Re(?)Considered: The Simpsons: Virtual Springfield

Don't do it, readers. How's this game gonna help your putting?

Everyone loves (the first eight or nine seasons of) The Simpsons.  It’s a cultural touchstone, maybe the cultural touchstone. Banned in schools, there was a frisson of naughtiness to the show that was irresistible to me when I was a kid. And, beguilingly, was totally inaccessible. I didn’t have satellite, making viewing The Simpsons a pie in the Sky. The best I could do was play my friend’s Master System copy of Bart vs. The Space Mutants, wondering what on earth the show was like. Then, in November 1996, it finally happened. It debuted on terrestrial television, with season 1’s “No Disgrace Like Home” going out on BBC 1. This relatively tame episode nonetheless blew my mind with its Tod Browning-referencing “ONE OF US! ONE OF US!” Freaks fantasy sequence and hilarious electro-shock therapy finale (Harry Shearer’s pitch-perfect scream of “THIS IS NOT THE WAY TO GET HEALTHY!!” is forever lodged in my memory). Truth be told, I was a die-hard fan from the first joke; Lisa and Bart arguing over which of them loves Homer more.

And that was it. I was away with the Simpsons fairies. I bought every VHS tape and wore them out. I recorded every single episode, six to a tape. Bought every book, read every issue of the (excellent) Simpsons Comics, bought the albums and got relentlessly teased by my dad for having a crush on Lisa Simpson (which I did, a bit).

It’s no surprise that I ended up getting The Simpsons: Virtual Springfield, then. After seeing the commercial for it at the start of the Simpsons Murder Mysteries VHS tape, I begged for it as my main Christmas present. It’s superficially similar to Myst, in that you’re exploring mostly static Springfield environments (Springfield Elementary! The Kwik-E-Mart! Noiseland Arcade!) by clicking hotspots, though the puzzle-solving has been broadly replaced with, well, jokes. It’s a big box of laffs in the style of those classic seasons of the show, from the introductory Troy McClure monologue through to the secret Stonecutter lodge’s choice Homer Simpson bon mots.

Geared towards exploration rather than strict goal-based gameplay, Virtual Springfield is more of a toy than anything else. There’s a “quest” of sorts in the trading cards you’ll find lying around, each depicting a Simpsons character. Collecting all of these (60-odd) is the ostensible “goal” of the game, but they respawn in their hiding places after a few screen switches, making this a trivial (if time-consuming) matter. There are a handful of locked areas requiring keys from other places – check the lost and found box in Moe’s Tavern! – but these don’t hide any great revelations, just… a handful more jokes. Hidden among the other clickables are a handful of none-more-basic mini-games, mostly based on stuff played by Bart in the series. Larry the Looter, etc. They're a decent distraction, but with no depth to speak of.

It looks as near as damnit to the show as it realistically could within the capabilities of the Windows 95 era, eschewing full-motion-video for impressive in-engine animation, allowing for maximum interactivity. The sound is great too; while the midi soundtrack is dated, the voice samples are clear, distinctive and very funny. For Simpsons fans I’d go so far as to call it essential; while many of the jokes are taken from the show, there’s some terrific (and fresh!) character stuff in there too, and it’s just plain good fun to interact with the best version of these characters and their world.

Disappointingly, it isn’t available to buy anymore, and even if you have an original copy it can be a bit of a pig to get running. A fan-made all-in-one installer that runs the game in a virtual Windows 98 machine exists, but I won’t link it due to legal dubiousness. If you love classic Simpsons, it’ll be worth the hassle.  Don’t forget to mix up a Flaming Moe.