Review: Fester’s Quest – NES (Festival of Dread special)
In the 1980s, developers took quite a few liberties in adapting licensed properties into their video games. After all, this was the era of the yo-yo action of Goonies II, the salami-smacking heroism of Alf, and the pudding-tossing antics of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. In this environment, Sunsoft took on The Addams Family license, had a look at the competition and said, “Hold my beer.” If you had access to a set of characters who are basically a family of goth weirdos from a classic black and white TV comedy, what kind of game premise would you come up with? If you said, “Have them fight off an alien invasion using guns, whips and missiles,” then Sunsoft has the game for you.
Fester’s Quest (or occasionally referred to as Uncle Fester’s Quest) was released in 1989 by Sun Corporation (aka Sunsoft) for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The game puts the player in control of the titular Fester in a top-down action/adventure as he battles away the alien hordes who have come to attack Earth. Most of the game takes place on a suburban overworld where Fester must explore to find all manner of odd collectibles to advance, including keys, vice grips, light bulbs and money (for purchasing hot dogs). Spread across the world are access points to the sewers, which Fester must traverse in order to reach other areas of the map.
Your ultimate destinations are the large white buildings in which the bosses lurk, though you will have to successfully navigate a 3D maze before facing off against the bigger baddies. While the mazes themselves aren’t nearly as impressive as those in some of Fester’s Quest‘s contemporaries (see Phantasy Star), they’re a unique and charming addition to the game. There are no enemies or traps in these mazes, you just have to get through them correctly or it will cost you a key.
You start armed with a very simple gun, but as you progress, you will find additional items and weapons including missiles, dynamite, a whip, and a noose (which summons the Addams’ family butler, Lurch). You can “upgrade” your main gun as well, but take the word upgrade with a grain of salt. Sure, it gets more powerful, but it also starts to shoot in a wave pattern, and your shots stop when they hit a wall or other hard surfaces. It’s pretty annoying when you’re in a tight space. Actually, it’s almost worthless when you’re in a tight space, and it would have made the game far more enjoyable if the bullets penetrated walls like Samus Aran’s wave gun in the Metroid series. Uncle Fester will eventually gain a whip weapon from Morticia, and despite it’s limited reach, it is by far the better weapon for those tight corridors.
The enemy alien designs aren’t terribly inspired. Most resemble bugs and frogs, though there are a few exceptions. If you are able to reach the final stage (which takes place on the alien spaceship), you will at least be treated to a whole new set of enemy designs. The bosses are all unique, though defeating them can be quite a slog. All of them take ridiculous amounts of hits before they are defeated, and a couple of them even have shields, making landing your hits exponentially more difficult. If you don’t have an auto-firing controller, the later fights can take a draining 10-15 minutes to complete.
That brings us to one of the game’s biggest detriments: difficulty. Certainly many 8-bit games of the era were designed to be hard, but Fester’s Quest‘s difficulty is more annoying than it is engaging. In addition to the above-mentioned wave gun problems and overlong boss fights, Fester can take just two hits before death, and it’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed by enemies if you move too quickly. Your best bet is to progress very slowly and methodically, ensuring that you kill every enemy the moment they appear onscreen… and just ignore the mosquito shooting faces… and avoid the green blobs when you can. Those take forever to blast through. What? This doesn’t sound like fun?
Fester’s Quest has many flaws, and as such, it has a really bad reputation among retro gamers. Some of this may come from the game’s appearance in one of the Angry Video Game Nerd‘s early video rants, because I don’t remember the kids I grew up with hating Fester’s Quest. The game really isn’t all bad. Controlling Fester is intuitive enough, the graphics look better than decent for an 80s NES game, and I found the main overworld theme music to be relatively catchy.
You really can have some fun with Fester’s Quest in short spurts, but don’t expect to beat it. I got through the whole game, but I admit that I cheated to do so (the ending wasn’t much to see, anyway). I won’t buck the trend completely and say that Fester’s Quest is great, but with a few simple tweaks – dial down the collect-a-thon mechanics, allow the wave gun to penetrate walls, and cut the bosses’ stamina in half – and I dare say you might have a well-regarded gem on your hands… eh, that may still be a little strong. As is, I simply find Fester’s Quest to be “not very good.”