When Carl, the man I perceive as the primary antagonist in my life as a video game character, used a sledgehammer to defeat the lock on my door, my heart slid into my colon. “Time to pay the piper,” he said, holding up a paper shopping bag. “Donald Trump will be president, therefore you lost the bet. Your column on Trump Castle II did so well for us, I’ve realized your misery translates to more ad revenue. Neil agrees.” He grinned, a facial expression that would give a demon pause. “These will be your assignment for every Sunday until I say otherwise. Call it ‘PlayStation Agony’, an offshoot of your ‘Revenge of the License’ column. Have fun!” He set the bag on my desk and lurched away, whistling a jaunty, if off-key, rendition of the Duke Nukem theme song. I opened the bag, pulled out the first jewel case, and vowed to double the normal dose of laxatives I slip into his coffee every morning, for I gazed upon The Simpsons Wrestling.
I pictured myself repeatedly writing ‘I will not bet on the outcome of political elections’ on a chalkboard, and realized it was too late. The damage had been done. It would not stop any time soon.
While 2001 was a watershed year for the PS2 and Dreamcast, fifth-generation consoles took a nosedive in the game quality department. Some gems like Dragon Warrior VII and Castlevania Chronicles nudged their way on to store shelves, but PS1 games were shifting to the bargain bin as retailers shuffled their layouts to accommodate the flashier systems. Simpsons Wrestling hurled itself into this milieu once Big Ape Productions, the studio behind Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, acquired permission to make a Simpsons game. As we’ve noted before, when a developer has no idea what to do with a license, the easy way out is to have characters punch one another “because REASONS!”. Had Big Ape created a sequel to Konami’s The Simpsons Arcade Game, this could have worked. Unfortunately Big Ape went with the one-on-one fighter style instead, a genre where the developers had just enough experience between all of them to completely cock everything up. There are plenty of enjoyable brawlers on the PlayStation, but Simpsons Wrestling is not one of them.
Let’s start with the good, since I’m lazy and can finish this section the fastest. The main thing Simpsons Wrestling has going for it is Fox Interactive, who provided as much help to this game as they did for The X-Files two years earlier. The back of the box boasts 19 characters, and every last one of them from Homer Simpson and Ned Flanders on down to ringside commentator Kent Brockman is voiced by his or her original actor. But let’s be honest: by 2001, using the voice actors from a popular cartoon is a hurdle any officially licensed product should be able to cross with ease. South Park pulled it off in 1999 on a Nintendo 64 cartridge with ten times less storage space, and there’s no excuse for Simpsons Wrestling not to make the same effort. So yes, the gang’s all here. Good job, Big Ape: you managed not to completely befoul the bed.
Also on the plus side, everyone has at least two character-specific special moves, like Barney’s toxic belch or Homer’s bowling ball attack. These are funny the first few times, but it quickly becomes obvious Big Ape spent little time on character balance; characters like Apu and Groundskeeper Willie run roughshod over almost everyone with their abilities, while the members of the Simpsons family for whom the game is named are among the worst fighters in the game. Bart doesn’t even have a ranged attack, and this is a kid who keeps a slingshot in his pocket–really, Big Ape? The primary offender though is Ned Flanders. Flanders must be unlocked, but to do so requires beating him within the game, and he’s the most ridiculously overpowered opponent you will face. His special attack, a prayer that causes lightning to flash from the heavens and electrocute his opponent, is too fast to be dodged by any but the most agile characters. Once it hits you, it’s all over: the blast knocks you down, leaving you unable to dodge the remaning bolts that will continue to strike while Ned leaps on you for the pin and you watch the last of your health drain away. Picking Flanders in Simpsons Wrestling is like picking Oddjob in GoldenEye, cementing your asshole status more firmly in the minds of your friends.
Unfortunately everything else about Simpsons Wrestling makes me question how badly the design document was mutilated during production. To address the elephant in the room, WWE Crush Hour is a more competent wrestling game than Simpsons Wrestling, and Crush Hour is a Twisted Metal wannabe. Simpsons Wrestling plays out like a poorly-coded 2D fighter suddenly given the 3D treatment. Merely dropping two characters into a roped-off ring doesn’t make them wrestlers. They need actual wrestling moves, but these are few and far between. The fighting engine rewards players who stick with the basic attack button, while going for the high-risk stamina-draining moves is rarely worth the reward.
Matches quickly devolve into slap-fights or cheese-fests. Most characters have jump attacks that can pogo off the head of an opponent over and over again, allowing you to win a match without hardly touching the canvas if you like. The strong-but-slow fighters have a hard time getting all the hits from their combos to land against more agile fighters, and the various power-ups that land in the ring can turn matches into button-mashing slogs if your opponent manages to grab those full power-ups before you do.
It’s common knowledge the PlayStation had issues rendering diagonal lines in 3D. We see it even in games as great as Metal Gear Solid. It’s a product of the hardware’s abilities, not something even the most talented people at Konami could overcome, but Simpsons Wrestling seems determined to showcase this deficiency in rendering every chance it gets by picking a bizarre, corner-oriented view of the ring. This ensures the ring ropes, lines on the mat, and anything else used to depict the arena is always skewed to a diagonal. Did no one in development notice this? Did no beta testers suggest, “Hey, how about rotating the camera 45 degrees in one direction or the other to get rid of all these weird wavy lines?” Because holy hell does this make the end product look amateurish.
Even the story is woefully beneath the source material. Aliens from light-years away witnessed the wrestling prowess of Jebediah Springfield, who fought a bear in hand-to-hand combat. It’s taken them years to bridge the span between their world and ours, but now they’ve shown up for an intergalactic grudge match. All of Springfield catches wrestle fever in an effort to be nominated as champion so they can face down the aliens in an epic rumble for the ages. Really, Big Ape? The Simpsons has constantly placed itself on the front lines for skewering popular culture, and “alien wrestling enthusiasts attack earth” was the best idea from the meeting? No wonder MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch was your last hurrah.
Simpsons Wrestling isn’t even remotely enjoyable. If you’re looking for a Simpsons tie-in on PS1, your options are limited to this title alone. If it’s a choice between playing Simpsons Wrestling and gargling raw sewage, then pick the option that won’t result in multiple parasitic infections. But if it’s a choice between this game and any other random Simpsons title, take a chance on what’s behind Door #2. Sure, you might wind up with Bart & the Beanstalk, but you could also find yourself playing Hit & Run, which even non-fans of the show can get enjoy.
Don’t think I won’t get you for this, Carl. The game’s not over.