Let’s play pretend. You’re a highly-paid, highly-intelligent defense lawyer. You specialize in helping people accused of doing bad things to clear their names. But today, while sitting in your office preparing briefs, a bizarre new case drops in your lap, one which could set a precedent for not only legal but gaming history as well. The charge is licensed video games are nothing more than worthless cash grabbing, money-making ventures. They exist solely to part the plaintiffs with the contents of their bank accounts. They’re the video game equivalent of fan fiction: stories told using elements borrowed from other creators, nearly all of which suck. Ecstatic with joy, you learn you’ve been selected to represent one of a million different video games. You already know (being a highly-intelligent attorney) that many licensed games don’t suck. Even though there are some franchises can’t seem to get things right, you’re optimistic enough to assume a good chance for victory in this high-stakes battle for the future. You flip the next page and aye caramba, man: you’re defending a game that’s not just based on The Simpsons, but also rips material from a famous fairy tale to boot! You tell your secretary to hold all your calls and clear your schedule, send a quick text to the family that you’re pulling an all-nighter, and gird your loins. Pulling out the Game Boy you’ve kept in your desk all these years for just this sort of emergency, you plug in the enclosed cartridge–1994’s The Simpsons: Bart & the Beanstalk. If you pull this one off, you’ll be make partner for certain. Time to interview the client and see if there’s any hope.
Bart & the Beanstalk is the third and final game in the Bart Trilogy for the original Game Boy, coming on the heels of Bart Simpson’s Escape From Camp Deadly and The Simpsons: Bart vs. The Juggernauts. As the third game developed by Software Creations and published by Acclaim for this platform, you’d think they’d have worked out any flaws to be found in the previous two entries and left us with a perfectly cromulent title. You’d think that, but you would be wrong.
As you can probably guess by the title alone, this game throws Bart into the pointy-tipped shoes of the luckless young Jack, who sells the starving family’s only cow to a stranger (Monty Burns, in this case) in exchange for magic beans. Homer, thinking the beans are candy, tosses them into his mouth only to spit them out the window a few seconds later when the truth hits home, and sends Bart to his room as punishment. The next morning when Bart awakens, what to his wondering eyes appear but a huge beanstalk sprouting into the sky! Rather than wake his family, Bart grabs his trusty slingshot and starts climbing. I already wish I was playing something else.
Bart & the Beanstalk sees the player guide Bart through seven stages of platforming, each of which is
shamelessly stolen patterned after an incident in the famous fairy tale. Players climb the beanstalk, ransack Giant Homer’s castle, avoid becoming dinner, find some treasure, and finally escape from the enraged Homer by parachuting down from the clouds with the giant golden goose. Spoiler alert: you’ve read this before. Additional spoiler alert: you’re hosed.
Defending Bart & the Beanstalk against the charges leveled against it is an exercise in futility. It’s one thing to make a game based on characters from another creative medium, but it’s something else to stick it into the blender with a different property, hit ‘frappe’ and serve up what comes out the other end. You’re now faced with the ethical dilemma of defending something which has not only confessed guilt for the crime it is accused of committing, but will happily admit guilt relating to another heinous act for which it isn’t even on trial. Your client hasn’t just shit the bed, it’s rolled around in the mess and invited everyone else to watch.
It’s a train wreck no one could have possibly seen coming except for people with working eyes and functioning brains. It isn’t a long game, but it stacks the difficulty so high in the first stage it’s a wonder anyone in the target audience managed to finish level one. Controls are OK, but the slingshot is slow to fire. Given it’s your main weapon, this takes some getting used to but at least isn’t game-breaking. The music, on the other hand, is a different story. Hear that lovely little ditty from stage one? The short one that repeats every 20 seconds or so? Hope you like it, because that’s the only song in the entire game, and it won’t stop playing until you finish all seven stages or turn down the volume control. Guess which is more likely to happen first!
Even with all that, there’s some stuff you could say in the game’s defense. The animation is better than average. The platforming is OK. The between-level story scenes are cute, and it’s amusing to see how the Simpsons characters who are not Bart play their roles. Enough for some reasonable doubt in the minds of a jury, right? Your well-crafted arguments have embiggened Bart & the Beanstalk‘s innocence in their eyes, yes?
Sorry. Thanks to some last-minute evidence introduced by the prosecution, your client is doomed. Well-designed platformers play by the rules: they give your character the ability to do simple things like duck to avoid head-level attacks, something gamers have enjoyed since the days of Super Mario Bros. But they also understand that death happens, so they don’t penalize the player for not being able to mind-read or for making a simple mistake like, oh, falling off a 500-foot beanstalk. Not so for your client, oh no. Bart & the Beanstalk knows it’s got neither replay value nor longevity, so it shanks you in the kidneys every chance it gets. Unavoidable damage from traps along the way? Absolutely. Instant death possibilities all over the level? You betcha. Sending you all the way back to the start of a stage when you die, with no ability to save or even find a mid-level checkpoint, and taking away all your hard-earned gold coins? “Your honor, the defense would like to change its plea to guilty at this time.”
Justice may be blind, but it would also have to be deaf and stupid to have found in favor of your client. Had Bart & the Beanstalk been an amateur or freeware effort, an exercise used by a young programmer or developer to hone skills that were as-yet untested, then perhaps a case for lenience would have made sense. But no, this was placed on store shelves, tied to one of the most famous cartoon properties of the 20th century, and designed to deliberately pad out play time by cruelly and unusually punishing the player for innocent mistakes. Well, you tried, and failed miserably. But at least you learned something: never try. Enjoy the ad while this game works off its sentence of hard labor.