Let’s go back to 1991. The Simpsons was sweeping the United States, but it had yet to find its creative footing. This was before Homer became the main protagonist and before the Springfield citizens became stars in their own right. This was the era of Bart-mania—the spiky-haired, ten-year-old’s visage was plastered on official and bootleg merchandise, and his catchphrases were mantra for wise-ass kids across the country. Ay caramba!
It’s almost quaint – how much controversy these T-shirts caused. After all, Bart was a satire of a 10-year-old, not a role model for how a 10-year-old should act. It was also an instance of medium conflicting with message. Animation, up until that point, was the exclusive domain of children’s television. Americans had to wrap their heads around an adult cartoon – just because something was drawn did not mean it was toddler appropriate.
So, in the midst of this cultural craze came Bart vs. The Space Mutants, the very first Simpsons console game. The concept sells itself, doesn’t it? Bart Simpson? Space Mutants? Take our money! As kids, we pictured a glorious ‘beat ‘em up’/‘shoot ‘em up’ experience. We envisioned Bart, armed with his trusty slingshot and skateboard, taking down hordes of space mutants, level after level, in different Springfield locales. We envisioned scores of inside references, cameos by all of our favorite characters, and most importantly, a sharp sense of humor.
Instead, we got a shitty scavenger hunt.
Bart vs. the Space Mutants was neither the first nor the last time that a video game developer squandered tons of crossover potential. This game, however, was notable for its dissonance - between what a Simpsons game ought to be and what it actually was.
Here’s the storyline of the game: Space Mutants have invaded Springfield, and they are building a super weapon that will allow them to take over the world. They just need one last ingredient, and it’s up to Bart to stop them from getting it. Bart has X-Ray glasses, and they allow him to see who’s an alien and who’s not.
The X-Ray Glasses form the most interesting part of the game—Bart is a delinquent, so no one believes him when he says that aliens are in Springfield. Thus, whenever Bart passes a Springfield citizen, he can put on his glasses to determine if it’s an alien. Bart can then stomp on its head and collect ‘proof.’ Collect enough of this ‘proof,’ and a family member will help Bart in the boss battle at the end of each level.
So far, so promising. So what’s wrong with the game?
First, Bart cannot ‘fight’ the aliens, at least in the conventional sense – the only killable aliens in the first level are the ones that hide in human form. There are tons of aliens bouncing and crawling throughout the level that are invincible, and Bart must simply avoid them through well-timed jumps. Even when Bart gets his slingshot and dart gun in the later levels, they are more useful for destroying the aliens’ secret ingredient than killing bad guys.
Yeah, let’s talk about the aliens’ secret ingredient. In the first level, the aliens need purple colored objects.
Yes, purple colored objects. These aliens are an advanced bunch. Bart needs to roam around the streets of Springfield, he must repaint, destroy, or disguise anything that is purple.
Bart can do this in a variety of ways – the most obvious way is to use spraypaint, which will turn any purple object red. There are also more creative ways to get rid of the purple objects – Bart can use a wrench, for instance, to open a fire hydrant on a purple awning.
It’s a silly premise, but in the context of the game, it works. At the very least, it involves the player’s creativity, and the level has a Simpsons feel to it. The player sees notable landmarks, such as Moe’s Tavern, the Kwik-E Mart, and Grandpa Simpsons’s Retirement Home. Bart even gets to use his skateboard, and he has to avoid Jimbo, who tries his best to knock him off.
In the later levels, however, the scavenger hunt premise starts to wear thin. In the second level, the Mall, the secret ingredient is hats. In the third level, a Carnival, the secret ingredient is balloons. In the fourth level, a Museum, the secret ingredient is ‘Exit’ signs. And in the last level, the Nuclear Power Plant, the secret ingredient is nuclear power rods (it’s the only ingredient that makes any sense).
At some point, while we’re running around the mall, grabbing all the hats we can find, the game ceases to be fun. The fan service, which was laid on thick in the first level, disappears completely, and we no longer feel like we’re in Springfield – we’re in a mall with a rotating background, and it is indistinguishable from any other mall.
So let’s put it all together. We’re exploring a non-descript, repetitive mall, stealing hats, and avoiding aliens that we cannot kill. This is supposed to be fun?
The Carnival is a tiny bit better – at least we see pictures of Krusty and Sideshow Bob here and there. The Museum, however, is the final straw. Again, the game includes settings and enemies that simply don’t belong in a Simpsons game. We didn’t buy this game because we wanted to dodge security lasers, run from mummies, and kill dinosaurs. We bought it because we wanted a Simpsons experience, and at this point, the game doesn’t resemble The Simpsons in the slightest.
Besides, a player has to master some truly busted controls to even get this far. A is to Jump, and B is to use a weapon. To run, a player must hold down A. To do a Super Jump, a player must press A and B simultaneously. Press them at the wrong time, and Bart will tumble to his death, or waste a shot. This is counterintuitive as hell, and every jump need to be pixel perfect – even if Bart ‘lands’ on a platform, he will fall right through unless the jump is spot-on.
Why couldn’t this game be more like The Simpsons Arcade Game?
Now that was a perfect Simpsons game. It was straight forward beat ’em up with a lot of heart. It stuffed fan service into every level, and Mr. Burns, a popular, readily identifiable villain, was the main antagonist. Bart vs. the Space Mutants, on the other hand, was the wrong game for the wrong franchise – the developers seemed bored by its unconventional premise early on, and it had terrible controls – too tedious for all but the hardcore fans. It is remembered today as a quirky disappointment, an attempt at innovation when convention would have been preferable.