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FGC #441 Zoda’s Revenge: StarTropics II

Here comes some starsThe original StarTropics game was an action/RPG hybrid that saw young Mike Jones venture through some ill-defined “South Seas” Caribbean-esque tropical venues. Mike traversed caves, spoke to parrots, and eventually discovered the source of all of his woes were mysterious aliens. The aliens are well established as antagonists from early on, though (StarTropics), so they’re not completely out of left field in this otherwise mundane adventure about Mike exploring some deadly vacation destinations. In a time when NES titles were often incredibly bonkers, Mike’s quest was arguably simply a much more ordinary Legend of Zelda.

And then we got StarTropics 2. And it was insane-o cuckoo banana pants crazy.

So, in the interest of properly conveying the plot and further adventures of Mike Jones, please enjoy these 30 unmodified images from my playthrough of StarTropics 2. It’s pretty straightforward!







Let’s see what else happens to Mike…

FGC #440 Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight & Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight

EVERYBODY DANCE NOWLet’s talk about stones, and how much blood you can get out of them.

It all started back on the Super Famicom with Shin Megami Tensei. The SMT series was, at its core, a JRPG about playing Pokémon while the forces of Order and Chaos battled for the very soul of humanity. It was philosophical. It was deep. It was banned in the West, because Satan may or may not have made an appearance. And it kicked off an entire franchise of titles based on the simple dichotomy of order and chaos and a general need for humanity to steer penis monsters riding chariots. SMT wound up a success for Atlus, which spawned a number of sequels and spin-offs, the most popular (eventually) being Jack Bros. Persona.

The Persona series started as, essentially, a slightly less apocalyptic version of SMT. Yes, there are demons, angels, and the occasional Hitler running around, but they’re all operating on the fringes of society, and not outwardly participating in the end of the world. It was basically the Harry Potter to Shin Megami Tensei’s Lord of the Rings. Many of the SMT trappings were still all over the titles, though, and no one was going to mistake Persona for an entirely independent franchise. Then we hit Persona 3, and things started to… mutate.

Persona 3 features demons, monsters, and a particularly homicidal version of Jungian psychology. It is also Day Planner: The Game. Persona 3 has frequently been referred to as “Japanese high school simulator”, but, even more than that, it is a game about balancing your (avatar’s) life. Do you go out tonight (and fight monsters), or do you stay home and study for that test tomorrow? Are you going to spend the afternoon hanging out with your girlfriend, or your best friend? The nerds dance, tooAnd would you like to spend time with the kindly old couple that is obsessed with a tree (?), or is it time to while away the afternoon playing a MMORPG where your homeroom teacher is inexplicably hitting on you? Decisions, decisions! Persona 3 isn’t only about choosing your battle tactics, it’s also about choosing your friends, afternoon plans, and how you combine trading cards into demons that may or may not summon the apocalypse.

Persona 3 wound up becoming a pretty noteworthy hit. While there are a number of potential reasons for the success of the title, one significant factor is likely that you, the all-important player, so fully inhabit the life of this protagonist. In making practically every decision for this “hero” for one year of game life and about seventy hours of real life, it is rather inevitable that an audience would grow overly attached to their individually curated protagonist. And what happens the moment the main character is separated from the player? (Spoilers for a thirteen year old game incoming!) He dies! The protag literally cannot live without you!

The death of Persona 3’s hero is substantial for a number of reasons. The most obvious, of course, is how Persona 3 is all about death. Death, dealing with death, and the broad knowledge that one day you too will die are all general themes that pop up again and again in this title where you can also summon Thor to cast a lightning spell. But beyond that, there is the simple explanation that this is a focused, self-contained story that starts when a strange boy enters a strange city, and ends after that man has made meaningful relationships with people that will live on after his adventure and life have concluded. Persona 3, whether by thematic or simple writing convenience, is meant to be a wholly contained, limited story about the significant, last year of a teenager’s life. Persona 3 is not a story that is meant to go beyond its own borders. Persona 3 is a deliberately claustrophobic tale that is enhanced by its own limits.

And then, naturally, we had Persona 4. And it was a success. So we saw Persona 4 Super. And Persona 4: The Fighting Game. And Persona 4: The Fighting Game Turbo. And Persona 4: The Animation. And Persona 4: The Rhythm Game. By about the time we got to Persona 4: The Rogue-Like, a certain pattern had emerged: the enormously successful Persona 4 was, perhaps from its inception, built to be less a self-contained story, and more a franchise unto itself.

And then Persona 5 finally emerged. Persona 5’s fame may have peaked with this…

It's a whole new game

But we are also talking about a protagonist that practically launched alongside his own canon fursona…

Sonic Heeeeeroes

So it is pretty safe to say that Persona 5 was designed with a slightly different goal than the title that “started” the (most profitable version of the) franchise. Shin Megami Tensei gave way to SMT: Persona that gave way to a series that was simply known as Persona, and now it appears that individual Persona titles are attempting to be franchises unto themselves. Please look forward to Persona 5: The Shoot ‘Em Up.

And here’s Persona 5: The Rhythm Game right next to its simultaneous release of Persona 3: The Rhythm Game.

And, honestly? These twins seem to prove that both titles are equally lacking in meat on their respective bones.

SO BLUELet’s cover the good first: the soundtracks of both Persona 3 and Persona 5 are amazing, and an entire game based on their respective OSTs is incontrovertibly a good thing. Any excuse to listen to some of the iconic tracks from either series is a welcome pretext to press buttons along to the beat, and we’ve got an excellent GUI on our hands here, too. Some rhythm games can get a little confusing with their various “press this now” prompts, but there is no such screen muddling here. And you’re not expected to free-style for extra points, either. The game portion of Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight is excellent, and a fine way to re-experience one of the best parts of both “origin” titles.

But it couldn’t just be a simple rhythm game. No, the Persona series seems to demand that every spin-off be somehow “canon”, so there is a full introductory scene that explains exactly why the casts of both games now must dance. It’s all a dream! Orchestrated by dueling sisters! There are no consequences for losing! There are no consequences for anything! But we’ll be damned if we let one Persona title pass without a novel’s worth of words that amount to absolutely nothing. It’s not nearly as egregious as Persona 4: Dancing All Night’s story mode (which, reminder, was an entire visual novel’s worth of dialogue and twists and turns that only amounted to “believe in yourself”), but, if you want to play the full game (and why wouldn’t you want the full experience available to you?), you must participate in “social link”-esque dialogues with various party members. Ever wanted to learn exactly what Mitsuru thinks about dancing? No? Well, too bad! It’s the only way to complete this escapade!

But the twin release of dance parties for Persona 3 and Persona 5 conveys a very telling tale: both supporting casts are boring as hell.

VIDEO TIMEOkay, that might be a bit harsh. And, frankly, it even feels wrong. In the case of Persona 3, I finished the title, and immediately wanted to dive back into a New Game+ just to revisit all my old friends at Magical Dungeon High School. Similarly, Persona 5 had an unforgettable cast to the point that its fans could talk for hours about how some characters are violently underserved by their forced interactions with other (likely misogynistic) characters. In both cases, it seems like there’s a reason people would want to see the entire cast pop up again in new spin-off titles… or at least hang around in the background of a Smash stage. I liked Futaba! I could deal with more of her!

But the writing for this rhythm game (that may or may not simply be a way to further capitalize on an unforgettable soundtrack) truly underserves these casts. They are left as simple caricatures of themselves, and certain characters blend together across titles into one indistinguishable blob of archetypes (Ryuji and Junpei are the same guy, apparently). What’s the difference between the cold, calculating, but ultimately caring woman on Persona 3’s team and the cold, calculating, but ultimately caring woman on Persona 5’s team? Ostensibly, not much!

The worst teamAnd this seems significant, as the cast of Persona 3 was only really meant for one (albeit long) adventure, while it is obvious that Persona 5 meant for its Phantom Thieves to go on and steal the show in other franchises and Persona byproducts. Joker is going to stop by Sonic World and the Mushroom Kingdom, but is he any more developed than Jack Frost? Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight seems to indicate that he’s not. He’s just as remarkable as the other cypher that didn’t even survive his maiden adventure.

In the end, the support conversations of P5: Dancing with the Stars and P3: Dancing with the Doomed -the entire plot of both “adventures”- prove one thing: there isn’t much difference between Persona casts. And, considering one gang was meant for bigger and better things, that is rather demoralizing. Persona 5 was built to be the Big Mac to Persona 3’s Dollar Menu cheeseburger, but, once you’ve got your order, it turns out they’re both little more than a chicken nugget.

Just remember this moral when we hit Persona 5: Shin Arena Diving Space Tractor 2 Turbo. The Persona 5 well is already feeling a might dry…

FGC #440 Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight & Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight

  • System: Playstation 4 and… Playstation Vita? Really? Are you… sure?
  • Number of players: I’ll be dancing with myself.
  • Two Games? Let’s face it: the separation of these games into two different versions is a pretty obvious cash-grab. Persona fans are suckers, and pretty much every brand manager involved is well aware that those losers were always going to buy Persona: Dancing Red and Persona: Dancing Blue. And they’ll buy the special edition, too, because it comes with a plushie or something. And that plushie is still sitting on my desk as I type this. Damn fans.
  • The best teamYou’re complaining about the plot of a rhythm game? It’s not about the plot per se, it’s about that someone had the idea to make this a cool “hang out” game featuring both casts… and the “hanging out” seems less fun and more like a job required to earn a new hat. If I’m interpreting having a conversation with Ann as a boring slog now, I can’t imagine what’s going to happen in another seven spin-offs.
  • Favorite Track: Rivers in the Desert is severely underappreciated. Then again, Persona 5 has an amazing soundtrack all on its own, so there is some steep competition.
  • Sexual Dimorphism is a Scourge: Most of the songs are accompanied by random characters bopping around to the rhythm, but two tracks per cast are dedicated music videos featuring either the boys or the girls. In general, one is kind of goofy and silly, and the other is sexy and sultry, complete with costumes and swimsuits. Want to guess which gender gets assigned to sexy times?
  • Did you know? There’s probably a universe where someone decided to model all the social links for dancing, but Dr. Tae Takemi still refuses to get out of her chair.
  • Would I play again: This (these?) title holds up as a great rhythm game, so I’m probably going to revisit some tracks in the near future. Unfortunately, I’m never going to touch the “plot” ever again. I have better things to do. And these Phantom Thieves should, too…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Startropics 2: Zoda’s Revenge! Oh no! Zoda is gonna get his revenge! Please look forward to it!

Yuck
This is just… awkward.

FGC #439 Trials of Mana

Get on the mana train!Once again, this old man is wondering about the world that may have been.

Today’s game is Trials of Mana, the sequel to the venerable Secret of Mana (and descendant of Final Fantasy Adventure). Unlike practically every other title in the Mana franchise (did you know there was a TRPG? Oh, and that weird “action” one for the PS2?), Trials of Mana follows Secret of Mana in an iterative manner. Secret of Mana was a gigantic mess of ideas slapped together for a hypothetical/doomed system that was never meant to materialize, and, yeah, it kind of played like something that was never really prepared for the light of day. Don’t get me wrong, I will defend the fun of Secret of Mana until my dying day (I’m considering an epitaph that reads “Here rests Goggle Bob, and Secret of Mana was good, actually”. It’s the only way future generations will know!), but even I know in my heart of hearts that the game is a hot mess. The battle system is half-baked, the world itself has a number of “cutting room floor”-based dead ends, and the plot is a hodgepodge of different concepts that eventually culminates with a skeleton wizard out of nowhere. Trials of Mana seems like an honest attempt to take the best ideas from Secret of Mana, improve on them, and produce a game that could be its “intended form” from the start of its production. Does it work? Well… mostly.

LOOK OUTFirst of all, let’s address the biggest issue with Secret of Mana and Trials of Mana: magic sucks. There is no “quick casting” in either title, and, whether you want to cast a simple healing spell or summon a meteor from hell to rain unholy destruction upon the battlefield, you’re stuck cycling through random menus, waiting for casting, and then pausing any and all action while the spell animation completes. Trials of Mana works slightly differently from Secret; Secret would freeze only the target of most spells, while Trials freezes all of the action on the screen for every single casting. And, against all odds, somehow both systems are the absolute worst. When your opponent is frozen in Secret, you can just pile on the commands (and faerie walnuts) to stunlock your opponent into oblivion. It’s not very… strategic. This is avoided in Trials of Mana, but the constant, never-ending pauses thanks to friends and foes casting spells completely obliterates any sort of combat flow. And Trials somehow makes the worst even worse, as many bosses are programmed to counter magic spells, but, thanks to the inherent lag in the magic-freezing, it’s very difficult to perceive the if/then of countering that is inevitably going to get your party killed. So, if you somehow wound up with a mage on your team, maybe it’s best to let them sit there and do nothing, because it’s always fun to have a character on the roster that is (going to make you) dead weight.

Though maybe it would be a good idea to take a look at the whys of whether or not a mage is currently weighing down your team. Not unlike many games of yesterday and today, Trials of Mana starts with a clutch of unfamiliar characters, and you are asked to choose half of them to be your traveling party. The first character you select becomes the focal protagonist of the adventure, and the second two both play out their signature stories in brief, “aside” arcs. To be clear, this does not employ the modern/Dragon Quest method of having a main character that is 100% meant to be a player avatar that eventually earns some narratively well-defined, though multi-choice, companions; no, in this case, six different playthroughs of Trials of Mana could potentially feature six wildly dissimilar protagonists. And the difference isn’t merely cosmetic: each of the heroes has their own hopes and dreams, but more importantly, they have their own final dungeons and final bosses. CENSOR THISThere are three “pairs” of overlapping finales within the full cast of six, so it would technically require three different complete cycles through Trials of Mana to see every last dungeon and enemy the title has to offer. And, yes, if you’re curious about every story in the Trials of Mana universe, you’re going to need six different runs of a 15-20 hour game (good news: you’ll probably cut that down to ten hours by your fourth quest).

This, naturally, brings us to the topic of alternate realities.

There are six protagonists in Trials of Mana, but only one hero can ever wield the singular, titular (in Japan) Mana Sword. And, as mentioned, each pair of heroes has a unique antagonist. Riesz and Hawkeye, for instance, battle a vampire, a cat lady, and some manner of plant prince; meanwhile, Kevin and Charlotte are pitted against a murder clown and another damn skeleton wizard. Naturally, it is the choice of protagonist that determines the final boss, and the other antagonists are forced to screw off and die at the midpoint of the adventure to make room for the real big bad should they not be the focus of the story. It just wouldn’t do for Riesz to not battle the woman that murdered her parents, so, sorry Gourmand, you’re going to have to leave now. Where do murder clowns go where they die? Batman should look into it.

However, this creates some interesting plot gulfs for our potential heroes. Take Duran, the stalwart knight of Trials of Mana. If Duran is the hero of the piece, he fights against the nefarious Dragon Lord and his disciple, the Darkshine Knight. Eventually, Duran learns that the mysterious Darkshine Knight is in fact his father, a knight named Loki who once fought against the Dragon Lord, and was presumed dead by his best friend, the good King Richard. To say the least, the relationship between the orphaned Duran and his now malevolent father is a bit strained, but it all works out for the best when Duran and Darkshine Loki reconcile and the Dragon Lord is tossed down a conveniently located open shaft to nowhere. Or something. Look, what’s important is that Duran gets an amazing amount of closure on the whole psychologically traumatized orphan thing, and Darkshine Knight gets to die knowing that his son has grown into a noble, strong, Level 40 young man. … Or he doesn’t, because Duran wasn’t the main character, and all he does is stand motionless in the throne room as a completely forgettable NPC. Getting better!In this situation, the Dragon Lord is slain by whoever winds up being the real big bad, and Darkshine sticks around long enough to deliver a dragon obituary before peacing out to nonexistence. Duran never learns of his lineage, and Loki never sees his son again. Oh well! He’s not the main character! Don’t worry about it, audience! Somebody else got a happy ending! Just be happy with that!

But that’s the kind of thing that inevitably bothers me. Sure, it’s only one iteration of the story, but, in one universe, Duran is left not knowing for the rest of his life. He could have been a hero with a healthy memory of his undead father, but, no, now he’s likely going to be in therapy for the rest of his days. Poor dude didn’t get a faery companion, a father, or magical friends that may or may not be able to transform into werewolves. In one universe Duran is the Hero of Mana, in another, he can barely leave a room.

And in one universe, a young Goggle Bob played Trials of Mana. In another, he didn’t get to play the game “for real” until he was in his 30s.

Trials of Mana was never released in America (in this timeline). It did eventually receive a fan translation, though. I played that game on a creaky old laptop without a properly working soundcard (ah, college life), and, while I certainly enjoyed the experience, it wasn’t exactly all that notable. It was a Super Nintendo game being played concurrently with the heyday of the Playstation 2, and Trials of Mana didn’t come off as revolutionary when Grand Theft Auto 3 was also on the menu. And, yes, the format didn’t exactly help, as my beloved laptop (so beloved because it actually allowed me to not be glued to the computer lab at 3 am) was barely capable of supporting the full Mana experience. I played Trials of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 3) because I felt like I had to complete such an important part of Squaresoft history, not because I was anxiously looking forward to the next level.

And then, sometime in my 20’s, I managed to score a repro SNES cartridge of Secret of Mana 2 in English. I played it for about five minutes before growing weary of holding a SNES controller again.

They're asleep!Finally, a few weeks ago, Square-Enix deigned to release Trials of Mana for the Nintendo Switch in glorious American-o-vision. And, for the first time since I ice skated uphill against my old laptop over a decade prior, I played through the entirety of Trials of Mana. And it was rough. The music and graphics are still gorgeous, but all the quality of life improvements that modern JRPG/action titles have presented since the turn of the millennium are sorely missed. The class system is opaque, equipment juggling is unpleasant, and, let’s be honest, who has the time nowadays to complete an entire game three different ways for miniscule plot changes? There are two whole dungeons I missed on my playthrough? Who cares! I would have to complete 80% of the game again just to see a new variation on a cave? I’ll youtube that different final boss, thank you. I am a very important man with very important places to be. That fro-go place can barely open without me visiting!

But in 1995? Back then, this all could have worked. The era of the SNES saw a Goggle Bob with a significantly greater tolerance for bullshit. Back then, a new game only came down the pike (of my parents’ wallets) every six months or so, so a title with three different completely separate paths would have been more than welcome. Spell animations wouldn’t have bothered my young mind, because, I like the turtledamn, did you see those graphics? And the class system that practically requires a FAQ to enhance your party? You better believe I wouldn’t give a damn about proper character optimization. I didn’t even know the meaning of the word “optimization”! Probably literally!

In short: if Trials of Mana had been released in its proper epoch, it might have been one of my most beloved games. It might have been another Final Fantasy 6, Secret of Mana, or even Chrono Trigger.

There’s an entire other timeline out there where Trials of Mana is important to me. Here, in this reality, it is a random novelty that happened to show up on Nintendo Switch.

Trials of Mana, I’ll always wonder if you were meant for better things…

FGC #439 Trials of Mana

  • System: Nintendo Switch. It originally appeared on the Super Famicom in some lucky regions, though.
  • Number of players: Is there really multiplayer available for this game? I know there are reports that the remake won’t have multiplayer “like the original”, but I thought this was another Secret of Evermore situation where the original only had multiplayer thanks to enterprising modders. I’m going to tentatively call this one single player. Maybe it’s just two, but not three? Dammit.
  • What’s in a name: “Trials of Mana” may as well be nails on a chalkboard to my ears. It’s Seiken Densetsu 3, you jerks! Or Secret of Mana 2! Trials of Mana? Really? Because “Trials” starts with “Tri” and that’s marginally related to the number 3? Is that the best you could do? Obviously, the title should be Secret of Ma3a. I mean, duh. Come on, Square Enix, get on the Mana Beast.
  • Speaking of names: Don’t tell anyone, but I can’t even get my own naming conventions together:
    ERROR TYPE MISMATCH

    It’s a secret to everybody.
  • Favorite Hero: Kevin is a bruiser that can transform into a werewolf to cause even more bruises. And he can learn healing magic, so when he’s not bruising, he’s keeping the party alive. And he can learn a spell that transforms physical damage into MP refills, so his bruising can become an unlimited healing battery. Kevin is my hero.
  • An End: During the finale, the previously mentioned Super Werewolf Kevin learns that his best friend is still alive (because Kevin is really bad at identifying a heartbeat) and was accidentally buried alive (by Kevin), his mother is dead, and his father is a complete dick. Couple this with previously transforming his rival into a baby that wanders off into the woods, Kevin has a really weird life.
  • TOTES MCGOATSFavorite Benevodon: We’re really calling them that? Okay, fine. My vote goes to Dolan, the gigantic goat monster that scales an enormous tower just to reach out and touch some Mana Heroes. Also: you can’t tell me that Dolan wasn’t originally intended to be the God Beast (there!) of Darkness, as how could a gigantic goat not fit the ol’ dark arts?
  • Did you know? Heroes of Mana, a strategy RPG for Nintendo DS released in 2007, is a direct prequel to Trials of Mana. It features most of the parents of characters from Trials of Mana, and includes a number of locations and antagonists (a few of them in surprisingly heroic roles) as well. It’s kind of a shame that no one cared about the Mana franchise in 2007, so this title is almost entirely forgotten.
  • Would I play again: Probably! Never mind the upcoming remake, I will probably give another Trials story route a shot at some point. It might be a while, but the gameplay of Trials of Mana works well on the portable Switch, so I’ll probably play it again as one of those “I can play and watch TV” situations. I’ll save state the story scenes for when I have a spare moment to pay attention…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight! Let’s boogie! And put the gun down! Absolutely boogie without firearms! Please look forward to it!

RUN AWAY

FGC #436 The Simpsons: Bart’s Nightmare

SIMPSONS DID ITWhy 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 CRUSH!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 Weeeeemany, 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. Move alongIt’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.

What is evening happening?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

  • DespicableSystem: 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!

Good Job!
Like Bart cares about getting an A.