section actually articulates as a top-down shooter, a genre which had long since faded from popularity by the 2000s. Source: NintendoComplete

Software Creations’ second portable Simpsons game received generally positive reviews. Critics highlighted the excellent use of color and spritework to bring some of the TV show’s most memorable sequences to life in an interactive medium. A punishing difficulty curve was again the cause of some unhappiness, but that couldn’t keep fans from enjoying a game wholly dedicated to one of the source material’s most enduring annual traditions.

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The Simpsons Wrestling (2001)

Though gray skies had begun to clear up for the franchise with Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror, The Simpsons would produce a handful of less successful entries before it could fully escape its poor reputation. The first of these was a wrestling game developed for the aging PlayStation by Big Ape Productions. Published by Activision in North America and EA in Europe, The Simpsons Wrestling is an unmitigated disaster that features shockingly poor presentation and mechanics.

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Here, kind Christian Ned wails on Barney the drunk at a bowling alley. Source: NintendoComplete

Gameplay in The Simpsons Wrestling more closely resembles the beat-’em-up genre than its nominal connection to pro wrestling. In single player or multiplayer bouts, players choose one of 20 Simpsons characters and duke it out within one of 10 small 3D arenas drawn from locations around Springfield. Characters’ punches, kicks, and dodges deplete their stamina gauge and eventually open them up to attack, though stamina can be recovered by eating food that periodically appears within the arena. Alternatively, surviving long enough to acquire five floating letters that pop up over time allows a fighter to activate a TAUNT command and deplete their opponent’s stamina gauge for a time, permitting an uninterrupted series of attack. Combat ends when one fighter’s health gauge has been reduced to zero.

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Having collected all five letters, Ned gains invulnerability and can wail on Kang (or Kodos) to his heart’s content. Source: NintendoComplete

Though its gameplay suggests an engaging if simplistic experience, The Simpsons Wrestling‘s execution is uniformly shoddy. Combat is shallow and often unresponsive, the visual design is often incoherent, and even the game’s most impressive element – the inclusion of dialogue recorded by each of the TV show’s voice actors – is mitigated by frequent repetition. Contemporary critics savaged the release, resulting in a reputation as one of the worst games of all time.

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The Simpsons: Road Rage (2001)

The final Simpsons release in 2001 was a vehicular exploration game developed by Radical Entertainment and published by EA for the PlayStation 2, Gamecube, and Xbox consoles. Its similarity to SEGA’s Crazy Taxi (1999) is so great that it prompted a 2003 lawsuit. Happily, building upon one of the SEGA Dreamcast’s most charming titles allowed Radical Entertainment to create a qualified success.

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A hand in the sky points the way to a goal, represented in the distance of this still by a glowing green cylinder of light. I hope Grandpa Simpsons can get Otto there in time! Source: RickyC

An opening cutscene depicts town bogeyman Mr. Burns replacing all public transit with radioactive buses. Players control a variety of Simpsons characters as they take to the streets in response to Burns’ plot, using their cars to pick up and transport passengers around Springfield as quickly as possible. Additional goals are introduced as mission difficulty rises. As the player accrues more in-game money by completing tasks, he or she gains access to more characters and increasingly eccentric vehicles drawn from the source material.

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The graphics on the Game Boy Advance version are quite impressive, perhaps even superior to similar first-party title Mario Kart: Super Circuit, but its simplistic gameplay falls a bit short. Source: LongplayArchive

Critical reception to The Simpsons: Road Rage was mixed. Its presentation resembles the TV show more closely than many of its predecessors, and The Simpsons voice cast again reprised their roles by recording original dialogue for the game. Gameplay was once more a sore spot, though, as controls are loose and hitboxes are inconsistent. Given the middling response, it is a bit surprising that a Game Boy Advance version was developed by Altron and published by THQ in 2003. This one features dramatically scaled-down visuals and environments, adapted as it is to weaker portable hardware, and winding linear stages rather than the console version’s open world.

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The Simpsons Skateboarding (2002)

British studio The Code Monkeys would have the distinction of producing one of The Simpsons‘ most thematically incongruous outings, a skateboarding simulator in the model of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (1999-2018). Players step onto the skateboards of various Simpsons characters brought to life by the show’s voice actors. Characters can alternately explore Springfield, transformed into a vast skate park, or practice their board tricks and acquire skill points to boost persistent stats in enclosed arenas.

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Have you ever wanted to see Bart grind out an Ollie? Well here you go. Source: Ultimate PS Gamer

Like The Simpsons Wrestling only a year earlier, though, the PlayStation 2’s Simpsons Skateboarding quickly became known as one of the worst games ever made. Character models are rough 3D approximations of the show’s iconic art, Springfield largely consists of generic buildings, and the controls are so loose that performing tricks is an exercise in frustration. Luckily, The Simpsons Skateboarding would prove to be the franchise’s last definitively poor console game. As suggested by the mixed successes of Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror and Road Rage, better times were just around the bend.

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The Simpsons: Hit and Run (2003)

The Simpsons: Hit and Run was developed by Radical Entertainment and published by Vivendi Universal Games across all major contemporary platforms: PlayStation 2, Gamecube, Xbox, and Windows. Perhaps owing to its developer’s pedigree as the studio responsible for some of the least objectionable series entries from earlier years, The Simpsons Hit and Run would be regarded as one of the franchise’s greatest releases. It put the recently popular Grand Theft Auto 3‘s gameplay model to use as a sandbox in which players could experience the silliest of Springfield’s hijinx.

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Open-world racing sequences are quite ambitious for the sixth-generation hardware. Source: tamago2474

Players take on the roles of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, or (strangely) Apu as they complete missions across the city. These missions articulate as driving and vehicular combat sequences broken up by on-foot exploration and battle. Even the narrative receives an uncharacteristically high level of attention from Radical Entertainment, focusing on a conspiracy connected to aliens Kang and Kodos.

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Though character models are often alarmingly unlike their TV counterparts, a dedication to deep cuts in character costumes assures players that this was not reflective of an overall lack of attention to detail. Source: tamago2474

Though superficially similar to Road Rage, Hit and Run is a significantly more ambitious release. Collaboration between the developers and The Simpsons TV show writers and cast resulted in the most humorous and playable adaptation of its source material to date. Critics responded positively, noting some off-model characters and the presence of bugs inherent to open-world games but generally conceding that these were not enough to tarnish players’ enjoyment.

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The Simpsons Game (2007)

The last Simpsons title released for dedicated game consoles at the time of writing is also among the series’ best. The Simpsons Game, developed internally by EA at its Redwood Studios in collaboration with the TV show’s writers, was planned to coincide with 2007’s much-anticipated Simpsons Movie. An intense marketing push and sense of opportunity led EA to publish The Simpsons Game across every major modern platform in 2007.

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Exploring a location as iconic as the Simpsons’ home in lush cel-shaded 3D is an unqualified delight. Source: Gamer Max Channel

Gameplay is relatively simplistic, consisting of 3D action and puzzle-solving in an adventure which satirizes contemporary video games and other media properties. Each of the games sixteen stages, aside from its tutorial, features at least two playable members of the Simpson family with their own unique abilities. Two players can join together to play the game cooperatively. Cel-shaded graphics ensure that The Simpsons game looks more like the TV show than any other preceding series entry, excepting perhaps Konami’s 1992 brawler.

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The Nintendo DS version of The Simpsons Game featured similar stages, including Grand Theft Scratchy, but was otherwise a pared-back 2.5D puzzle platformer. Source: SkicoNow

While the versions released on PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, Xbox 360, and Wii were identical aside from input mechanisms, the Nintendo DS received a dramatically different game of the same name. This side-scroller is more focused on referencing its source material than other pop culture properties, though it does include minigames featuring parodies of classic 2D titles. Unfortunately, a positive reception to all versions by critics was unable to save a planned sequel from cancellation in 2011.

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The Simpsons: Minutes to Meltdown (2007)

G5 Entertainment developed and EA published The Simpsons’ first outing on mobile phones in 2007. The timing of the release, and the prominence of character Plopper/Spider-Pig in the game, identifies this as a planned tie-in to The Simpsons Movie (2007). Because this narrowly predated the rise in modern smartphones, the game was Java-based and used a phone number pad for inputs.

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Though much of Minutes to Meltdown consists of finding items, there are isometric platforming segments as Homer chases Spider-Pig on the way to the Power Plant. Source: JAVA Mobile Game

Minutes to Meltdown is a simple isometric adventure game in which the player navigates Homer past obstacles en route to avert a nuclear meltdown at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. Homer must find items which unlock access to new areas while collecting energy restoration boosts, so a short overall play-time is mitigated by the need to memorize the location of required advancement tools and make multiple attempts at reaching the goal. Unlike most mobile games from this era, Minutes to Meltdown can still be sought out and downloaded from the internet on Java-equipped devices at the time of writing in June 2019.

Note: Cover image sourced from mob.org

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Itchy and Scratchy Land (2008)

Mixed reviews did not keep EA from quickly publishing a G5 Entertainment-developed follow-up to Minutes to Meltdown on mobile phones with Java capabilities. Itchy and Scratchy Land is based on the Simpsons episode of the same name and looks almost identical to its direct predecessor. Still, a handful of small gameplay variations establish a unique identity.

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The green reticule in the lower-right identifies this sequence as a minigame in which Bart targets and fires on marauding robots with his trusty slingshot. Source: gamemobix

Without the presence of a looming nuclear disaster, no timer counts down the player’s time to explore the game’s four stages (each inspired by one of the park sections in the aforementioned TV show episode). The player instead navigates Homer through a more isometric platformer-influenced gauntlet of traps and enemies as he seeks to sustain his health points until he arrives at the stage goal. The presence of a longer playtime and minigames offering different gameplay mechanics, like using tools to take out marauding robots, were unable to secure a positive reception from contemporary critics.

Note: Cover image sourced from mob.org

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The Simpsons Arcade (2009)

In one of the more transparently misleading decisions made by EA during its control of The Simpsons license, the studio released two slightly different mobile titles developed by Iron Monkey under the same name as one of the series’ most successful early entries; one was published for Java-based devices and one for Apple iOS. The quality of both revised versions, though, falls short of their namesake. This reimagining hews to the template of Konami’s classic beat-em-up but conspicuously lacks multiplayer or a choice of characters.

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Both versions of The Simpsons Arcade (2009) are identical aside from different aspect ratios and input mechanisms – the Java version (L) uses a number pad while the iOS (R) uses a touch-based interface superimposed on the image. Neither allow the player to control any character except for Homer, though other Simpsons can be called to aid Homer through the use of power-ups. Sources: BAHAMUNT / Bekice Iribele

Instead, the player steps into the shoes of Homer as he navigates six stages from a 2.5D side perspective and beats up goons drawn from the TV series. Unlike the 1991 version, characters are roughly analogous to their source material (aside from a still incongruously villainous Mr. Smithers) and a wider variety of side characters are present. Bosses include Chief Wiggum, Bumblebee Man, and – most surprisingly – the TV show’s Squeaky-Voiced Teen.

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The Simpsons: Tapped Out (2012)

The latest Simpsons video game at the time of writing represents a break with what had come before. Rather than being a hastily produced tie-in, a genre experiment, or a major one-and-done release, Tapped Out was released in 2012 on iOS and in 2013 on Android operating systems and has subsequently received ongoing updates in the Games as a Service (GaaS) model. Though free to download, the software integrates timers and resources which can be refilled through the use of real-world currency.

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Time is money, I guess. Source: kclovesgaming

The narrative opens on Homer causing a nuclear meltdown while distracted by a game on his phone. To attract former residents to return to Springfield, the player must rebuild the town (and other areas like Krustyland in later expansions). This articulates as a simplified city-building simulator in the style of a stripped-down Sim City (1989-2014).

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Good heavens, it seems downright irresponsible to build a Kwik-E-Mart across the street from the Simpsons home. How’s Homer going to afford his mortgage when there’s rancid hot dogs within arm’s reach? Source: kclovesgaming

Though the game attracted intense criticism for its microtransactions, including an investigation by the United Kingdom’s Office of Fair Practices and a parody by rival animated sitcom South Park, some fans have supported it for its faithfulness to the source material. This is likely down to the uncredited involvement of numerous writers from The Simpsons TV show, including Stewart Burns, Carolyn Omine, and Jeff Westbrook among others. EA has shown no signs of dropping support for the game, so it remains actively updated and attracting new players seven years after its initial release.

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Spinoffs

As with Franchise Festival #23: Jurassic Park, it’s a bit tenuous to suggest that any software bearing The Simpsons name is a spinoff since the only connecting thread among core entries is the presence of The Simpsons IP. Still, I think it’s reasonable to discuss non-standard video games using this space. Several of the former were produced in early 1990s during the height of Simpsons Mania.

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Animations are limited, as is always the case in LCD devices, but the character drawings in Bart Simpson’s Cupcake Crisis are impressively close to their source material. Source: Vic’s Video Game Collection

Bart Simpson’s Cupcake Crisis (1990) is a handheld LCD game device which sees Bart moving left and right as he attempts to catch cupcakes thrown by Maggie. As with other LCD games of the 1990s, the background remains static while black lines representing the action  react to player inputs by being erased and re-drawn over pre-defined areas. In the series’ second LCD game, Bartman: Avenger of Evil (1991), the player takes the role of Bart as he rides his skateboard, transforms into his Bartman alter-ego, and dodges projectiles fired by bully Nelson.

Conclusion

The Simpsons remains an ongoing television series, but is hardly the cultural phenomenon it once was. It stands to reason, then, that the publishing schedule of its video game adaptations would slow as the years turned into decades. The 1990s’ vast multitude of Simpsons releases turned into a trickle by the mid-2000s and no new game in the series has been released since the launch of The Simpsons: Tapped Out in 2012.

Perhaps no new game is needed, since EA seems poised to add content to Tapped Out as long as players continue to participate in its microtransactions. Entries from the turn of the millennium on have benefited from collaboration with the TV show’s staff even as their release schedule has grown less rapid, so mourning the loss of the series’ 1990s publishing heyday feels misguided. Still, it’s hard not to wonder what new twists might be brought by the franchise’s historically chameleonic genre identity as new types of games emerge in the wider industry. What might an open-world Simpsons be like? What about a Simpsons shooter, or a Simpsons battle royale? For better or for worse, we may never know.

Interview with Bob Mackey of Retronauts and Talking Simpsons

1. What is the most successful video game adaptation of The Simpsons and why? How about the least successful one?

Most successful video game adaptation of The Simpsons: Hit and Run. It was a pretty competent GTA clone of the era, but more importantly, it gave you a very interactive and explorable polygonal version of Springfield packed full of references and jokes. Going way back to Virtual Springfield, this is basically all fans wanted and this is really the only Simpsons game that gave it to us.

Least successful video game adaptation of The Simpsons: Bartman Meets Radioactive Man. Possibly the worst platformer of the bunch (though the competition is stiff), and it mines an aspect of The Simpsons that existed more in the form of merchandise than in the show itself. (The Bartman comic wouldn’t launch until a year after its release, so they couldn’t even take material from that.)

2. Why do you think so many of the early Simpsons games focused on a variety of gameplay elements rather than sticking with a single genre?

The Simpsons as a property doesn’t really lend itself well to what was possible with the technology of 8 and 16-bit video games, so my guess is that developers simply couldn’t find one idea that could sustain an entire game.

3. Could you elaborate on how the show’s staff was involved in these adaptations, providing key art, story suggestions, or quality control? How did this role change as the years went on, with Fox bringing adaptations in-house during the late 1990s and licensing the IP out to EA in the 2000s?

My understanding is that there were no writers working on the games in an official capacity until Road Rage, which involved writers Tim Long and Matt Selman. Hit and Run and The Simpsons Game would be written by Selman and other writers as well. I believe Tapped Out has its own writing team independent of Simpsons producers. (But I would check the credits.)

4. Could you offer some context on the corporate licensing vicissitudes that the IP has gone through over the past thirty years? Publishing rights clearly went to Acclaim early on, then to Fox, then to EA, but a host of small exceptions exist: Konami released three Simpsons games between 1991 and 2000 while THQ published two Simpsons games in the 2000s. Do you have any background on how and why the IP changed hands?

Based on my experience with the games industry, it seems that certain license holders had the rights to certain platforms, which is why Acclaim could publish Bart vs. The Space Mutants on consoles while Konami made Simpsons games for the arcade and PC. I don’t have any insider info but it’s pretty easy to break the license-holders down into certain eras.

5. What do you think is the most surprising cameo, easter egg, or obscure story beat that made it from the TV show into a game?

Definitely Marge’s rabbit ears appearing under her hair if she gets electrocuted in The Simpsons arcade game. It was an early idea by Matt Groening that Marge would eventually be revealed as a Life in Hell rabbit on the show, but this idea was dropped for obvious reasons. It’s weird to think that the Japanese team who developed it would have this information, unless it was included in whatever materials they were given to develop the game.

6. What is your personal history playing these games? As a long-time fan of the source material, and indeed a commentator on it through your podcast Talking Simpsons, how would you prefer to see the show adapted to such a different medium?

My personal history is that I played almost all of the games knowing they were bad—except the arcade game, which is great—hoping they would eventually be good. This eventually paid off with Hit and Run, but unfortunately the games haven’t hit those same heights in the past 15 years. Tapped Out seemed like an amazing idea for a premise, but it turned into another one of those idle “games” where you wait for things to happen or feed money to your phone to make them happen faster. I don’t think they’ll make any non-predatory, non-mobile Simpsons games in the future, since Tapped Out makes EA a disgusting amount of money, but I’ve always wanted to see an honest version of Tapped Out that’s like a Simpsons version of SimCity (but EA doesn’t make those games anymore, either).

Author’s note: I’d like to thank Bob Mackey again for taking the time to answer these questions. You can find his insights elsewhere on the internet at the Retronauts podcast, the Talking Simpsons podcast, and on Twitter at Wow, Bob Mackey!.


What do you think about The Simpsons video game franchise? Which are your favorite or least favorite entries? What would you like to see from the series in the future? Were you ever able to get out of dungeon without using the wizard key? Let’s discuss below.

Next week Franchise Festival will finally be covering Mega Man X, the follow-up to June 2018’s Mega Man (Console) and Mega Man (Portable) entries. Please join us here at 9:00 AM EST on Friday, July 5.

Here is the schedule for the next five weeks, subject to change:

  • July 5: Mega Man X
  • July 12: Mega Man Legends
  • July 19: Call of Duty
  • July 26: Wario
  • August 2: Legacy of Kain / Soul Reaver