Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

imagineering

NOV
08
2016
0
The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space Mutants Box Cover

#29 – The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space Mutants

All the shorts-eating you could ever hope for!

The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space Mutants Title Screen

This looks really nice on the NES. I’m impressed!

To Beat: Reach the Ending
Played: 9/5/16 – 9/14/16
Difficulty: 8/10
My Difficulty: 7/10

I think it’s safe to say that The Simpsons has been the most successful US cartoon of all time. Such success leads to branching out all over the place and particularly into video games. There are many Simpsons games and today I will be writing about the first one!

The Simpsons show was created by Matt Groening and debuted on FOX on December 17th, 1989. The family was actually created two years prior appearing in animated shorts for The Tracey Ullman Show before appearing in their own half-hour show, and the series has lived on ever since. As of this writing, The Simpsons is in its 28th season spanning just over 600 total episodes. It is the longest running American sitcom and is near the top of many other lists of long running television programs. I have watched several episodes of the show but not regularly since I was a teenager.

There are over 20 Simpsons video games spanning the NES all the way to Xbox 360, PS3, and mobile. Bart vs. the Space Mutants was released in February 1991 and it is the first game with The Simpsons license followed just one month later by the arcade game simply titled The Simpsons. The most recent game is Tapped Out on iOS and Android which is still receiving gameplay updates today. The NES had four titles in total: Bart vs. the Space Mutants, Bart vs. the World, Bartman Meets Radioactive Man, and Krusty’s Fun House. Bart vs. the Space Mutants also appeared on the Sega Genesis, Game Gear, and various PCs. The NES version was developed by Imagineering and published by Acclaim. It was also released in Europe in late 1991.

The humor you know and love can be found here!

The humor you know and love can be found here!

Bart vs. the Space Mutants is a sidescrolling platformer. Aliens are attempting to take over the world and Bart Simpson eavesdrops in on their diabolical plan. They need to collect specific items in order to build an ultimate weapon, and so Bart sets out to remove those items before the aliens get them first. The story plays out exactly like this in the gameplay. Each level begins with the aliens discussing what object they need to collect, and then you set out to collect a specific number of that item to help clear the level.

The graphics have a cartoon look to them that is pulled off well on the NES. All the characters are recognizable and there are many objects that only appear once in the game so there is a lot of variety. The main issue with the graphics is that it can be tough to distinguish which background elements you can interact with in some areas. The music isn’t that bad either. The rendition of The Simpsons theme is done quite well, and there are some voice samples included too. However much of the soundtrack isn’t all that memorable.

The controls in this game are more involved than your typical platformer. The D-Pad moves Bart and the A button jumps. Bart can do a super jump by pressing both A and B at the same time and the feel for this is important as this move is used often. The run button is also A, so Bart jumps first and then he runs once A is held down. The run button is not obvious but it does come in handy. The B button is used for specific weapons. The game also has an inventory system. You can cycle through the inventory by pressing Select, and if you hold Down and hit Select the items will scroll in reverse order. Press Start to use the selected item. The Pause option shows up as part of the inventory so you will need to select the Pause option and press Start to pause the game.

Show yourself alien scum!

Show yourself alien scum!

One of the default items is the X-Ray Specs. The aliens disguise themselves as ordinary humans walking the streets, so the X-Ray Specs can reveal if a person of interest is either a normal person or one of the aliens. When you use the Specs the entire screen color changes to sepia tone and the alien heads are revealed if a person is indeed an alien. If it’s an alien Bart can jump on his head to defeat him. However if it is not an alien then Bart takes damage for trying to hurt an innocent bystander. When an alien is bopped a trinket is left behind that represents the proof of their existence. That’s how it’s described in the manual! Collect enough of these proof tokens in a level and one of Bart’s family members will help out in the boss battle at the end of the level. Progress is tracked by spelling out the letters of the name of the family member. For instance, the first level spells out MAGGIE and so six proofs need to be collected, one for each letter in her name. It is not required to do this but it can be helpful.

The other default items are coins. Bart can find these behind objects in the levels by jumping around. Do this in the right places and bouncing coins pop out. These can be spent just like money in certain places in the game. They also grant Bart extra lives if you collect enough. When you earn 15 coins you automatically earn an extra life, but it only costs 10 coins to buy one. I assume this was done so that you will never have fewer than 5 coins at any time unless you intentionally spend them.

There are some other items that appear but are not part of your inventory. Krusty the clown emblems give Bart an extra life and they are most helpful. Jebediah Springfield bestows the power of invincibility if you are able to locate his severed statue head powerup.

This mall definitely would have shoes your size.

This mall definitely would have shoes your size.

The status screen at the bottom has all the necessary information for playing the game. It shows which family member is featured in the stage along with how many letters are currently spelled out. Next to this are tiny Bart heads that show how many hits are remaining. For each life, Bart can take two hits from enemies. If he has been hit once already then one head will display and the next hit will cause a loss of life. Next to that in the status screen is the current inventory item, the score, remaining lives, the level timer, and the number of remaining goal items required to complete the level. If you reach the end of the stage without meeting the goal requirement, then the boss will not appear and you will need to backtrack to find more items. Finally on the far right the current weapon ammo is displayed.

Here are each of the five levels in the game:

Level 1 is the streets of Springfield. Bart must collect (or destroy) purple colored objects. These take all kinds of different forms and there are a number of ways to deal with them. The most common way is to collect the spray paint weapon and change the color of purple items to red, rendering them completely useless to the aliens. Other purple things need to be hidden or removed in specific ways. The first level of the game has a puzzle feel to it that is kind of a novelty for its time. This is also the main level where you purchase items to help with the purple cleanup. For instance, you can buy a wrench and use it on a fire hydrant to spray a stream of water that washes off fresh purple paint from a nearby awning. The level is challenging because there are only a few excess purple items that can be bypassed. Maggie is in this level and she will help by rolling bowling balls that Bart can use to damage the boss.

This is where the difficult platforming is put front and center.

This is where the difficult platforming is put front and center.

Level 2 is the Springfield shopping mall and the goal items are hats. There are stray hats all over the level but you can also lift them off a person’s head if they are wearing one. This is where the game ditches the puzzle elements of the first stage and switches to a more straightforward platforming challenge. There are lots of enemies that walk and fly around and you just need to get by them since there are no weapons in this stage. There are also areas of wet concrete that kill Bart if he sinks in them. These sections have tricky jumps that are pretty unforgiving. Marge is in this level and she will help deflect some of the boss projectiles for you.

Level 3 is Krustyland and Bart must get rid of balloons. There are some carnival mini games that Bart can play as well as one puzzle challenge for free balloons if you can figure it out in time. Bart can find slingshots here. They only damage a couple of enemies but they are most helpful in popping floating balloons that are too high to reach. There are some neat setpieces here and some tough platforming as well. Lisa can occasionally stun the boss to give Bart a breather during the fight.

Level 4 is the Springfield Museum of Natural History and Bart is collecting the exit signs. You only need to deal with six exit signs, so the level is more about surviving the obstacles than any other level in the game. Bart can get a dart gun here that can hurt some enemies as well as blow away the exit signs that are otherwise unreachable. This stage has the toughest platforming with sections that must be navigated perfectly. In some areas it is really difficult to tell what is a platform and what is just background detail, and also some of the platforms are not as big as they appear. I found it very frustrating. At the end of the stage, Homer will drop wet towels that block projectiles and cause the boss to slip up a bit.

These platforms are way smaller than they appear.

These platforms are way smaller than they appear.

The final level is the Springfield Power Plant and Bart must find all of the nuclear power rods. This is a large maze with multiple floors to explore. Bart can take the elevator as well as emergency stairways and he must take every path to explore every nook and cranny of the place. There are doorways here that are blocked off unless you have the keycode to open the door. There are 16 rods to find but Bart can only hold four of them at once. You have to go into the basement and drop them off at the reactor to collect more. All of the family members are here and they assist Bart in their own way. Lisa knows the door codes and she will share one if you talk to her. Marge will take your collected rods to the reactor for you sparing you a trip to the basement. Homer will scare off all the enemies from the screen if you give him a box of donuts that you find throughout the maze. Maggie wanders around but she does help you out in a specific way.

In Bart vs. the Space Mutants, you begin with 3 lives and can collect up to 9 total. There are no continues and no passwords, so the game must be cleared in one try. The challenge here comes in several ways. The first stage requires the most thought initially but it is the easiest level once you know how to do it. The three middle stages have some tough platforming and several instant kill spots. Sometimes you will have to spend all your lives getting the feel for overcoming an obstacle and then you have to start all over again. The final level doesn’t have a map of any kind, so if you miss a rod or two you are up against the clock if you get lost. The penalty for failure is steep and the game is lengthy enough that it takes several long attempts to get good enough to beat the game. I think 8/10 difficulty is a fair assessment.

Lisa wants to help out from as far away as possible.

Lisa wants to help out from as far away as possible.

I have played and beaten Bart vs. the Space Mutants but not since I was a kid. I owned all three of the “Bart” NES games in my childhood collection and I beat all three back then, but I didn’t retain a whole lot of knowledge from prior play. I remembered all of the puzzles in the first stage but that was about all I could recall.

I foolishly thought that my old knowledge would be good enough to clear the game quickly. I beat the first level with relative ease on my first playthrough, but the rest of the game featured the same kind of incremental progress I experience when playing new games. I think it took me around a dozen tries to finish this game. The latter part of the museum level took a lot of practice, and the final maze really got to me. I am generally good with maze levels and mapping things out in my head, but I got down to the last two rods and got completely stuck until I got Game Over. It’s frustrating getting so close to the end like that. Luckily the next run was the winning run and I had plenty of lives left over for a comfortable win.

The Simpsons is such an iconic television series and by extension I think there is a lot of nostalgia for Bart vs. the Space Mutants. The development team managed to put in a lot of Simpsons references in the game and the Simpsons theme sounds nice on the NES. From my playing experience, the game is rough around the edges and not all that fun to play at times, but the first level at least is genuinely clever and holds up nicely today. It’s a mediocre game with a few redeeming qualities.

The Simpsons: Bart Vs. The Space Mutants Ending Screen

#29 – The Simpsons: Bart Vs. The Space Mutants

 
MAY
13
2016
0
Ghoul School Box Cover

#23 – Ghoul School

I’m willing to bet the name of the game was thought of first.

A nicely detailed title screen!

A nicely detailed title screen!

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 4/16/16 – 4/22/16
Difficulty: 4/10
My Difficulty: 4/10

With a game library as big as the NES has there are sure to be several interesting games hidden away. Well, interesting is a word that can certainly be used to describe Ghoul School but I’m not sure it’s the best one. There is absolutely an intriguing game here that is pretty creative but ultimately it falls flat in a number of ways. However, just like several other games I’ve covered, it has grown on me and I’m glad to get to share it with you.

Ghoul School was released on the NES in March 1992 and it is exclusive to North America. It was developed by Imagineering and published by Electro Brain. I was surprised to learn that Imagineering developed several games for the NES but having looked at various lists online most if not all of their games are not regarded very well. Their best known games are the three Bart Simpson games on the NES. Electro Brain published six games on the NES and all of them are ones that could be consider obscure.

Ghoul School is a side-scrolling platformer. You play as a high school student Spike who finds a mysterious skull and brings it to school which ends up causing all sorts of nefarious creatures to take over the place. It’s up to you to both rid the school of evil and save the head cheerleader. You start off in the main hallway of the school armed with only a baseball bat, but you can explore the school freely searching for more weapons and items that will help you explore the school. It is very reminiscent of Metroid in this way. Each room is individually numbered and displayed at the top of the screen to help keep track of where you are in the school.

The ghouls look much more terrifying than they actually are.

The ghouls look much more terrifying than they actually are.

There are several weapons to find in the school and you can switch to any collected weapon you want. Everything has unlimited use so fire away. One of the first weapons you will find is the towel which has better range and is also somehow more powerful than the bat. There are also a number of guns that let you attack from a distance though they generally deal less damage. Some weapons fire downward to help you attack enemies on the ground. There is usually one weapon best suited for a particular situation so there will be lots of switching weapons around.

There are also a couple of different pairs of shoes you can equip. You start off with basic sneakers but you will also need to find the spring shoes and suction cup shoes. The spring shoes cause you to jump higher and they also make you taller. These are needed to pass by tall obstacles in order to explore further in the school. The suction cup shoes let you walk along the ceiling provided the ceiling is low enough to reach with a jump.

You will also find apples that restore your health. Green apples restore a quarter of your health and red apples fully restore your health. The best of all is the golden apple. There’s only one of these in the game but it is a permanent upgrade that cuts your damage received by half. Enemies don’t drop any health pickups so you will have to seek out these items as you explore the school. If you play the game for a little while you’ll figure out where you can generally find the healing items.

The school map contains a lot of areas that you would expect to find in a school. There’s a gymnasium, cafeteria, office, library, and so on. These one-off locations are the areas you want to search out because they contain the weapons and shoes you need to progress onward. These areas also feature unique ghouls that are tougher than the standard enemies and they often require specific weapons to take them out. Think of them like bosses. There are several of these unique enemies which is a nice touch.

Other than the deep void of darkness in the background, this does resemble a weight room.

Other than the deep void of darkness in the background, this does resemble a weight room.

Now all of this so far may sound pretty good, but there are a number of things that really hurt the game and make it hard to play. The biggest sticking point is the physics of the character. Spike feels very heavy to control. He takes some time to build momentum and takes even more time to slide to a stop. The jumping is very stiff and doesn’t seem to respect gravity. He falls down just as fast as he jumps, and this makes it very hard to make long-distance jumps. These movement problems are really evident early in the game when you have barely any attack range with the bat. You have to get really close to deal damage and more often than not you will run right into the enemy until you get used to the controls. Some of the early enemies attack really quickly as well leaving you with a small window to get in and hurt them.

The other physics related complication is that colliding with the enemy gives you really severe knockback. Trying to fight enemies with short range attacks is so frustrating in Ghoul School. Either you don’t get close enough to deal any damage or you get too close and get thrown backwards. Now for some reason the developers decided to place enemies right at the entrance to some of the hallways. What happens is that you try to get close enough to attack and if you accidentally touch the enemy then you get thrown back into the previous hallway. Now you have to start all over and try fighting the enemy again. This happens in several locations and it only provides unnecessary frustration. The only solace here is that once an enemy is killed it remains dead. It will only respawn after you travel many rooms away.

I'm pretty sure most of the classrooms are for teaching history.

I’m pretty sure most of the classrooms are for teaching history.

Along the same lines, there are some enemies that are too low for you to properly attack. One little recurring nuisance of an enemy is called Blinky. They scurry around at ankle level and they run super fast. You can’t duck in this game and the majority of the weapons attack too high for you to deal with these critters. The weapons that do reach down don’t shoot downward quickly enough to be effective. For example, the first weapon you will come across that can reach tiny ground enemies is called the Digestaray. It shoots a straight shot that curves toward the ground. To use it against Blinky, you need to have it already equipped and start firing off shots the moment you see it running on screen. If you wait too long you will shoot right over its head and now you have no chance of killing it. Blinky will never leave the screen instead opting to run around you just outside of attack range and it will bounce you all over the place with the knockback. They don’t do much damage at all, but they make it really tough to make any kind of forward progress in the room.

The whole game really boils down to exploring one giant maze. A large portion of the game map consists of similar looking hallways and similar looking classrooms that for the most part don’t hold anything of interest in advancing your quest. The hallways often have doors that lead to isolated classrooms, and the hallways link together via walkways and stairways at the end of the hall. Each end of the hallway can have up to three exits: Forwards, upstairs, or downstairs. Many of the hallways are just empty dead ends. It is very confusing to make sense of the layout. Having every single room in the game numbered is about the only thing that makes rooms distinguishable.

You will see your health bar on the top of the screen as well as the health bar of the enemy you are fighting. There’s also a scoring system that doesn’t really mean anything since there’s no high score keeping. It doesn’t show up during game play, but Spike has five lives in all and you see how many lives are remaining in between lives. There are no extra lives in this game. It’s not obvious but you do continue when you start over. You start back at the school entrance with all of your collected items intact. There’s no saving in this game and no passwords so you will have to beat it all in one shot.

As expected, the science experiment went wrong!

As expected, the science experiment went wrong!

The graphics in this game are more than adequate. It very clearly looks like a school. There are several interesting setpieces that are unique to the areas they are found in. For instance, the weight room has a huge, detailed exercise machine right in the middle. You can walk behind the bookshelves in the library and see yourself peeking behind the gaps in the books. The graphics may not be super great but they are interesting to look at. The character designs are really strange and creepy. Many of the enemy types look like people and they are generally drawn very tall and lanky. Spike changes visibly when switching weapons and shoes for a nice touch. The music isn’t too bad. Perhaps it might be grating to some but I didn’t really mind it.

I bought my copy of Ghoul School on eBay for $10 a couple of years ago. It was selling for around $15 at the time so it was a nice deal, but I missed that the fold on the label was completely torn off so that the end label and front label are split in two. It’s not awful but I’ll want to upgrade it at some point if I ever run into another copy. My local store had one for $10 for a long time but the end label was faded really badly so I kept passing on it. It eventually got bumped up to $18 and since then someone bought it. It’s not a game I’ve seen around much so I’m not surprised someone else snagged it.

Certainly this is punishment for severe misconduct!

Certainly this is punishment for severe misconduct!

This was my first time beating Ghoul School. I had only tried it when I got the cart and I pretty much dismissed the game as weird right away. When I started out this time, I wandered around and almost instantly got lost. I have a good sense of direction overall but this game made me at least question it a little bit! I realized the only way I was going to make sense of this school was to go old school and draw a map. The art of video game map making goes back a very long way but I believe this is the first time I have ever drawn a map for a game. It turned out to be a very good decision since I only had to hit the unnecessary portions of the map once. Each time I played I got a little bit further and it didn’t take that many attempts to complete the game.

Without spoiling a lot of the game, there’s not much more for me to say about Ghoul School. What I will say is that I found the game got more interesting the farther I went. The last quarter of the game in particular did a few things that I thought were really kind of neat. I believe I have almost all of the game mapped out in my notes. After I finished the game I combed over my map and tried to find all the rooms by number and there were some I did not account for. I’m not sure if these are rooms that I missed or rooms that were not used in the game at all. I think I developed a pretty good route through the school and now I can finish the game relatively quickly. I’m toying with the idea of writing up a more thorough walkthrough. If I ever do that, I’ll host it on the blog and link it here. I’ve peeked at a few walkthroughs online and I’m sure I could do a better job.

UPDATE 7/18/16: Indeed, I did create a Ghoul School Walkthrough. Check it out!

It’s hard for me to recommend playing Ghoul School, but after wading through the control difficulties and getting a handle on the map I really enjoyed this game. Metroid-styled platformers are one of my favorite types of games and so now I have a soft spot for this weird little NES adventure. One final thought: It’s too bad that this game didn’t emerge on my list around Halloween as that would have been most fitting.

#23 - Ghoul School

#23 – Ghoul School