Since the Simpsons' TV showed launched in 1989, more video games have been made about them than just about any non-game franchise this side of Star Wars and Dragonball Z. Unfortunately, the medium doesn't have much to show for it.
On Sunday FOX TV will air a 20th anniversary celebration of The Simpsons TV show with a special entitled The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special: In 3-D! On Ice. Critically lauded, the cartoon exploits of Bart, Homer, Marge, Maggie, and a host of lunatic supporting characters are not just landmark of American humor. They've been the inspiration for a wave of cartoons targeted to adults. It introduced the word "D'oh!" to the American lexicon, spawned a feature film and convinced people to buy Butterfingers.
The mark the show has made on video games is less spectacular. Yes, there have been a lot of Simpsons games. About 24 or so, according to Wikipedia. I doubt a gamer out there will claim there is an X-Wing Vs. Tie Fighter or a GoldenEye among them.
The best Simpsons game? It might be one of the earliest, the 1991 Simpsons arcade game (pictured left via GamerTell), a four-player beat-'em-up in the style of so many others, including the heralded Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game.
The last big Simpsons game, EA's 2007 The Simpsons Game, was one of the funnier games released in recent years. Credit the involvement of writers from the show and the core concept of the title: A skewering of video game cliches. Players earned a single Achievement point on the Xbox 360 for pressing the start button, were encouraged to spot and collect examples of in-game cliches and were offered plenty of laughs with then-topical humor (A black supporting character about to be sawed in half at a saw mill chirps that "This won't happen when Obama is President"). All that material couldn't disguise critically panned gameplay and level design.
(Right: EA's The Simpsons game)
Simpsons games have been, well, solid at their best, judging by my own recollection of playing them and conversations I've had with fellow gamers this week about the topic. Apparently I missed the really bad ones, like Bart Vs. the Space Mutants.
The Simpsons has been one of those bandwagon licenses, infiltrating the hot genre of the moment. Simpsons wrestling. Simpsons skateboarding. Crazy Taxi Simpsons? See The Simpsons Road Rage. Grand Theft Auto Simpsons? The Simpsons Hit & Run.
No one has yet been able to identify for me something The Simpsons games gave to the broader medium, the way Spider-Man games helped push the fluidity of movement in open-world or how the aforementioned Star Wars and Bond games, X-Wing Vs. Tie Fighter and GoldenEye helped further the designs of flight games and console first-person shooters, both deemed classics.
It would be naive to expect a lucrative licence to generate games hailed for innovation, but it would be wrong to expect that, amid the volume of Simpsons games, something great about the TV series would not have translated into something great and influential in games.
Simpsons-style humor has been the common element in these games, of course, but they made little progress in advancing comedic video games. None is viewed as gaming's breakthrough in humor or even a significant factor in moving this oft-serious medium toward more broadly amusing fare. Also, GTA and Crazy Taxi were funny for gamers without The Simpsons.
To identify something The Simpsons has done for video games I had to look at the effects not of the games starring Bart, Homer and the rest of the family but of the show itself.
The Simpsons' humor did have an influence, one of gaming's most respected creators of funny games, Double Fine Productions president Tim Schafer, told me this week. "The Simpsons started right when we were making The Secret of Monkey Island," he said, referring to an classic LucasArts adventure game he made with colleagues in 1990. "Half of our brainstorming meetings were just us talking about the Simpsons. We loved it. [Fellow Monkey Island creator]Ron Gilbert said, 'The Simpsons is great because they make a joke, and then they top it, and then they top the topper! I want this game to be funny! Funny like the Simpsons!' At least, I think he said that last part."
It is common at times of big pop culture anniversaries to tally the great games made from that phenomenon, to rank the Star Trek games and argue about the Indiana Jones ones, to deem that, yes, those things shaped games, gamers and game makers. It's not hard to pluck one of the games made from that licence itself had an influence on games, made the medium better for cashing in on it. With the Simpsons, however, on the eve of its 20th anniversary special and in its 21st season there is strangely little to point to.
The Simpsons have been a part of gaming history for a while, but it is with disappointment that on this anniversary of their show it appears that, on video games, they've made little mark.