Many people have called it one of the worst games to ever hit the NES back in the day. Many more have deemed it so frustrating as to be almost unplayable. Even the Angry Video Game Nerd has viciously attacked it in one of his episodes. And yet, somehow, it still holds a spot of nostalgia in those who can look past its flaws, and actually see something worthwhile within.
Fester's Quest has to easily be one of the most polarizing video games of the 8-Bit Generation. From its bizarre to almost nonsensical premise, right down to its extreme challenge that has made many a gamer break a Nintendo controller out of frustration, the game does have a lot going against it. And yet, I find myself bizarrely drawn to it. Not only did I actually pay for a complete in box copy, but it's one game that I find myself coming back to. It's oddly addictive in its own way, and despite the punishment it dishes out on a regular basis, I find myself always ready for more.
What is it about Fester's Quest that makes many dismiss it as garbage, and just as many declare it an underrated gem that has quite a few flaws, but is not terrible? And if so many people hate this game, why was it such a huge hit when it came out, going on to sell over a million copies, according to the game's creators? And why a game based on Uncle Fester from the Addams Family fighting aliens in the first place? With this article, I plan to look back at the story behind the game, as well as the game itself, and figure out just what is it about Fester's Quest.
So, let's start with the obvious question - Why do a video game based on the Addams Family at this specific time? When the game came out in 1989, the TV show had been off the air for 23 years. And the big budget Addams Family movie starring Raul Julia, Anjelica Huston and Christopher Lloyd wouldn't be out for another 2 years in 1991. It seems like such a random license for a video game, and many have speculated that it was originally intended to be an original title, but at some point, it had the Addams Family license slapped on. This is a good guess, but according to the game's lead producer and creator, Richard Robbins, the story behind the game is much simpler.
According to Robbins in an interview he gave back in 2014, he was inspired to make the game based on a dream he had one night where he was playing a video game called "Uncle Fester's Playhouse". He gave no details as to what exactly the game was like in his dream, but it apparently was enough to spark the inspiration within him to make a video game about the Addams, and specifically about Fester. After deciding to make the game, he got in touch with the widow of Charles Addams (the original creator of the characters), and tried to convince her to sell the rights to him. It took many long distance calls, as she was living in Paris at the time, but after much coaxing, she gave her blessing to do the game.
Blaster Master, an earlier Sunsoft title that shares a lot of similarities to Fester, because they were made by the same team of programmers.
His next step was to convince the publisher he worked for, Sunsoft, that it was a good idea. This was a much more difficult endeavor. Sunsoft, you see, was a Japanese game developer, and apparently many in Japan did not know anything about the Addams Family. He tried showing them episodes of the old TV show and telling them about the humor, but many did not get it, and questioned the wisdom behind making a game about it. He made many flights to Japan to visit Sunsoft's headquarters, and talk to them through an interpreter. However, once again, Robins was able to convince those skeptical to get behind his vision, and the game was assigned to the same programming team who had worked on Blaster Master, an earlier hit game for the Nintendo that Sunsoft had put out, and happens to share many similarities with Fester. The game was given a very rushed development schedule, as the company wanted it out in time for the Christmas shopping season. This deadline led to some of the more frustrating aspects of the game, which I will go into later.
So, just what is Fester's Quest about? Well, the titular Addams Family clan member is "moonbathing" on the front lawn of the Addams mansion one night, when he happens to witness a UFO come down from the heavens, and abduct the people of the city nearby. For some reason, Fester decides that he's the only one who can stop the aliens, so he picks up a gun, and starts fighting back against the alien invasion. The other Addams members do show up throughout the game to help Fester, usually by offering him items or weapons. It's a pretty random plot overall, and you can see why people think that this was intended to be an original "battle an alien invasion" game that just happened to have the Addams Family license slapped on it at some point in its development. And while the game does feature all the main characters and a few references from the TV show, it never really feels like an Addams Family video game at any point.
The majority of the game features Fester in an overhead view exploring the streets of the city, and fighting the various aliens that he encounters. The aliens range from everything from spore-like creatures that are stationary and block the road, to frogs that leap about and stick their long tongues out at Fester, which makes him not only take damage, but also slows him down. (And Fester is a pretty pokey video game character to start with.) The exploration of the city plays a lot like the original Legend of Zelda, or the overhead sections of the previously mentioned Blaster Master. There is no map of the town included in the game or in the package itself, so you will have to draw a map, or use an FAQ to find your way around.
Maybe these graphics were kind of cool in 1989, but finding your way through these areas can be monotonous unless you have a good map or guide.
Around the city, you find two different kinds of buildings. One are houses that hold one of the Addams Family members, such as Pugsley, Wednesday, Morticia and Thing. They will give you helpful items or weapons to aid you. The other kind of building look kind of like office buildings. When you enter these, the game will switch to a primitive first person 3D view. You have to explore the maze-like structure of the building, and since there are no landmarks or special features in the buildings you can explore, it can be all too easy to get lost. However, these buildings are a necessary evil in the game, as they all lead to one of the alien bosses that you must defeat in order to make progress in the game.
The sewer blobs. Quite possibly the most relentless and frustrating enemy in the game.
The other main area in the game are the sewers, which must be accessed to make your way around the game's world. As in video game tradition, many of the roads Fester explores on the surface are in bad shape, and have massive pits which block you from accessing different areas of the city. Therefore, Fester must venture underground to the sewers and tackle another maze-like area in order to find the exit, which will place him on a different part of the overhead map that he could not previously explore. Fortunately, these areas are portrayed in the traditional overhead view of the streets, so it's a little bit easier to find your way around. There are a ton of frustrating enemies down in the sewers, such as rats, and blobs that constantly divide themselves and respawn as you shoot at them, so don't let your guard down too much. You also have to make sure you have a steady supply of light bulb items in your inventory, as whenever you enter the sewers, it is completely pitch black at first unless you activate the bulb item. This is a reference to the gag in the show where Fester would stick a bulb in his mouth, and it would light up.
So, just how does Fester plan on conquering this alien menace all by himself? He starts the game with a basic gun that has low range and minimum damage. However, when you destroy certain enemies on either the streets or in the sewers, you can find upgrades which are represented by a small icon with the word "gun" in blue letters. These power up Fester's gun to have a longer range, and a more powerful shot that causes more damage to enemies. Fester's gun can be powered up a maximum of 8 times, and the very best advice I can give to anyone who tries to conquer this game is to maximize your gun to Level 8 as early as possible. When the game first starts, just spend your time killing enemies and picking up gun power ups until you are at the maximum level. Yes, this can be extremely time consuming, as the enemies drop these items at random, and sometimes they are not generous at dropping the items you need. But, you have no idea how much it cuts down on the frustration if you start this game off with a maximum powered gun.
Hope you have a powered up gun for the bosses, because some of them are tough.
Here's the thing, however, and one of the many reasons why certain gamers find this title needlessly frustrating. The enemies can also drop icons that have the word "gun" written in red letters as well. These items will decrease your weapon by one level, downgrading you to a weaker weapon. There will be numerous times when the enemies will drop this downgrade item, and it will block your path, so you have to wait for it to go away before you can progress. This is especially true in the sewer levels, where the paths are much more narrow. Even as someone who appreciates Fester's Quest, I have to admit, this was completely unnecessary and just a bad idea on the part of the design team. There's no need for a downgrade item other than to frustrate the player, and it can sometimes be all too easy to accidentally pick one up when you're fighting a horde of monsters.
Aside from his gun, Fester has a slew of other items at his disposal. If he finds Morticia Addams in one of the houses on the overhead map, she will give him a whip to use as a secondary weapon, which can be upgraded (and downgraded) just like his gun. And defeating the various aliens that inhabit the maps will provide Fester with a variety of items that they sometimes drop when killed. These include keys which allow you to access the houses and buildings on the overhead map, money that Fester can use to buy hot dogs at different food stands scattered around the overworld that replenish his health, potions that serve the same purpose as the hot dogs, invisible potions that will make Fester invincible for about 10 or 15 seconds, TNT that Fester can place in the path of a slew of enemies to blow them up, and even a noose which will summon Lurch the Butler, who will destroy all the enemies on the screen when he is called.
"Luke, I am your father..."
So, Fester's Quest seems like it has a lot going for it. It's exploration-heavy, it has a lot of weapons and items to use, and the game is fairly good at giving you new enemies and challenges, so it never becomes monotonous. The graphics, while not the best the NES ever saw, are decent as well. The character sprites are large and detailed, especially the end bosses, most of whom can take up a good part of the screen. You can clearly tell what everything is supposed to be, and the game is fairly colorful to boot. The only thing I find funny about the look of the game is something that takes me back to when my best friend and I played through this as a kid. We both always thought the sprite for Uncle Fester looked more like Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi, after Luke took the helmet off, and it revealed the bald, pale head underneath. Once you look at him that way, it's impossible to see him any other way.
Naoki Kodaka's soundtrack to Fester's Quest. Like a lot of his work on the NES, it's some of the best music to grace the system.
And then there is the music. Sunsoft had a tradition for pushing the NES sound chip to its limits, and Fester's Quest is no exception. The soundtrack was composed by Naoki Kodaka, who was one of the chief composers at the company. He also did the incredible music for the previously mentioned Blaster Master, the NES game of Batman, Journey to Silius (one of the most underrated NES soundtracks ever), and Gremlins 2 for the NES. If you've played any of these games, the music is most likely the first thing that stuck out to you. Fester's soundtrack is quite diverse, featuring a quick and hard-driving theme for the overworld sections that really gets you pumped, and more dark and ominous music for when you are exploring the sewers. The game's title screen is even accompanied by an incredibly cool-sounding 8-Bit rendition of the Addams Family theme song that has long been a favorite of mine. I have included the entire soundtrack above for your listening pleasure.
So, with all this, why is Fester's Quest considered a frustrating relic of the 8-bit era by so many? Well, remember how I mentioned earlier that the game was under a strict deadline to be out in time for the holiday season? Well, unfortunately, this meant that the game was not tested as well as it could have been before it was released, and one key feature was left out - Namely, there is absolutely no save points or checkpoints. Fester's Quest is essentially designed to be beaten in one sitting. And while this is not impossible, it can be aggravating. There is a "Continue" option when you die, but this takes you back to the very beginning of the game. And since Fester's Quest can be fairly lengthy, even if you know what you're doing, that means you have to backtrack through the entire game, even if you made it to the very end and happened to die.
The commercial for Fester's Quest emphasized the challenge of the game, which was due in part to a mistake made by the programming team.
According to that previously mentioned interview with the designers of the game, this was an oversight on their part. When they were creating the game, they had instant access to any area of the game, so the thought never occurred to them to put in a save or password feature. It wasn't until after the game was finished that they realized their mistake. So, what did Sunsoft do? They decided to use it in their marketing! That's right, the actual commercial for Fester's Quest emphasized the challenge of the game, and that if you made one mistake, you started over at the beginning of the game. It's funny to think that this design flaw became the main selling point of the advertising. It must have worked, because like I said, the game was a huge hit!
Adding to the difficulty is the fact that Fester can only take two hits before he dies for the first half of the game. You can find two extra health units hidden in the game that increases his life meter to a grand total of four. One of the health units is hidden in the very first 3D building level you come across by walking into a random dead end. And the second is found much later in the game, where you have to walk through a hidden path through some trees that leads you to the Addams Family Mansion. The problem is, both of these are hidden so well and the game makes no mention of this, so a lot of gamers back in the day probably were forced to play through the game with only two life units. Unless you knew about these secrets that could increase your health, you pretty much were fighting a losing battle.
A controller with "Turbo Fire" options is your friend in this game.
The other major issue is with how quickly enemies can respawn. Sometimes, it seems like the game will fill the screen with one enemy after another. Often, if you kill one, another will immediately pop up and take its place as soon as its gone. This leads to a lot of pressing down on the B button on the NES controller (which fires Fester's gun), sometimes shooting constantly just in case something suddenly pops up. Oh, and you can't hold down the button for auto fire, either. The best way to play Fester's Quest is with a controller that has a "Turbo" ability, such as the NES Advantage. Heck, even the instruction manual suggests a Turbo Fire feature is useful, so the programmers obviously knew something was up. Take the manual's advice on this one. It will save you from some severely cramped thumbs.
Despite these difficulties, Fester's Quest remains perfectly playable. In fact, the programmers also gave you a lot of advantages in order to help you beat the game. For one thing, when you continue, even though you start back at the very beginning and have to trek back to where you were, you do at least start with all the weapons and items you had when you died, so you can skip certain areas, since you don't have to get the items all over again. And also, whenever you beat a boss, all of your health-restoring items and invisible potions get refilled to the max number. So, a good strategy is to try to save those items until the boss, and then use them to help you beat them, since you'll get a whole new stock automatically when you win.
The game's final boss might be intimidating, but he's a push over if you know what to do.
Even if you wind up with few healing potions, the bosses in this game are not exactly tough. They follow simple patters, and you can usually dodge their attacks easily enough. They just take an extremely long time to kill. But, if you know the strategy, you can make short work out of them. Heck, the game's final boss (a giant alien brain-like creature) can actually be beaten without even getting hurt. If you stand in just the right spot near the bottom of the screen, all of his attacks will miss you, so you can just stand there and easily pick him off with the "Missiles" items that you get from Thing, which fly around the screen, striking any enemy who might be in their path. Heck, there is even a cheat built into the game that will kill any boss instantly! Just don't use it on the final boss, or else it will crash the game. And honestly, you should try to beat this game legit, as it's not as tough as some people may lead you to believe.
It's little things like this that make Fester's Quest a lot more manageable. Is this a tough game? Yes. Did it need some more fine tuning before it went to store shelves? Most definitely. But, I really don't think this game is "broken" or unplayable, as many seem to suggest. Heck, I have even heard some people say this is harder than Battletoads for the NES. I have to wonder if those people actually gave this game a chance, because this is so much less frustrating than a game of Battletoads.
To me, Fester's Quest is a game that you have to take slow and deliberately. If you just try to rush right in, you'll get overwhelmed by the numerous monsters quickly. It's definitely a game that rewards strategy. You have to know when to use items like Invisible Potions (which will allow you to run right through enemies if they get too numerous) and you also have to know your way around the game's world in order to efficiently make your way through. Fortunately, this is not as hard as it sounds. Despite the exploration theme, this is not as huge of a game world as say the original Legend of Zelda. And there are actually very few dead ends or alternate paths. You can quickly memorize where you need to go, and before long, you'll be able to run through the game in an hour or so without losing a life.
These frog enemies may seem harmless, but don't rush into battle, and take it slow.
This game rewards patience. If you power up both your gun and whip weapon to maximum as quickly as possible, you will find yourself having a much easier time, so it pays to grind for weapon power ups. Plus, use the advantages that the game gives you! Don't be stingy with your health and invisibility items if you need them, but don't be reckless, either. This is a game that you have to go about slowly to win. Maybe that's what frustrates people. Fester's Quest may be about blasting aliens, but it's not Contra. It's deliberate, and you kind of have to play by the game's rules in order to win. But, once you have it down, I think you will find it's not quite as hard as you might think, or remember if you played this in your youth.
Having recently replayed through the game for the first time in years, I found this to be highly enjoyable. Yes, it has its shortcomings, but so do a lot of NES games that we used to play. This is a difficult game, but far from an impossible one. I have since learned how to beat the game without dying, and I'm certainly not an expert player. I simply learned to use the advantages I had, and went about it slowly. If you can do this, I think Fester's Quest can be a rewarding experience. It may not be perfect, but it's got some fun areas (the final UFO stage is especially tough, but fun to conquer), and the graphics and music are memorable. Plus, once you have figured it out, the game can be quite addictive. You just have to keep on playing and perfecting your strategy. All of the enemies and bosses have a weakness you can exploit, and half the fun is discovering them.
In my personal opinion, Fester's Quest is a game that has gotten a much worse reputation than it deserves. Maybe this game frustrated you as a kid, but I implore you to go back with adult eyes and try it again if you did. It does not deserve to be in the trash pile that so many reviewers have placed it. Yes, the game can be frustrating, but so can a lot of games from the era. I had a lot of fun rediscovering this one, and feel it deserves a second chance.
And seriously, if you're one of those people who think this is harder than Battletoads, go play the two games back-to-back, and tell me again which one is harder.