Interview: Fester's Quest

Fester’s Quest is a curious sight in the landscape of NES games based on movies and TV series. The Addams Family wasn’t particularly prominent during the late 1980s, and yet Sunsoft created a game all about it—and not just a predictable action game starring the members of Charles Addams’ macabre clan. No, Fester’s Quest is all about Uncle Fester fending off an alien invasion, with the rest of the family popping up to provide the pasty hero with potions, whips, and restorative vises.

That alone would mark Fester’s Quest as an oddity, but there’s more to its reputation. It's one of the toughest NES games around. Tougher than Battletoads. Tougher than Ninja Gaiden. Perhaps even tougher than that Captain Planet game. Fester can take only two hits (four if you uncover secret health boosts), enemies are relentless, and defeat sends Jackie Coogan’s finest television role back to the very start of the game. It vexed children of the NES era to no end, and many hate Fester’s Quest to this very day. I don’t think it’s a bad game, though. It feels a lot like the overhead sections of Blaster Master, and it has that sort of hyper-catchy music that Sunsoft always pulled off in their NES games. Plus it gave us this!

A lot about Fester’s Quest puzzled me, so I went to the source. Richard Robbins was the game’s producer (and pretty much its creator), while Michael Mendheim served as designer as well as the illustrator for the game’s cover (and over a dozen other game boxes). Both went on to more popular things: Robbins worked on the Desert Strike series and Crüe Ball, while Mendheim was part of Battle Tanx and the Army Men series. The two of them also crafted the cult classic Mutant League Football. In fact, Mendheim and others revived it this year—check out the website! Before all of this, though, they were the minds behind Fester’s Quest

Fester's Quest has a strange premise for a licensed game. How did Sunsoft decide to combine The Addams Family and an alien invasion? And why make Uncle Fester the hero?

Robbins: I had a dream, literally, for a game called "Uncle Fester's Playhouse." Pee-wee’s Playhouse was airing then. We came up with the alien idea as a quest, to save the family.

The Addams Family seems to have been a fairly quiet property in the late 1980s. Why did Sunsoft option it for a game? Did they get it as a package deal with Platoon?

Robbins:  I was a huge Addams Family fan. I called Charles Addams’ widow Lady Colyton literally at a chateau in France and started a dialog. It took many, many expensive long-distance calls and a sort of romancing to convince this regal lady to let us do a game. Lady Colyton kept talking about a movie deal, which I thought was a bunch of baloney at the time. The Japan folks at Sunsoft were extremely skeptical and gave me a real hard time. They really questioned who would care about this really old weird TV show.  

Three Irrelevant Things About The Sega Saturn

The Sega Saturn turns twenty years old today, November 22. That’s going by the launch date in Japan and not the sudden and problematic American debut. But no matter where you pinpoint the console’s birth, it’s a favorite of mine.

The Saturn doesn't get enough credit. The poor thing trailed the Sony PlayStation for nearly its entire life, and Sega never recovered from the damage done there. I had a PlayStation first, and yes, I liked it a little better. But I also bought a Saturn and realized how underrated it was. The Saturn had excellent ports of Capcom and SNK arcade games. The Saturn had weird, cool little titles like Burning Rangers and Sakura Wars and the Panzer Dragoon series. The Saturn let you play import games with ease. The Saturn turned me into a bigger game geek than I had ever been before, and it made me enjoy that.

Plenty of websites took a look at the Saturn this week, and you’ll see no shortage of recommendations when it comes to the system’s best games. It’s easy to find a rundown of just about every notable Saturn release. And I don’t know if I could really say anything new if I just went on and on about Darkstalkers or Steamgear Mash or Last Bronx.

So I won’t. Instead I’ll discuss three things that I remember about the Saturn and its under-appreciated library. Not one of these things really mattered in making the Saturn a magnificent sleeper system, but they were important to me. That's what counts here.

Time of Eve-rors

Animation mistakes are inevitable. They’re also amusing. Some fans laughed over a braid whiffing through Elsa’s arm during that big musical number in Disney’s Frozen. Others got angry about it, and that was doubly hilarious. After all, such mistakes are everywhere, from gleaming cinematic treasures to those dollar-bin knockoff cartoons seemingly composted of nothing but animation mistakes. Mike Toole put up a column and a Tumblr dedicated to anime gaffes, and this feed shows us that you’ll find goofs in just about every big-budget animated film.

But hey, those little slip-ups seldom harm the story. A security guard’s misshapen arm or a magical schoolgirl’s chameleon eyes won’t confuse the audience that much. At most, a few kids might wonder why Brawn and Windcharger show up in the background of third-season Transformers episodes even though they died horrifically in the movie. Then their parents can explain that cartoons are not always perfect and shatter one key childhood illusion.

My favorite animation error comes in Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s Time of Eve, and it may be the only time that such a mistake altered the entire context of a scene.

Time of Eve, or Eve no Jikan, is a six-part series set in a future where androids can pretty much look human—so much so that they wear legally mandated hologram halos. The TV even runs commercials admonishing citizens not to fall in love with machines. Average teenager Rikuo notices some odd datestamps surrounding his family’s house-bot, Sammy, and he and his friend Misaki track the mystery to a café called Time of Eve. Inside, androids discard their halos and act like regular humans, leaving newcomers like Rikuo and Masaki unable to tell just who’s a robot and who’s a meatform. 

Cry On Over

No video game ever made me cry. Nope, not one. Many games get to me in some way, because I’m a big, sappy, hopeless mark when it comes to full-bore blasts of melodrama. Yet I have a hard time remembering any game, book, movie, song, comic, painting, sculpture, water ballet, or 15th-century Italian woodcut that’s brought me to tears. I suspect I’m just not built to sob over fiction and art. That part of me prefers that I just sulk around stunned and despondent.

I don’t think I would’ve wept over Cry On, but I wish I could’ve found out.

Making us weep was, believe it or not, the goal of Cry On. Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi hoped that the game would make players cry, both in joy and sorrow, and so great was his ambition that he put it right there in the title. Cry On wasn’t a weird side project, either. Sakaguchi’s Mistwalker studio announced it late in 2005, with publisher AQ Interactive and developer Cavia on board. Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu signed up for the soundtrack, the illustrations came from Drakengard artist Kimihiko Fujisaka, and the budget hovered around $8.5 million.

Cry On promised more than wailing and rending of garments, of course. Described as an action-RPG, it showed a world not that different from a rudimentary Final Fantasy spread of medieval mythic scenery speckled with airships and other machine anachronisms. Here humans live alongside Bogles, glazed golems that transform from small totemic statues to fearsome giants. A particularly intelligent Bogle partners with the game’s heroine, a young woman named Sally.

Players were to control Sally, but the Bogle may have been the real star. According to interviews, the little ceramic gremlin would ride on Sally’s shoulder as she explores and solves those environmental puzzles that every action game demands somehow. Yet the Bogle would transform into its larger incarnation, changing its general form each time, and it could accessorize itself with rubble and other debris. The Bogle would handle much of the fighting, though Sally does have that knife on her.