Monday, 25 October 2021

The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space Mutants (Ocean/Acclaim, 1991)

Designed by Garry Kitchen, Barry Marx, Dan Kitchen, Roger Booth and Henry C. Will IV for Imagineering Inc.
Developed by Arc Developments
Directed by Garry Kitchen
Produced by Colin Gordon
Story conceived by Barry Marx
The Simpsons theme song written by Danny Elfman
Original score by Mark van Hecke

NES credits:
Programming by Roger Booth, Barry Marx, Garry Kitchen, Dan Kitchen, Rob Harris, David Crane and Scott Marshall
Graphics by Jesse Kapili
Audio engineering by Alex de Meo

Other versions' programming by: Chris Coupe (SMD/GEN, AMIGA and ATARI ST); Julian Scott (SMD/GEN and ATARI ST); Tim Coupe (AMIGA); Colin Gordon (AMIGA); Byron Nilsson (CPC, SPE, SMS and GAME GEAR); Richard Underhill (C64); John Wildsmith (DOS)

Other versions' graphics by Paul Walker
Additional graphics for Commodore Amiga by Gary Tonge

Sega sounds by Mark Cooksey
Other versions' sounds by Jonathan Dunn
Additional sounds for Commodore Amiga by Byron Nilsson and Derrick Owens

Published by Ocean Software for Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga, IBM-PC compatibles and Sinclair ZX Spectrum 128k, and Acclaim for the NES in 1991.
Published by Acclaim (Flying Edge) for the Sega consoles in 1992.

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INTRODUCTION & GAME STATUS


On the long run, horror games is not exactly a bottomless well for trying to find games specifically with comparison in mind for Halloween, so in the spirit of transforming October from a month of horror games to a month of Ocean games (hopefully starting properly next year), I chose to go with one of the most commercially successful tie-in games of the 8- and 16-bits era with some sci-fi/b-movie theme going on in it. And, well, I had to visit the 1990's for a change, didn't I? Well, hold on to your hats and eat your shorts while at it, because this is going to be an unusually long comparison.

Because most games from the 90's, as well as horror-themed games published by Ocean, were bordering on the line of unplayable and well past crossing the line of uninteresting, I chose to attempt to make a comparison from the first video game based on the Simpsons, because it is also the only Simpsons game to ever have been released on all the main consoles and home computers of the time.

While Bart vs. the Space Mutants was undeniably a best-seller, the game got mixed reviews even in its time. These days, the ratings at our favourite haunts aren't even as peachy as that. At Lemon64, you will find a score of 5.8 from 61 votes, and it has been ranked there as 54th worst game of all time based on 50 votes or more. At Spectrum Computing, the current score is 6.2 from 5 votes, while the archived World of Spectrum shows a much more uplifting 7.56 from 27 votes. At CPC-Power, the score is 16.50/20.00, and the review at CPC Game Reviews has a fairly similar 7 out of 10. Moving on to the 16-bit home computers, you will find a score of 6.13 of out 88 votes at LemonAmiga, and a 6.0 from 5 votes at Atarimania. The scores for the DOS version at Abandonia are 3.0 (out of 5.0) by the editor and 3.2 from 4511 voters. The average scores accumulated by SegaRetro are: 69/100 for the Genesis/Megadrive version, based on 26 reviews; 79/100 for the Master System version, based on 14 reviews; and 90/100 for the Game Gear version, based on 5 reviews. Finally, the NES version has a score of 3.1 out of 5.0 at MobyGames, from 30 votes. So, for the most part, time hasn't been too kind on the first Simpsons game for the home systems.

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HISTORY, DESCRIPTION & REVIEW


As I mentioned, Bart vs. the Space Mutants was very successful, but then it was a guaranteed seller regardless of what the first home system-targeted game based on what would become the most successful and long-running animated TV-show would be like. The Simpsons had just started to ride the highest waves, and the arcade game by Konami from earlier that year had proven a hit. Get a legend like Garry Kitchen from early Activision crew to direct the whole development of the game, and Ocean and Acclaim for publishing the game, and you would basically get the biggest possible hype for that time period.

Because Bart's first home system adventure was designed first and foremost for the NES, as it was the chosen home console of the American youth, the game was designed to be a side-scrolling platformer, at least on the surface. Not too long after you start moving around, though, the game reveals itself to being an arcade-adventure game more than a simple platformer, although you do need to jump around quite a lot. A notable difference to other platforming games of the time is, you don't really have much of a way to defend yourself against the space mutants, but rather, you need to use your platforming skills to avoid contact. You need to buy items and use them correctly in order to make progress, and some of the puzzles can be quite challenging, at least for a platforming game. As there are only 5 levels in the game, the puzzles do manage to give the game a lot more longevity than what it otherwise would have had, but on the flipside, this can easily drive away gaming fans that are more used to running and jumping, and perhaps more importantly, shooting your enemies, like in Super Mario Bros. So basically, Bart vs. the Space Mutants is little more than a 1991 take on a 1985 arcade-adventure game in the vein of Pyjamarama, but with a scrolling screen and a familiar TV face to go with it.

I don't really think the team behind this game really thought this entirely through, because if you look at about 90% of all the platforming action games on the NES, you don't get much of brainwork to go with all the action. Some memorizing, if that. Bart vs. the Space Mutants requires some thinking, a little bit of backtracking, constant close examining, and combine all that with pixel-perfect jumping and bad inertia problems, and you got yourself a pretty unholy combination that's bound to get on most NES gamers' worst games lists. I used to play it on my C64 only to reach level 2 and get stuck there, but I enjoyed the puzzle elements more than the actual platforming up to that point. Most people have gotten as far as level 3, so I'm attempting to improve my old achievement accordingly. The platforming stuff is what destroyed the game for me, but I'm hoping to get over this problem by making this comparison. Let's see what happens. But regardless of the results of my comparison, I wouldn't really recommend Bart vs. the Space Mutants to anyone except the most avid Simpsons fanatic, and probably not too much even then.


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PLAYABILITY


Bart vs. the Space Mutants is complex enough to make good use of two, if not three fire buttons, but how do you suppose they coped with a single fire button joystick? Well, let's take a look at how each platform has dealt with the controls.


Getting Bart to walk left and right is as self-explanatory as with any other platforming game. Getting him to run, however, requires a variety of tricks, which shouldn't have been made to that much of a chore, when the game was originally designed for the NES, which had the still unparalleled example in game design in Super Mario Bros. Of course, playing on the NES, the A-button makes Bart jump, and B uses the spray can or other projectile weapon available. You only have two buttons left on the controller: Select, which scrolls through your inventory, and Start, which activates the chosen item in your inventory. So, the way you make Bart run and eventually reach more difficult spots in the game, is to press either A or B down for a longer period of time while walking. Either way, you'll either end up wasting a bit of spray or jump when you're not supposed to. Oddly, up and down are never used here, but I suppose that's because with the NES D-pad being as sensitive as it is, you don't want to accidentally jump or do something else while walking or running. What the game really needs is a third action button.

The SEGA MASTER SYSTEM and GAME GEAR versions play similarly to each other, which is as follows: Left and right make you walk left and right, down scrolls through inventory, "1" button jumps, "2" button shoots spray and boosts jumps, but you never actually run, "2"+down activates the chosen inventory item and Start pauses. So, the 8-bit Sega versions bypass the running problem by not making it a requirement in the first place. However, the inventory system is more than a bit awkward.

For the SEGA MEGADRIVE/GENESIS version, they altered the inventory system dramatically by giving you the access therein only by going to Pause mode (obviously with the Start button), which makes sense, since you scroll through the inventory with up and down in the D-pad. In action mode, the D-pad only utilises left and right. This is a good thing, because the Megadrive/Genesis controller's directional pad is notoriously sensitive for accidental diagonals. However, you don't activate the chosen inventory item right away by exiting Pause - instead, you are allowed to continue walking and activate the item by pressing the C-button. As for the other two action buttons, A is for spraying and running, and B is for jumping. Again, spray is unavoidably wasted, so there seems to be no optimal control method here.

One would think that the game would be similar to play on all the computers, but nope. There are basically two variations here. The C64, AMIGA and ATARI ST versions play similarly, and even the DOS version can be counted into that lot, except it is played with the keyboard instead of joystick. Think of the classic Spectrum key setup: Q, A, O, P and Space, and you'll get the picture. Left and right are as usual, but then up (and diagonals) make Bart jump accordingly. Holding down and tapping the fire button, repeatedly if necessary, scrolls through your inventory, and finally letting go of the joystick activates the chosen inventory item. The only available fire button sprays or shoots stuff, when available, but also makes Bart run and jump longer and higher if kept down for a longer period of time. Once again, spray is wasted, but there's nothing you can really do about it.

The SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions also use the QAOP+Space setup, unless you have a joystick. These two versions play otherwise similarly to the other computer versions, but there are no long/high jumps, and Bart doesn't run. The default jump is more powerful and the levels are designed so that you can reach all things with the jump you've been given.


One of the most affecting specific elements in the game is how Bart responds to your controls, because some of the segments are made unnecessarily difficult by Bart's response lag into your control input. Then again, the game doesn't feel exactly right, if he walks with no inertia at all, but some people might prefer that.

The way Bart reacts to your controls is a bit slow, kind of like people usually are when reacting to a "walk/don't walk" sign - it takes second for the "okay to start walking"-signal from your brain to reach your feet. It's not a particularly comfortable thing to occur in a video game, so it's good that this reaction time has been reduced to a fraction of a second in the NES version. Still, you need to prepare your actions with that in mind. The C64 version is the only one, which follows the NES original's feel in this regard. In all three SEGA versions, this small delay has been minimized even further, so that it's barely noticable. Also, in the ATARI ST version, you get no delay whatsoever, but the game is quite a bit slower to play, regardless of what TOS you're using in your ST. The AMIGA and DOS versions play at a perfectly good speed, but there's a slightly longer delay to Bart's walking than in any other version. The AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions have no walk delay either, but they're also slower to play than most versions - not quite as slow as the ATARI ST version, though - and Bart walks with no inertia at all. Also, both the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions use a flip-screen method instead of pure scrolling, and about 3/4 of the screen width is used before the screen flips.


Because the game is basically the same thing over and over throughout its five almost devastatingly long levels (bearing in mind you have no weapons), I will focus the level details comparison on the first two levels, because that's what I believe most of us, who were unfortunate enough to play this game, ever bothered to see.


In its original form, the first level has 24 "goals" you need to do, which in this particular case means purple objects, which need to be turned to red ones, or otherwise transformed. Only the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions go with a lesser amount, with 20 purple items to deal with. Of course, this also means some of the objects are missing, such as a couple of purple windows from the elderly home at the end of the level, but more tragically, Moe's tavern as an interactive part. The AMSTRAD version is also missing the skateboarding bit after Jebediah's statue, although you still need to walk and jump over the dogs that walk in pairs. The C64 version is also missing a couple of small things, most notably the skateboarding teenager whose name escapes me for the moment, but that's not a great loss.

Some of the goal items are more difficult to reach than others, and more infuriatingly (at least for me), some of the items need a different approach on different versions, accordingly to how much delay the spray can activates with, and how different Bart's sprite and the location of his spray can is. As an example, the flower pots above the stores need to be sprayed by jumping or falling around them in some versions, because Bart holds the spray can just enough above the flower pots so the spray won't hit them. The C64, AMIGA, ATARI ST, SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions let you spray the flower pots just by standing close to them (even slightly overlapping), but all the other versions require you to have more distance and jump around. The most infuriating version is easily the DOS version, which is almost unplayable with modern keyboards, as the Q-A-O-P-SPACE controls tend to override each other in certain combinations, so jumping left and spraying simultaneously can be impossible. Perhaps not so on proper old hardware, but I don't have the possibility of going that far back in time, nor do I have a compatible PC joystick to test that option.

Each level has an end-level boss to fight, and for each level, there is a possibility of gaining a bit of help for the boss fight by collecting bonus letters for each featured character: Maggie for level 1, Marge for level 2, Lisa, Homer, and finally all four simultaneously. These bonus letters can be found by jumping on people's heads, who have been possessed by the space mutants. To determine, whether they  have been possessed, you need to use your handy X-ray sunglasses. If you stomp on a regular citizen's head, you will take damage upon collision. Some of the versions have a different order of appearance for the possessed people, but none of the versions have the order randomized.

The helpers, being Bart's siblings and parents, don't really help all that much, but each of them has their purpose. Maggie throws ball-like objects at you (which vary by the given platform), which you can bounce off towards Nelson, the first level boss, who throws rocks at you (which you can not bounce off), as well as jumps giant leaps to make the ground shake for a brief time, rendering you unable to move.

Some variety in Nelson's aggressiveness and Maggie's helpfulness is certainly detectable. Maggie throws her bowling balls, tennis balls or whatever they appear to be in each case, at a fairly steady pace in most versions. In the C64 version, she throws them at an oddly random pace, and the SPECTRUM version goes somewhere between. Oddly, the AMSTRAD version doesn't even have Maggie at the end of the level, even if you have collected all the letters, so I'm guessing none of the other members of the Simpson family make their intended appearance, either.

As for the first level boss, Nelson, he has a lot more variety in his actions. In the original NES version, his actions are sharp yet relatively easy to get through, and it only takes a few hits to defeat him. In the SEGA MEGADRIVE/GENESIS and MASTER SYSTEM versions, Nelson is a bit quicker, but otherwise easy enough to beat. The GAME GEAR version's Nelson is closer to the NES version. Next in line, the AMIGA and DOS version's Nelson is fairly unthreatening, and his giant jumps have less effect than on the NES. The ATARI ST version's Nelson differs from the previous two only by his jumps having no effect at all. For the C64 and AMSTRAD versions, Nelson has been rendered almost entirely unthreatening, while the SPECTRUM version has the most relentless rock-throwing Nelson, whose jumps make the ground shake for quite a long while.

While this is just the first level, we can easily determine the overall playability from that alone, since the rest of the game differs very little in terms of actual gameplay mechanics, apart from the boss fights and one or two little details, which we shall get into with the level 2 stuff.


In level 1, we passed by the usual street sightings of Springfield: Moe's Tavern, Jebediah Springfield's statue, Kwik-E-Mart, the elderly home and such. In level 2, we go through several levels of the central mall under renovation, which involves jumping through series of moving platforms over fresh cement, dealing with a few mid-level bosses and getting more random with the types of enemies and people encounters. Your mission is to collect hats from wherever you can find them - be it from the ground, mid-air or top of peoples' heads. This level is made insanely difficult by the third part, which is very long, and has lots of enemies that only appear in this section, and you really need to memorize it all before you are able to finish it in one go, because wherever you happen to die during this section, you are taken back to the beginning of the section.

While working on this comparison, I actually managed to finish this level on a couple of different platforms, but I also found the reason why I never could do it on C64 and AMIGA, where I played it first and foremost. The reason is, that the first section includes the first mid-air jumping bit above a fresh cement layer, which drowns you upon the slightest contact, and when you're playing this part on the C64, AMIGA, or even ATARI ST or DOS, you will notice that Bart slides way too much when landing on these platforms. The bigger problem is, you actually have to run before making the first jump to reach the first platform, which will more likely result in your sliding off that platform than managing to jump straight to the next one while you're in the move. In the C64 version, there's an additional problem of the lollipop-looking platforms rolling even while you're standing on them, and you have a bigger tendency to drop right through them despite of how they're aligned, so it's pretty much unplayable from that point on. The ATARI ST and DOS versions also have constantly rolling lollipops, but you can stand on them at all times.

Since the game doesn't have continues or a password system, once you're dead, you start from the very beginning of the game, and I usually quit right after dying in this platform section in the second level. If you're playing on any of the other versions, Bart doesn't slide much when platforming, if at all. All three SEGA versions are the most comfortable to play in this regard, but the NES, SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions are pretty comfortable, too.

However, all the SEGA versions feel a bit too particular about their collision detection. Bart's head leans backwards so long, that it's bound to collide with plenty of things you normally wouldn't, if your protagonist was a straight-drawn character, as they usually are. It took me better half of a 100 tries to get through level 2 on any of the Sega versions, and I couldn't have done it without emulator savestates, nor will I ever again attempt such an undertaking. This realization makes me feel great pity towards those who actually bought this game new on any of the consoles, because for the trouble the game gives you, I wouldn't pay more than €10 for it these days on any platform. As it happens, the NES version is the only one that has the most optimal balance of gameplay: a fairly lenient collision detection, platforms not too particular, not much sliding when jumping on moving platforms, all the basic goals are pretty much attainable and all the boss fights have a nicely balanced difficulty. Last, but not least, level 2 has no unfair respawn policy in the last bit. The SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions have less obstacles/enemies in the latter half of the second level, but again, the end level boss is a bit more difficult than on the NES.

Not that this will help anyone any significant amount, but some of the passages in the game are simply easier to let Bart take a hit, since he has two energy points before you lose a life. Losing one of your three lives isn't much of a problem, since Bart can collect extra lives by jumping on the boxes with Krusty faces and collecting 15 coins. Like in any proper platforming game, most of the coins and Krusty boxes are hidden from plain sight, and some are hard to reach, but apart from the first level shops, coins have no further use than collecting extra lives.

As I said, the focus is only on the first two levels, because level 2 is what will likely beat most gamers because of the unfair difficulty from the first moving platform section onwards. Therefore, the scores for this section (and the rest of it, I suppose) will be given on that basis. The last paragraph points out the NES version as the most optimal choice, and the SEGA versions collectively as the second best - even though the GAME GEAR's screen is a bit smaller, so you need better reflexes in that version, but given the general difficulty, that's not much of a leap.

Despite the unfortunate omissions and the awkward flip-screen scrolling method in the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions, you do have a better chance of completing the game on those two than on the C64 or any of the 16-bits. As for those, the AMIGA version is definitely the most faithful conversion of the NES game. While the C64 version follows the AMIGA version as closely as it possibly can - for better and for worse - the platforming problems in the second level ruin the rest of the game. The DOS and ATARI ST versions play horribly slow, which make the sliding platforming sections slightly more bearable, and the fact that you can actually stand on the lollipops at all times saves them from being considered worse than the C64 version.

1. NINTENDO ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM
2. SEGA MASTER SYSTEM / GENESIS / GAME GEAR
3. SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM
4. AMSTRAD CPC
5. COMMODORE AMIGA
6. ATARI ST / IBM-PC COMPATIBLES
7. COMMODORE 64

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GRAPHICS


It has been mentioned many times on this blog before, but I stand by my firm belief, that a game based on a well-known set of characters, particularly one as recognizable as the Simpsons, should look its part as much as possible to earn its licence. Sure, gameplay is more important, but I, for one, want to be able to recognize as many characters and locations as possible when playing as Bart Simpson in the very recognizable town of Springfield, but realistically, you cannot expect to see every famous thing in one game.

Since we skipped the Loading section, the logical place to start is the loading/title sequence, as it appears in most versions. Some versions have more elaborate animated intros, but we shall get to those in a minute. But still, as there are so many versions of the game, we have to split even the more compact ones in two.

Title/loading screens, left to right:
NES, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.



In its original form, the title sequence features a picture of the Simpson family sitting on the famous sofa, watching the credits being played on their TV. You see all family members blinking their eyes, and Maggie sucking on her pacifier, and you also see a UFO landing outside through the window. The credits are shown one screen at a time on the TV set, which has a couple of purple monsters peeking from behind it.

None of the 8-bit computer versions have the family picture, but rather just a big picture of Bart's upper body alongside the game title as shown in the cover art, and the obligatory Ocean and Arc Developments logos; and this is the loading screen. The C64 version does the initial loading section the smart way, and includes the credit sequence as a secondary animated loading screen, while the SPECTRUM version shows it only after the game has loaded. The AMSTRAD version has no credit sequence as such - you just get the usual copyrights in the rather ungraphical title screen, which at least allows you to redefine keys. Also, neither the C64 nor the SPECTRUM version have the peeking  monsters behind the TV.

More title/loading sequences: Atari ST (top row), Sega Megadrive/Genesis (middle),
Sega Master System (bottom left), Sega Game Gear (bottom right).



The ATARI ST version adds a couple of logo screens for Ocean and Acclaim, as well as a darkened loading screen version of the actual title screen (modeled after the original NES screen) that alternates with the credits sequence, which is a bit disappointing compared to the AMIGA version, as you can see below.

All three SEGA versions are the only ones to approach the actual game title screen with respect to the animated series' title sequence, by showing the title in the opening clouds segment. Then again, this bit is only animated in the MEGADRIVE/GENESIS version. Naturally, the three Sega versions start off by showing the Flying Edge logo, and you get a family-on-the-sofa picture from an alternative angle, as well as the usual credits on TV.

Extended intro screenshots from the Commodore Amiga version.



The AMIGA and DOS versions feature a long animated intro sequence, where Bart sees a UFO landing on the street, and he puts on his X-ray sunglasses to see the human-looking space mutants are actually space mutants underneath. Then he jumps out of his window, climbs down the tree, and you get the title screen that looks similar to the one in the 8-bit computer versions, only this time with location background graphics included. Then you still get a similar title screen as you get in the NES version, as well as the credits sequence on the TV - now with the purple monsters. Uniquely, there's also a picture of a disk, when the game prompts you to change to the second disk, where all the actual game data is.

Extended intro screenshots from the DOS version.



Just for the sake of convenience, I dropped over half of the screens from the full intro sequence, but the real difference in the DOS version is the title screen - the one with the family on the sofa - which is similar to the ATARI ST loading screen. Also, instead of a disk swap screen, I included the copy protection screen here, which asks you for the page number of a specific picture of Bart in the game manual. Oh, and don't worry about that one picture where Bart's falling looks different from the Amiga version, because I just couldn't be bothered to snatch the exact frame.

Extended intro screenshots from the NES (top row) and Sega Megadrive/Genesis (bottom) versions.



The NES and MEGADRIVE/GENESIS versions do have a more compact animated sequence, where the plotline is revealed, but it is shown only after you press the Start button to start the game. What you are shown here is a bit of dialogue between the two main space mutants over a blue screen with stars. In the NES version, the picture reaches the ground level, where the two mutants are being observed by Bart, while they continue their dialogue. In the MD/GEN version, the dialogue is finished, before the picture goes to the ground level, with Bart showing you how the X-ray glasses work.

Pre-level space mutant chatter screens, where available.
Top row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, DOS, Sega Megadrive/Genesis.
Bottom row: Sega Master System, Sega Game Gear, NES, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.



Before each level, we see a cutscene with the two main space mutants chattering about new items that will help them conquer the world, which you will, of course, need to collect to ruin their plans. There are some differences in the screen's layout, as well as the facing direction of the mutants, but the more important thing to consider here is, how much animation there is on the screen. You should be able to see some level-specific items moving on the conveyor belts, but there is no such animation in the SPECTRUM and ATARI ST versions. However, the C64 and AMSTRAD versions don't even have these cutscenes, so it could certainly be worse.

Moving on then: just to go well together with the previous section, what I have managed to get here are screenshots of the first two levels, and the rest of the screenshots are downloaded from MobyGames and other such sites, when my skills and perseverance weren't enough. Since the levels are so long and full of odd little details, I decided to show each version separately with eight carefully selected pictures from level 1.

Screenshots from NES version of level 1.



First, let's focus on the info panel at the bottom. At the left end, we have the pre-elected family member for helping you with the end-level boss, if you manage to collect all the letters that will show under the said family member's head. Just above it and slightly to the right, you see your current number of hit points left as small Bart's head icons. At the right end, there's the meter for the amount of spray gas you have left. The middle area is taken by all the numeric information at the bottom half, as well as the current inventory item, shown as a picture on the right and a bit of text at the top half. Sometimes, you will get messages that replace the info panel for some duration, or if you visit a store, you are shown the store's inventory and your coins instead.

The majority of the screen is taken by the action window, in which Bart scrolls the area when centered in a horizontal line, unless you reach either end of the map. Having so much information in the game as it is, the developers decided not to go with any parallax scrolling effects, even though it certainly would have been possible and welcome. In the areas you're not surrounded by shops, statues or other buildings, the background graphics are simplistic, yet effective, and in the brief skateboarding segment, this decision is understood better.

There aren't too many Springfield folks on the move in this version. Some of the people walking by you that you need to knock on the head are vaguely recognizable, but the big guest stars in level 1 are Moe Szyslak, Jebediah Springfield (as a statue), Jimbo Jones, Nelson Muntz and Maggie Simpson. All the characters are well drawn, where needed, and all the aliens and animals do their job nicely. What I'm not so impressed of is the buildings: Moe's tavern doesn't have the signature window colouring; the movie theater doors look more like warehouse doors; and the stores all have similar-looking signs, apart from the pet store at the end of the shopping section. And although I decided not to show Kwik-E-Mart and the elderly home here, they both have fairly notable presences in this level.

Screenshots from Sega Master System version of level 1.



From the three SEGA versions, the MASTER SYSTEM is the closest to the NES version, but stylistically, it's actually pretty far from it. The signs over all the town establishments are more uniform and boring, and the blue borders feel a bit odd at first. The official Simpsons font (reminiscent of the almighty Comic Sans) is absent, and is replaced with a font with mostly square shapes.

However, the MASTER SYSTEM pulls off the game's intended cartoony look much better than the NES, with much more black lines around all the elements, as well as excellent likings of all the familiar Simpsons characters in the main guest roles in this level, and most of the pedestrians look like principal Skinner. The animations are also a bit more notable than in the NES version, which makes a huge difference.

Screenshots from the Sega Game Gear version of level 1.



The GAME GEAR version basically looks the same as the MASTER SYSTEM version, only the screen size is smaller. This, of course, makes the info panel much more compact by necessity, and the action screen is much narrower than in any other version. It's still fairly playable, though, but not nearly as comfortable as the SMS version.

Screenshots from the Sega Megadrive/Genesis version of level 1.



The MEGADRIVE/GENESIS version basically has the same approach as the MASTER SYSTEM one, but with the 16-bit hardware, the screen resolution is higher, and you get quite a few more colours thrown in as well. Most notable difference - improvement, really - to all the other versions is the parallax scrolling background graphics behind the nearby buildings, which show a small part of the residential area looping endlessly.

Regarding the smaller details, though: the movie theater has a proper movie theater-looking doorway, Moe's tavern has the familiar colouring in its windows, the stores all have different graphics in their windows and fonts in their signs, Jebediah's statue is missing the dead bear laying at his feet, and the cloned pedestrian doesn't look like principal Skinner this time, but probably someone you would recognize, if you're a long-time Simpsons fanatic.

The info panel has a small, but notable adjustment, which makes you wonder, why didn't they do it like this in the first place: Bart's two hit points are shown as full-size pictures (well, as full in size as Bart appears in the action screen) at the right end of the info panel. It wasn't designed for the SMD/GEN version, though.

Screenshots from the Sinclair ZX Spectrum version of level 1.



Considering all the moving characters are see-through monochrome, the SPECTRUM version is actually rather colourful. The monochrome characters don't really bother as much as they sometimes do, because they're so well-drawn, that you can tell each character apart even without colours. Only, there aren't quite as many notable characters here than in all the versions so far - Moe and Jimbo are missing entirely, and the pedestrian characters look like any random Simpsons character. The shops, movie theater and Moe's tavern look their part well enough, but Bowlarama's sign animated isn't animated.


The info panel is entirely black and white, which only makes sense here, and it uses the traditional style, except for the font, which is somewhere between the classic Simpsons font and the rectangular one from the SEGA versions. What sets the SPECTRUM version really apart, though, is the flip-screen method of scrolling, only used in the AMSTRAD version elsewhere.

Screenshots from the Amstrad CPC version of level 1.



As luck would have it, the AMSTRAD version also has a similar screen size to the SPECTRUM version, so they're pretty compatible in many ways. But whereas the SPECTRUM version goes with hi-res monochrome sprites and well defined backgrounds, the AMSTRAD version has scarce details, sloppily pixeled sprites, square font and crowded info panel. And as if that weren't enough, not only Moe and Jimbo are still missing, but you don't even get the Simpson family member show up at the end-level boss fights. So, it might not come as too much of a shock, that Nelson looks nothing like Nelson, either.

Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version of level 1.



While the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM have the screen size and scrolling method in common, the C64 version shares AMSTRAD's lack of detail in certain things, such as the movie theater, Jeb's statue, the shopping area, general background graphics and side characters. You do get Moe's tavern with Moe somewhat intact, but Jimbo is still missing, and Nelson still looks nothing like Nelson. Even Maggie looks more like a blue worm with a yellow head in the background at an illogical spot, but at least she's there. Bart's hit point heads are, similarly to the SEGA MEGADRIVE/GENESIS version, seated at the right end of the info panel, and the info panel looks fantastic with the correct font and hi-res pictures. In balance, the C64 version looks just about as nice as the SPECTRUM version.

Screenshots from the Commodore Amiga version of level 1.



The AMIGA version pretty much sets the standard for the 16-bit home computer conversions, as it was the gaming computer of choice in 1991. As we saw from the earlier intro sequences for the AMIGA and DOS versions, there should be no real big differences to be expected.

While the in-game graphics are certainly the best you can get from any of the home computer conversions, it doesn't reach the magnificence of the MEGADRIVE/GENESIS version and its parallax scrolling backgrounds and emphasized cartoony style. Basically, what you get here is just an enhanced look of the original NES graphics, while the 16-bit SEGA graphics are almost completely redesigned.

All the recognizable Springfield inhabitants are at their most recognizable prior to the SMD/GEN release here, the amount of general details and colours makes this the prettiest version to look at, and here's where they first included the rearranged info panel, along with the ST and DOS versions.

Screenshots from the DOS version of level 1.



But what the AMIGA version has the advantage over the DOS and ATARI ST versions, is the overall game speed, which makes it the most attractive version to look at. The DOS version differs in no real notable way from the AMIGA version, except the usual empty area at the bottom of the Amiga screen doesn't take the extra space in the DOS screen.

Screenshots from the Atari ST version of level 1.



The only real way to tell the ATARI ST version apart from the AMIGA and DOS versions just by looking at the screenshots is the slightly narrower action screen, because of the scrolling method's side effects, which is masked by some blackness at the sides. Otherwise, it's really just a slower-moving version of the same set of graphics. Apparently, there is supposed to be some difference between the ST and STe Ataris, since the game supports STe's 4096 palette. I have no way of checking this on real hardware, but attempting different configurations on emulation made no difference in the amount of colours, as far as I could notice.

Examples of using X-ray glasses in level 1.
Top row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, DOS, Sega Megadrive/Genesis.
Bottom row: Sega Master System, Sega Game Gear, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.



One of the rare occasions, where all the versions look more or less different is, when you use your X-ray glasses (or specs, as it says in the inventory). Even the AMIGA, ATARI ST and DOS versions can be told apart here, because the info panel turns the same sepia tone as the rest of the screen in the DOS version, and Bart is also shown as a black/shadow figure in the AMIGA version instead of his regular form in sepia tones. The three SEGA versions show a different looking space mutant head than all the other versions, but the MEGADRIVE/GENESIS screen turns green instead of sepia. In the C64 version, the backgrounds turn monochrome with scanlines in brown-and-pink colours, but everything else stays their regular colour - only the space mutant heads are revealed accordingly. The AMSTRAD version goes with the usual sepia-like tones, but the space mutant heads are shown without their human bodies. Perhaps the most oddly, the SPECTRUM version goes full black-and-white, and the space mutants look completely different from all the other versions, with the mutant being notable smaller in height than the people they occupy.

Level 2 screens from the NES version.



I wouldn't have expected to say this out of a NINTENDO game, particularly when compared to other versions, but the second level looks kind of colourless. Most of the mall is very grey/greyscale, but you do see the occasional red brick wall, blue panels or turqoise glass walls. The upside of this is, that most of the moving things in the level are much more easily noticeable. The downside of this is, that it's not a particularly faithful rendition of what the Springfield Mall looks like in the series. Then again, this version only provides a basis for all the other versions.

Level 2 also provides a transition to the more unnatural aspects of the game, with plenty of odd things to avoid getting hit by, such as bouncing giant donuts, moonwalking shoes, stomping magic wands and lollipops rolling in mid-air. This, I would hazard a guess, could be the reason for the level's lacklustre design and non-focus on getting everything from the source material right.

Level 2 screens from the Sega Master System (top row) and Game Gear (bottom row) versions.



The SEGA MASTER SYSTEM and GAME GEAR versions are just about as varying in their colours and background details for the second level as the NES version, but at least it's not 85% greyscale. It's still not the Springfield Mall from the series, but it's a bit more pleasing to look at for all its length.

Some of the platforms and enemies have been redesigned to be a bit more notable and easier to deal with, the biggest notable difference being the rolling mid-air lollipops and the mid-level bosses. Again, the GAME GEAR version is clearly copied straight from the MASTER SYSTEM, or vice versa, but occasionally you can see some of the small details have been taken off from the GAME GEAR version in addition to having a smaller screen.

Level 2 screens from the Sega Megadrive/Genesis version.



At this point, I have to quit hoping for an accurate representation of the Springfield Mall, since if the MEGADRIVE/GENESIS version cannot pull it off, it just wasn't probably even meant to be so. But I suppose the Springfield Mall is just as much an ever-changing entity as the mall between the game's versions seems to be, so it's all the same, really. This time, the mall has plenty of variety in not only the shops and backgrounds, but also the people that walk on by from door to door at random. You can't really go wrong with this version.

Level 2 screens from the Sinclair ZX Spectrum version.



From the 8-bit home computer conversions, the SPECTRUM version is the least comfortable to look at in the second level. There is so little of variety in colours, and the wall patterns are sometimes painful to look at, when Bart and possible enemies merge into the wall patterns. It's not always that bad, but the lollipop segment has been made more difficult than absolutely necessary by hiding the lollipop sticks in the wall patterns. Monochrome hi-res doesn't work that well, when there's other monochrome hi-res things ruining your vision.

Level 2 screens from the Amstrad CPC version.



The AMSTRAD version is a bit more bearable, even with its wide pixel style, than the SPECTRUM version, because the use of colour saves a lot here. Not only does it make Bart more visible in all sorts of places, but the lollipop platforming segment is much easier to get through because the sticks are actually visible for more than half the time. Still doesn't mean it's pretty, though.

Level 2 screens from the Commodore 64 version.
Top row is self-captured, bottom row from YouTube.



Unfortunately for the C64 version, with about 200 (give or take) quicksaves and quickloads on the VICE emulator, I only managed to get myself into the next phase after the lollipop platforming bit, just to get beaten by the up-and-down moving candy canes, which have such impossible spacings due to the wide collision detection and bad jumping mechanics. And this is still the first floor of four in the level. So, the bottom half of the screens have been taken from the game's longplay video at World of Longplays' YouTube channel.

The second level in the C64 version feels a bit restricted in colours, since it's very much blue, red, yellow, grey and black that you see here, plus some brown here and there, mostly in the enemies. Frankly, the AMSTRAD version looks a bit more cheerful and mall-like with its colours. Again, there is a definite lack of details and variety in backgrounds, which makes the already impossible level less appealing to even bother with.

Level 2 screens from the Atari ST version.



From the three 16-bit computers, I was only able to get through level 2 on the ATARI ST, because of its slowness and the emulator's savestates. Happily, as you saw from level 1, the DOS and AMIGA versions look practically the same.

Here, the relatively realistic look of the graphics compared to the MEGADRIVE/GENESIS version suit the level better, even if the SMD/GEN version works better on the cartoony level of what is expected of a cartoon-based game. There's enough of variety in the background details to not be considered boring, yet it's not so busy that it's hard to focus on the action, as it sometimes can be on the SEGA version.

Game Over screens. Top row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, DOS, Sega MD/Genesis.
Bottom row, left to right: NES, Spectrum, C64 (above), Amstrad (below), Game Gear, Sega MS.



I could go on with further levels for a bit, but it wouldn't really suit any purpose, and it would only waste my time more than this game deserves. In fact, that line has passed a long time ago already. But to give this section a nice coda, we have to take a moment to ponder at the Game Over screens. For most cases, it's that same screen with the two space mutants chattering about next to the conveyor belt, so nothing new there. Only their dialogue varies between the versions. True to form, the C64 and  AMSTRAD versions skip the usual space mutant chatter and just give you plain Game Over screens, the C64 version with just a bit more class than the CPC one, having the correct font and Bart walking in place above the Game Over text. In other words, nothing important to report.

The three other levels take place at the amusement park, the museum, and perhaps the most infamous of all, the nuclear power plant. From what I've seen of the level maps and walkthrough videos online, the third and fourth level feature some nice graphical variety, but just getting there to see all that stuff is simply not worth the nightmare of going through level 2.

One of the reasons why I don't do much of games from the 1990's for this blog is, because it's sad to see how little the 8-bits are suited for games that are more based on graphics than gameplay, and this is very much the case with Bart vs. the Space Mutants. The AMSTRAD version looks like a bunch of Legos, the SPECTRUM version is unable to utilise colours in a manner necessary for cartoon-based games, the C64 version tries to save the 8-bit computers' reputation with good scrolling but falls flat with other graphical aspects, the NES original only works as a good groundwork for the 16-bits (though it's definitely better-looking than the 8-bit computers' versions); however, the SEGA MASTER SYSTEM and GAME GEAR versions, looking as alike as they do, have the advantage of more time for development, which is why they look closer to the MEGADRIVE/GENESIS version than the NES version. The AMIGA, ST and DOS versions look like they could've done better, had they had a similar advantage of more time as the SEGA versions, but they're certainly the best-looking ones from 1991. The ATARI ST version falls a bit behind the other two by having no long intro, and some of the animations were cut down, probably to fit into one disk.


1. SEGA MEGADRIVE/GENESIS
2. COMMODORE AMIGA / IBM-PC COMPATIBLES
3. ATARI ST
4. SEGA MASTER SYSTEM
5. SEGA GAME GEAR
6. NINTENDO ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM
7. SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM
8. COMMODORE 64
9. AMSTRAD CPC

---

SOUNDS


For me, cartoon-based games have always been more miss than hit, at least after 1985, so the only thing that is even remotely realistic to expect is a chiptune rendition of the cartoon's theme tune. As it is with the Simpsons. Danny Elfman is also one of my all-time favourite TV/movie theme composers, so it would certainly be a disappointment not to have his music in a game that is based on a TV-show that has one of the most iconic Danny Elfman tunes.


Well, in the NES original, you definitely get the said tune, in as much of all its glory as the NES sound chip can allow without samples, even including the introductory vocal line without the vocals, as well as all the strangest transitional cues and the solo saxophone bit. It really is the most complete chiptune rendition of the official Simpsons theme available. The main theme is played in the intro, as well as the first, third and fifth (final) levels, while the second and fourth levels feature a slightly more straight-forward, almost rock'n'roll'ish kind of a tune. It would have been nice to have the option to turn the music off, but this is a very Nintendoesque thing, so I didn't expect any different.

The sound effects consist of only a few boings, dings, spray noises and Pac-Man like wagga-waggas for the most part, but you do get a couple of sampled Bart quotes: "Eat my shorts, man" and "Cool, man!", the former of which does get to annoy the heck out of you after dying for the seven hundredth time. But since the music fills most of the sonic landscape, the sound effects don't really mean much in the big picture.

Jonathan Dunn's take on the main Simpsons' theme is considerably less manic and busy than the original Danny Elfman composition, and focuses on the few main melodies instead, with as little of dramatic transitions as possible. Also, Dunn's arrangement is more sedate in its speed, and it loops quite naturally after a while. From the three 8-bit home computer conversions, the C64 version has, rather expectedly, the most character with the use of all sorts of filters and different sound forms simultaneously. All three versions has their own peculiar character, though, simply by each being played from a different key. The song is only used in the title screen - or loading sequences on the C64, and in the space mutant chatter screens, where available, so you're only hearing sound effects while playing the game. This proves to be a good move, so you won't get tired of constantly hearing the theme song, and there's also room for more sound effects than in the NES version.

For the DOS, ATARI ST and AMIGA versions, they decided to use Jon Dunn's rendition of the main Simpsons theme all throughout the game with no breaks between. Of course with the 16-bit hardware, there's also plenty of room for simultaneous sound effects, the quality of which varies according to each machine's hardware capabilities, particularly with the IBM-PC compatibles. I'm not entirely sure about the most optimal soundcard for the DOS version, but if you happen to have the wrong one, you will notice certain notes holding on until you have switched the game off. The sound card that doesn't hold on to those certain notes has the Simpsons theme sounding like it has more xylophones and other percussive melodic instruments. The AMIGA music sounds the softest of the three, while the ST music sounds closer to the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD ones, but I can't say I'm particularly partial to any of these - they all sound good enough to me.


What really surprised me was the lack of any Bart speech samples on any of the higher-end home computer versions. At least, there are no such samples in the actual game, while the biggest effort for sound design was left for the long animated intros, which feature a few grunts and aha's, as well as the legendary "I'm Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?" clip when we get to the actual title screen. While this makes the game have a better flow than those with the increasingly annoying "Eat my shorts, man" clip, it still would've been nice to have more of the trademark Bart quotes. There are plenty enough of other sound effects to fill the need, though, and they all fit the bill in their own ways.

I saved the SEGA versions for last here, because for some unfathomable reason, none of them feature the official Simpsons theme. It's such a shame, because that's something that you would expect from an official Simpsons game. But that doesn't mean the soundtrack is unremarkable - in fact, all three SEGA versions have more variety in their soundtrack than any of the previous versions, and the few tunes I've heard are memorable in their own right, and fitting for each stage. The intro and the first level go with a sort of a depraved manic oompah/march kind of a thing that's fairly reminiscent of Danny Elfman's style from other movies, as well as John Williams from his more child-like movies, such as Home Alone, Hook and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. The second level uses a slightly latin-feely upbeat thing that would feel right at home in any Super Mario Bros./World game from that time. The third level goes with an upbeat circus waltz, that's completely fitting with the level's theme. As for the rest of the levels, I have no idea, but this information alone proves that all three SEGA versions have a more varying soundtrack than any of the other versions.

As for the sound effects, there are just about as many of them and with similar variety as in the NES version, although the MASTER SYSTEM and GAME GEAR versions have no speech samples. The only bit of Bart's speech you hear in the MEGADRIVE/GENESIS version is "Eat my short, man" when you lose a life. Kind of disappointing, when you compare this to the NES version, but at least it's something. Perhaps this merely proves the focus was really on the gameplay and graphics instead.

Simply because it has some variety in the soundtrack, the full original Simpsons theme, as well as two Bart speech samples, I'm going to give the NES version the top spot here, even though it's not my personal preference. The Jonathan Dunn variations are pretty difficult to put in any sort of order, because it mostly depends on whether you like to hear the theme song playing throughout the game or not. Quality-wise, there is not all that much of variety, since all the Dunn versions have been arranged for each machine accordingly to their own strengths, and there is no 48k version for the ZX SPECTRUM available. From a purely technical point of view, I'm forced to give the 16-bits the advantage. Despite having no Danny Elfman music, the SEGA versions are good enough to be given the second and third spots.

1. NINTENDO ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM
2. SEGA MEGADRIVE/GENESIS
3. SEGA MASTER SYSTEM / GAME GEAR
4. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES / COMMODORE AMIGA
5. ATARI ST
6. SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM / AMSTRAD CPC / COMMODORE 64

---

OVERALL + VIDEO LINK


Phew! I can only say that I'm grateful I won't have to force myself to play this game in this context, because after five intense weeks, I have only gotten my personal best to the start of level 3. At best, Bart vs. the Space Mutants is an addicting platformer with just enough of variety to keep you interested, but at worst, it's a nightmare of bad controls, bad collision detection and even bad level design to some extent, even though it's all perfectly memorizable.

Thankfully, for this particular game, Gaming History Source had already compiled a comparison video for their YouTube channel, and I'm all for linking other retrogame comparisonists' material when possible and given permission to. This video only features footage from the first level and the loading screens, but it's still over half an hour long, so imagine a video with footage from all five levels. This shall have to do for now.

As for the usual mathematical scores here, this is how they line up, and I pretty much agree with this for once almost 100%:

1. SEGA MEGADRIVE/GENESIS: Playability 6, Graphics 9, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 20
2. NINTENDO ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM: Playability 7, Graphics 4, Sounds 6 = TOTAL 17
3. SEGA MASTER SYSTEM: Playability 6, Graphics 6, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 16
4. SEGA GAME GEAR: Playability 6, Graphics 5, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 15
5. COMMODORE AMIGA: Playability 3, Graphics 8, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 14
6. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES: Playability 2, Graphics 8, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 13
7. ATARI ST: Playability 2, Graphics 7, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 11
8. SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 5, Graphics 3, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 9
9. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 4, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 6
10. COMMODORE 64: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4


...which is pretty much why I tend not to do comparisons of games released in the 1990's, because the most interesting and widely varying material comes from the games that were made for primarily the 8-bit systems. This, unfortunately means, that I'm going to run out of easily workable material pretty soon, so I have decided to take a few months' break after the turn of the year. But until then, there's still a couple of comparisons coming up, as well as a few videos.

Thanks for reading! Stay safe and healthy, and keep on playing! See you next time!


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