Saturday Crapshoot: Virtual Springfield

Richard Cobbett

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Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This week, they'll never stop The Simpsons - but in the mid-90s, oh, how they should have tried to stop the games. With the possible exception of one...

It is written that once in every generation, buried in a mountain of terrible, terrible licensed games, there will be... well, a diamond is pushing it. An emerald, perhaps? A topaz, potentially. More than just another bit of licensed crapola anyway. Meet a game that looked at the technology available to it back in 1997 and thought "You know what? I could actually do something pretty cool with this..."

Random, but not as random as his robot battlesuit from the arcade game...

The Simpsons games. However many you think there were, oh, I pretty much guarantee there were more. Very few of them made it to PC thankfully, but console gamers in the 90s faced an all-out minefield of abominations with Bart Simpson's face on them - a result of them mostly coming from the show's early years, before everyone realised that Homer was actually the main character. Konami's Arcade Game remains one of the most fondly remembered, in all its surreal glory. Bart vs. The Space Mutants was pretty damn bad, but at least in an interesting way. It was unique, at least.

After that... oh boy. A torrent of stuff with names like Krusty's Fun House , and horrible minigame collections like Virtual Bart and Bart's Nightmare , and completely forgotten stuff like Escape From Camp Deadly ... not to mention stuff where clearly nobody involved was even slightly interested. Bart and the Beanstalk , anybody? Science has objectively proven that this game had no excuse to exist.

Ah, the internet. All the world's wonders, drip-feed through a 56k modem at 0.01Kps. On my ISP anyway.

The PC wasn't spared all of these, sadly, though it did dodge most of the bullets. Instead, in the height of the 'hey, we can put lots of crap on a CD' multimedia age, it got Virtual Springfield - one of the least remembered Simpsons games, but still one of the best attempts at bringing them to the screen.

Well, up to a point. Really, there's not a lot of 'game' here. Some, not much. The basic goal is to collect about 70 cards all over town. What actually made it cool? Actually wandering all over town.

For fans of the show, this was awesome. There's never been a 'proper' map of Springfield, of course - it's a town built on negative continuity, even before it was moved down the road on trailers after burying itself in garbage. Virtual Springfield offered one though, with Myst style exploration of its streets, adventure game style interiors, and some of the worst mini-games ever created by man or beast alike - but mini-games starring The Simpsons, so still pretty cool for about five minutes or so. That might not sound like much, but it's about five minutes more than most other attempts out there.

(Not to mention a full half an hour longer than Dilbert's Desktop Games ...)

Ha! Muppets Inside did it first! Take that, The Simpsons. Someone finally beat you!

It works because it actually feels vaguely alive. You don't have freedom of movement, and can only go into a few of the buildings you see - though they're the obvious ones like the Simpsons House, Nuclear Plant, Krusty Studios and Moe's Tavern - but you can wander around the streets and characters are constantly driving past, popping in for a line, or doing something in the background - at least to the levels that pre-rendered graphics can do. Their animation quality is beyond terrible, but at least the voice actors showed up to record new lines instead of just relying on dialogue ripped from old episodes.

Pictured on the right, the exact moment everyone involved got bored with this project.

It's the attention to detail that makes it fun to explore. Go into the Kwiki-Mart, and the background tune is a musak version of Baby On Board - the barbershop song that made Homer and co world-famous for roughly the seventh time in the show's run. Open the freezer at the back and the secret passage is there to visit Apu's rooftop garden. On the magazine rack are thirteen parody covers, including Queen Victoria's Secret ("What's under that dress? Another dress!"), Obnoxious Co-Worker Magazine, and The Bison Enthusiast. It's not exactly a case of every pixel hiding a joke, but there are more of them in about three of Virtual Springfield's screens than many other entire comedy games.

Why, in my day, our floppy disks WERE floppy! And that's how we liked 'em!

Things do get a teeny-tiny bit creepy when you go to the Simpsons House though. It's nothing overt, just the realisation that you're not really a guest of the family or anything, silently going from room to room and prying through their things in a methodical kind of way that brings to mind... oh... Dexter Morgan investigating a potential kill. Just look at Marge here. She's clearly terrified of the lunatic.

Don't... provoke... the possible murderer...

That sensation gets worse when you head upstairs, standing silently as Lisa phones the Corey hotline and delivers a lengthy "UURRRRRRRRH" of satisfaction, or glances over to say "I don't know whether I feel elation or shame at your obvious need to dig deeper into my inner being..." or realise that Snake the convict is in the bathroom. A fellow inmate on the lam? Who knows? Only The Shadow.

If you need to pee yourself... doing it in front of your PC is a spectacularly bad idea. Seriously. Electricity. You fool. To see a Simpsons approved bathroom though, you have no choice but to head for Homer and Marge's en-suite instead, where on the toilet you'll find... oh my...

Gasp! On immediate viewing, that appears to be filth!

...

No, wait, it's okay. Turns out it's just magazines like:

On second thoughts, that's worse. Was it Homer or Marge who bought this? And why?

Well, with the exception of...

Hi, I'm Troy McClure. You may remember my penis from such publications as...

Even with animation this primitive, Virtual Springfield only manages to squeeze so much onto its disc - it doesn't take long to wear out what it offers, see all the jokes, and start craving an era where open worlds would allow more than just murdering people in the street but in fact wouldn't end up bothering. If you actually bought it over a real game, you'd be disappointed. Unless that game was Riven.

For what it was though, it's a rare example of a multimedia game that deserves to hold its head up for the right reasons, not simply to make it easier to chop off its head and throw it into a handy cesspit, and a reminder of the days when The Simpsons was actually good. How long ago those days seem, unless of course you're crazy or have less sense of taste than a professional firework swallower.

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