Why do I keep this website going? Why write about videogames? Because even the most innocuous of videogames contain magnitudes.
Today’s title is The Simpsons: Bart’s Nightmare, a game I rented and played more times than Ralph Wiggum could ever hope to count. I didn’t actually own the cartridge until very late in the SNES’s lifespan (a glorious time of liquidations and sales), but I rented it repeatedly because A. I loved The Simpsons, and B. I couldn’t hope to beat it. The Simpsons: Bart’s Nightmare is a surprisingly difficult game, and, given my childhood OCD habits, I couldn’t exist as a human being knowing I had not completed such a challenge. If I could conquer Bart vs. The Space Mutants, I could certainly handle Indiana Bart.
And, while I did eventually win the day (very eventually), it took a wee Goggle Bob many a rental to finally see Bart earn an A+. Why? Well, mostly because The Simpsons: Bart’s Nightmare is kind of a mess of seven different games sewn together. We’ve got Bart tomb raiding, and it’s primarily a puzzle situation with some very unusual offensive controls. We’ve got Bart vs. Itchy and Scratchy, an action game with extremely deadly traps and tricks. Bart-Man flying through the skies is, conversely, a very forgiving shoot ‘em up. Bart in his own bloodstream playing Dig-Dug with viruses and collecting nuclear cowboys defies any basic kind of genre or logic. And Big Bartzilla plays pretty close to a rhythm-challenged portion of Rhythm Heaven, while Lil’ Bartzilla is a… climbing simulator? Regardless, neither version of Bartzilla is just straight up Rampage, and that’s a shame. All of this is tied together by a “hub world” that is about 80% action, 20% adventure. You have to think the tiniest bit! As you can see, that’s a lot of different games all rolled into one, and, while mastering one or two might be doable, it takes a lot of practice (and heartbreak) to overcome the entirety of Bart’s Nightmare. I did it when I was a kid. I was proud of it when I was a kid.
Playing Bart’s Nightmare as an adult, though? Now I can safely say that Bart’s Nightmare sucks.
Look, there’s a lot of game here. There are a lot of interesting ideas. But practically every one of these ideas is 100% half-baked. Bart dodging grenades in his own bloodstream sounds like a fever dream to begin with, but the actual mechanics of that level are never satisfying. There are two enemies: one can only ever bother you, while the other employs a persistent instant death attack. And the only way to immediately tell the difference is to check out their hats. And that gets a little… insane when they start swarming the screen. And the objective of that level is to grab a randomly spawning mascot (that had appeared in a whole four episodes at this point… he’s at six now), and your success is usually determined by whether or not he/it happened to appear anywhere near your poor, difficult to control Bart. And that’s just one of the games! I could spend literally the entire rest of this article recounting the many, many issues in practically every segment of this title. Do you want to hear about how difficult it is to master the timing for defeating Homer Kong/King Homer? Because I could tell you stories…
And, looking at Bart’s Nightmare as an enlightened, completely objective adult (that is also handsome and super smrt), I can see exactly what went wrong: it’s not good enough. Like… uh… objectively! Bart’s Nightmare has a lot of interesting ideas, but no single portion of the game is fully-realized. It’s a collection of mini-games that do not add up to one single good game because each individual piece needs a few more hours (days… months?) of playtesting and tweaking. There’s a skeleton of an excellent game here, but the flesh is weak and pasty. A little more time, and Bart’s Nightmare could have been one of the greats of the 16-bit era.
And it also would have been nice if Bart’s Nightmare didn’t force someone to retire from making videogames entirely.
Let’s talk about Bill Williams. Bill Williams was born in 1960, and was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis early in life. He learned at the age of 12 that he was unlikely to live past 13. He died at 38 (okay, technically 37, but it was a day before his birthday, so we’re going to call that close enough). Bill Williams was one of the earliest videogame designers, apparently getting into the field in the early 80’s because he saw the Atari and Amiga as the future (back when systems were simply “the future” and not just “the future of gaming”). And Williams wound up responsible for some seriously weird titles of the time. Salmon Run, his first title, was basically Frogger but with some manner of fish (probably a trout?). Necromancer was the story of a Geomancer growing an army of trees to battle the titular Necromancer and his undead army (and, yes, this remains one of the few games to even reference the historical rivalry between sentient forests and ogres). Mind Walker, one of the first Amiga 1000 titles, defies description in every possible way. It’s… uh… it’s kind of like Lawnmower Man? And the selectable characters are a body builder, nymph, wizard, or alien. And you can play with Sigmund Freud’s pipe. It’s… uh… something. Regardless, Williams was responsible for many different games, and many of his games were solely his creation: he was responsible for graphics, sound, concept, and programming these titles. Yes, that was a lot easier back in the day of “green dot is actually a dragon”, but take a look at some of his creations, and you’ll realize this guy really knew how to push those pixels to the limit.
As the world moved on to bigger and more Mega Man-based systems, Bill Williams stuck around to work on some more licensed titles. Monopoly for the NES was a Bill Williams joint. And so was The Simpsons: Bart’s Nightmare. And, incidentally, The Simpsons: Bart’s Nightmare made Bill Williams quit the entire industry.
If there is more information on exactly what happened during Bart’s Nightmare’s development, I haven’t found it. However, it isn’t too hard to see what happened here. Bart’s Nightmare is a game teeming with interesting ideas. Take the hub world: there are a variety of different enemies, from Lisa the Fairy to Principal Skinner to Jimbo and the Bullies to “Grandma”. However, they all work in a sort of ecosystem where one “threat” is actually helpful when Bart is beset by another monster. Grandma’s kiss causes Bart to stop and lose points, but when Lisa turns Bart into a helpless frog, Granny’s kiss will restore his human form. And being a frog sucks, but if Bart is captured by the bullies, it is Lisa that will transform them into harmless rats. Principal Skinner’s suit will disable Bart’s offensive capabilities (though kind of make him invincible), but jumping into the normally aggravating puddle of mud will retire the suit. There’s even a unique take on the “lifebar” and how performing different feats, like controlling bubblegum bubbles or skateboarding, will extend Bart’s dream existence in curious ways. In short, there are a hundred fascinating ideas in just one area of Bart’s Nightmare, and an entire game with this much creativity on display could have revolutionized gaming for 1992.
But Bart’s Nightmare did not wind up a revolutionary game. Bart’s Nightmare, in its final incarnation, is not particularly fun. There are a lot of exciting ideas on display, but they are not implemented well or completely. It is very easy to see how an additional few months could have refined Bart’s Nightmare to be something that is truly classic, but this was another random bit of Simpsons merchandise. Reading between the lines… and a few interviews with Bill Williams… and you can easily see how Bart’s Nightmare was rushed out the door the minute it was passable. The age of the videogame orator was over, and Williams was forced to release an unfinished product for the exclusive purpose of sopping up some Simpsons cash. Thus did Bill Williams retire from gaming, and began writing a series of meditations on being a Christian living with an incurable disease, ultimately a return to a field where he could again be a sole author of his work. He passed away six years after Bart’s Nightmare, living just long enough to see the rise of the JRPG and titles that were a little more narratively interesting than “Bart has a dream”. However, whether he was even still looking at the industry he once loved so much is unknown. Considering what he did with the meager Amiga, we can only imagine what could have been possible if he got his hands on a Playstation dev kit.
But it’s for people like Bill Williams that I keep the FGC going. The Simpsons: Bart’s Nightmare is not a good game, but it is inexorably linked to a much greater story. Videogames are art, and every piece tells a story, regardless of whether or not “Bart as Indiana Jones” is the least fun experience anyone could ever imagine. Every plastic cartridge, every disc contains volumes that extend far beyond their credits roll. Whether it be a game that is eternally tied to childhood memories or the actions of a man that was remarkable for his place in the industry, every game has the potential to be important to the great tapestry of human achievement. Every videogame can have a lesson.
And let Bart’s Nightmare be a lesson to you, sweeties. Never love anything.
FGC #436 The Simpsons: Bart’s Nightmare
- System: Super Nintendo Chalmers, but also ported to Lisa Genesis.
- Number of players: Don’t have a two player mode, man.
- Casual Racism: Apu’s only appearance is zooming by on a flying carpet to dispense squishies. Get it!? He’s Indian! Everybody laugh at that silly foreigner!
- Is Bart, at any point during his sleep, a Viking? Sadly, no.
- Favorite Dream: I think I will always have a soft spot for the Bartman segment, as it was the first stage/level/dream/whatever that I was actually good at. I really want to like the Bartzilla segments… but they kinda suck. Can you just let me stomp around as a kaiju in peace!?
- So, did you beat it: I did! Once (without savestates)! And it took so many in-game tries, I think I maxed out the score counter. I probably played that game continuously for so many uninterrupted hours, it’s a wonder my SNES didn’t explode.
- I did the Iggy: The final boss of the Itchy & Scratchy segment is… a furnace. That’s it. Just a furnace. And this was before that one Treehouse of Horror where a furnace was relevant for like thirty seconds. To say the least, this was an odd choice.
- Did you know? There’s a Simpsons short from the Tracey Ullman days titled “Bart’s Nightmare”. It’s mainly about Bart stealing cookies (what a bad boy), and the only whimsy involved is a brief bit where Bart is shrunk down to tiny size. As “tiny” isn’t the premise of a single level in the game, I’m going to go ahead and say the existence of the short is merely a coincidence.
- Would I play again: Bart’s Nightmare has a weird and interesting place in gaming history. And that’s cool! Unfortunately, that doesn’t make the title any more fun to play. I’ll pass on a replay until I get extremely nostalgic.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Super Princess Peach for the Nintendo DS. Peachy! Please look forward to it!
Like Bart cares about getting an A.