You can really do a lot with game design. Designers can create worlds of deep richness, complex and dynamic stories, and innovative ways of interacting with the game world. More often than not, though, development studios opt to simply take an idea that’s been done, make some small chances and throw a lot of money at it. The worst offenders are often licensed games, videogames that are based around intellectual property from movies, television shows or other sources. As players and critics, it’s easy for us to point our finger at the scores of lackluster titles that are released on modern platforms, standing on the shoulders of the great designers of yesteryear. We often forget that there were still some horribly designed games back in the day. Worse than that, some of us actually liked them. While most of these games just make us cringe to play today, they are excellent examples of what not to do in game design. If we look closely, we may even find a few things that the creators of these games actually did right.
One of the more bizarre examples of a game based on licensed intellectual property was the 1989 game Fester’s Quest for the NES. The game was (very loosely) based off the popular television series The Addams Family (which was, in turn, based of a series of comics that originally ran in The New Yorker). The game’s ill-conceived plot revolves around Uncle Fester saving the town from an alien invasion. For those who may not be familiar with the show, it was not remembered as an action-packed sci-fi thriller. Other than its titular character and some still-frame cameos from some of the other family members, the game has nothing to do with the show at all.
The real problem with Fester’s Quest isn’t the inconsistency with the original show, but the poor game mechanics. Fester’s signature item in the game is his gun. Though I think the artists were trying to make it look like some kind of antique blunderbuss, what we’re left with more closely resembles a plunger. This gun shoots a variety of different projectiles, very few of which travel in a straight line. The ability to shoot non-linear projectiles can be quite helpful in many games, such as the Wave Beam from Metroid. Unlike the Wave Beam, however, Fester’s projectiles can’t pass though walls, making nearly all of the gun’s possible upgrades useless in the narrow passageways that make up most of the game. Even the maximum upgrade, which is really the only one that gives you a chance of killing most enemies, will stop short if you are standing too close to a wall. The difficulty of hitting enemies is further complicated by the fact that many of them can jump, avoiding even well-aimed shots half of the time.
Another interesting quirk of the gun is the fact that there are both upgrades and downgrades dropped by enemies. Since all but the highest setting on the gun are ineffective, downgrades make you a sitting duck. Since the levels are designed as mostly narrow passageways, weapon downgrades often block your path. With no way around, all you can do is sit and wait for them to disappear. The idea of weapon downgrades isn’t necessarily a bad one. Other games, such as Cave Story, feature weapons that can be downgraded under certain conditions. In Fester’s Quest, the idea was simply implemented poorly. With different levels of power, upgrading your gun is a very tedious process. Accidentally collecting downgrades forces the player to embark once more on the tedious task of searching for an upgrade before a dangerous enemy comes along. Also, since the downgrades are items, the best way to deal with them is simply to wait until they disappear. This method of coping doesn’t test the player’s skill, it simply slows the game down. Had the developers been really creative with this mechanic, they could have devised reasons that downgrades could be desirable. Making a certain type of gun more effective at killing certain enemies or able to unlock hidden paths that the more powerful gun cannot (similar to switching between the Wave Beam and the Ice Beam in Metroid) could have made the mechanic fun. As it is, the mechanic is simply irritating.
While Fester’s Quest has its share of downright bad design decisions, it also has a lot of potential that simply went unfulfilled. One of the mediocre aspects of the games that could have been truly amazing was its level design. Although the game is presented from a Zelda-style top-down view, the gameplay itself is surprisingly linear. Though you find yourself winding your way through streets, sewers and seaside boardwalks, the game is designed as a single path that is wrapped through the world with very few sidetracks to explore. Since a fair amount of the game revolves around acquiring new weapons and items from the various houses scattered about the town, it would have made sense for there to have been multiple paths, interesting puzzles and secret rooms all over the place. In the game itself, however, there are only two real secrets, an extra box of health found in a very conspicuous building and another in a hallway inside an otherwise empty warehouse (it doesn’t help that the item itself is invisible, you just have to stumble about until you find it). As you play the game, you feel like there should be so much to explore, but those who attempt to stray from the path are rewarded with little more than a few short dead end streets.
Like the level design, the boss fights in the game started out in a good direction, but fell short of being great. The first boss attacks the player with his two whip-like arms. He follows the player left and right, but has a very predictable attack that the player can dodge by moving back and forth. The second boss is armed with two whips and attacks in a similar manner to the first. This boss, however, will move in all four directions, following the player and attacking much more quickly. The player can use the back and forth technique he learned fighting the first boss to avoid being whipped to death, but in order to actually shoot the boss, the player must modify his steps into more of a circular pattern, shooting during the brief window between the boss’ attacks. This sort of incremental increase in difficulty is how a good designer can use these boss battles as a kind of tutorial for the more difficult battles at the end of the game. This means that the player will be prepared for the hard fights and will feel less frustration from being confused at his objectives. Unfortunately for Fester’s Quest, the format of boss fights changes with the third boss, who flings projectiles instead of attacking with whips. He also sports a shield, which renders your gun, which you used on the first two bosses, useless. While the purpose of the shield is probably to encourage the player to use his Castlevania-esque whip, which can be swapped in as an alternate primary weapon, trying to fight the third boss with your short-range whip is somewhat difficult. An easier solution is to simply use your missiles, which will fly around the screen and attempt to hit any enemies they can. From this point on, the intricate dance you learned on the first two bosses is forgotten, and boss battles become a slow, tedious process of pressing the missile button over and over as you try to avoid projectiles.
It’s fairly easy to rag on a game like Fester’s Quest. The poor design choices present in the game are pretty glaring. Yet despite the terrible weapons, slow progress and linear path, I thought that this game was awesome as a kid. Even today, the game had enough nostalgia for me that I downloaded a ROM to play it again. I suffered through all the narrow passageways and annoying bosses until I beat it (which gave me new appreciation for my cousin, who managed to beat the game back on the old NES without a save function). What was it that the developers got right? Why did this game stand out?
I think the thing that redeems Fester’s Quest as a game is precisely what most licensed videogames lack – originality. Most of the later Addams Family games would lack this, being little more than Mario clones. With Fester’s Quest, however, the developers made the game that they wanted, even if it had little to do with the licensed property. Despite its many flaws, the game stands on its own as a game with its own distinct style of gameplay. Perhaps that’s why IGN named it the 45th greatest NES game ever made. I actually played the game long before I had actually seen the television show on which it was based. To me, it was just a game about fighting aliens. In this game, however, the protagonist was not an elite soldier or hired mercenary, but a strange old man with macabre tendencies and spooky abilities. I found this odd juxtaposition strangely compelling. I suppose I still do.
It’s possible that Fester’s Quest could have been a really amazing game, were it not for a few major flaws. Instead, it will probably be forever remembered as a cautionary tale for aspiring game designers (and a guilty pleasure for those of us who loved it as kids). It should also serve as a reminder that even terrible games sometimes have a few good things to show us about game design.