There are times when the past is best remembered rather than revisiting. For more than two decades, people have been clamoring for The Simpsons Arcade Game to make its way to home consoles. As part of the trinity of Konami’s licensed beat-’em-ups–alongside Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men: The Arcade Game–it was the only one that had never ventured outside of the dank, smoky arcade scene. And now that it’s finally available, it serves only as a crushing reminder that life is unfair.
There is a rudimentary story that serves as your motivating force, and its brevity would make it easy to ignore in similar games, but its slapdash implementation reverberates through every element of this adventure. For reasons that are never explained and make absolutely no sense, Waylon Smithers robs a jewelry store. In his sloppy getaway, he crashes into the Simpsons family, Maggie ends up with a diamond replacing her pacifier, and Smithers nabs the infant as he flees. So, if you’re curious why Bart would hit Binky with his skateboard or Lisa would snap her jump rope at a wrestler, there you go. That still doesn’t explain why Marge would throw Snowball II at an inflatable Krusty head, but you’ll be far beyond caring at that point.
It might seem like nitpicking to poke holes in this hastily compiled story, but this lack of care is characteristic of the way that references to the beloved show are handled. Characters and locations are crammed in with no regard to their own relevance. If you scan the background, you might see Dr. Marvin Monroe at a hamburger stand pushing his wares. Yeah, you might laugh as you point out the now-deceased psychiatrist, but that doesn’t make his random inclusion seem any more thoughtful. What’s really strange is just how many Life is Hell references there are. The Simpsons Arcade Game was released in 1991, only two seasons into the life of the show, so the developers didn’t have access to the nearly unlimited cast that now exists. Instead of being creative, Matt Groening’s other property was crammed in to fill the holes, and the inclusion of the one-eared rabbit just feels bizarre in 2012.
Even with the careless integration of references, the licensed elements of The Simpsons Arcade Game are its lone noteworthy aspect. There is certainly some enjoyment in picking out characters from years past. Bleeding Gums Murphy (also dead!) can be seen in the background in one stage. It’s cool to watch the saxophone player jam once more, and seeing who surrounds him should please anyone who has spent hours watching classic episodes. The exotic dancer Homer appeared in a photo with can be seen (with two identical sisters?), and it’s those brief moments of recognition that push you onward.
It’s a good thing the animated cartoon was able to make these characters so likable that merely seeing them can bring a smile to your face. Unfortunately, every idea unique to this game is downright archaic. You (and up to three of your unluckiest friends) take control of Marge, Bart, Homer, or Lisa, and the ability to play offline or online ensures you should be able to scrounge up a partner in a pinch. Each of the controllable heroes has a weapon, so that rapscallion Bart makes deadly use of his skateboard, science queen Lisa wields her jump rope like a whip, Marge cleans up street toughs with her trusty vacuum cleaner, and Homer makes use of his fists. The differences between their attacks may sound large, but in practice, they offer little more than a visual change.
The two-button combat fails to pick up the slack as far as diversity is concerned. You can jump, attack, or jump attack. It’s standard stuff that gets old after only a minute or two of knocking down enemies. Certain background items can be picked up and thrown at attackers, though it doesn’t matter if you’re throwing a loved family pet or a refreshing drink, because the items all act exactly the same. The one dose of flair is that characters can team up to unleash superattacks. Combining Homer and Lisa into a duel-headed killing machine offers some silly fun and is easily the highlight of the stale combat. Sadly, your entire repertoire encompasses only those basic maneuvers, and the lack of deeper tactics means you quickly grow tired of performing the same moves ad nauseam.
There are eight levels to burn through, and the whole shebang can be completed in roughly 40 minutes your first time through. An achievement for a half-hour completion time exists, so you have some idea of just how long this adventure lasts from opening cutscene to scrolling credits. There is a smattering of bonus unlockables, though they add little to the overall package. Upon completing the game for the first time, you gain access to the Japanese version of the game. Levels, enemies, and attacks are mostly identical, though small tweaks (such as how the score is tabulated) do offer slight changes. Otherwise, you can play around in sound or music test menus or look at character art. None of these extras will compel you to keep playing, nor will you get much use out of them once they become available.
For history buffs, one of the few good elements in this game is its perfect emulation of the source material, though that’s faint praise considering this is more than two decades old. Still, although this looks and plays just like the quarter muncher you remember, the presentation is questionable. By default, an arcade cabinet fills in the borders (this isn’t widescreen), though it doesn’t look like the outside of the original Simpsons machine. Rather, because it lacks the colorful logo, it’s closer to an ATM than the arcade cabinet. This can be toggled off and on, and you can also tweak how sharp the visuals are, but that’s about it for options. Like the core action, the options and unlockables are severely lacking, making it a wonder this port was released in 2012.
The Simpsons Arcade Game is a fine example of the time-honored expression “be careful what you wish for; you might just get it.” Age has not been kind to Homer and the gang, and few modern-day amenities have made it into The Simpsons Arcade Game. It’s tempting for those who grew up playing this in the arcade to plunk down 800 Microsoft points ($10) to relive their childhood. But that’s a fool’s game. Playing this will soil any fond memories you’ve desperately clung to through the years. This mind-numbingly dull brawler feels like an ancient relic compared to the wealth of new and exciting experiences available for Xbox Live Arcade.