29/01/2018

THE SIMPSONS: BARTMAN MEETS RADIOACTIVE MAN (NES)

I first heard the order decades ago, but the time has finally come. I can resist no longer. I will, in fact, Do The Bartman. Except this is Imagineering and Acclaim’s 1992 NES game The Simpsons: Bartman Meets Radioactive Man, and it’s all about Bart Simpson’s Batman-spoof alter-ego Bartman. However, the Bartman persona does not appear in the video for the hit 1990 single “Do The Bartman.” I could have sworn that he did, but I guess time makes fools of us all. Obviously I watched the “Do The Bartman” video again and two things stand out: one is that “here’s a group that needs no introduction – your children” is a pretty good joke, and also Bart complains about being grounded for putting mothballs in his family’s food. Jesus Christ, Bart, you’re lucky to be confined to your room and not a psychiatric unit.Where was I? Oh yeah, videogames.


That’s Bartman on the right, Radioactive Man on the left and Fallout Boy at the bottom. Radioactive Man’s sidekick, not the pop-punk band. It’s an all-star superhero team-up, the Simpsons equivalent of Batman joining forces with whatever superhero Radioactive Man is a parody of. A combination of Superman and the Incredible Hulk, I suppose. The Incredible Man! No, hang on, that doesn’t work.


The game’s intro sets the scene – Bart’s reading a Radioactive Man comic in his treehouse but he’s not enjoying it much. The comic’s nearly over, but Radioactive Man hasn’t made an appearance yet!  Yes yes, that’s all very interesting but I can’t stop looking at the front cover of said comic and thinking about how much Radioactive Man looks like he’s got the head of a duck.


Then Fallout Boy shows up and tells Bart that Radioactive Man has been stripped of his powers by the evil Brain-O the Magnificent, which is why Radioactive Man hasn’t, you know, shown up in the comic book yet? So that’s not a Radioactive Man comic but a factual description of Radioactive Man’s life that happens to be in graphic novel format? I’m confused. Bart also seem a bit confused, but then he gets over his confusion, turns into his Bartman person and the game’s ready to begin. Look, just go with it, okay?


Chapter One: Bartman decides not to bother saving the day and pulls his duvet back over his head. Or that’s his cape, I guess. Anyway, to save Radioactive Man, Bart must defeat three supervillains by making his way through their lairs and eventually besting them in mortal combat. First up is the Swamp Hag and where would you go if you were looking for a Swamp Hag? That's right, the junkyard!


Here we go, then. Bartman Meets Radioactive Man is a platformer, and I can tell you now it does almost nothing to differentiate itself from the vast ocean of other, very similar NES platformers. Well, in terms of gameplay, anyway. Being a Simpsons game gives it a certain appeal, because everyone loves The Simpsons. That might not be as true now as it used to be, but you’ve got to remember that this game was released in 1992, when The Simpsons was huge, a genuine cultural phenomenon. Without wanting to sound too cynical, that’s the only reason that this game exists in the first place.


Three steps to the right, and Bart Simpson kicks a dog in the face. What a way to start the game. What a hero. Speaking of, considering we’re playing as Bartman and fighting actual supervillains, it’s very noticeable that Bartman doesn’t have any superpowers. At the beginning of the game he can walk, jump and kick. You might be thinking “hey, technically that’s the extent of Batman’s super powers," but unlike good old Bruce Wayne, Bartman doesn’t have any gadgets, not even a simple slingshot.


The hardest part of writing VGJunk is coming up with different ways to say “hey look, its a platformer, just like all those other platformers.” You jump over obstacles and either kick enemies out of the way (if they’re dog-sized or larger) or avoid them entirely (the recommended tactic when facing rats, because they’re too small to kick). Some pit are bottomless, some have springboards at the bottom like the ones between these tyre stacks, so you can bounce back up. One thing Bartman Meets Radioactive Man’s designers were very fond of including are projectile spitters that fire something dangerous vertically upwards, like these screws popping out of the tires stacks. Sometimes they’re gearwheels, sometimes they’re blobs of lava, but they all work identically and you’ll be spending a lot of time in this game (im)patiently waiting for these traps to settle down enough for you to pass.


At last, Bartman has a superpower. I picked up an item that caused the cryptic message “20 EYES” to appear at the top of the screen. This means I can now press the B button and Bart will fire laser beams out of his eyes. They don’t travel all the way across the screen but they have a lot more range than the stubby limbs of a ten-year-old child and so they’re very useful for eliminating these roaming hunchbacks. If you’re trying to figure out whether these enemies are supposed to a specific Simpsons character, I’d save your energy. At first I thought they might be Kearney, but aside from Bart, Radioactive Man and Fallout Boy I don’t think there are any Simpsons characters in this game so what we’re facing here really is just your basic, everyday junkyard mutant.


So goes the first stage. And goes, and goes, dragging on for much longer than you might expect for the very first area in the game. It all consists of jumping over the same tyre piles and columns of broken televisions, and it’s about as exciting as I’m making it sound. At least it gives you ample opportunity to get used to BMRM’s slightly fussy jumping controls, which feel unusual at first because Bart jumps much more vertically than most NES platform heroes, and you have to make very sure you’re actually moving left or right when you jump because it takes a brief moment for Bart to get moving and if you leap from a standing start you’ll miss ninety percent of the jumps in this game.
That’s all something you’ll get used to as you play, though. Is it fun? No, not really. Personally I judge platformers (consciously or not) on how much pleasure you get from simply moving around, and dragging Bartman’s lumpen carcass from junk pile to garbage mound has the unmistakeable whiff of a chore about it.


One area that mixes things up is the bonus area set in the “Limbo Zone.” If nothing else, the stark “Kirby dots” inspired background makes a nice visual change. The Limbo Zone is a place to stock up on items like extra lives by riding around on the rain of space debris. All the chunks move in the same direction, but when you jump on one of these platforms all the platforms start moving in a different direction. Basically you’re trying to steer an asteroid storm with your feet and it’s by far the most interesting bit of gameplay in BMRM. Naturally it only appears a couple of times and doesn’t last very long, because the developers needed that cartridge space so they could fill it with as much painfully generic platforming as possible.


Having escaped the Limbo Zone and reached the end of the obnoxiously long first stage, it’s into the sewers for a second stage that’s also obnoxious but for a different reason. This time it’s because the sewer pipes are a maze. Not a complicated maze, I’ll grant you, but every screen looks the bloody same and that can make getting your bearings difficult. As for the gameplay… well, if you’re generous enough to call waiting around for slow-moving platforms and equally lethargic dripping water hazards gameplay, then you’ve got a kinder spirit than me.


Also lurking in the sewers: lycra-clad villains who have no problem shooting a child in the head with their laser rifles. Who are these fiends? We may never know. They’re certainly not famous Simpsons characters, because as mentioned aside from Bart and Radioactive Man there aren’t any famous Simpsons characters in this game. This abscene of many of The Simpsons' supporting cast is noticeable if you go back and play most old – early nineties, I mean – Simpsons games. For one thing, back then Bart was assumed to be the show’s main character, so you almost always end up playing as him. I presume that if these games were being released a few years further into The Simpsons’ lifecycle then Homer would be the main character in most of them. In BMRM’s specific case, it’s a shame that it was released well before the “Radioactive Man” episode of the show aired. You know, the one where the Radioactive Man movie is being filmed in Springfield. The goggles, they do nothing, etcetera. I’d find it much more engaging if I was playing as Milhouse, trying to recreate stunts from the movie. Of course, I’m not enough of a maniac to suggest that releasing a Simpsons game with Milhouse as the main character would be a good idea, but it’d be more interesting than this.


Bartman Meets Radioactive Man’s commitment to platformer gameplay elements that were worn-out tropes even in 1992 continues with the never-popular side-scrolling shooter segment. Oh well, at least it’s nice to see Bartman demonstrating some kind of superpower, although now I’m going to be thinking “why doesn’t Bartman use his solidly-established ability to fly to skip all the platforming stages?” “Because that’d make the game really boring,” I hear you cry, but the jokes on you because this game’s already really boring.
The shooter section plays well enough, I suppose. Bartman can collect “cold” power ups (I think they’re supposed to be like Superman’s ice breath) and spit them at the waves of monsters, but you don’t really need to bother and you’ll do just as well by avoiding them.


Okay, I’ve just about caught up with the Swamp Hag, and I might have been hasty when I said there are no other famous Simpsons characters in this game because I think those things that are falling from the sky are supposed to be Blinky, the three-eyed radioactive fish. Yes, I’m aware that they look a lot more like piles of excrement, but bodily waste definitely shouldn’t have that many eyeballs in it unless you’re a character from Bloodborne.
It took me a while to figure this out, but the idea here is that you use the freeze power on the fish as they fall, turning them into frozen platforms that you can use to climb up to the treetops.


That’s where the Swamp Hag is hiding, throwing mutant fish on the heads of any who would dare to enter her dominion. Freeze her with the ice power and then jump up there and kick her to death while pondering that as far as Matt Groening characters go, she looks more like Lrrr from Futurama than any Simpsons character.


One boss down, and Radioactive Man has regained his powers of flight. However, he’s still trapped in the Phantom Zone – sorry, Limbo Zone – so I suppose I’d better track down the next villain. Their name is Dr. Julius Crab, and apparently they have a water-logged lair. This is going to be a swimming stage, isn’t it?


Fantastic. I love swimming stages in otherwise land-based platformers, said the world’s most dangerous lunatic as they were remanded to a secure hospital. This is one of the less aggravating examples of the type, to be fair, and mercifully it’s about half the length of the junkyard stage. Bartman swims fairly responsively, and you can avoid most of the dangers of the stage – the naval mines, the octopus tentacles, the clams that fire fish upwards at regular intervals – by slowly swimming along the ocean floor like an unhurried sea cucumber with a day off work.


There’s a piece of “El Barto” graffiti painted on the bottom of this ship, and it’s nice to see some kind of Simpsons reference in a game that feels very divorced from the source material. It would be easy to replace a couple of sprites in this one and have it be completely unrecognisable as a Simpsons game. I know that’s true of a great many licensed NES platformers, but The Simpsons has its own strong visual style that’s been completely ignored in favour of a generic underwater level.


And then BMRM goes and dangles a morsel of something interesting in your face with a stage set in a dark underwater labyrinth. The only light is the torch beam of a deadly sniper, and if you swim across their crosshair you’ll take damage, so you’ve got to use the illuminated patch to determine where the walls of the maze are while avoiding the incoming fire, and you know what? It’s actually quite good fun! I know, I was surprised too. The potential for it to be a frustrating mess was very high, but fortunately the designers realised they they needed to compensate for Bartman’s lack of vision by having less enemies than usual floating around and not placing so many traps on the “floors.” It’s hardly amazing, but it’s so much more engaging than the rest of the game thus far that rather than making BMRM feels like a better game it just makes the rest of the stages seem worse by comparison. Whoops.


It’s also a very brief diversion, and afterwards it’s back to more platforming and more waiting around for slow-moving platforms, because there’s nothing the kids love more in their videogames than the sensation of waiting for a lift that’s stopping at every goddamn floor. At least this one’s enlivened by these octopus creatures that throw fish skeletons at you. They have Nelson Muntz’s face, and I’d much rather be learning about how Nelson got fused with an octopus than turning water jets off by standing on switches, but the simple fact of their existence is cheering me up.
I’m also cheered by this world being far, far shorter than the first. The stretch from the start of the game to the Swamp Hag makes up roughly fifty percent of the game, with the remaining three bosses and their stages crammed into the second half, and it’s an interesting sensation to play through a game where the developers so obviously lost interest after the first couple of levels. Maybe BMRM was rushed out to meet a specific release date. That’d explain why everything after the Swamp Hag battle feels like it was scribbled down on the back of an envelope during the bus ride to work.


Here’s Dr. Julius Crab, mad scientist and potential ancestor to Dr. Zoidberg. Attending medical school must be a family tradition. There’s also a normal, unnamed crab scuttling around in the boss arena, serving as an annoyance who’ll bump into your ankles while you’re trying to fight Dr. Crab. It’s not particularly well communicated by the game itself, but Bartman’s punch attack completely changes during this fight. Pressing attack makes him raise his hand, and what you’re supposed to do is wait for Dr. Crab to jump at your head, catch him in mid-air and then throw the criminal crustacean against the right hand wall. Do that three times and the doctor will get smashed into the next room where you repeat the fight.
There’s the core of a decent boss battle here, but three things conspire to make it a pain in the arse. The first is that unless you already know what you’re supposed to be doing, it’s difficult to figure out how to beat Dr. Crab because standing underneath a videogame boss while it does a jumping attack is the exact opposite of what games have been training me to do for the past thirty years. Then there’s the extremely precise positioning required to catch the boss as he falls: a pixel or two out position and you’ll miss the grab. Finally there’s the small crab, which is only there as a distraction and you just know the developers threw it in at the last minute because they’d made the boss fight too easy without it. However, even taking all these flaws into consideration I declare this battle a triumph because you’re fighting a crab that’s also a mad scientist.


We’ve reached the final set of stages. It starts out with the usual lava area. You’ve seen one lava zone, you’ve seen them all. Don’t fall in the lava, watch out for the volcanic vents that spit out fireballs. The main difference from previous stages is that any wall that isn’t grey will hurt Bartman if he touches it.


That part doesn’t last long, though, and most of this world is made up of this underground village. I don’t think there are any more screens than the previous area, but it takes a lot longer because it’s a maze composed of various doors that teleport you to a different location when you walk through them. Now, this is entirely down to personal preferences but I’m going to declare this the worst stage in the game because I hate screen-warping maze layouts in platform games. You might think they’re fine and that’s okay, I’m not having a go at your videogame preferences but for some reason I cannot stand this type of stage. Is it because my memory is terrible and I’m constantly getting lost? Possibly. Okay, probably. But it’s not just that, because if I’m playing a game specifically based around exploring a maze then I’m fine. My contempt for this kind of gameplay is something of a mystery to me, but as soon as I realised what was going on I reached for a walkthrough because I simply was not willing to figure it out for myself. Look, I’ve never claimed to be a videogame expert.


Having the walkthrough meant I quickly reached Lava Man, the boss of the lava world and unimaginative name inventor. Unlike Dr. Crab, the mechanics of this fight are easy to discern: freeze the water droplets with your ice power when they’re falling towards Lava Man’s head. All Lava Man can do to prevent this is throw two easily-dodged lava balls towards your general position. No wonder he looks so shame-faced down there. “Colossal Lava Beast Cooled Off By Ten-Year-Old Boy” screams the newspaper headline, Lava Man is kicked out of the League of Villainy and has to move back in with his parents, the only work he can find is having water poured on him in a sauna. He’s a disgrace to hulking lava monsters everywhere.


With all his powers restored, Radioactive Man is freed from his cosmic prison and, erm, is it just me or is there something wrong with his proportions? I think it’s the way his right arm reaches down to his ankles, that’s definitely making him look kinda weird. I suppose these are the issues you might face if you get your powers from a concentrated blast of radioactivity.
Now that he’s back in the game, Radioactive Man enlists Bartman’s help in taking down his arch nemesis: the terrifying and squishy Brain-O the Magnificent! I wonder what theme Brain-O’s stage is going to have? Biological horror, as our two heroes make their way through a living body in search of the brain? A deadly cyberscape controlled by a brain-powered supercomputer, perhaps? And will I actually get to play as Radioactive Man?


The answer to all these questions and more is no. Just… no. No stage, no playing as Radioactive Man, no nothing except for the fight against Brain-O that you’re immediately thrown into. For a moment I was disappointed, but then I remembered that I wanted nothing more than for Bartman Meets Radioactive Man to be over, so let’s get on with it.
To damage Brain-O, you have to shoot it with your eye beams. Of course, the metal parts of Brain-O’s tanks are immune to your eye beams, so you have to fire, have the laser ricochet off the hull and up towards Radioactive Man. Then the laser bounces off Radioactive Man and back down onto Brain-O’s glass dome. It’s all about timing your shots so that Radioactive Man is in the right place to catch the ricochet, and not getting run over by the massive brain-tank. Fortunately Brain-O is so big that it can’t crush you if you crouch right in the left-hand corner, so aside from remembering to jump over the projectiles Brain-O fires at you this boss fight is simple enough to deal with.


Radioactive Man offers his thanks, we get to see this image of Bartman one final time and I still think it kinda makes him look like a slug with a child’s head, and Bartman Meets Radioactive Man is over. What are my thoughts? That it’s weird that there was such a focus on the Bartman persona considering that at the time it had appeared in one scene of one episode of The Simpsons. Oh, about the game? Well, it commits the cardinal videogame sin of being boring. For the most part the stages are dull, with no invention or wit to any of the land-based platforming sections, and traversing them isn’t made any more interesting by Bart’s sluggish, leaden controls. There are far too many blind jumps to lower platforms that may or may not have enemies on them, the same enemies and hazards are recycled ad nauseam – the vertical projectile spitters in particular – and for something based on one of the greatest comedies of all time there’s absolutely no attempt to make the game funny.


Bartman Meets Radioactive Man shakes out as yet another standard NES platformer, then. Certainly not bad enough to get upset about, and it even had one or two relatively enjoyable sections amid the tedium… but it’s an absolute no-brainer to say that rather than playing this you should go and watch the Radioactive Man episode of the show again. Yes, I know you’ve already seen it dozens of times but trust me, it’s still funny.

7 comments:

  1. I would suggest never playing "The Simpsons: Bart Vs. The World" because while the gameplay is more varied and the stages are shorter with more appearances from the characters of the show, there's slide puzzles. I think there's one for every location Bart and his family have to visit and each and every one is absolutely terrible.

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    1. There was also Bart vs the Space Mutants. It wasn't good either. NONE of the NES Simpsons games were any good.

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    2. Neither were the Simpsons games on SNES, Mega Drive, PSX... In fact you can count in one hand the number of Simpsons games that are legitimately good.

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  2. You're absolutely right. It IS a purple slug with a child's head AND a prominent jaw !
    Please take a look : http://ti1ca.com/ydxeosxk-bartman.png.html

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. Fun fact: The prototype version of the game ending that's considerably better than the non-ending you normally get. Not sure why it was removed since effort went into it.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eaG6NYlKB0I

    ReplyDelete

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