Bart’s Nightmare is an excellent example of all that can go wrong when a game is tainted by your own nostalgia. This is the reason why I always make a point to play through every game, even if I’ve played it before, before I review it. I had fond memories of the handful of times that I rented this title, mostly for the inventive minigames. When I thought to review it, I was genuinely looking forward to playing through it again. Maybe I’d even beat it this time around. Oh, how wrong I was on all levels.
The game begins with Bart waiting until the night before an eight page paper is due, and having to burn the midnight oil to finish it (sounds familiar). Though unlike my school days, Bart falls asleep at the wheel and dreams his finished report has blown out the window. He must struggle through his dream version of Springfield to track down all the errant pages. It’s a simple enough concept, though when has Bart Simpson ever given a rat’s ass about getting a decent grade in school? And if it’s all a dream, why does the number of papers he collects in the dream result in his final real-life grade? Maybe it’s not a dream at all? Or maybe this is the dream?
Anyway, the “nightmare” portions of the game offer an excuse to make a trippy little Simpsons action scroller. The main game has Bart walking down a never-ending street while dodging a strange collection of “NES Logic” foes. Saxophones whose drifting notes reverse your controls if you touch them? Check. Principal Skinner who tags you with a suit that halves your movement speed? Check. Mailboxes that run across the street like dogs and are inexplicably defeated simply by jumping over them? Check and check. Bart’s world is as “gamed up” as possible, covered by the catch-all excuse that this is all just a bad dream.
Should you locate and nab a report page, you’ll have to play a minigame to earn it. There are five games in total, two of which are randomly selected per page, giving you at least the option to avoid a particular minigame you might despise. They’re all fairly clever, and different enough from each other to offer a variety. You can stomp through town as Bartzilla, crushing buildings and blasting tanks with fire breath. You can hop across a grid of pillars as Indiana Bart and collect dinosaur eggs. You can fly through the air as Bartman and shoot down various airships with a slingshot. You’ll try and survive Itchy and Scratchy’s ultraviolent cartoon world. Finally, you’re shot into Mr. Burns’ blood stream, where you try and destroy various germs with a air pump. When you complete any minigame – a different requirement based on the game – you get exactly one page and are sent back into the main world to do this seven more times.
Here’s where the game unapologetically derails. The minigames are reasonably fun, but Acclaim must have realized they had, at best, a short rental on their hands. Their solution, of course, was not more work or creativity. Instead, it appears to have been to draw the length of the game out far past a reasonable rental period by making the main Springfield section absurdly long – presumably hoping that the player would put up with extended treks through a merely average scrolling game just to get to their favorite minigame.
Or let me put it another way – I spent 28 minutes walking down the same endless street until I found a page. That’s no exaggeration for effect, I know it’s 28 minutes because I kept checking the clock. It seems that the more pages you collect, the longer it takes you to “discover” the rest. I should mention at this point that there are no saves or passwords of any kind, so you’ll have to beat this all in one sitting. I should also point out that there are no lives or continues in the Springfield section. You have a life bar composed of Z’s that are fairly easy to collect in small numbers, but not easy enough to negate the damage you pick up from the multitude of enemies. If you run out of Z’s, you wake up and your game is completely over without so much as a complimentary parting gift.
Artificially difficult is exactly the right term for it, because the actual content in the street sections can’t support half an hour of walking. There are maybe a total of seven enemy types and no more, and no harder enemies that appear the further you get along. They just simply increase in number in response to the pages you’ve collected; so instead of one Jebediah Springfield statue head to jump over, there’s four at a time, while Lisa turns you into a toad or Dolph and Jimbo push you back from your progress at every screen.
Meanwhile, you gain no new abilities either. The only part that makes this bearable is a skateboard you can collect that allows you to speed ahead and rack up your life bar at the same time. Yet you literally can use it for more than a few seconds once the speed really gets going. It’s not just an issue of reflexes, you’re just not meant to – I know, I tried. I used an emulator save state to check this, and after just a few seconds I was invariably creamed by a bus, tripped over a sidewalk crack, or had my vision blocked by a passing tree. The street sections thus become less of a segue between the minigames, and more of a gateway to keep you from getting to them too quickly.
There are some impressive production values, and the bright Simpsons animation is replicated well here. The whole game is about Bart, but a large variety of characters make appearances in the background or as villains (except Groundskeeper Willie, who I disappointingly could not find). Same can be said for the music, with excellent reproductions of show themes or new supporting ones. I didn’t run across any digital speech, but Bart’s yelps and screams sound right, and Homer does manage to get a “D’oh” in there.
Controls are pretty standard, despite different goals and actions in each minigame. You usually don’t have to worry about more than a jump and an attack button, and these can be figured out safely in the beginning of the minigame. The exception is Bartzilla, who uses an overly convoluted system of shooting eye lasers in a specific direction with the face buttons, and fire breath with the direction pad. The idea is to stop oncoming foes while you walk automatically at a steady pace. You need more time with the controls than you are given here, and your first few attempts will probably end in failure.
Though really, that is as true with any of the minigames while you figure out what’s going on. None of them are too elaborate, all featuring infinite ammo, a proper life bar, and the ability to pick up extra lives valid only in that game, but the sheer variety and individual skill requirements make each one different enough from the last to require a transition period. This alone isn’t too bad, but when you consider it could be an incredible amount of mundane walking before you get to take another crack at the game – then there’s a problem.
Simpsons games have a bad reputation as hackneyed cash-ins on the TV show, with no discernible quality. While this one isn’t terrible, it certainly doesn’t help this legend. The minigames are reasonably fun in their own individual ways, but instead of making more of them, Acclaim just made them harder to get to. I suppose you could keep restarting your game and playing your favorites without getting bogged down by trying to beat the game as a whole, but that doesn’t change the fact that you shouldn’t have to.
Great graphics matching the look of the show. Each minigame is reasonably fun in its own right.
Overly difficult and artificially extended. I’m going to dodge the obvious “This isn’t just Bart’s nightmare, it’s YOURS too!” joke… even though I just made it anyway.