When Konami released X-Men: The Arcade Game to home consoles at the end of 2010, they surprised us all. Licensing issues have traditionally kept many classic beat-em-ups from receiving the re-release treatment. When’s the last time Capcom ported one of its licensed brawlers? But Konami had the savvy to go back to Marvel and set it all up, much to the benefit of genre and comic book fans. Now they’ve ported The Simpsons Arcade Game, a 1991 hit that seemed equally unlikely to ever see a home release. Once again, fans of scrolling from left-to-right and smacking dudes up are in for a treat.
Like the TMNT and X-Men arcade games before it, Simpsons Arcade takes an American property and translates it into a game through a slightly skewed Japanese perspective. Waylan Smithers and his gang (?) have just stolen a valuable diamond when they crash into the Simpsons family. Baby Maggie ends up with the diamond, and rather than slow down to sort things out, Smithers kidnaps her along with the jewel. Naturally the Simpsons family wants her back, and so Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa set out to rescue their kin. The mischaracterization of Mr. Smithers still boggles the mind after all these years, but even with such weird touches, this feels very much like a Simpsons game. Character cameos and scratchy-but-authentic voice samples abound (including an odd boss taunt borrowed from TMNT), not to mention charming low-res pixel art that perfectly matches the show’s style.
One to four players can take on the roles of the aforementioned members of the Simpsons clan. Each one has his or her weapon of choice: Homer’s fists, Marge’s vacuum cleaner, Bart’s skateboard, and Lisa’s jump rope. As with most other Konami beat-em-ups, everyone plays pretty much the same, with only slight differences in reach resulting from their weapons. And as always, pressing jump and attack simultaneously produces the strongest attack, which can cut through bosses like butter as long as you move up or down between attacks. It's a formula, but it bloody well works.
Simpsons Arcade’s brawling stands out from its peers in a couple of ways, though. First, it features a comparatively vast amount of limited-use weapons and healing food items to pick up. The weapons are actually great (unlike those in Double Dragon) and lend some welcome variety to the journey. Second, this Simpsons introduced 2-player team-up-attacks to the beat-em-up genre. By standing still next to another player, you can both combine forces and deliver a more powerful blow to your enemies. The moves vary depending on who’s teaming up with who, Homer plus Marge and Bart plus Lisa understandably producing the best effect. Two people can also team up to lift and throw a parked police car, which I never knew until I read this version’s tutorial text.
As fun as previous Konami brawlers ported by Backbone Entertainment have been, nobody would accuse the ports of being anything more than workmanlike in quality. I can't say the developers have gone above and beyond the call of duty here, but they have at least improved on past ports' weaknesses. Take the difficulty, for example. TMNT: The Arcade Game was a bit too tough for some co-op teams with its shared 40 life limit and no online freeplay option. But X-Men: The Arcade Game was too easy, allowing less skillful players to spam their mutant powers ad infinitum. Here, you can set the game type to free play, quarters (each player gets only 10 credits to complete the game), or team quarters (players share a pool of 40 credits). The latter modes provide incentive for skillful play. On a similar note, the one-life Survival Mode returns as well.
The Simpsons Arcade suffers from a widescreen border that is startlingly cromulent in appearance, but it makes up for that blunder by including the largest selection of extras of any Konami brawler so far. Like X-Men, players can select between the US ROM and the subsequent Japanese revision (after beating the game once). I actually like the Japanese version better this time; it’s got more weapons and health pickups, an improved scoring system, and several other minor changes. Clearing the game with each Simpsons family member unlocks arcade flyers, a list of every character cameo, a music test, and a sound test.
The co-op features here are pretty much identical to those of X-Men, other than supporting four players instead of six. You can play with any combination of four people offline or online. If anyone completes the requirements for an Achievement or Trophy, everybody gets credit for it. Online is still a bit laggy (Backbone, remember) but enjoyable when everyone’s connection is decent. Good news for players bothered by the lag: the sole multiplayer-specific Achievement doesn’t require online play.
While every Konami arcade beat-em-up is special in its own way, The Simpsons Arcade Game is probably the best one I’ve played. Its curious yet reverent use of the license, stellar graphics and sound (for the time), team-up-moves, and multitude of weapons all make for an experience that stands the test of time. Some folks’ll never want to spend ten bucks on a game they can beat in 30 minutes – and then again, some folks’ll. If you love the genre or even just The Simpsons and have a friend or three to play with, you’ll get plenty of repeat playthroughs of The Simpsons Arcade in the years to come. It sure beats hunting down an actual arcade machine!
Editor's Note: The Co-Optimus Co-Op Review of The Simpsons Arcade was based on the XBLA version of the game.