The Simpsons Hit The NES
Garry Kitchen and Dan Kitchen on converting America’s most famous family to Nintendo’s 8-bit console
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.