This week, we're playing through Freddi Fish and the Case of the Missing Kelp Seeds, published in 1994 as the first of another long-running children's adventure series from Ron Gilbert's Humongous Entertainment. It stars young Freddi Fish (the name and voice, one suspects, is intentionally androgynous) and a colorful cast of fishy characters.
Freddi Fish 1 runs on the upgraded SCUMM engine licensed from Lucasarts -- it runs in 640 x 480 resolution, with full voice acting augmented by large-print onscreen text for early readers, great CD music by George "The Fatman" Sanger, beautiful backgrounds and plenty of high-quality animation with little repetition. These games were still in production years after mainstream publishers began to shy away from point-and-click adventures for adults, and the cartoon audiovisuals still hold up well twenty years on.
I can easily recommend playing through Freddi Fish and the Case of the Missing Kelp Seeds -- it's not particularly challenging, but it is entertaining and well-produced, and there are a couple of smart gags along the way. I'll be describing my playthrough experience in detail below, so as always there will be...
***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****
The story begins with an animated intro in which Freddi delivers flowers obtained from the surface, courtesy of a friendly pelican named Sam, to many of his/her friends -- but when Freddi arrives at Grandma Grouper's house, she is extremely distraught.
Someone has absconded with her treasure chest of kelp seeds, meaning no harvest for the local residents. This is pretty dire by children's adventure standards, and as Grandma is clearly in no shape to take action, Freddi sets off to locate the missing seed cache.
As always in a Humongous game, we're free to click on lots of things on every screen, some of which advance the story or place an item in Freddi's inventory, many of which trigger funny little incidental animations. When we get tired of playing around outside Grandma's house, we can exit stage left to encounters Freddi's friend Luther, who is trying to figure out how to swim a loop-de-loop -- Freddi demonstrates, but Luther can't quite manage it; he does, however, manage to bump his head on a rock formation, dislodging a bottle with a note in it. The note suggests that Grandma Grouper's treasure can be found by going to the old whale bones. Luther volunteers to help, though Freddi has to dash his greedy dreams by reminding him that the seeds aren't his to cash in -- and Freddi minces no words: "If we don't find them soon, all the fish are going to die!"
After our heroes exit, a couple of gangster sharks named Spongehead and (apparently) Boss show up -- apparently the bottle Luther found was meant to be a bread crumb, and now they're going to be in trouble with the Squidfather. On the way to the bones, our heroes encounter Mrs. Halibut, who is trying to rescue her guppy Gabby from an undersea grotto -- the entrance gap in the rocks is too narrow for her to swim through, and she's gotten herself stuck. Freddi and Luther struggle to pull her out, giving rise to my favorite line in the whole game:
Entering the grotto, we find little Gabby stuck under a rock, trying to push it away with a board he's found. Freddi declares that a bigger board is needed, and we can acquire a purple conch shell while we're here. As in Gilbert's Putt-Putt series, and, to be honest, most adventure games, Freddi's progress depends
primarily on solving puzzles using inventory items found in his
travels; they're not usually hard to find, as most are lying around in
plain sight and we just have to explore the world thoroughly, taking
anything that's not nailed down.
Heading east, we find a larger board, but might as well visit the old whale bones nearby since we're in the neighborhood. We find another bottle suggesting that we go to the deep canyon -- we will be chasing a series of these clues, it seems. We can also acquire one remarkably human-looking, unsuitable-for-scrimshaw bone -- some other bones nearby just dance around a bit, so it's important to click on just the right one. Nearby, Freddi and Luther can also talk to Ray (a manta ray, naturally) who offers a SuperDuperDookaBookaPolyGizmo gadget that can provide access to a beautiful pearl protected by a net, if we can bring him a clock, and we can pick up a small silver key lying by a rock.
Freeing Gabby with the large board earns us a purple sea urchin from the grateful Mrs. Halibut (who, though unsuccessful, seems a more responsible parent than some of the adults in the early Putt-Putt games). We can visit the King's castle, though at the moment there isn't anything much we can do here except admire his collection of pearls and shiny things while he jabbers on about how happy he is to be King. On the way there, we encounter Herman, a hermit crab with an old-school Yiddish accent who is trying vainly to sleep in a glowing shell -- we can give him the purple shell, and he moves (with suitcases!) into the new digs, giving Freddi and Luther the glowing shell in exchange.
We can also swim up to the surface, where Fiddler Crab is locked in a cage -- he gives us his fishing pole if we free him using the key we found earlier. Mr. Crab plays his claws like a violin to accompany his own singing, though his lyrics tend to be short of inspired, along the lines of, "Thanks for unlocking the cage! I will give you my fishing pole."
It's entirely possible to have puzzles solved before we even encounter them, giving the game's open structure, and the fishing pole ends up to be important at the deep canyon to the west of our starting point, where Luther tries to grab the bottle and knocks it down into a deep, scary hole where it hits a deep-sea phosphorescent angler fish on the head. Freddi is brave enough to swim down, but the angry fish keeps scaring him off -- fortunately, the fishing pole can be used to retrieve the bottle, pointing to another clue waiting at the King's castle. (Apparently organized crime has some connections with the royal authorities, as nobody on the King's staff seems to have objected.)
Of course, the King won't give up the bottle without a pearl in exchange, so we have to solve that puzzle. Ray suggested we look at the junkyard -- on the way there, we can play an optional math mini-game where a starfish instructor challenges us to solve multiple-choice math problems. This is the only situation where the game's intended audience becomes really obvious -- the "ADVANCED" problems only involve 2-digit numbers -- but the game implements a workable solution for spoken numbers, with characters capable of saying, for example, "forty" (pause) "five" to cover all the values from 1 to 100.
There are a couple of other optional activities -- we can play a shooting (actually feeding) game where Freddi tries to throw food into the mouths of approaching turtles. We can also collect purple sea urchins from various locations to weigh down a bucket enough to open the gate to the volcano-based Clamshell Theatre, where a frog tap dances briefly before getting yanked offstage and we can read some gag announcements for other, unseen, acts.
Getting back on task, we head to the junkyard. A junkyard dogfish blocks the way, but he'll leave with a heartfelt "Thanks!" if we give him the "whale" bone we picked up earlier. Salvaging a dashboard clock from a wrecked car (I thought it was an odometer at first, but it has clock-like numbers on its face), we deliver it to Ray, whose gizmo can be used to make a temporary gap in the net by spreading its strands apart. We have to win the pearl by playing a round of Find-the-Lady with the talking oysters responsible for hiding the pearl:
We can play multiple times, but we can only earn one pearl per customer (and Luther apparently doesn't count.)
Taking the pearl back to the King's castle, we obtain the final bottle. This last clue mentions a sunken ship, which we haven't visited yet, but Freddi knows where it is, and we shortly find ourselves there -- after a cutscene informs us that Spongehead has also finally remembered where he hid the treasure chest. A pegleg pirate fish using a mandolin for a crutch wishes us luck, and we're off to explore the ship before we think to ask why a fish would be so severely disabled with one caudal fin missing.
Aboard the ship, Freddi can see Grandma Grouper's treasure chest in a large windowed room, but the window is too heavy to open and there's no crank on the rope mechanism meant for the purpose. Searching for a crank in the ship's hold, we encounter one Fineas McFinn, a pirate captain who sings The Aaaarggh Song (I might not have the spelling right) with an... an organ-grinder's instrument, I guess one might call it, until it breaks. He'll give Freddi the useless crank handle if we can come up with a substitute instrument. Searching the ship, we find a crutch, and can trigger a dancing skeleton briefly reminiscent of Ron Gilbert's classic Monkey Island games.
Heading outside the ship -- we can't go back to the main map, so the solution must be around here somewhere -- we can trade the crutch to the pirate outside. Fineas accepts the mandolin and gladly gives Freddi and Luther the crank handle in exchange, though we have to sit through another uninterruptible rendition of The Aarrgggh Song before we can continue. Now we can access the ship's interior to find Grandma Grouper's missing kelp seed treasure chest!
Unfortunately, the subplot has thickened, and the bad guys also arrive to claim the treasure! But this is a kids' game, and Freddi suggests that everyone can share the kelp seeds with no need for violence. The sharks resolve to take this idea to the Squidfather, whose entire criminal organization seems to have no concept of how agriculture works. Our heroes trail kelp seeds from the leaky treasure chest all the way back to Grandma's house, with kelp springing up instantly in their wake, so why these seeds are so hard to find in the first place remains the game's biggest mystery.
But all's well -- even if that little green jerk Luther tries to steal the credit -- and victory is ours!
There's not much challenge to any of the Humongous Entertainment games, but they do have a suitably Gilbertian sense of humor, and it's interesting to see what can happen when most of an adventure game's budget goes into artwork and animation rather than complex design. Freddi Fish and the Case of the Missing Kelp Seeds is a fine example of children's interactive entertainment -- there's plenty to do, a story that's easy to follow with plenty of signposting (literally and vocally) to keep the player on track, and a colorful world to explore. And I can't help thinking that the current resurgence in commercial point-and-click adventuring owes something to all the kids who grew up with Putt-Putt, Freddi Fish and friends in the 1990s.