Editorial | 2/12/2010 at 7:44 PM

Co-Op Classics: The Simpsons Arcade Game

The Simpsons is a groundbreaking TV series.  It's the longest running animated show, prime time show, and sitcom of all time.  It seems hard to believe, but the show first aired over twenty years ago.  Early on into it's amazing run, an arcade game based on the show was released.  The Simpsons Arcade Game was one of the finest examples of the co-op beat 'em up you'll ever play.  Authentic voice acting and spot-on animation would have been enough to make the game memorable, but add in one particular innovation, and the game becomes a true Co-Op Classic.

The first thing you'll notice when playing The Simpsons is the distinctive animation style.  Usually, when playing a game that's twenty years old, the graphics don't exactly hold up well.  That's not the case with The Simpsons.  It looks almost exactly like you are actually watching the show.  The characters look incredibly similar to their on-show counterparts.  Environments are well detailed, and if you look hard enough, all sorts of gags appear.  In one level, a set of arcade games is seen, including The Simpsons, naturally, and Aliens (with a hilarious guest appearance by Marge).  The odd bunny people from Simpsons creator Matt Groening's previous work make several appearances, notably in between levels and hiding in trees.  I can't recall another arcade title that was so close to its source material.  The Simpsons was a visual treat, on many different levels.

As you'd expect, Homer, Marge, Lisa, and Bart are all present.  The attacks of the family foursome are quite unique, and fun to use.  Homer is armed only with his fists and belly, while Marge wields a vacuum cleaner against her foes.  Bart bashes his opponents with his trusty skateboard.  As a former saxophone player myself, I was always dismayed that Lisa used a whip-like jump rope as her weapon, and not her sax.  The whimsical weapons serve to add to the game's humorous elements.  The voice actors from the show were used for the speech samples, which are used often.  There's a real sense of immersion when playing The Simpsons.

The immersion is further served by the game's plot.  As the Simpsons are shopping, they literally run into Smithers, who has stolen a diamond from Mr. Burns.  After the collision, Maggie ends up with the diamond in her mouth like a pacifier.  Smithers kidnaps the baby, and runs off, with the family hot on his heels.  Hordes of goons, of course, stand in their way.  The adventure takes the group from Krustyland to a cemetery, down a waterfall, into a delightful dream-like stage.  The dream stage in particular is quite nicely done, featuring enemy donuts, killer saxophones, haunted radiation suits, and demonic Bart-clones.  The final boss is a multi-stage monstrosity: an enormous, anthropomorphic bowling ball.  The final stage is a TV studio, leading to the Springfield Nuclear Plant, where the final boss battles commence.  I won't spoil the ending for you; suffice it to say that the last boss is an epic fight that will have you plunking quarters in like crazy.  A nicely animated cut scene ties up the loose ends of the storyline as the credits roll.

If one were to discuss the gameplay elements of a perfect co-op brawler, The Simpsons would be a great place to start.  A robust four players can team up to beat up the bad guys, and each character is unique; no palette swapping here!  The environments are somewhat interactive, though this is limited by the technology of the day.  Homer can jump onto a car, Bart can hide behind a tree, and some objects can be picked up and thrown as weapons.  But the environment can be harmful, too: doors swing open, mashing unlucky players, and in one memorable scene, an amusement park ride in the background spins out bad guys in whirling teacups that players must dodge.  Donuts and apples, alongside other foods, replenish lost health.  Though just two buttons are needed, several different combinations have different effects, like a spinning move, or even a flying kick.  Though the gameplay in The Simpsons is simple compared to modern brawlers, it's still elegant and satisfying to play today.

If the distinctive animation style, the humor elements, and excellent gameplay were all that The Simpsons game had, it would be a great title, and remembered as a fine example of 1991-era gaming.  But for fans of co-op, The Simpsons holds an even more important place in gaming history.  The Simpsons was the first brawler to have a two-player combination attack.  By standing close to each other when attacking, powerful special attacks could be used.  Each combination of players had their own unique attack.  Homer and Marge wheel around the screen, head over heels, clearing enemies left and right.  Bart and Lisa spin around like a top, dropping clothesline moves on the bad guys.  Six different animations had to be programmed for the team-up attacks, which means the designers knew it was an important feature.  The much-discussed Fusion attacks of recent brawler Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 owe their existence to The Simpsons arcade game, as do many other co-op games through the years.

I'm a bit ashamed that I waited so long to use The Simpsons Arcade Game for a Co-Op Classics column.  My exposure to the show has been quite limited, but I do remember playing and enjoying the game when I played in in arcades, nonetheless.  After playing it again, these many years later, it became clear to me that The Simpsons was an important milestone in co-op gameplay.  The cartoon-like graphics, irreverent sense of humor, and innovative co-op work together to make a fantastic, classic co-op title.  Given the continued popularity of The Simpsons, who knows?  Perhaps an Xbox Live Arcade or Playstation Network release could come to pass.  If that isn't possible, I think many people would be proud to have The Simpsons Arcade Game in their virtual Xbox Game Room.  If you have the chance to play The Simpsons, don't pass it by, or you might have to say "D'oh!"