This review is going to be something a little different. Often on this blog, I’ve concentrated on retro games that I really love or games that I really hate. This time around, it’s a game that, on the whole, I feel a bit “meh” about, but one which is also associated with an important milestone in my personal gaming history.
Step forward Bart vs The Space Mutants.
The game was originally released in 1991 round about the time when the popularity of The Simpsons was really exploding. I remember that summer well – it seemed you couldn’t move without bumping into a piece of Simpsons-branded merchandise or promotion.
Never ones to miss cashing in on a craze it was, of course, Ocean who picked up the rights to distribute a game (developed by Acclaim) in the UK. The plot saw the evil slimy space aliens plotting to take over Springfield by taking over the bodies of some of its residents. Needless to say, only Bart realizes what was happening, and it’s left to him to sort it all out.
The game itself wasn’t actually that great. Whilst it was fun to explore different bits of Springfield and bump into characters from the TV show, the gameplay wasn’t any great shakes. It was essentially a bog standard puzzle/platform game, requiring you to explore Springfield to find and use various items, whilst avoiding. It was all pretty derivative stuff and (particularly looking back), in terms of both gameplay and in-game visuals, still feels firmly rooted in the 8 bit era, despite bring a 16 bit game.
It was also incredibly difficult. Again reflecting that 8 bit mentality, jumps had to be pixel perfect to avoid bumping into aliens – something not helped by the controls which were a little tricky to get to grips with and use when you were under pressure. The graphics didn’t help either; despite the wider palette available to 16 bit artists, there were times when it was difficult to distinguish background items (which were harmless) from foreground ones (which might not be), resulting in many a frustrating death.
This high difficulty level, combined with the awkward controls and mediocre gameplay, didn’t actually make for a particularly enjoyable gaming experience. In fact, I honestly don’t think that I ever managed to get past Level 1 – partly because of my own limited gaming skill, partly because there was no real incentive to keep trying.
So if the game was mediocre at best, why do I have fond memories of it?
Well, there are two reasons. Firstly, the introduction was, quite simply, stunning. If the game itself was 8 bit in nature, the introduction showcased the power of the 16 bit machines. It was, essentially, a short, cartoon-quality animation that set the background to the game and saw Bart uncovering the evil aliens’ plot. The quality of this intro was outstanding and still looks impressive today. I was used to the odd static cut-screen being used to advance the story, but this was something else – a proper, fully animated cartoon – on an Amiga! The first time I saw it, my jaw was officially dropped and my mind well and truly boggled.
Which brings us on to the second reason why I have fond memories of the game. I, like many people, got hold of the game as part of the Cartoon Classics pack when I bought my very first Amiga. So whilst it might not have been the best game I ever had, it was one of the very first. It might have been quickly consigned to the “rarely played” pile as my Amiga collection grew, but I retained that strong emotional connection, because of the happy memories of new computer ownership associated with it. It also came in handy whenever I wanted to demonstrate how impressive the Amiga was – if friends or family doubted its power, you could whip out The Simpsons, insert Disk 1 and show them that introduction to remove all doubts (just make sure you switch the machine off again before they had chance to sit down and play the game!).
So, whilst Bart vs The Space Mutants wasn’t a great game, for me (and many others), it was the bridge to the new and exciting world of 16 bit computers and for that reason alone, it deserves to be remembered.