I've always loved house-building, life-simulating game The Sims. I was on the bandwagon from day one, ever since meeting the tutorial family, Bob and Betty Newbie, and finding out that they could make a baby by kissing back-and-forth for hours. Just like real life, of course.
Life most people, I would spend hours and hours building massive, hideous rectangles and filling them with storylines ripped right from a soap opera, except with more pool ladder-related deaths than usual.
While playing The Sims 2 in my parents' spare room, I attempted to recreate the Olympians from Ancient Greek myth, before giving up in a panic because of just how much incest was required. In The Sims 3, I had a family that was torn apart when the husband cheated on his wife with some floozy he met in France — but the wife got her revenge by running off with the butler. Who was a robot. In the Sims games, the stage is set for whatever weird story you want to tell, and all the tools are laid out ready for you.
But the mainstream PC games, The Sims 1-4, are relatively normal, all things told. Sometimes you'll get alien pregnancies and vampire invasions, and a few of the expansion packs explicitly add supernatural goings-on, but it's also perfectly possible to live a quiet life in a cottage on the outskirts of town and avoid all the kooky stuff, instead having a totally normal existence where your children have uncomplicated origins and everyone dies of old age. BOOORING.
This is not so with Maxis and EA's console-based Sims entries, which often stick more rigidly to a pre-determined story, and are completely wackadoo. I haven't played too many, because the quality differs vastly from game to game, but I did play an awful lot of The Sims: Bustin' Out on Game Boy Advance. I have learned in the years intervening that almost everyone — at least, in my friend group — has that one spin-off Sims game that they have fond memories of, and also nightmares about, so at least I'm not alone.
The Urbz: Sims In The City is the console game that came out after Bustin' Out, and depending on whether you play the handheld or console version, involves either befriending The Black Eyed Peas, or meeting vampires and travelling through time.
The Sims 2 on DS got even weirder, with cow cults, robots, aliens, and weird things happening in the desert. I highly recommend you read Kotaku Australia's Leah Williams on the subject of how fantastic the game is. I very much appreciate knowing that there's another writer out there with an obsession for a particular niche game. Leah, if you're reading this, let's be pals. (Mine is Fantasy Life, by the way.)
(Oh, and by the way — the Lead Writer for all of those games, Darby McDevitt, would later go on to be a Lead Writer on the Assassin's Creed games, and the Narrative Director of Assassin's Creed Valhalla. What a career.)
The premise of The Sims: Bustin' Out, however, is that your character is visiting their Uncle Hayseed's house for the summer, and you'll have to make money doing various job minigames in order to move out and buy your own house and decent furniture, rather than living in his barn. Haven't we all purchased a mansion while visiting family in the summer? What a normal thing to do.
Along the way, you'll meet a cast of weirdos, who will give you quests, and some can potentially move in with you if they like you enough. This includes characters like Mel Odious, a hippy with inner demons; Lottie Cash, who loves shopping; and Olde Salty, a crazy fisherman. Who wouldn't want to live with a guy you met just two weeks ago? Also very normal.
So far, so Sims, right? Angry hippies and money-grubbing gold-diggers aren't exactly new to the series, after all. But when you get introduced to bizarre new concepts — a homicidal rooster that's loose in town, an angry ghost that wants you to answer riddles, and the ending of the game, which has you acquiring riches, a mansion, and maybe even a lover before your uncle abruptly announces that you're an alien and forces you to get on a rocketship — the game stands out as something a little more unique than usual.
My experience of Bustin' Out was, perhaps, what made it such a memorable game for me: I played it almost entirely after my bedtime, sitting at my desk and listening to Pink's latest album. The sensory trifecta of the game, the darkness lit by a single kinda crappy desk lamp, and the dulcet tones of Pink are now all linked together in my mind; I can't listen to 'Trouble' without vividly remembering the lawnmowing minigame where you can "accidentally" run over your uncle's chickens. There's something about playing a creepy game at night, especially that specific creepiness of mid-2000s kids' games; it amps the bizarritude up by at least 200%. Fact.
It's been ten years since we last got an oddball, story-based Sims game. There was a brief heyday in which we received Bustin' Out, Urbz, Life Stories, Castaway Stories, and The Sims Medieval within the span of a few years — many of which were deeply flawed, underfunded, or shallow, but all of which attempted to revamp the well-known series in interesting ways. It makes sense that EA and Maxis are focusing their efforts on the multi-million selling main series, rather than making cult favourite spinoffs that aren't even guaranteed to be million-sellers, and I certainly can't reasonably expect them to return to the weird stuff — but all the same, I miss it.
Sometimes, when I write my Memory Paks, I realise that my memories are best preserved as perfect snapshots in time. I can't replicate the feeling of playing Pokémon Snap at an afterschool daycare with way too many sticky children and carpets that smelled like cat pee; even if I could, it wouldn't be the same. Actually, that might be a good thing.
Other times, the Memory Pak memories remind me of game experiences so good that I can't wait to relive them, like the twists in Ace Attorney, or that first time that Link steps out of the Temple of Time as an adult. There are memories, and there are moments, you see — some you can revisit, and some you can't.
The Sims: Bustin' Out isn't something I can revisit. It was a very specific time, place, and game, which was also a very specific product of its era. It's aged relatively well, I think, but I don't think I'll play it again any time soon — I'm just wondering if we'll ever get to return to the wacky side of Maxis... or if we should at all. Maybe the wacky days of the 2000s are best left in the past.