The fate of Maggie Simpson, and possibly Springfield, and almost certainly the world, is firmly in my hands. Waylon Smithers (in his best bad-guy turn ever) has just come out of Springfield Jewelers, diamond in hand and cronies in tow. But before he could get away, he ran square into Homer and the Simpson family, and diamond went flying into Maggie's Hoover of a mouth. Smithers grabbed baby and jewel alike and scampered off. But I've saved her before, and I'll do it again. I just need like six bucks.
This is how The Simpsons Arcade Game got me. It ends neat and tidy and hilarious, and yet every time I found myself starting over again. I was never much of an arcade junkie, really — there wasn't one in my hometown and I was more interesting in my baseball cards anyway — but The Simpsons Arcade Game hooked me in a way no other has before or since. It's even ultimately what got me into the show in the first place.
The game came out in 1991, and was essentially a marketing gimmick: after the huge success of its Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles side-scrolling beat ‘em up, Konami decided to replicate the formula and license other popular franchises. X-Men, Asterix, the Simpsons, and others were each crammed into variations of essentially the same two-button game: you jump, you attack, you walk. You do them all as fast as possible and as furious as possible. The Simpsons Arcade Game is just a coat of paint on the engine that drove one huge Konami hit after another.
After a while, the button-mashing starts to feel a little repetitive. But just when I'd get bored swinging my skateboard through Moe's Tavern or the streets of Downtown Springfield, just before I'd decide to keep my last three quarters and head home, The Simpsons Arcade Game would throw a curveball. A mini-game between levels, or a new move I accidentally discovered. (I played maybe ten times before figuring out that Lisa and Bart could tag-team enemies.) From Homer's perfect voice to the constant search for rejuvenating junk food, the game's constantly as funny as it is action-packed.
The game re-used voice actors and scenery, but took some amazing liberties
The game is mostly quite faithful to the show, which had only aired a single season when the arcade title launched, but it took a few creative (and typically deeply bizarre) liberties. There are zombies and rabbits and bears and loggers and big round blue things and Krustys and weird clouds. Mr. Burns is terrifying and everyone falls down a waterfall. The game is a completely and constantly perfect mix of straightforward motion and utter chaos. A few spots are rigged quarter-suckers, but for the most part the game moves relentlessly forward. I'd stand there for hours, amidst Pac-man and shooters and pinball, and just hammer away on the green buttons. (The only cabinet that ever really rivaled for my attention: NFL Blitz.)
I played the other Konami games too, but there was something wonderful about playing in Springfield. Something more endearing, more approachable. I wasn’t playing as a mutant turtle, or a guy who shoots lasers from his eyes. I was a chubby dad or a perpetually frustrated big sister, fighting my way back to my youngest. I could play as Lisa (Hobby: wailing on her saxophone), Homer (Alias: Home Boy / Home Dude), Marge ("Play friendly, everyone!"), or Bart. I always picked Bart, because Bart understood my pre-teen angst and also Bart had a skateboard. I liked to play with someone else who was Lisa, though: their awesome combination move made quick work of easy enemies. That and, I don't know, having my sister around made things easier.
Somehow, after only one season of the show, The Simpsons Arcade Game managed to capture so much of what would make the show great for a quarter-century. It was weird and bizarre and occasionally frustrating, but never stopped being human and funny. It never let you forget that Homer just really wants a donut right now, or that Marge remains the world's most wonderful and patient person even as she beats the living hell out of another bad guy in a suit. It made me love the characters, helped me understand their relationship. It's a huge part of the reason I got into the show in the first place: I wanted to go on more adventures with this kooky family of yellow people.
The Simpsons Arcade Game was the first Simpsons game, and it will almost certainly forever be the best one. There have been many others, even many direct ports of the arcade game to everything from the Xbox to the iPhone. But there's nothing like sidling up to one of Konami's 359 cabinets, my childhood sweatpants weighed down by a pocketful of quarters, and watching the afternoon disappear. None still have me looking through arcades when I pass them, none make me turn $10 into quarters and then turn 40 quarters into too many hours of whacking grown men with a 4th-grader's skateboard. Hit Buttons!
From the archives: The life and death of the American arcade