As fans of comedy, we often forget – or try to forget – that The Simpsons is a franchise as much as it is a source of humor. Bart dolls that say, “Eat my shorts!” don’t really explore the human condition and the Simpsons comforter I had on my bed under my Spider-Man pillow was less early postmodernism and more childhood commercialism.
Which is why it’s so hard to discuss The Simpsons video games: they exist somewhere between licensed toy and expansion on the humor of the series. They represent the nexus of the duality of The Simpsons franchise. Are they cheap knockoffs or unique interactive episodes?
It doesn’t help that the franchise itself is bipolar when it comes to the medium. While “Marge Be Not Proud” was debating the packaging of childhood experiences inside the marketable product of a video game, The Simpsons was packaging childhood experiences inside the marketable product of a video game.
There are 22 games based on The Simpsons. 22. That’s a lot, even by video game standards. By comparison, the long running South Park has had only four video game adaptations and the juggernaut Family Guy has had one. And explaining away the difference by claiming the latter franchises don’t have the same marketability or commercial base as The Simpsons is easily dismissed when you look at the sales of DVDs, posters, toys, t-shirts, and other goods licensed by the shows.
So why are there so many Simpsons video games?
The most obvious reason is good timing. The Simpsons began airing at the height of the Nintendo Entertainment System. While we joke about 8-bit graphics now, the NES was one of the first systems that could portray characters as something other than stacked colored squares. Games on the NES, Sega Master System, and Sega Genesis made you feel like you were in a living, breathing world.
And few new living, breathing worlds were cooler at the time than The Simpsons. While there had already been – and continue to be – games based on the stock characters of Warner Brothers and Disney, their fingers were long off the pulse of society. Bugs Bunny had been cool because he sold war bonds. Bart Simpson was cool because he rode a skateboard and spray painted signs.
The combination of a hip, instantly ubiquitous franchise and video game systems that could finally portray expressive characters was a goldmine. Bart vs. The Space Mutants was born.
Notice the inclusion of catchphrase voice samples and the “Oliver Closeoff” prank call to Moe’s Tavern. The (relatively) new technology finally gave programmers the ability to include such extraneous jokes. And that’s exactly what made the game successful.
While this was still a nonsense game about Bart fighting aliens who weren’t Kang and Kodos, it was actively trying to make you laugh. Most licenced cartoon games up to this point had followed a pretty simple philosophy: show familiar characters, get money.
Here Acclaim was giving audiences an episode of the show they could play.
And while Bart vs. The Space Mutants used raw horsepower to its advantage, The Simpsons Arcade Game is still considered a classic because it made the medium the message. A beat-’em-up similar to the arcade games Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or X-Men (all three were made by Konami), The Simpsons Arcade Game worked so well because seeing a stay at home Mom swing a vacuum cleaner in the face of a businessman was actually funny. Konami was able to contrast the violence of your average arcade game against the mundane nature of your average family. The Simpsons commented on television families by being a television family. Now they were doing the same for games.
This relationship between the ridiculousness of the medium and the boredom of Springfield would color every Simpsons game. That’s why later entries were often parodies of other popular series. The Simpsons: Road Rage made fun of Crazy Taxi. The Simpsons: Hit & Run mocked Grand Theft Auto. While you could argue that this had less to do with artistic merit than taking advantage of a cheap idea – something one might say about much of the later history of The Simpsons – the games still played out as humorous juxtapositions of everyday America and over-the-top action.
The wide appeal of the still-airing series (lest we think we’ve buried it under eulogies for better days) means that, for the past twenty odd years, The Simpsons has been a viable video game franchise.
But it’s the show’s uncanny ability to adapt to the times and focus on everyday America that has made it such a fixture of the medium.