One of Professor Icepick’s many series that never got off the ground was called “But Is It Art?”, in which he looked at games universally considered bad through the light of a critic desperate to interpret the game as high art that was far too profound to have good gameplay. I believe a similar concept was used in nearly every review of Gone Home. So, I will be bringing this series back with my own installment, and since I got my 15 minutes of internet fame from the Dead Bart creepypasta, the only logical choice is to twist more Simpsons media into something unrecognizable. But this time, the horror comes from the source material, not my interpretation. It’s time to analyze Bart’s Nightmare, a poorly designed, frustrating mess that probably doesn’t even crack the list of top five worst Simpsons games, which is horrifying. But maybe we were looking at it wrong, we should have been asking: “But is it art?”
Bart’s Nightmare is the story of Bart Simpson, face of ‘90s animation until everyone realized Homer was funnier, falling asleep the night before a big homework assignment is due. Bart has one of those hub-based nightmares we all have in which he must collect the pages of his homework from several terrible gameplay styles. Right away we see this game’s brilliance, the sheer courage of the developers. Given the task of making what was already just another brick in the wall of terrible Simpsons games, they doubtlessly viewed this game as nothing but an unpleasant homework assignment. This naked honesty is something few developers would ever be willing to put in their game. Bart Simpson, underachiever and allegedly proud of it, was the perfect metaphor for Simpsons games. On the surface the publishers were proud of their money-making crap, but just as Bart is troubled in his sleep at the thought of more failure, the developers are trying to express their inner pain at being forced into this situation. The bad gameplay is the best way they can make the player emphasize with them.
As mentioned, Bart’s Nightmare is hub-based. Now most games using this format would make a hub that had its own architecture, ideally its own satisfying and creative level, or at least something where you had some sort of control over which level you went to and when. But this is Bart’s Nightmare, a logical and enjoyable hub world would be the epitome of ludonarrative dissonance. Instead, Bart’s Nightmare has an endlessly looping sidewalk filled with enemies that are either so easy to avoid they may as well not exist, or that take full advantage of Bart’s terrible jump that is completely unsuited for the ¾ perspective. To enter the levels, Bart must find a piece of paper blowing across the ground. The appearance of these are random, and the game even lets you walk either left or right, just to give you the illusion of control. Is choosing between two options when you have absolutely no way of knowing which is correct really a choice? Bart’s Nightmare poses that question, and like all great art, stops there instead of answering it.
And then we get to the levels themselves. There are five levels, and eight homework pages that Bart must collect. Three of the levels have two parts, each giving you a homework page (in another brilliant metaphor for the randomness of nightmares, whether you have to go back to the hub world or can just continue to part two of a stage after getting the first page of homework is inconsistent between the multi-part levels). This means two of the levels are just a single part, and these are the two most tolerable levels. The purple door leads to a mindless but short and painless level taking place in Bart’s bloodstream, while the blue door leads to a Bartman themed segment that would almost be an enjoyable shooter if you weren’t cursed with a slingshot that shoots pellets with a wilting arc that makes hitting enemies a chore. If every part of the game was like these segments, it might just make it into the elite class of slightly above average 16-bit licensed games. Alas, the best parts of the game are the shortest. The message here is clear, the fun parts of life are fleeting. The Simpsons episode “A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again” examined this same theme nearly 20 years after Bart’s Nightmare, the game is such a profound work of art that it was miles ahead of its source material.
Now let’s look at the larger levels. The yellow door leads to an Itchy and Scratchy themed beat-em-up. I already mentioned that the platformer style obstacles in the hub world didn’t work thanks to the ¾ perspective iconic to beat-em-ups, so the stage set in that genre must work, right? If Bart’s Nightmare were made by incompetent developers, sure. But this game is true art, and the developers put the effort into making sure that the collision detection in the beat-‘em-up stages was still terrible. Making the controls only work in one of those levels would be laziness, but making it work in NEITHER is brilliance. You tediously fight through attacks by both Itchy and Scratchy, ensuring there is a max of two enemies on screen at a time. The only weapon with decent hit detection is a pan that you get early on, you are given the opportunity to pick up seemingly better weapons later, but trying to line up a hit will most likely get you killed. The game is teaching you the dangers of temptation, which anyone who bought a Simpsons console game in the 1990s clearly needs a lesson in. Brilliant.
The green door leads to Bartzilla. The first segment of this level has you as a gigantic reptilian Bart who must somehow defend himself from constant assaults by smaller and faster enemies, while your hitbox takes up a huge chunk of the screen. You are in the position of a video game boss: this segment is clearly meant to teach empathy, showing you how little fun being the boss in a game would be. If you somehow get past this segment, you are forced to climb a skyscraper as a shrunken Bartzilla. Everything is reversed from the previous part of the level. You’re small, have one almost useless attack, and instead of auto-scrolling you are constantly knocked back whenever you take damage. Both sides of the coin cause pain and frustration, just like the choice the developers had between losing their job and making a terrible Simpsons game. More empathy, Bart’s Nightmare is a fantastic teacher.
I saved the best for last, the orange door leads to the Temple of Maggie. As a child, this was the only segment I couldn’t beat, and I still have never legitimately beaten it (even with save states, it is incredibly frustrating). The confusing tile puzzles and absurd leap in logic needed to survive (scrolling the camera ahead somehow triggers traps), combined with the extremely unforgiving lives system (you start with one life, and falling or a temple trap will instantly end it, going for the extra lives will just make the puzzle harder and likely get you killed), ensures that you will spend much more time wandering the barren wasteland that is the hub world looking for the increasingly rare paper that will take you back to the level doors. The message that life is mostly tedium interspersed with brief false hope and frustration is one that anyone who plays the game will keep with them forever.
Whether you somehow finish the game or finally die in the hub world after the tedium induced fatigue overpowers the frequent extra hitpoint powerups, you will be greeted with Bart waking up and getting the grade for his homework assignment. Even getting all the pages won’t guarantee the highest grade, there is a point system in the game. Putting a point system in a game with so many different gameplay styles, as well as an endless hub world, is absolutely nonsensical but makes perfect sense as dream logic. The ending and game over screen have no difference other than the grade Bart gets on his homework, which is something the character wouldn’t care about. A meaningless end to a meaningless quest, anyone who has ever accomplished something in a dream will be able to relate. There is no reward, no happiness, no sense of accomplishments. There is only Bart’s Nightmare.
Okay, breaking character, what do I really think of Bart’s Nightmare? Well, I think my “praise” got that through pretty clearly. Mini-game levels ranging from below average to atrocious, one of the worst hubworld systems I have ever seen in a game, there is nothing redeeming about the game other than the fact that many Simpsons games managed to be even worse. I hope you’ve enjoyed this installment of But Is It Art?, there will likely be more to come because I want to get SOMETHING out of playing games like this. See you next time!