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1991 was a good year for The Simpsons. Some all-time classic episodes aired, the series won a couple of Emmy awards, Bart Simpson t-shirts were still in fashion, and the family starred in an A-list arcade game. It was a better year than 2011, where the series closed in on its 500th episode while a few fans kept up the old argument over when the exact shark-jumping moment happened.
But back to the family’s arcade debut, which just made a comeback on Xbox Live today. Now, there are great arcade games — Street Fighter II would be an example. Those are the kind that stand the test of time, regardless of any personal attachment we have to them. Then there’s what we might call great bowling-alley games. The Simpsons is one of those.
In 1989, Konami created a money-sucking black hole with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a pioneering four-player side-scrolling beat-‘em-up that is probably the greatest bowling-alley game of all time. Is it a good game? From a modern perspective on design, no. It’s a shiny cartoon skin wrapped around a repetitive button-masher designed to rapidly separate 10-year-olds from their quarters. But if you were 10 years old, hanging out at the local bowling alley with a pocket full of quarters? Gamers of a certain age remember how much fun they had.
The Simpsons followed a couple of years later, serving up the same kind of gameplay with a heavy Matt Groening makeover. It is, once again, not a very good game, in the sense that it is not fair, balanced, or especially varied as far as what kind of challenges it throws at the player. Homer, Lisa, Bart, and Marge start out on the left, they walk to the right, and they hit whatever shows up along the way. Every so often a boss appears and does three or four lives worth of inescapable damage. No matter how skilled at twitch gaming you might be, the action is tuned so that it’s impossible to clear the game without spending a ton of credits (which is to say money, if you were playing in the bowling alley instead of on Live).
So what makes it worth playing? Well, personality goes a long way. Like so many Konami side-scrollers from the late ’80s and into the ’90s, this is a clinic in old-school pixel artwork and animation. It does justice to the signature Simpsons style and then some, backed up by sharp sound effects and voice clips. Nearly every character from the Springfield canon gets to make an appearance somewhere – there are even a few goofy cameos from the heroes of Groening’s old Life In Hell comic strips, who stick their surly heads up to throw out extra health. The boss battles are nasty, brutish, and much too long, but they look awesome, culminating in a massive throwdown with towering cyborg Mr. Burns.
Simpsons followers will notice that not everyone is entirely in character. Mr. Smithers is the big head-scratcher, appearing as a vicious bomb-throwing villain instead of the nebbishy closet case he usually seems to be on TV. Maybe we can chalk it up to cross-Pacific miscommunication. (The Simpsons may symbolize the all-American family, but their video game was 100 percent made in Japan.) Or maybe we wouldn’t have the heart to hit him otherwise.
Even with all that personality, cruising through The Simpsons alone can get pretty dull. The screen isn’t crowded enough to hide the too-simple gameplay. But with four players hammering furiously on the buttons while cartoon madness bounces all over the screen, it’s hard not to get caught up in the chaos. This is exactly the effect Konami was going for – back in the arcades, it helped distract from the fact that we were dropping a quarter down the slot every 30 seconds.
Konami’s downloadable revival is a first-rate production with some nice extra features. It includes both the American and Japanese versions of the game – the Japanese ROM has extra pick-up weapons and some other subtle differences – plus a gallery of old promo and production art. Online multiplayer support is obviously a welcome addition too, although you really have to play with four human beings on the couch to get something close to the proper bowling-alley experience.
The Simpsons is a classic of its kind, but some players aren’t going to understand why. That’s perfectly fine. Not everyone playing games today was 10 years old in 1991. For retro arcade fans who want to relive happy memories, or Simpsons fans hoping for a flashback to the days when the TV show was a cultural phenomenon, this is a fine little nostalgia fix. The 10-dollar download is a pretty good deal, too – beating the arcade game used to cost at least that much. Score: 75/100
The Simpsons Arcade is now available on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. This review is for the Xbox 360 version. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.