It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that the 1990s was indeed the Golden Age of The Simpsons. Anyone who says otherwise is just wrong.
While that halcyon period of those early seasons may now be a long distant memory, the cultural legacy is undeniable. Memes, catchphrases and controversies have all been spawned over the decades. And in the 90s, The Simpsons was ubiquitous. If it had a Simpsons connection, it was regarded as a sure-fire hit.
The video game industry was no exception. But were the games actually any good? Or just another shameless opportunity to wring every ounce of gold from that particular goose? We’re going to take a trip down memory lane, revisiting the PC game offerings that were available during the golden era, and to see if they have stood the test of time.
The Simpsons Arcade Game (1991)
The first Simpsons-based video game to be released, This started life as an arcade game, before being ported to MS-DOS, and it was so beloved that years later it reappeared on Xbox Arcade and the PlayStation Network.
It's a side-scrolling beat ‘em up, which was the style of the time. Regarded by many as one of the best Simpsons games (possibly second only to The Simpsons: Hit and Run) the plot was reliably quirky: Smithers has stolen a diamond for Mr Burns (don’t ask why a billionaire needs to steal a diamond).
Maggie starts using it as a pacifier, and, in a wonderful example of Simpsons’ characters going to extremes, Smithers kidnaps Maggie. The Simpsons family have to defeat an army of enemies, with a boss at the end of each level. It’s exactly the kind of anarchic plot you would expect from a Simpsons game, and it arguably might have made for a better movie than the actual Simpsons Movie. Most importantly, it's actually quite fun to play.
Bart’s House of Weirdness (1992)
As a 1992 platform game for MS-DOS, this game holds a niche status. It was, however, praised by reviewers at the time for its graphics. However, the plot really lacks any semblance of a narrative; a grounded Bart sneaks out of his bedroom because he is bored.
Then, somehow, after a series of totally unrelated events, the game culminates in rescuing Krusty the Clown from Sideshow Bob. There’s even a dream sequence involving Itchy and Scratchy. If this were an episode of The Simpsons, it wouldn’t be a classic, let's put it that way.
It’s more like later seasons: looks great, but is incoherent, and lacks depth. While it was warmly received at the time, it hasn't aged as well as the first title on this list.
The Simpsons: Cartoon Studio (1996)
There was a hiatus for Simpsons PC games between 1992 and 1996, until The Simpsons: Cartoon Studio came out. The commercial above is worth watching, if only for demonstrating how perceptions of ‘cool’ have changed.
The 'game' itself allows players to create their own episodes of the Simpsons. With a selection of characters, props and backgrounds, as well as dialogue clips from the cast, it was a decent effort to give players creative control.
There was legitimate criticism about how varied you could make the storylines, and no matter how hard you'd try, you still ended up with a jerky end product, where sound and action are never quite in sync. It almost feels like a game where the ambitions of the developers weren’t matched by the capabilities of the mid-90s technology. Still, it allowed us to design a clunky and unsatisfying episode of The Simpsons, which means we’d fit in with the current crop of writers for The Simpsons.
Virtual Springfield (1997)
The last of The Simpsons PC games from the 1990s, Virtual Springfield is another title that was arguably ahead of its time. The ambition was to create a 3D version of Springfield for exploration by players.
This included iconic venues such as Springfield Elementary, Town Hall and the Kwik-E-Mart, among others. You also encounter major characters, with dialogue written and performed exclusively for this game.
When you play Virtual Springfield, you can appreciate the scale and scope of the game. Remember, this was 1997 after all, so the work that went into making a 3D representation of the town back then should not be underestimated.
As you travel around, you can really feel the attention to detail. Little touches, like an episode of “Self-Colonoscopy with Dr Nick” on the telly, are classic Simpsons. But it came at a price; Vortex Media Arts, the company behind the game, went bankrupt about two years into development. Despite this, Virtual Springfield did really well in achieving its ambitions, especially given the technical limitations of the time. This is a game which, if remade now, could be absolutely incredible on a VR headset.
After more Simpsons games?
While not every game on this list is a classic, none of them are utterly unplayable. You can see what they were trying to achieve, despite the limitations of the technology.
Virtual Springfield and The Simpsons: Cartoon Studio, in particular, could do so much more now, than they managed back in the 90s. Whether there is enough appetite for more Simpsons games though, is a different question. There hasn’t been one since Tapped Out in 2012, which probably tells us everything we need to know.
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Steven Shaw is a full-time freelancer, but before his change of career at the start of 2021, he was in the retail industry, leading teams to achieve goals in selling technology products, such as smart phones, tablets and more.
Graduating from the University of Cambridge with a Masters in Medieval History, he's always had a passion for the topic, alongside technology, and many Simpsons quotes.
You'll find him on TechRadar mainly helping out the Software & Downloads section, offering his knowledge of macOS, Windows and more, from the systems that he's sold and showcased for many years in his previous life.