ROMHACK FRIDAYS: Fester’s Quest (NES)

ROMHACK FRIDAYS aims to showcase some of the greatest ROM hacks both old and new. I hope to handpick some of the greatest hacks, fan translations, and complete conversions out there. Just because they’re old games, doesn’t mean they have to be stuck in the past.

For the inaugural ROMHACK FRIDAY, I’m delving into the topic of improvement patches. These types of hacks aim to improve the overall experience, usually without making any drastic changes. This is often seen in balancing difficulty, altering or removing frustrating mechanics, or fixing bugs. I felt this first post should be more personal, so I  picked a game from my childhood that frustrated me to no end. It had potential, but simple oversights made the game far more difficult than it needed to be. Let’s see how a few tweaks can make the world of difference.

Overview:

Fester’s Quest was developed by Sunsoft and released in 1989 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. You play as Uncle Fester of the Addams Family, as he battles his way through an alien invasion to save the city. You’ll find yourself blasting aliens apart for powerups, exploring a large city with many hidden paths and secrets, and meeting up with other prominent Addams family members for new items and weapons. Fans of Blaster Master by Sunsoft will feel immediately familiar with Fester Quest, as it uses the same top-down engine for its gameplay.

The game also mixes in adventure elements, giving you various tools to explore the city. Down in a dark-lit sewer? Use some handy light bulbs. Trying to enter a locked door? It’s a good thing aliens carry around keys. Add in some wonderful compositions by Naoki Kodaka, who worked on the music for Blaster Master and Batman, and you have what could have been an NES classic.

However, the brutal difficulty sours the overall experience. Fester has a measly two hit points, and when you die, its back to the beginning you go. Like Zelda 2, you retain your items and progress but have to go back through the same claustrophobic sewers and mazes you’ve gone in. Certain enemies can take a ton of damage and the game isn’t afraid of spawning dozens of them at any given time. The two weapons at your disposal come with some notable flaws. While the gun gives you the distance you need, it’s fairly weak. The whip, on the other hand, is quite devastating, but with only two hit points and strict hit detection, you’re going to end up falling back to your gun in most situations.

Weapon upgrades can help you fend off these extraterrestrial foes, but Sunsoft made one of the most frustrating inclusions, making the game so much harder than it needs to be. Enemies will often drop an item that downgrades your weapon and it’s indistinguishable from the regular weapon powerup. It’s insane how far you can get in the game, only to be swarmed by a group of bullet-sponges spitting out weapon downgrades, only to die. To make matters worse, because of the maze-like structure of Festers Quest, enemies will often spawn in inaccessible parts of the screen. If they have projectile attacks, you’re pretty much screwed. There are a later of small factors that hold Festers Quest back, but with a few small tweaks, just how far can Fester go?

The Hack: Fester’s Quest Improvement (2015) by the jabu

Fester’s Quest Improvement by the jabu eliminates weapon downgrades and gives you the ability to shoot through walls. Having to constantly avoid weapon upgrades during tough encounters can throw off your game and lead to so many avoidable deaths. By removing this feature, it relieves a lot of the stress of the late-game. Having the ability to shoot through walls can really come in handy.

Having only two hit points was a major issue in the original game. I would often myself playing rather conservatively in fear of taking damage. But with the improvements made to your weaponry, Festers Quest now flows more smoothly, giving you that much-needed leeway to take risks and explore areas you might not have otherwise.

The few small problems the patch introduces, might not even be considered as such. Earning the max weapon upgrade so quickly makes early portions of the game a cakewalk. You can tell the difficulty balance has been thrown off. However, it’s easy to overlook when dying meaning tearing through dozens of alien frogs and rats with a fully decked out gun on your way back. The other problem is that the main healing item, hot dogs, which you can buy from various vendors through the game, have had their price increased from $5 to $15. It isn’t much of a problem seeing as how much easier it is to tackle groups of enemies and collect money. Outside of these minor issues, the patch thankfully doesn’t seem to introduce any new glitches.

Verdict:

I adore these types of improvement patches; Minor tweaks that make a borderline unplayable game into somewhat of a hidden gem. The patch helps bring it up to the high standards we’ve come to expect from Sunsoft. The only other change I would have loved to have seen was an increase in hit points. Two hit points might get you through most of the game just fine, but when you’re dealing with shielded bosses who spam 3-way shots, it’s just not enough. Still, the changes made give you a better chance at building up your inventory when you’re facing off against the cheaper end-game bosses, so it kind of works out in the end.

Fester’s Quest might not be perfect, but its ambition shines through. Sunsoft could have easily given gamers yet another mediocre platforming licensed game. Instead, they tried to do something different. Maybe not all of it worked, but Fester’s Quest was far more creative than its other licensed competition and deserves a second chance. If you’ve never experienced Fester’s Quest, or are looking to revisit it, the jabu’s patch is essential.  Now go out and blast some alien frogs for me.

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