By 1991, the Simpsons were quickly becoming a pop culture mega event after it had kicked off with its own series in 1989. Mixing animation in with a classic American sitcom formula struck a chord that echoed on down into a titanic empire a quarter of a century later enabling it to become the longest running American sitcom and animated American series with a whopping 25 seasons in the can as of this writing.
So when Konami swooped down in their Vic Viper to license this, it was just the start of their banquet of arcade adaptations that they would feast on later in 1992. At that point, they were still getting warmed up, but they were hitting home runs with popular beat ’em up adaptations of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1989 and its sequel in 1991 sharing the year with The Simpsons’ first video game.
Back then, Konami didn’t standardize its hardware the way that Capcom and SNK would try to do with the CPS-1 and Neo Geo MVS respectively. They often followed the approach that arcade hardware museum System 16 remarks as being “what CPU have we got a lot of today”. As a result, they had a varied collection of arcade boards over the years, some powering no more than two games, others being shared by a few more with tweaks.
The Simpsons used the same basic board that would power the X-Men in 1992 but instead of using Motorola’s 68000 CPU, it relied on a custom variant dubbed the KONAMI running at 3 Mhz which was itself based on Motorola’s 6809 8-bit CPU. Despite that, the hardware was up to the task sharing relatively the same graphics chip setup shared by titles such as Vendetta and X-Men and featuring a few nifty tricks such as the kind of sprite scaling effects seen in Turtles in Time (which used a different board) as enemies were thrown at the screen.
Like with Turtles in Time’s enhanced graphics along with Asterix and C.O.W. Boys of Moo Mesa in 1992, Konami’s artists continued to pay close attention in successfully translating the feeling of playing through an animated episode thanks to amazing pixel work. It didn’t try to fool anyone that it was going for the laserdisc quality on the level of a Dragon’s Lair, but Konami’s work brought it close enough to immerse the players in the spirit of the series they attempted to emulate without being as linear.
The game was played using an eight-way joystick allowing for 3D movement in its side-scrolling levels (from left to right). Two buttons, one for attack and another for jumping, did all of the heavy lifting. There was no “desperation” or “super” attack performed by hitting both — just a kind of different jumping attack. But the game made up for that with a clever bit of co-op allowing two players to create combo attacks, such as Marge and Homer coming together in a cartwheel attack or Bart sitting on Homer’s shoulders and whaling on enemies with his skateboard from above. It was a hugely creative leap for a beat ’em up.
The Simpsons family (and their voice actors) are involved in this crazy adventure and none of them have any particular weaknesses or strengths over the others. There’s Homer who likes to bicycle punch and kick in midair. Marge, his wife, is bringing along her vacuum cleaner for the fight. Bart, their son, gets around on his skateboard and uses it to smash the face of whoever is in his way. Lisa, his sister, uses jump rope to whip her way through foes…occasionally tangling herself in it without breaking her stride. Four player co-op (characters were determined by which stick position on the cabinet you wanted to feed coins into) turned the game into a cartoonish frenzy of flying fists, jumping vacuum attacks, and combos.
At the center of all of this is baby Maggie. While taking a walk in downtown Springfield, the Simpsons bump into Mr. Smithers, the well to-do kiss ass stooge of the town’s resident oligarch, Mr. Burns. Smithers is racing out of a jewelry store where he’s just stolen a pretty big sparkler. Bumping into the Simpsons, the gem goes flying and lands in Maggie’s mouth mistaking it for a pacifier. So Smithers does the next best thing — he takes Maggie with him during his escape and the Simpsons take up the chase through eight stages of thugs, zombies, ninjas, and donuts. Yes, donuts.
Stages were imaginative stuff built around famous Springfield locales ranging from downtown to Moe’s Bar and the finale at Mr. Burns’ office at his nuclear plant. There’s even a dream sequence pitting players against donuts shooting donuts, cloud sprouts shaped like Marge’s head, little Bart devils, flying saxophones, and an giant bowling ball boss. Two bonus stages also helped to break up the action Track & Field style (which Konami was also responsible for in 1983) with alternating button mashing: a balloon inflating contest and the other to slap your chosen Simpson awake after having that nightmare. A fantastic soundtrack composed by Norio Hanzawa (Bucky O’Hare, Guardian Heroes, Gunstar Heroes ) easily complimented the action.
There were also a lot of throwables ranging from rocks and mailboxes to mutant, three-eyed fish. Food, such as hamburgers and hot dogs, were often delivered by other characters but also sometimes found lying around. There were even occasional weapons like slingshots and hammers. The Japanese version also had miniature, tossable nukes.
Action-wise, the game was fast paced and with a fine variety of enemies with cameos by many of The Simpsons’ major characters such as Professor Werner von Brawn who acts as the boss encounter at the end of the first stage. Enemies didn’t have health gauges (Konami didn’t really seem to be big on those for TMNT, either) but most of the trash mobs were easily dispatched. Instead, the bosses would begin flashing red whenever they were nearing their end or in the giant bowling ball’s case, right before it became even meaner. And they could be tough to take down especially when Mecha Burns shows up at the end.
The game also had a lot of little touches. Hitting apple trees for health-restoring apples too often makes a rabbit (from Groening’s Life in Hell comic strips who also shows up as an enemy in the game) appear from the branches with a drop sign telling the player that there’s nothing left. Taking too long prompts the game to flash a big hand on the right of the screen to tell you to get moving — and then if you still take too long, comes over and flicks your character to make its point. Standing idle will also elicit each of The Simpsons to say or do something such as Bart breaking the fourth wall by looking at the screen and asking “Who the hell are you?”.
The Simpsons is one of Konami’s best beat ’em up efforts and probably one of the very best in their beat ’em up lineup — at least as far as the arcades go — easily holding its own with both Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cabs and even Gaiapolis’ mix of high fantasy and sci-fi. Their creative team outdid themselves with the sheer variety of enemies in the game, takes on each stage, and combo co-op attacks that make it a unique experience. While it might not be as flashy or as explosive as a typical Capcom beat ’em up, it’s another brilliant adaptation of a popular cartoon series into a formula that anyone can party with.
Unfortunately, unlike TMNT, it never got a sequel in the arcade, but it did get a number of ports to other systems such as the Commodore 64 and an MS-DOS PCs in the same year that the arcade game arrived (1991). Twenty-one years later, it would finally land on consoles in 2012 when a downloadable version hit Xbox Live Arcade and PSN.
After The Simpsons’ digital debut, the series continued on to have a long and varied history on consoles and handhelds where new games continued to add more gems to its media crown. Even so, not all of them were quite as polished as their first outing which still holds up as one of the best, and most creative, adaptations that Konami had ever made for the arcade.