Bart vs. the Space Mutants – Genesis
Platform: Sega Genesis (Mega Drive)
Developer: Arc Developments
Publisher: Acclaim / Flying Edge
Release Date: 1992
Nerd Rating: 3/10
Video games have made some impressive strides in a scant few decades, emerging from the garage as a simple hobbyist pursuit to become a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry, even as a form of art in its own right. We now have a few solid theories of what makes for good game design and how best to engage a player and teach them to understand a game’s core concepts (nowadays, usually to a fault). Given that we’ve come so far in such a short amount of time, it’s important that we learn from the accomplishments of our past – not only to reflect on our successes, but to ruminate on the many mistakes that led up to those breakthroughs and to never, ever repeat them, if only on moral principle.
In this respect, Bart vs. the Space Mutants may be one of the most important video games I’ve ever played.
Like most other licensed titles of its day, Bart vs. the Space Mutants is the product of a cynical marketing machine that aimed to capitalize on the popularity of flash-in-the-pan cultural trends as quickly as possible, lest fickle consumers become distracted by the newest slick catchphrase before ringing up their purchase. Looking back at it, the Simpsons zeitgeist seemed tailor-made for the manufacturing of all things crappy and plastic. The Simpsons, of course, was a fantastic show – one of the best comedies ever made, at least up to whatever season you stopped watching it because not a single person working in television is merciful enough to take it off of life support – but the gleefully anarchistic antics of Bart Simpson had far too much appeal to rule-bound middle class children to not be exploited to the very last penny. At the height of his popularity, Bart Simpson was the essence of 90s ‘tude: red spraycan in hand, neon green skateboard propped at a mischievous angle, and the silent manipulation of a thousand money-counting fingers hiding behind every perfectly focus-tested, shit-eating grin. From bootleg t-shirts to pull-string dolls, the phenomenon was inescapable. Bart vs. the Space Mutants sums up the Bart Simpson experience in a neat little package just as radical, tubular, and hilariously off-model as its mass-merchandised cousins.
As with other kid-targeted merchandise, marketers had a distinct advantage when it came to the pre-Internet video game market. Even if kids knew exactly what game they wanted come report card season – and believe you me, my tastes back in the day were demanding – you could still pull the wool over the eyes of parents who were unable to distinguish between the rows of colorful boxes by slapping a well-known character on the front cover. This was the case for me when I found Bart vs. the Space Mutants under the tree one frosty Hanukkahmas morning (which is what happens when your folks split up and your Jewish mom wants you to come over for the holidays) alongside Sonic the Hedgehog and Ecco the Dolphin. Back then, it was easily the least played game in my Genesis library. At the tender age of six, I was still able to successfully discriminate between carefully crafted, engaging gameplay and a mangled corpse of an experience so lifeless you could mix it with oatmeal and call it blood pudding.
But as I said before, Bart vs. the Space Mutants is an important game – not because of the few things it does right, but because of the myriad sins it commits against the principles of smart, efficient game design. Most of its mechanics are shamelessly cribbed, and the few that aren’t only serve to confuse and frustrate. It’s insultingly dumb, even for its target audience. But most damningly, it criminally uninforms its player on how to complete its most essential tasks. For these reasons and so many more, I hold it up to this day as the shining example of what not to do when making a video game. Consider it a lesson in terms of negative space.
From the first few seconds of its opening cutscene, it’s obvious how little respect Bart vs. the Space Mutants shows for its captive audience. Even in an age where narrative in video games was seen strictly as the parsley sprig of garnish to gameplay’s sirloin steak, the sheer vacuousness of the plot sabotages any effort it could have made to justify its flimsy “collect X amount of arbitrary item Y” setup. Granted, there is a certain amount of leeway you have to give video games of the 8 and 16-bit eras as far as plausibility, but never before or since has the gap between game logic and reality been flaunted so unashamedly. Hell, even Sierra adventure games still based their sadistic mind trials according to some kind of consistent bizarro-world logic. Bart vs. the Space Mutants knows damn well that your parents paid $70 before tax just for the entry fee and brays with cruel laughter as you’re forced to dance to its contrived whims. Collect purple things! Now collect hats! Balloons! Fucking museum exit signs! Kids love purple things and museums, right? I feel I’ve earned this cigarette break.
I pointed out in my Paperboy review that meshing arcade gameplay with a realistic setting creates a jarring sensibility akin to frosting a cardboard box and calling it a birthday cake. At best, the arcade-y elements feel out of place, and at worst, it can completely misinform the player of the game’s mechanics. Bart vs. the Space Mutants further plummets down the rabbit hole of bad ideas by wedding the mundane suburban setting of Springfield with Mario platform mechanics and adventure game inventory and item usage (and consequently, the aforementioned fruit-loop logic). It doesn’t take long before you’re wasting entire paint cans waiting for a random purple knickknack to give up the ghost, only to realize that you’ve been spraying it from the wrong direction or you were spraying an unsprayable object that requires you to buy a wrench from a store and oh hey there’s another purple thing in the window except it’s just a copypaste of another thing in the level and doesn’t count toward your goal because why would you think to do that in the first place oh well out of spraypaint time to restart my entire game because there’s no save or password system implemented oh look there’s blood in my field of vision again I think I’ll lie back in my chair and pass out because existence is meaningless.
The lone unique gimmick that Bart vs. the Space Mutants has to its name are the x-ray specs that allow Bart to spot space mutants in disguise. Basically, it thrown a green filter over the screen and swaps out the generic townsperson sprites that are choreographed to spawn at certain points with not-Invasion-of-the-Body-Snatchers aliens. Kill one that’s walking past you and and you collect a coin that gives you a letter in the name of a family member that, when fully spelled out, helps you out with the end-level boss. Sounds simple, right? Of course not, but it at least functions as a cool little bonus for playing the game well. That is, if the boss fights weren’t so poorly balanced that getting that bonus is an absolute necessity to progress. The game also automatically penalizes you for not-Super-Mario-Bros.-style hitting of human NPCs, taking off half of Bart’s health whenever he bops in error. They don’t bother to give the NPC any kind of animation for this, so I choose to believe that this version of Springfield is the logical opposite of that one Twilight Zone episode and the generic townsfolk curse Bart by turning him into one of his catchphrase-spewing action figures that grace our nation’s many fine landfills. At least it would explain the grainy “eat my shorts, man” audio clip whenever I lose a life.
Strangely enough, Bart vs. the Space Mutants is so all over the place in terms of game design that it manages to violate two polar extremes of the same rule: giving the player a fair chance to reattempt a failed challenge. In the first level, aliens/townspeople only spawn once at certain locations in the level and walk outside the play area after a set length of walking, meaning you only have one shot at spraying the guys you need to spray and killing the guys you need to kill. Went to chase a coin that went off in the other direction? Well, you just triggered the walk cycle of the guy in the purple pants from offscreen, and your game is already over. And if you care enough to look up a strategy guide – a twenty dollar luxury well beyond the facilities of my allowance back in the day – and somehow not let frustration get the best of you by level two, you’ll find yourself faced with quite the opposite problem. There you’ll find NPCs spawning at a regular interval, with alien/human alignment and macguffin possession randomly determined. Rather than being arbitrarily unforgiving about progression, the game is now so lenient that it settles into a joyless, unchallenging routine where the only variable to completion is the amount of time it takes to collect the items that count toward your level goal. Yes, I am comparing Bart vs. the Space Mutants to World of Warcraft. I may be grinding for twelve-pixel length hats instead of levels, but at least doing fetch quests in this game only feels sixty hours long.
Further complicating matters is the fact that every in-game object only understands three basic speeds: motionless, turtle in the afternoon sun, and F-16 jet engine at terminal velocity. Due to the lack of fine-tuning, there’s absolutely no sense of acceleration or physical presence that provides the degree of control necessary for satisfying platforming action. This may just be a relic of the game’s origin as an early Genesis port of an NES game, but the tininess of the sprites relative to the screen means there’s a shitload of wasted space outside the field of play and precious little to work with when negotiating the many bouncing life preservers and ghostly moonwalking shoes that the game decides to throw at you. Yes, the enemies in this game are that fucking boring. Hot tip: if all the enemies in your game are commonly found under your desk, in your closet or mounted to a wall, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Except the drawing board is spraypainted red because it had a purple dry erase marker.
Frankly, I could go on for another two thousand words singing the praises of every high and low of this game’s shittiness, but I feel I’ve already worn my point thin. So you know what? Just play it yourself. I’m dead serious. This is a game that everyone should play, from aspiring video game designers to the most casual fan. Play it to remind yourself of how far games have come. Play it to see how many modern video games keep making the same stupid mistakes. Play it to make fun of its backward understanding of youth culture. Play it to lament the wasted hours of a thousand childhoods. Play it to emphasize the importance of the smallest object placement and how easily one pixel length can break the enjoyment of an experience. Play it to be thankful that you don’t have to play it.
Thank you, Bart vs. the Space Mutants, for teaching me that inspiration is a two-way road. I still have so much yet to siphon from the wisdom trapped within your vast mounds of bullshit. May your sucky ways live on not only through emulation, but in the hearts and minds of all that aspire to suck. Suck into perpetuity, now and forever.
Godspeed, you fucking clod.
Share This Post