Nostalgia Tripping is a column in which Dan Tallarico explores his collection of retro games to see how well they hold up. You can expect heart break, childhood flashbacks and a ton of Capcom games. Want to yell at him about old games? Find him on Twitter.
What I remember
Bart’s Nightmare was one of those games that I felt guilty enjoying when I was a kid. I wasn’t allowed to watch The Simpsons, but playing a Simpsons-themed video game was acceptable under the watchful eye of my mother. It was this double standard that baffled my young brain, but all that mattered was that I was allowed to play a video game. That meant more to me than sensibility at the time. I remember that this game had a bunch of mini-games that needed to be completed in order to get a good grade on Bart’s homework. I don’t know what impact nightmares had on grades, but I was jealous I wasn’t enrolled in Bart’s school.
As Bart, you’d have to hunt down pieces of paper, which would unlock worlds. In some instances Bart played the role of Godzilla, blasting a mixture of fire and lasers onto attacking helicopters and jets. In others he was a Bartman, a Bart capable of flight and using a deadly slingshot to destroy a flying Barney fueled by booze riding an equally drunk elephant. I didn’t understand what alcohol was back when I was a kid, but I’ll be damned if this game didn’t make drinking seem incredibly rad. When Bart’s health diminished, Bart would wake up to a failed grade. Never a grade better. Was it even possible to sway this outcome? As a child, I thought it was just part of the game. Of course Bart got an F. He’s a delinquent who dreams about being Godzilla. If I dreamed like that, I’d expect bad grades.
Playing it now
The game begins with Bart falling asleep doing homework, which doesn’t make sense because Bart never does homework; hence why every kid who watches The Simpsons can relate to him. The only way I could fathom Bart doing homework is if this was a nightmare within a nightmare. Alternatively, I would also accept that this is Marge’s dream. All she wants is a son who behaves and lives within the confines of society’s rules.
As Bart drifts to sleep, his desk fan turns on, seemingly haunted by the ghost of mischief, and scatters his papers everywhere. Oh, the horror. In an attempt to salvage his homework and pass the third grade, Bart begins to fall. A cliché, but when he lands Bart is now on an adventure, and that’s about all the direction the game relates to me. No prompts, no objectives, just Bart tossed into a world where nothing makes sense. In the same vein as Dark Souls, Bart’s Nightmare delivers me into a frightening world that’s littered with enemies and weird properties that only reveal themselves after trial-and-error. Why do the mailboxes scamper across the street? Should I catch them? Do I need to catch the floating Z’s to win? Why did this saxophone make my controls backwards? Why does hitting the “Y” button make Bart blow a huge bubble? Sure, if I had a manual maybe some of these questions would be answered, but I don’t. Considering Bart hates rules, you’d think his nightmares would be one linear path instead of a free-roaming exploration of a mystical Springfield. Although I’ve given up on understanding the motivation, if I were writing a thesis on the game, this would be further evidence that this is actually Marge’s dream.
Wandering around a demented Springfield, I was startled by a paper drifting onto the screen. It was the first thing in the game that didn’t seem aggressive towards Bart, so I approached it like a young child would approach a puppy tied to a pole outside a candy stop. As I got closer to the drifting paper, I hopped in as if it were a sanctuary from this madness. Next thing I know, Bart is walking toward a destiny, forced to choose between a yellow or purple door. I chose purple and was welcomed into a cesspool swarming with germs. Bart, armed with a pump, had to grab the germs and pump them up a la Dig Dug. Although, this was more of a Dig Dug hoard mode, something that Dig Dug 2012 would ship with. Bart destroyed a handful of germs which caused a slip of paper to appear on the top of the screen, surrounded by a silver barrier. The only way to disarm the barrier was to touch an atom dressed as a cowboy. So I did, then the paper was mine. With one bit of paper under my control I felt confident, as though I finally figured out a Rubik’s cube after years of frustration.
Grabbing the piece of homework, I returned to the streets of Springfield ready to skateboard over a ravine and conquer this nightmare. Before I knew it, I was turned into a frog by Lisa, who had angel wings that lifted her three feet off the sidewalk and a wand. I hopped around the street looking for a cure, and I found it in a decrepit cat lady’s kiss. Odd choice, but I expected nothing less. Her kiss turned me back into a boy and I was free to find more homework. The idea that at any moment Bart’s destiny could take a turn for the worse instilled a sense of doubt into my mission. My confidence was stolen from me in the same way that Nelson could easily steal lunch money from a quivering Milhouse.
Searching for another piece of paper can take anywhere from seconds to ten minutes. There’s no indication or map to guide Bart to the objective, which gets frustrating in the redundant streets of Springfield. When I did find a floating piece of paper, it was as surprising as stumbling over a big mound of dirt in the dessert revealing buried treasure. Hopping in the paper repeats the old door trick where Bart chooses his destiny.
Each door opens into a world with their own rules and objectives and exactly zero explanation of how to survive. Sometimes it’s as obvious as making it out of an Itchy and Scratchy episode alive; other times it’s as convoluted as jumping on series of rocks that could vanish under your feet while the devil chases Bart. These bite-sized gaming experiences are adorable distractions that break up the mundane existence of dream world. It’s the silliness of a WarioWare game combined with the mystery of Dark Souls. No wonder I never beat a single one of these games as a kid.
During my playtime, I was able to claim one piece of homework and raise Bart’s grade to a D-. Not bad considering Bart’s streak of Fs. That’s not to say that the game is horrible or overly complex, it just takes a while to adjust to it the same way it takes to adjust to the cold of a lake. For its time, Bart’s Nightmare did an admiral job of translating a twenty-two minute cartoon into a video game. The games flesh out the world and give an excuse to show off the more exotic characters of Springfield. Plus, the games are varied enough from one another that the slim selection of eight or so games never feel redundant.
While 1992 was an era filled with beat-em-ups and platformers, Bart’s Nightmare takes a bold step into the abstract. It sets a tone by throwing the player into a mystery world and keeps building upon the puzzle. By providing only two colored doors to choose from at a time, the player is hooked on discovering that rare door that they haven’t run across yet. This could have easily been a selectable menu in the vein of the Mega Man, but the developers took a chance. Using the bizarre streets of Springfield as a chaotic hub works well enough to keep the action and excitement flowing as the player searches for the next paper. It’s a daring take on game structure that went against the grain of its time. Though, for a game starring Bart Simpson, that’s par for the course.