Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Fatty Bear's Birthday Surprise (1993)

I was considering tackling another game in one of Humongous Entertainment's series of Junior Adventures this week, when it occurred to me that I've never played Fatty Bear's Birthday Surprise.  This 1993 game, directed by the company's co-founder Ron Gilbert (The Secret of Monkey Island), was released during Humongous' early years, and was meant to launch another series, I assume.  But that never happened for reasons that, in my opinion at least, will shortly become very evident.

This title was released around the same time as Putt-Putt's second outing, Putt-Putt Goes to the Moon, and uses the same 320x200 VGA version of Lucasarts' SCUMM point-and-click adventure game engine.  The music is MIDI-based, but is so well arranged I didn't realize this until I'd been playing for quite a while.  Like all the HE titles, Fatty Bear's Birthday Surprise is fully-voiced, though the animation is more limited than would become the norm as the company's products and budgets evolved.

Interested readers are encouraged to play this simple children's adventure, if only to see where the style goes wrong compared to HE's more successful outings.  It's still readily available via Steam at a reasonable price, using the ScummVM engine to maintain compatibility with modern systems.  Beyond this point, I intend to spoil what fun there is to be had here as I ask, "What were they thinking?"  In other words, there are bound to be...

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

The story opens as Fatty Bear's owner Kayla goes to sleep on the eve of her birthday, bidding him a fond, "I love you, Fatty Bear," as she drifts off to dreamland.  The story immediately takes a visually jarring turn as the jolly, plump plush toy Fatty Bear comes to animated life, with his formerly black button eyes acquiring pupils that make him look like Little Orphan Annie.  This whole opening sequence comes off as creepier than intended -- all of the toys seem possessed rather than alive, with Gretchen the Dutch doll retaining toy-like facial features and joints, while Matilda Rabbit has no pupils at all and brings Donnie Darko inevitably to mind.

Notwithstanding all this weirdness, Fatty Bear soldiers on as though nothing strange is happening.  He tells us he needs to make Kayla a birthday cake; Gretchen wants to make a sign for her, and Matilda Rabbit flies off to the kitchen to start work on the cake, levitating by spinning her ears like a helicopter, or by utilizing all the powers of Satan, depending on whether one has recovered from witnessing Fatty Bear's unholy transformation.  I'm exaggerating here, but I'm also not making this up -- there's a dark moodiness to the art direction and music that lends an unsettling texture to the innocent gameplay; the story takes place overnight, to be sure, but the cheery day-glo cartoon colors of the Putt-Putt games are sorely missed here.

As in the other Humongous Entertainment games, we can click on various things in every room -- though, again, seeing these objects come to life while a little human girl is sleeping nearby comes off as scarily paranormal rather than comical.  A rocker in the corner creaks with an invisible occupant, for example, and we can interactively decorate Mr. Veggie Head with various noses and eyes, to create... yes, this is all pretty bizarre:

In the study next to Kayla's room, we can cause books to fly around the room with Fatty's telekinetic powers, for now such we must presume them to be.  He can also bring a couple of statues to life, but there doesn't seem to be anything useful we can really do in here.

Down the hall are more sleeping humans, blissfully unaware of the creeping plushness wandering about in the dark, as Fatty says: "That's the grown-ups' room.  I'd better be quiet!"  We can actually safely make quite a bit of noise by clicking on stuff, but the only interesting thing to do is stab them to death in their sleep sneak into their closet and turn the light on and off.

 A room at the end of the hall is locked -- a mouse darts out of an oversized hole in the door with a tempting key, but scampers away again before Fatty can grab it.  We probably need some bait, so we'll explore elsewhere for now.

In the bathroom, we can hop in the laundry chute, the only way to the basement, where we pick up a garage door opener that somehow ended up in the laundry basket.  Fatty's cheerful "Now I can get in the garage!" sounds more menacing than it ought to, as I picture Fatty firing up the family car and gassing the family with carbon monoxide.  His overalls aren't helping either, as they make him look rather too much like Chucky of Child's Play fame.  A big part of the problem is that Fatty Bear seems to be actively causing the paranormal phenomena in the house to occur -- he seems gleefully responsible, whereas in the other Humongous titles these little animations are more humorous, and fueled by little critters with personalities clearly independent of the main character.

From the basement, we can go up through the cellar door to the house's backyard.  The music and the darkness out here seem intentionally scary now.  What is it about this game?  We can climb up into a book depository treehouse, where a telescope allows us to fuel our rage at Kayla's family see Putt-Putt on the moon, a plug for his own game that came out around the same time.

We can do a little lawn bowling in the yard for fun, and visit the garden where Fatty Bear buries his victims unearths some silly anthropomorphic carrots that we would probably need a net or trap to catch, though this isn't actually a puzzle, just fun to watch.  We can't get back into the cellar from the outside, so we'll go around front.

The view at the front of the house looks a lot like the opening of Uninvited -- maybe it's the camera angles that make so much of this game look foreboding rather than friendly.  We can ride a skateboard, for fun, and use the garage door opener to enter the garage (thankfully, detached from the rest of the house, allaying my earlier fears.) 

There's some sugar stored in the garage, of all places -- it's too high to reach, but a stepladder here solves that problem with minimal trial or error.  Now we'll reenter the house -- the front door is unlocked, or, one suspects, its lock succumbs to Fatty's powers as he has already been invited in -- and check out the parlor.  An answering machine still has a message from Kayla's dad, who was picking up her present at the pet store.  We can make a painted ship in a picture on the wall sink, sacrificing the lives of countless acrylic innocents to satisfy Fatty Bear's dark masters.

A piano allows us to play with sampled sounds to play familiar public domain children's songs, and actually compose little songs on blank pages if we like.  Funeral dirges seem appropriate, somehow, but we aren't required to do anything specific here, it's just a fun little side activity.

When we enter the kitchen, Matilda Rabbit is on hand to advise, and Fatty automatically leaves the sugar on the counter -- the game doesn't require much actual inventory manipulation, taking care of those details in many cases to keep young players from getting frustrated by mechanics.  We can review the recipe for the birthday cake -- Fatty notes that the first thing we still need is a mixing bowl, but we'll also have to round up some eggs, milk, butter, chocolate chips and vanilla.  We can find a few tools in the cupboard, and turn on the kitchen faucets long enough to make a puddle on the floor, probably to help ensure somebody has a slip-and-fall accident (we can also cause a mop to emerge from under the sink to clean it up, but we're not forced to do this.)  We can also find chocolate chips, vanilla, and baking powder in the cupboards up high.

The refrigerator contains butter, eggs and milk, but not much else, suggesting more subtle mischief afoot as Fatty Bear wastes the family's limited foodstores on frivolous cake.  He also opens Kayla's birthday present, letting the puppy roam free until we can catch her and wrap her back up, for which we'll need some replacement purple ribbon.

We can snag some cheese from the refrigerator as well -- we don't need it for the cake, thank goodness, but maybe we can use it to get that key for the upstairs hall.  Yes, the mouse happily exchanges the key for the cheese, and now we can enter the room to find (in addition to plenty of mouse droppings, we assume) an attic with lots of antique junk in it.  What do we need here?  I don't find anything portable, oddly enough.  Outside in the hall, though, there's now a letter "R" hanging below a portrait on the wall, so we'll pick that up to help with Gretchen's birthday sign.

Returning to the kitchen, we see the puppy here, but can't get her back into the present box without something we don't have.  We also learn from Matilda that the puppy has run off with some of Gretchen's letters, as already discovered, and she needs our help upstairs.  Checking on our cake progress while we're here, we can complete a few steps but are soon stymied by a lack of measuring spoons.  Matilda mentioned earlier that she saw Kayla playing with them, so we'll go back to her room for a bit.

As we enter, Gretchen confirms that three letters have been stolen by the puppy, though the "R" we found a little while ago appears to be one of them so we only have two more to track down.  She also asks Fatty to blow up five party balloons, but after three are done, the loose puppy keeps running into the room and popping one.  I put the "R" on the sign, and it looks like we're missing an "A" and a "Y" now.

Looking around some more, I find a human-looking bone in the refrigerator, and use it to lure the puppy back into her box.  But we still need a new ribbon to keep the box closed.  Ah!  In the parents' closet, Fatty can climb up on a stack of boxes, then jump on a trampoline (these people apparently have some interesting bedroom habits) to bounce up to the top of the closet, pulling a green ribbon from the Bows'n'Ribbons box stored there.  Now the puppy can be kept back in the box, and one of our objectives is accomplished.  Maybe we should have taken her outside while she was free, but Fatty has no qualms about sealing her back inside a cardboard box with no visible airholes.

Revisiting the treehouse, I find the measuring spoons there -- I didn't recognize them and wasn't looking for them earlier.  I should be able to bake the cake now.  We mix everything up, and Matilda puts it in the oven, where it bakes almost instantly for the sake of moving the story along.  Now we're allowed to decorate the cake.  I should resist, I know, but I can't:

Matilda carries the cake up to Kayla's bedroom -- this Palpatine rabbit would be so much less disturbing if she had pupils in her eyes instead of those big blank spots on her face -- and that part of the puzzle is finished, though we're free to bake more cakes if we wish to for fun. 

Now we just need to find those last few letters for Gretchen's sign -- I suspect this is why there are some otherwise non-functional rooms on the map.  I get the rest of the balloons blown up while I'm looking around, now that the puppy is no longer alive free to pop them.

I have a harder time than I expected finding the other letters, actually!  I find the "Y" under the sofa in the living room.  The "A" finally turns up in the fish tank, almost the last place I could have looked after wandering through all the rooms in the game several times.  Well played, Mr. Gilbert.

Now it's suddenly time for Kayla's birthday!  Fatty Bear rushes back onto the bed, and his transformation back into a lifeless piece of plush is even more disturbing than his earlier transformation, as the unearthly lights in his eyes dim and his skeleton seems to vanish into the Hell from whence it came. 

Kayla wakes up, her Dad enters, and the puppy is immediately presented by running into the room.  The poor kid doesn't even get to unwrap the box we spent all that time working on, and for some strange reason she thanks Fatty Bear instead of her Dad.  Perhaps Dad is actually the sinister puppetmaster behind the night's curious events, especially as he seems unfazed at the blazing candles on the birthday cake and the balloons hovering menacingly at ceiling level despite being filled only with the non-existent breath of a plush, presumably lifeless teddy bear.

Fatty Bear winks at the camera as if to signify that Kayla's nightmare is only beginning, and the screen dims with a sense of foreboding as the credits roll.

Fatty Bear's Birthday Surprise is not really much different from the early Putt-Putt games -- the goals and puzzles are similarly simple and easy to navigate.  But I have to conclude that Putt-Putt is simply a more appealing character than Fatty Bear, and the colorful cartoon Cartown universe better suited to children's entertainment than Fatty Bear's more realistic suburban nighttime environment.  I've exaggerated the stranger aspects of the game for fun here, obviously, but the game is genuinely more sombre and less fun all around than its sibling series.  The presence of actual human beings in the story pulls it back to earth in weird ways, and makes the game's goings-on a little suspect in the playing.  That may be why Putt-Putt went on to a long career, while Fatty Bear appeared only in a couple of mini-game compilations and cameos after this first outing.  But I'm glad I've played this Junior Adventure, if only to find my own answers to the questions surrounding Fatty Bear's short career at Humongous Entertainment.  Onward to cheerier tales!

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