Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Freddi Fish 2: The Case of the Haunted Schoolhouse (1996)

I've found the original CD-ROM releases harder to track down in thrift stores of late, so I was glad the whole Humongous Entertainment library of Junior Adventures has become available on Steam.  This week, I'm playing Freddi Fish 2: The Case of the Haunted Schoolhouse, published in 2006.  It's the second in the Freddi Fish series, starring a helpful young fish (who is meant to be female, apparently, though the name is conveniently ambiguous) who spends her time solving simple community mysteries.  This one, as the name suggests, concerns an apparently haunted schoolhouse.

Humongous Entertainment was founded by Ron Gilbert (The Secret of Monkey Island), and he licensed the classic Lucasarts SCUMM point-and-click engine for his company's work.  This game uses the 640x480 resolution version, which remained in use at Humongous for some years after Lucasarts transitioned to 3-D, and takes advantage of CD-ROM storage with plenty of detailed, colorful artwork, a huge amount of animation, and quality voice and music tracks.  The Steam editions actually run on ScummVM, maintaining compatibility with current hardware.
I realize many of my hardcore adventuring readers won't find Freddi Fish 2 challenging enough to tackle; it's aimed at younger children and the plot is very straightforward, livened up with plenty of non-essential clickable interactivity for the fun of it.  But I'd still encourage you to sample something from the Humongous library at some point, just to see what the company did with the animated adventure genre during a period when most other commercial activity had ceased.  Beyond this point, I'll be detailing my playthrough experience and there are certain to be...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

The story begins as Freddi Fish and her friend Luther are trying to make their way to school on time, with Luther carrying his Codfish Commando action figure and Freddi's inventory empty.  We can only travel to the right, following a sign leading to the schoolhouse.

Clicking on a harp on the next screen creates musical accompaniment for a short song by our heroes concerning their readiness for school -- this game is full of these brief musical numbers.  As weenter the schoolhouse, we learn (with considerable economy of storytelling) that the young guppies are hiding because a ghost has been scaring them and stealing their toys.  The same befalls Luther, as a ghost that looks suspiciously like a shark in a sheet makes off with his action figure, and our plot is underway.

Freddi is quite plainly skeptical about the existence of ghosts, something not often seen in children's entertainment, and she vows to track down the ghost and reclaim the stolen toys.  We can prompt the schoolteacher to sing a song by clicking on some sheet music on the wall.

There are plenty of other clickables here, but we'd best get to work by exiting the school and looking for clues.  The "ghost" obliges by lurking on the next screen, exiting down the stairs before Freddi and Luther arrive.  We can acquire a pair of plastic-coated safety scissors here, reminding me that it's a good reason to click on everything just in case an object proves portable.  Fortunately, we don't have to wait for the incidental animations to finish before starting another one or exiting the room, so we can click merrily away, launching a bunch of clickable gags without getting bogged down.

Continuing down the stairs, it appears we're meant to be tracking the ghost, who continues to appear and let us know where he's headed.  We finally catch up with him in the school basement, where he leaves a piece of his sheet behind, confirming it's just a costume.  Freddi draws up plans for a ghost trap, requiring us to track down a trident, a life preserver, a diver's helmet, some rope, and a pulley.  So our main objectives appear to be laid out now.

Our heroes hide as the ghost returns, revealing itself to be the two incompetently villainous sharks from the first Freddi Fish game, Boss and Spongehead, in disguise.  They will return from time to time, but our fishy friends can always hide when we hear them coming and we're free to continue exploring.

We can enter a deeper hall, where we find a coral formation resembling rope but not functioning as such.  A room at the end of the hallway provides a book about untying knots, which we can take with us, and a chute here leads into deeper, darker quarters where we can acquire a purple sea urchin.  This appears to be the end of the line in this area, so we'll work our way back outside the school now.  This is a new part of the map, skipped over during our earlier visit to the school, acting as a hub with signs leading in several directions.

We'll head right (east?) to visit the Old Ruin first.  A little fish here named Casey loves math and science and has lost his glasses, not that there's any cause-and-effect relationship there... oh, wait, there is -- his eyes bugged out reading Scientific Aquarium magazine and knocked them off his face.  His glasses appear to have fallen down a hole, too small for Freddi to enter, but Luther is able to go exploring -- he bounces around down below but doesn't come up with the glasses.  We have to enter again and actively guide him down a specific path to locate them (there are only two possible paths, so this isn't difficult or tedious.)  We can't go back the way Luther came due to a strong current, so we'll go another way to return to our starting point.  In return, Casey gives us a high-powered slingshot that shoots super-sneaky turbo rocks.

Continuing to the right, we meet a sea turtle who is always at home wherever he happens to be.  He doesn't seem to need anything from us at the moment, so we'll continue east to an old, sunken temple dominated by a statue of King Neptune.


He's holding a trident -- can we take it?  We can, but it's stuck -- the ceiling doesn't provide enough headroom to slide it out of the statue's grasp, notwithstanding the archaeological damage / cultural looting this casual theft would appear to represent.

A sliding tile puzzle is available here, above the trident, and if we can arrange it so the open spot is right over its tip... yep, that works, and now we only need four more items.  I didn't initially try to solve the puzzle and was surprised that we don't need to, but it's complicated by one big tile that's twice as large as the others.  We earn a little fanfare if we get everything in place, but that's our only reward.

We can continue from here, heading to the upper right to find a baited fishhook.  Freddi prevents the hungry Luther from taking a bite out of it, asking only that he "stop overacting!" in return for saving his life.  We can poke at the worm with the trident, causing the fisherman above to reel it in, but it returns.  The scissors work to sever the line, adding the chocolate covered worm doodle to Freddi's inventory.  Humongous Entertainment's very first character Putt-Putt puts in a brief cameo here on an underwater television set, and this area is otherwise a dead end so we'll head back to the schoolhouse.

Northeast of the school, we meet a manta ray who plays the blues with a cello.  He's not particularly fond of kids, and persists in trying to get them to move along, but if we click on his instrument he'll inform us (in song) that he likes to trade for things.  We have nothing that we can use with him -- some items remain permanently in inventory, others can be manipulated but don't do anything here, so we'll have to keep looking.

Past the ray, we find a Pulley Emporium, where perhaps we can buy the pulley we need to build our trap.  We also find a movie theatre and a Hall of Fame in this part of the ocean.  At the movies, we can watch brief scenes from a number of movies we can select on the "Now Playing" display, including William Shakespeare's Chumlet, a drag strip movie called The Krill Seekers, a horror film involving a mummified, canned sardine, Codfish Commando, Fish Gordon, an ad for Worm Doodles, and a Spy Fox trailer.  There are 16 of these short animations to watch, and none are essential to gameplay -- it's all just for the entertainment of the player (and the animators, one suspects.)

The Pulley Emporium is run by a genial octopus named Barnacle Bob.  He speaks in rhyme and has one pulley for sale, at the price of five sea urchins, so we'll have to hunt some more up.  (We can try to offer him less, but there's no layaway plan available and for design simplicity's sake he returns whatever we've given him if we don't have five on hand.) 

The Hall of Fame features portraits of famous fish-folk, but nothing we can acquire (and no sea urchins either).  So we'll go back to the schoolhouse and explore to the upper left, passing through a lovely underwater area to a set of tide pools.

Freddi and Luther can't jump very far, so we have to navigate the pools carefully to reach the other side; once we've accomplished this one time manually, our heroes will automatically find their way back and forth.  On the other side, near an underwater cave, we find another sea urchin, so we'll take that.  The cave houses Mr. Triplefin, an aging cowboy fish who'll pick up his guitar and sing a Western ditty about his home, and he'll tell quite a few silly, pun-heavy fish jokes.  But there don't seem to be any puzzles here at the moment, so we'll continue to the northwest.

We find a set of towering rock formations here, with a valuable sea urchin perched higher than Freddi can jump.  The slingshot proves useful here, requiring us to aim a high-tech cross-hair to knock it down.  We have three urchins now!  To the left/west, we can play a game much like Atari's Centipede, but played in very slow motion as Luther spits water at advancing lines of crabs; this is just for entertainment's sake, in the Humongous tradition, and we are given the opportunity to quit between rounds.

It's time to go back to the schoolhouse, and explore to the lower left.  There's a diving helmet here, but it's snagged on some kelp and Freddi can't pull it off, even with Luther's help.  The schoolhouse scissors do the needful, however, and now we have two of our five trap pieces.

Continuing west, we find another sea urchin, and passages heading upward and downward.  The northern passage is occupied by Eddie the Electric Eel, guarding a life preserver.  He says it's not his, but he's in a bad mood because he missed lunch.  Freddi convinces Luther to give Eddie the chocolate-covered worm doodle, sending him away with a sugar rush.  We have three pieces of the trap rounded up now; we just need some rope and one more sea urchin to buy the pulley.

The downward passage leads us to a Norwegian flatfish who has some -- how convenient -- rope!  He'll only give it to us if we can untie its long-standing knot, but we have our book to help out.  We have to pull on the four ropes in the numeric order indicated -- if we make a mistake, the knot randomly reconfigures itself, so we have to find the right knot shape in the book and try again.  With the rope in hand, we just need one more sea urchin, which it seems I may have overlooked along the way as we're running out of new map locations.

A cutscene at this point shows us that the villainous sharks are trying to clear out the schoolhouse on the Squidfather's orders, for mysterious reasons as yet unexplained (if this were a Scooby-Doo episode, I'd guess that they're trying to scare the oil-drilling farmer's environmentalist hippie theme park-operating neighbors off the banker/lawyer/developer-coveted land, but we're underwater so that seems unlikely.)  We can explore a control room of sorts in a derelict submarine, but there doesn't seem to be anything to do here so we'll head back toward the schoolhouse and see if we can find that final sea urchin.  We don't have any open slots in our inventory system, and the manta ray doesn't seem interested in trading for anything, and I never did find anything to do with him so this appears to be a design idea that didn't ultimately pan out.

Returning to the school, we can tell the teacher what we've learned so far but she's of no real help.  But I do find the final sea urchin in the school's basement, and now we can buy the pulley from Barnacle Bob.

On the way there, the sharks appear to warn Freddi away from snooping around the schoolhouse, but of course that's their job and Freddi is not discouraged.  With the pulley in hand, we can build our Rube Goldberg-esque trap (with some nice montage animation) and wait for the "ghost" to fall into our fins.

The sharks end up trapped in a cage, and shamefacedly admit they've been stealing the toys for the Squidfather, who never had any as a child.  Luther takes pity on the villain and gives the sharks his Codfish Commando action figure, a noble if unlikely-to-affect-the-local-balance-of-criminal-power act of kindness. 

We take the toys back to the school, and the game is rather abruptly at a happy ending -- the teacher barely has time to say that we've saved the school before the end credits roll, and it took me a couple of tries to grab this screenshot.  Victory is ours!

I am always struck by the high production values of the Humongous Entertainment adventures -- they're never really challenging for adults, but they're good-natured family fun and technically a few steps beyond the Lucasarts and Sierra games that preceded them.  If point-and-click games for a grown-up audience had survived a few years longer, I think we would have seen more elaborate 2-D productions like these.  But these children's games helped keep the genre alive between the classic era and the recent revival, and I'm enjoying them on their own simple terms.

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