If you’ve ever seen pictures of the Pacific Northwest you’ve likely seen some gorgeous images of ferries crossing Puget Sound. Most people will recognize these iron giants as examples of effective mass transit, or a great way to take in the surrounding scenery of mountains, forests and cities. Yet, what regular riders might also tell you, particularly those passengers small enough to be blown around on deck, is that the Washington State Ferries are an excellent provider of arcade gaming. You see, somewhere along the way the ferry system decided to compliment the traditional on-board services of overpriced coffee, broken heat lamps and free diesel fumes with a selection of arcade games. During my childhood they added such classics as Raiden Fighter, NBA Jam (On Fire!), the Cruis’n series, and, on one special ferry, the greatest arcade game of all time, The Simpsons Arcade Game.
There are so many things I love about Konami’s The Simpsons Arcade, but perhaps the best thing is its easy accessibility. Coming from a family that, like most parents in the early 90’s, frowned on video games, it was easy to pick up and button mash without having to worry about learning combos or tricky timed jumps. Every time I saw the bright yellow Simpsons lettering at an arcade I would gravitate towards it. You could slip in a quarter and get at least 5 minutes of fun out of the Simpson family as they partook in some ultraviolence, beating up everyone in sight as they rushed to save Maggie from the bony clutches of Mr. Burns.
From the moment you jump on, the game drives itself forward at a quick pace, slowly introducing stronger and quicker enemies, while breaking up levels between some humorous cut scenes and really fun mini-games that do their best to have you break the buttons. Each family member controlled the same, but had their unique attacks and weapons. Marge had the length of her vacuum, Bart could spin and fly on his skateboard and all the family members could jump on each other’s shoulders and combine into awesome towers of power, knocking out endless waves of goons with special attacks. Other features like health pick-ups, weapon pick-ups and boss fights were all standard fare for beat-em-ups of the era, and The Simpsons Arcade played similar to contemporaries like Double Dragon and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade Game (also made by Konami, 2 years earlier). What separated The Simpsons above the rest was its trademark humor, which translated into awesome attacks (Bart’s slingshot), levels and boss fights. Combining the wit and artwork of Matt Groening with flawless and easy to master fighting mechanics, Konami was able to create a game that achieved the rare feat of appealing to a wide audience and delivering solid and highly entertaining gameplay.
Moment of Unfinishing
So what’s my personal story with this game, and why did I give this post such a foreboding title? Read on dear reader (because you probably are the only one reading this), as I tell you a tale of lost childhood dreams and the perils of modern life. Let’s go back to those beautiful boats with their electronic fun zones. As you recall, only one ferry carried the holy grail of cartoon gaming. Normally, I took the same ferry route to Grandma’s house in Kingston. The short trip always had the same games. So when my mom took me for summer vacation to the San Juan Islands, I got the chance to ride a whole new fleet of ferries. And there it was, The Simpsons Arcade. However, this time, it seemed I wasn’t the only one who had recognized the machine’s beauty. A small crowd of kids were gathered around watching a pair of teens as they battled yellow bellied goons from behind a sizable stack of quarters. Whenever I had played, I was always limited by time or a limited stock of quarters, and, like most kids, finishing an arcade game was an extreme task best left to the pros. But, these kids seemed to be more dedicated than me or my childhood chums had ever been and seemed determined to play The Simpsons until the final credits.
While I was watching the streets of Springfield scroll by, my mom was doing the same with the Puget Sound. Lame. These kids were kicking ass as Homer and Bart and had just passed the dream level, which had always been my downfall. As I watched in anticipation they moved on to the final level to face Mr. Burn’s large twin bodyguards, some formidable bosses. They were tossing bombs from under their undercoats and, in true arcade fashion, the players were shouting out timing orders for avoiding them. Next up was the boss man himself, and Burns’ was laughing maniacally, his frail body protected by an armored battle suit. No one knew what was coming next. It was a compelling scene as quarters dwindled and kids screamed advice.
The din of battle was interrupted by the captain coming over the speaker system. Apparently nature was doing its thing outside. Some killer whales were splashing about across the port bow. The adults rushed to the decks and windows to catch a glimpse. Us kids looked up for a second and then returned our glazed gaze back to the boss fight in front of us. I wasn’t playing but my palms were sweating like I was. The anticipation was intense. Would they be able to get Maggie back, or would the quarters dry up. Kids scrambled to pull extra coins from their pockets in an attempt to keep the dream alive. It was then that my mom came running. It was an emergency, I thought, something must be wrong. Nope. Instead, she was here to insist that I come quick to see the amazing pod of killer whales as they swam in a linear progression.
There was no way in hell I was missing the epic conclusion of my favorite arcade game. I held my ground, this was way more important. But my mom is surprisingly strong for her size (embarrassingly, she beat me at arm wrestling until the end of high school) and managed to drag me out to the deck, just in time to see the tail of a killer whale dip below the crest of the waves and dive out of sight. Fantastic. I had come all the way out to the sunshine and fresh air for that? The adults around me all seemed to be in a daze as the animals’ grace and majesty connected with them on a deeply spiritual level and touched their jaded hearts. Not me. I had to find out how that video game ended! That’s when I heard screams of excitement coming from inside. They sounded so beautiful, like how angels must sound when they do a keg stand. I rushed back inside and sprinted to the machines only to discover, to my horror, that the credits were already rolling. High fives were being exchanged, but I had no skin to slap, my soul felt empty and I dropped to my knees, vanquished. All these years later, I’ve never seen the end of the game, and never forgiven my mother.