The Simp­sons Hit The NES

Garry Kitchen and Dan Kitchen on con­vert­ing Amer­ica’s most fa­mous fam­ily to Nin­tendo’s 8-bit con­sole

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS - Words by Adam Barnes

Try to imag­ine a time be­fore The Simp­sons. It’s not easy, is it? The muchloved car­toon fam­ily has been such a fa­mil­iar sta­ple of our lives for so long that even those who might be old enough to re­mem­ber their first air­ing in 1989 likely won’t re­call the way life was with­out Homer, Marge and the kids. The Simp­sons pre­dates Google, DVDS, even the in­ter­net as we know it, and – love it or hate it – is just as in­te­grated a part of our cul­ture as any of those ad­vances. The show first aired in 1989, and back then it was Nin­tendo which was rul­ing the roost; the Fam­i­com was dom­i­nat­ing Ja­pan, and the NES was the con­sole that re­vi­talised an in­dus­try still suf­fer­ing from the videogame crash in the USA, and brought with it new in­ter­est from li­cence hold­ers. But it wasn’t 20th Cen­tury Fox that sought to get a slice of this re­vi­tal­is­ing mar­ket, in­stead it was Ac­claim that was hop­ing to cap­i­talise on The Simp­sons be­fore Do The Bart­man was even a twin­kle in a mar­ket­ing man’s eye.

“In Jan­u­ary of 1990,” be­gins Garry Kitchen, one of the lead designers on Bart Vs The Space Mu­tants,

“a cou­ple of days be­fore the air­ing of episode four of sea­son one of The Simp­sons, Greg Fis­chbach [founder of Ac­claim] called me and sug­gested that I watch the episode. He was con­sid­er­ing li­cens­ing the rights to make a Simp­sons NES videogame and wanted to know if I was in­ter­ested in devel­op­ing it.” Though the TV show had been an im­me­di­ate suc­cess, no one could’ve pre­dicted the phe­nom­e­non that it was set to be­come. Greg was a vi­sion­ary, how­ever, and had started Ac­claim af­ter leav­ing Ac­tivi­sion with the dreams of be­com­ing a huge videogame pub­lish­ing house, ini­tially mak­ing a name for it­self with li­censed ti­tles. Garry knew Greg

through Ac­tivi­sion where the pair had both worked, but from which the for­mer had left in 1986 to form Imag­i­neer­ing with col­leagues. All it took was a sin­gle episode of The Simp­sons to get Greg in­trigued by the idea, and he reached out to his old col­leagues to see if they might be in­ter­ested in devel­op­ing a game around the li­cence. “Ac­claim had re­la­tion­ships with 20th Cen­tury Fox,” adds Dan Kitchen, the brother of Garry and co­founder of Imag­i­neer­ing, “and I be­lieve it was a very ex­pen­sive li­cense for them, it was a very large prod­uct. It was one of their first large li­cences.”

The Kitchen broth­ers and the team at Imag­i­neer­ing all had ex­pe­ri­ence in the in­dus­try, hav­ing pro­duced sev­eral Atari 2600 games. “My brother and I had taken the creative lead,” says Dan, “with another pro­ducer who worked for us whose name was Barry Marx. We col­lec­tively got to­gether and con­sid­ered what would be the best for game­play, the best se­lec­tion of me­chan­ics for game­play and what would work for the li­cense it­self. So we flew out to Cal­i­for­nia, we met with Matt Groen­ing and the Fox peo­ple and went through a num­ber of con­cepts. One that we liked that we had con­ceived – and that they fi­nally signed off on – was do­ing a game based on the old sci­ence fic­tion movie They Live, with Spring­field be­ing taken over by aliens.” The in­spi­ra­tion for this par­tic­u­lar con­cept was first born out of the backs of comic books, adds Garry:

“Barry Marx and I spent a good deal of time kick­ing around ideas. In one brain­storm­ing ses­sion, for some rea­son, we were re­call­ing the cheesy ad­ver­tis­ing on the last page of comic books. The one ad that stood out for us was the x-ray glasses, en­abling you to see through a girl’s cloth­ing. We agreed that Bart would have def­i­nitely been the first kid on the block to or­der a pair of these. Ob­vi­ously, that led to the con­cept of an alien in­va­sion, with Bart end­ing up as the only per­son in town who was able to de­tect the ‘body snatch­ing’ aliens by us­ing his ‘ill-got­ten’ x-ray specs.”

There were two as­pects of the game that were set in stone by Fox be­fore de­vel­op­ment went un­der­way, though. The first was the choice of playable char­ac­ter; nowa­days Homer is the pop­u­lar favourite of the fran­chise, but there was a time when Bart was the show’s star. With Bart­ma­nia only just be­gin­ning to form, Fox wanted to cap­i­talise on its mis­chievous char­ac­ter, be­liev­ing his ‘don’t have a cow’ at­ti­tude would fit well with gamers of the time. “We con­sid­ered a con­cept that was less Bart-centric,” ad­mits Garry, “but Ac­claim pushed back, be­liev­ing – right­fully so – that Bart should be the fo­cus, given the tar­get de­mo­graphic of the game. They were right, of course. Bart was the char­ac­ter that drove the nar­ra­tive of the se­ries; for ex­am­ple, Bart was the fo­cus of the fa­mous open­ing se­quence of the show, skate­board­ing through town. And ev­ery kid who owned an NES would want to play as Bart.”

With the char­ac­ter set­tled, there was only one other area where de­mands were made and, con­sid­er­ing the na­ture of the NES and the games that were re­leased for it, there wasn’t much chance that those in charge would want any­thing other than a 2D plat­former. “From the be­gin­ning, Ac­claim said that they wanted to do a side-view scroller, be­cause of the pop­u­lar­ity of Mario,” says Dan. “That was what they wanted, a plat­former. And so it was on that ma­chine, given the 2D re­stric­tions, that this was ob­vi­ously the best way to show Bart and the char­ac­ters.” No one in­tended to com­pete head-on with Mario, though, the idea was in­stead to lever­age the li­cence in the right way, to repli­cate the same hu­mour, style and en­ter­tain­ment that The Simp­sons was al­ready mak­ing it­self known for. This was han­dled in a num­ber of ways, but Fox’s co-op­er­a­tion meant that the team at Imag­i­neer­ing had a good deal of ac­cess to the show to help cre­ate the foun­da­tion for cap­tur­ing the essence of the show. “Fox met with us on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions at the stu­dio,” says Dan. “They did have a li­ai­son here through Ac­claim, but Matt Groen­ing did meet with us a cou­ple of times and made sure that the char­ac­ter Bart was well cre­ated. He had sign-off on the way that Bart looked, the way that the back­grounds looked. We worked to em­u­late the look of the show as well as we could, putting in things like Barney’s Bowl-a-rama, putting in var­i­ous other places that are in the show and rep­re­sent­ing them in the game like the Jebe­diah Spring­field statue. We re­ally were in­spired by them to come up with the best scenes and the lo­ca­tions in the show and repli­cate them in the game. So they were great help for di­rec­tion, for giv­ing us b-roll of the show, for giv­ing us ref­er­ence art.”

This was the first ever Simp­sons game, af­ter all, it needed to set the bar if it was to match the hype

that the show was getting. To Fox and Ac­claim’s credit, this wasn’t a cash-in to try and get a quick buck from the craze sur­round­ing Bart and co, there was a real in­ten­tion to cre­ate that could stand out on its own. “The idea was to be specif­i­cally Simp­son-es­que,” re­calls Dan, “to take those things that are in The Simp­sons and re­ally play up that as much as we could for the char­ac­ter of Bart, to bring in the per­son­al­ity of the Simp­sons and fo­cus on the per­son­al­ity of Bart.” Fox did at least hope to have a cameo for each of the main fam­ily mem­bers, adds Dan, which lead to “hav­ing Maggie in the sta­tus area, Lisa in the fair and Marge in the mall”. But there was one as­pect of the show that Imag­i­neer­ing felt it needed to prop­erly cap­ture in the game, an iconic ele­ment of the car­toon that re­mains a recog­nis­able por­tion of each episode. To the de­vel­oper, it was im­per­a­tive that the fa­mil­iar in­tro scene that cul­mi­nates in the fam­ily sit­ting around the TV was recre­ated prop­erly, and it was around this idea that the first level was de­signed – the level that no doubt many re­mem­ber the most. “We wanted to get in the skate­board­ing that [Bart] did at the be­gin­ning of each episode in the in­tro, and we wanted to bring in there the char­ac­ter of Bart be­ing what he was then, the lit­tle wise-guy, mis­chievous char­ac­ter. That was what we wanted to fo­cus on and with the lim­ited dia­logue in there, that’s what Fox wanted to fo­cus on, too. We also wanted to fo­cus on lit­tle bits of the show that peo­ple were fa­mil­iar with, go­ing to the pay­phone and do­ing a funny call to Moe’s that, again, gives you some­thing in the game but try­ing to work as much as we can from the [el­e­ments] in the show that made it fa­mous.”

This cre­ated some clear pieces of de­sign for the first level, then, com­bin­ing the sto­ry­line el­e­ments with game­play me­chan­ics that would fit in. For the for­mer this meant util­is­ing the x-ray gog­gles for Bart to safely spot the aliens and jump on them to col­lect let­ters to spell out a cameo char­ac­ter’s name, while the lat­ter al­lowed for puz­zle el­e­ments to be in­cluded into the plat­former, which was a fairly novel con­cept on the NES. In the first level this meant us­ing Bart’s cool, re­bel­lious at­ti­tude to spray paint pur­ple ob­jects red, but ex­tended fur­ther into hav­ing to solve other in­tri­cate ways of elim­i­nat­ing any pur­ple within the stage. It blended the

two core as­pects of the game – plat­form­ing and puz­zle­solv­ing – seam­lessly, in­spired by the ad­ven­ture games that Dan used to play. “I was a big player of a lot of the orig­i­nal text ad­ven­tures,” he says. “I had played the

Zork se­ries, I had writ­ten and pub­lished in 1980 be­fore go­ing to Ac­tivi­sion two text ad­ven­tures that were in the same vein as Zork. And those were text ad­ven­tures on the Ap­ple and the TRS-80 that had full sen­tence recog­ni­tion, very in­volved. I think those kind of ad­ven­ture games, where you could col­lect ob­jects and in­ven­tory ob­jects and keep them and use them kind of in­spired the ad­ven­ture as­pect of the game.” It was a clever idea, giv­ing plat­form­ing stages a slower, more con­sid­ered pac­ing that wasn’t com­mon at the time. It meant each stage had a dif­fer­ent goal, too, start­ing with re­mov­ing the colour pur­ple through to col­lect­ing hats, de­stroy­ing exit signs and find­ing hid­den ra­dioac­tive uranium rods.

This had the added bonus of adding a lit­tle bit of hu­mour to pro­ceed­ings, which ev­ery­one agreed was an im­por­tant part of the fran­chise’s brand. With the lim­i­ta­tions of the hard­ware, how­ever, and there­fore much less in the way of dia­logue, this was no easy feat. “We used dia­logue when we could,” re­calls

Garry, “be­cause so much of the se­ries’ hu­mour comes through in the bril­liant voice act­ing. We were al­ways con­scious of build­ing hu­mour into the game ex­pe­ri­ence when­ever pos­si­ble. We were care­ful to in­clude the small de­tails in the vi­su­als to stay true to the show, such as Maggie suck­ing on her paci­fier in­ces­santly – even in the game in­ter­face - and the om­nipresent blink­ing eyes on both the char­ac­ters and, some­times, the aliens.” There were a bounty of ref­er­ences that could be made that would help to so­lid­ify the Simp­sons-es­que tone, in­clud­ing its raft of lo­ca­tions like the Kwik-e-mart, Homer’s power plant work­place and the nu­mer­ous sec­ondary char­ac­ters like Barney, Krusty The Clown and Sideshow Bob. “One of my favourites,” smiles Garry,

“is the vis­ual of Sideshow Bob as the boss in level three and the hu­mor­ous touch of Bart hav­ing to jump on his feet rather than his head. And I love the hi­lar­i­ous cli­mac­tic end­ing of the game, us­ing Maggie’s paci­fier in a spe­cial way.” The deft use of the show’s most recog­nis­able scenes and char­ac­ters was largely re­liant on Barry Marx, Garry ex­plains, who dou­bled as pro­ducer and writer for the game. “Our goal was to con­tin­u­ally delight the player with sur­prises,” he adds, “al­ways in­cor­po­rat­ing the favourite as­pects of the show.”

So when it re­leased in 1991, it was per­haps no sur­prise that the game was a smash-hit suc­cess, hit­ting the shelves at a crit­i­cal point in the car­toon’s life that it ul­ti­mate rode the wave. It wasn’t just a crit­i­cal suc­cess, how­ever, but a com­mer­cial one too, and with the added glory of ac­tu­ally be­ing a stand­out li­censed ti­tle – a stigma the in­dus­try was still re­coil­ing from thanks to overzeal­ous pub­lish­ers and the gen­er­a­tion prior. As is of­ten the case with these things, a sequel was prac­ti­cally in­evitable. “This was in talks be­fore but Ac­claim didn’t green­light it un­til af­ter there was suc­cess with Bart Vs The Space Mu­tants,” says Dan. “And so they came to us, said we did re­ally well and could they have a broader con­cept, a wider con­cept.” The con­cept was born pretty quickly from there: why not have Bart tak­ing on the whole world? It was a rather ob­vi­ous choice for a sequel, too; hav­ing proven The Simp­sons could work in videogames, mov­ing on to turn­ing the whole planet into Bart’s play­ground would re­ally help to en­cap­su­late the spirit of the show. “The idea il­lu­mi­nated in me the re­al­i­sa­tion that we could go to all sorts of very cool places,” re­calls Dan of the orig­i­nal meet­ing with Fox. “I said: ‘Look out the window, we have a stu­dio here, and you guys can take ev­ery­one around the world right here in your back­lot, so let’s do the same thing, let’s do a level where Bart is lit­er­ally walk­ing across the an­i­ma­tor’s table and jumps into a sound stage and then he’s in a pi­rate movie or China, var­i­ous ex­otic places that I was try­ing to think would be fun to play.”

The fo­cus, then, was on mak­ing some­thing that con­tin­ued the strengths of Bart Vs The Space Mu­tants, lever­ag­ing the char­ac­ter of Bart in more en­ter­tain­ing, var­ied and dif­fer­ent ways. This meant that while those puz­zle el­e­ments did dis­ap­pear, much more about the game was im­proved: the ad­di­tion of Bart­man, en­hanced skate­board­ing sec­tions, var­i­ous minigames through­out; a lot was done to re­ally en­hance the ex­pe­ri­ence pro­vided by the orig­i­nal, build­ing on is­sues that could be re­solved. “We tried to make some of the lev­els

“our goal was to con­tin­u­ally delight the player with sur­prises, al­ways in­cor­po­rat­ing the favourite as­pects of the show” Garry Kitchen

» [NES] Of course, the much-loved Itchy and Scratchy make an ap­pear­ance.

» [NES] Fans of the John Car­pen­ter film They Live will eas­ily spot the homage in Bart Vs The Space Mu­tants.

» [Mega Drive] The Mega Drive Space Mu­tants is a step up over the NES ver­sion in terms of vi­su­als and over­all game­play.

» [Amiga] Across each of the dif­fer­ent ver­sions, the core game­play and level de­sign re­mains the same.

» [NES] Keep an eye out for those dough­nuts on the ceil­ing pipe, Bart. You wouldn’t want Homer to scoff them all… » [NES] One of the fun­nier twists in the orig­i­nal had Bart hop­ping on Sideshow Bob’s large feet rather than his head.

» [NES] The first level of the first game is per­haps one of the more mem­o­rable as­pects of the NES tril­ogy. » Garry Kitchen was one of the lead designers of Bart Vs The Space Mu­tants. » [NES] The con­cept of the x-ray glasses isn’t just a sto­ry­line...

» [NES] It was im­por­tant for the de­vel­op­ers to im­ple­ment fa­mil­iar places of the show into the games.

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