The Simpsons: Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror
Game Boy Color
Genre: Action Platformer
My first introduction to horror growing up came in the form of television specials that would pop up around the Halloween season. I vividly remember episodes of Home Improvement, Roseanne, and Boy Meets World that entranced me as a kid. Honestly, they probably scared me a bit, too, even though they’re probably pretty laughable to me today. They were a good gateway into a genre that I love now, though, and my gaming and movie tastes might be fairly different if it weren’t for those spooky interludes in my sitcom watching days.
As it happens, I also watched a lot of The Simpsons growing up. Like most other sitcoms, they had a Halloween episode carved out each year, too, called the Treehouse of Horror due to the framing narrative involving the stories being told in the oft-utilized structure in the family’s backyard. As an anthology of short Simpson-flavored homages, this appealed to me since I enjoyed reading and the specials were well-produced, I’ve always held a special place in my heart for them.
Imagine my delight, then, when I was looking through my collection for something a bit scary to play while leading into the spooky season (yeah, I start early) and stumbled across The Simpsons: Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror. How this had slipped under my active radar, I’m not entirely sure, but I made a quick plan to rectify the problem. After some quick preparation- and honestly, setting myself up for the possibility that the game could be terrible since I had never heard of it and it’s a licensed game- I jumped into the shoes of the familial quintet to see if I was in for a trick or a treat.
Halloween is here, and The Simpsons are celebrating the way they always do. Through a series of stories inspired by other films and horrific scenarios, they each take a turn with a different spin on a classic plot meant to chill, intrigue, and bring a few laughs in the process. Much like the episodes of the same name, Treehouse of Horror is tough to give an overarching plot to in the classic sense. While there’s a “level select” screen displaying each window in the titular abode lighting up as each “story” is completed, each level takes one of the Simpson family members into their own horror-tinged tale and all of them are based on actual vignettes from the Treehouse of Horror specials.
“Bad Dream House” finds Bart looking for fuses to light up his house and save the family dog, Santa’s Little Helper while “Vlad All Over” places Homer as a vampire hunter seeking out the aged bloodsucker (played, of course, by series antagonist, Mr. Burns). “Plan 9 from Outer Springfield” stars Marge running to save her family from zombies taking over their town while “Nightmare Cafeteria” (notably my favorite tale from the shows themselves) features Lisa trying to save her trapped fellow students from being made into lunch meat by the faculty of Springfield Elementary. A few others are represented in the mix, but in general, the “plot” of the game changes between stages, offering up a variety of narratives to play through. Mechanics
As with the plot of the game, the mechanics of each stage stay relatively similar with a bit of deviation to keep things interesting. Many of the levels include basic platforming including moving with the directional pad, jumping with one button, and using some kind of weapon with the other. While navigating the levels, there are health pick-ups (usually in the form of beautifully frosted pink donuts) and the characters each get four hearts worth of damage. On average, this winds up translating into three collisions with enemies or obstacles, as the enemies do varying degrees of damage. If you run out of energy or your time limit runs out before you complete the stage, you lose one of your lives. Thankfully, the game is generous with continues, offering five full chances by default to jump back into the game.
Each level plays out as its own game, bringing individual control alterations to keep things engaging. “Bad Dream House” sets the player up with basic platforming exploration, arming Bart with his slingshot and the ability to move around and jump. It acts as a tutorial to ease the player in as the next level, “Flying Tonight” puts the player in the wings of Maggie who has been turned into a fly and has to hold down the jump button and release it to flutter up and down the screen to achieve her goal and clear the stage. “Nightmare Cafeteria” adds a stealth element, allowing Lisa to press against a wall by pushing Up against a flat surface to hide from her would-be-pursuers.
The true referential treatment, though, comes from the levels “Plan 9 from Outer Springfield” and the King Kong homage, “King Homer”. In the former, Marge has a kind of vacuum/gun that she carries in a top-down run-and-gun fashion, strafing left and right as she shoots zombies and progresses up the screen a la games like Commando and Gunsmoke from the NES days. “King Homer” plays a lot like Rampage with Homer climbing up buildings and jumping on tanks to destroy them as he makes his way through the city. The Treehouse of Horror episodes have always given strong nods to a number of works across pop culture and media; the game doing the same to other popular games and genres makes a lot of sense. The Good, The Bad, And…
To knock one fear out of the way immediately, this game feels like it has a lot more love to it than a lot of licensed games. Not only does it feel like a Greatest Hits tribute to the well-loved Halloween specials, but it is clear that some effort went into trying to make each story feel like its own short-form game. Not only that, but the game doesn’t just rely on character familiarity to make an effective work. “Vlad All Over” and “Nightmare Cafeteria” actually take a bit of strategy to get through in one piece. “Plan 9 from Outer Springfield” takes some strong twitch gaming skills to succeed at, too, but it isn’t so difficult that it’s insurmountable. It’s a short game, but it’s well designed for the most part.
Are there a few pain points? Sure. The time limit in “Nightmare Cafeteria” considering it’s a stealth level feels painfully too short. In “If I Only Had Body”, Homer has to collect pieces of himself and return them to a surgical table- but he can only carry one at a time and has to cross half of the level to place the part he has before he can go grab another one. Despite solid design choices, some of the levels do have some quirks that make them fall just short of stellar.
Treehouse of Horror does do its best to be a serviceable game, though, while retaining the feeling of the show it’s based around which can’t be said for all of the games under The Simpsons brand. There’s a password feature, respawn points are plentiful and never set the player back frustratingly far, and most of the major players in the series appear in one way or another. The game may not be a classic or set any milestones to live up to, but it’s one of the best licensed games I’ve played in a while. Presentation
Visually, the game is crisp given the hardware it’s on. The environments are well-conceived and even have moments of beauty (for example, the landscape in the background when Homer reaches the castle roof in “Vlad All Over” is kind of breathtaking). There are some strange objects to decipher every so often, occasionally blending pickups into the scenery or making an item here or there indistinguishable as to what it’s supposed to be. In the end, it looks nice enough but its trouble spots are noticeable.
The music is honestly a lot of fun to listen to. Despite a few of the themes just being riffs on the earworm title orchestration from the show itself, the composers make each theme feel unique and less derivative than they probably should feel. Only one theme- sadly from “Nightmare Cafeteria”- gets into a drone that slips from mildly creepy to monotonous and irritating. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the sound design in this game overall. Conclusion
Given my past with the earlier Simpsons game efforts, my expectations were low coming into Treehouse of Horror. In general, I’ve really enjoyed the episodes and was wary about the translation to a game- especially for an early handheld system like the Game Boy Color. Not only did it easily step over that low bar that I had set, it turned around and set the bar higher up for other licensed games coming after it, Simpsons brand or not.
Clocking in at about two hours of dedicated gameplay or so, Treehouse of Horror is a short trip down memory lane for any fan of the early Simpsons episodes. One might expect there to be weaker or stronger entries to unevenly weigh the game and bring down its quality as a result. If I had to choose, I could pick a couple of levels that I didn’t like as much as the rest. That wasn’t due to quality, though. It was due to personal preference. When all is said and done, Treehouse of Horror does a bang-up job of being entertaining, interesting, and not overstaying its welcome to capitalize on its source material.