Animation fans have made it a point that a period of time spanning from the early seventies up until the mid-eighties was a dire era for the medium. There were numerous causes for this stagnation ranging from a lack of visionaries to strict budgetary constraints. Exacerbating problems were conservative parental groups attacking anything that wasn’t child-friendly, thus giving the art a juvenile stigma. In reality, many of these problems began manifesting as early as the late fifties, but it wasn’t until a little over a decade later when the industry’s prime juggernaut, Disney, began to stumble in the critical eye. This culminated in their 1983 release, The Black Cauldron. What was meant to be the debut of several up-and-coming animators ended up getting recut by executives and subsequently flopping, nearly putting an end to the company’s animated canon.
The tides began to turn for Disney in 1985 when after observing the success of merchandise-driven shows such as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Care Bears, they decided to throw their own hat in the ring in the form of The Wuzzles and Adventures of the Gummi Bears. The latter proved to be a hit, and with this newfound freedom, they funded the creation of original shows, including DuckTales and Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. In 1989, The Little Mermaid was released, and when it became a sensation with critics and fans alike, Disney had fully recovered from the Dark Age plaguing both them and the entire industry. Suddenly, they were once again relevant and synonymous with Western animation.
Whenever someone finds overwhelming success in entertainment, they inevitably inspire a slew of imitators wishing to capitalize on the current trends. One such group was none other than Warner Bros., popularly considered rivals to Disney. They managed to have some success on television after having recruited Steven Spielberg to produce several beloved cartoons. However, very little of that success translated to the theaters with many of their feature-length animated films underperforming in the box office.
In May of 1995, Warner Bros. Feature Animation announced their first project: The Quest for the Grail. It was to be an adaptation of Vera Chapman’s novel, The King’s Damosel. Numerous problems arose during production, including the fact that it had started before the story was finalized. At first, Bill and Susan Kroyer, the husband-and-wife duo behind FernGully: The Last Rainforest were to direct it as a faithful adaptation that kept the dark tone of Ms. Chapman’s work. Unfortunately, creative differences led the two of them to leave the project in February of 1997. They were replaced by Frederik Du Chau, who in turn overhauled the story, turning the original vision into a Disney-inspired musical retitled Quest for Camelot.
By the end, few of the personnel had anything positive to say about what it became. One of the animators, Chrystal Klabunde, stated in interviews that the executives had no concept of animation at all, and with their inexperience, a chaotic work environment ensued. It was to the point where some of the animators didn’t even know the plot until they had finished their work. Moreover, as the film wasn’t initially slated to be a musical, a majority of the songs weren’t written until the later stages. With various people getting replaced at the behest of the executives and the team having to work around the clock, it comes as little surprise that the studio lost forty-million dollars on the film. Quest for Camelot was subsequently a commercial and critical failure upon its release in May of 1998. The most commonly cited reasons for its reception concerned its formulaic plot that took elements from Disney’s canon without providing a unique take on them. It’s even considered by some historians to be partially responsible for the downfall of traditionally animated features in the United States.
Nonetheless, as the production continued, a company named Titus Software was commissioned to create a tie-in game. It was released in December of 1998 for the Game Boy Color, notably being one of the first titles to showcase the capabilities of Nintendo’s newest handheld device. There was to be a version for the Nintendo 64, but the film’s dismal performance ensured its demise. Does the game fare any better?
Analyzing the Experience
Being a licensed game, Quest for Camelot follows the plot of the film on which it’s based. Kayley is the daughter of Sir Lionel, one of the Knights of the Round Table, and she aspired to follow in his footsteps in her youth. Tragedy struck one day when the avaricious Sir Ruber desired to become the King of Camelot instead of Arthur. He tried to kill King Arthur, but Lionel intervened, losing his life in the process. Ruber managed to escape, and Kayley was left without a father. At Lionel’s funeral, Arthur assured his surviving family that they were welcome in Camelot.
Ten years have passed since that day, and Ruber strikes again. He invades Kayley’s home, and abducts her mother, Juliana. Meanwhile, a gryphon attacks Camelot, stealing the fabled sword, Excalibur. It is now up to Kayley to restore peace to her kingdom and rescue Juliana.
Quest for Camelot is an action-adventure game played from a top-down perspective. By bringing up the inventory screen, you can assign an item to the “A” and “B” buttons. Using these items in the appropriate situations is vital to making progress. Your main weapon is a sword. By holding down the button, you can use a spin attack that deals markedly more damage. Health is represented by hearts, of which you have five from the onset. If you’re diligent, you can find heart containers, which increase your health capacity by a single unit.
If anyone reading this is convinced I summarized the gameplay of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, I can assure them it was no accident.
To be fair, there are quite a few differences between Link’s Awakening and Quest for Camelot. This game is noticeably more linear than the one it takes obvious inspiration from. It features eight levels, and once one is complete, you cannot backtrack to the earlier ones. There’s no chance of making the game unwinnable, as certain items are impossible to avoid, but heart containers can be permanently lost if the stage is completed without finding them.
Zelda protagonists typically upgrade their weapons or find superior ones as part of the plot. Quest for Camelot opts for including role-playing game elements instead. Every time Kayley defeats an enemy, she gains experience points. Once she has accumulated enough, her combat prowess increases. Naturally, she inflicts more damage at higher levels. The maximum level is five, and as the game progresses, Kayley can gain more sword techniques from a traveling swordmaster, making her even more effective in a fight.
From this, it could be extrapolated that Quest for Camelot places more of an emphasis on action than Link’s Awakening. For those who are seeking an action-RPG experience formed from the Zelda franchise’s mold, you should probably look elsewhere, as there is no chance this game would scratch that itch.
There are many reasons why this game fails to deliver, but you’re confronted with several convincing ones as soon as it begins. The first stage has you finding hens for a blacksmith. Only once you’ve found them all will he give you a sword. Littered throughout the level are Ruber’s knights, and without a weapon, you have no choice but to avoid them. Astoundingly, this isn’t what makes the stage irritating; that would be its convoluted layout. You can use a cave system to navigate the area. While this may seem like standard fare, the task is needlessly drawn out due to the game taking about six seconds to load the new area.
To put this in perspective, Super Mario Land, released in 1989 as one of the Game Boy’s launch titles, didn’t have this issue. Console titles starting in the mid-nineties often made players wait often unreasonable lengths of time as the game loaded the appropriate content. Most of this had to do with the console market switching to disk formats, which boasted superior storage space in exchange for longer load times. In other words, Titus somehow managed to introduce a problem to a platform that never had it in the first place.
It may not seem so bad, but the problem is that nearly every action you take more advanced than engaging enemies in combat requires waiting a few seconds for the game to catch up. Want to talk to an NPC? The game needs a few seconds to display their dialogue. Attempting to switch items? Don’t assume your “START” button is broken when you press it, as the game takes a split-second to silently activate the inventory screen. Trying to leave after finishing a boss encounter? All you need to do is wander aimlessly until a portal to the next area opens up. All of this demonstrates just how poorly optimized Quest for Camelot truly is.
One criticism lodged toward the film concerned its protagonist, Kayley. Specifically, she was meant to be a strong, independent female lead, but she spent a majority of her screentime getting captured, running away, or relying on the story’s deuteragonist, a blind hermit named Garret. I’m sorry to say this is one element the game replicated perfectly – not only with its cover art, but through its less-than-stellar controls. The sword barely has any range, necessitating players to get close to the enemies, which often results in getting hit. This is especially bad because all enemies deal a single heart’s worth of damage – two in the final stages. To make matters worse, the hit detection is dreadful. Your distance from the enemy has to be exact every single time. If you’re too close, you’ll take damage before the sword reaches its target. If the sword is but one or two pixels off, it doesn’t count. Sometimes, even after lining yourself up properly, the attack will still prove futile for some reason.
There is an artifact known as the Dragon’s Scale, which allows Kayley to jump one space forward. She is then made to navigate precarious platforms with the threat of losing a heart whenever she falls off. The positioning, much like the swordplay, has to be precise. What makes this especially daunting is the platforms are often not spaced in a way that you can simply push the button when you need to jump again. If the next one is only one space large, you must turn around, go to the edge of the tile you’re currently on, lightly tap the directional pad to turn around again, and then you can reach your intended destination by jumping. If you’re too close to the next platform or walk too far back on a single-tile platform, she will tumble into the abyss, forcing you to start the whole process over.
One of the more subtle flaws with the game is that there are only two methods of regaining health: collecting a heart usually found when monsters randomly drop them and using a heart refill. There is a shovel you can use in certain outdoor areas to dig up gems and hearts, but it’s useless in areas with hard floors. What’s truly annoying about this is that you cannot carry more than one refill at a time, so if you pick up a second, it will disappear without a trace. They also don’t respawn, so you will have to rely on the one you find to get you through to the next area.
Many players are in the habit of making multiple save files when they’re unsure what lies ahead. Their plans would be thwarted when attempting to play Quest for Camelot, for as a true testament to its quality, even the rudimentary task of saving the game is rendered needlessly complicated. To do this, you have to equip the save icon and press the appropriate button. It costs thirty gems to save the game, which is a terrible idea, though it is mitigated somewhat by the fact that gems are rather useless as actual currency. There is only one moment in the entire game when you need to use them to buy something. Otherwise, they’re primarily used as ammunition for your slingshot. Instead, the real issue is that you only get one save file. This means that if you managed your resources improperly, you might find yourself unable to complete the game.
Another irritation stems from how Quest for Camelot handles its event flags. An example of this occurs in the second stage wherein you need to feed turnips to a horse so you may ride on its back. After purchasing a shovel, you can dig up several of them. If you try to ride the horse after giving it something to eat, it will kick you off shortly afterwards. Only a large turnip will satiate its hunger. In the same area, a farmer tells you that Ruber’s knights have been terrorizing his village. You could take this as a cue to defeat them all, and when you do, he lets you dig up his farmland for a large turnip. When you do, there is no turnip to be found. What you needed to do was speak to two different NPCs in order, which allows access to a cave. Only once you’ve collect the item within the cave will the turnip appear, meaning you will need to defeat the knights again so the farmer will give you permission to dig for one.
A lesser problem I have is that there’s no way to determine how much experience you have. The only feedback you’re given is the sword icon on the bottom of the screen, indicating your current level. Otherwise, you won’t know how many more enemies you must vanquish to reach the next one. Considering the swordmaster requires Kayley to obtain a certain amount of experience before he may dispense his knowledge, this leads to frustration, as you must go back and fight more enemies without knowing when you’re finished.
It doesn’t help that the sword leveling system comes across less as an inventive action-RPG element and more of an inorganic method of getting players to engage the enemies. Because of the poor controls, it seems like it would be a better idea simply to avoid all of them. Many don’t even actively pursue you until you strike the first blow. This strategy would only serve to set yourself up for defeat, as later bosses are nearly impossible at lower levels.
What’s also worth mentioning about Quest for Camelot would be how lazy its level design is. Stages are usually incredibly basic mazes no more advanced than one you would find on a diner’s placemat. Masterful dungeon crawlers are good at hiding this fact. For example, in any given Zelda installment, you will need to switch inventory items often to access new areas. You may even have to find new uses for ones you’ve been holding for some time. Quest for Camelot has a similar inventory system, but it’s horribly underutilized. This is primarily because the items are a little more than elaborate keys with the hazards they circumvent serving as locked doors – some never see use outside of their introductory episode. For instance, the grappling hook is used in a specific spot on the first stage to create a rope so you may access the area above. It can’t be used anywhere else until a similar situation turns up much later, by which time you will have likely forgotten about it.
In the interest of fairness, if it’s one positive thing I can say about this experience, it would be Titus’s willingness to add some variety to their stages. Among other things, you will sled down a mountain slope, ride a two-headed dragon, and organize rocks in a cave to open up the next area. Then again, given their track record by this point in the review, one would suspect this compliment effectively damns the game with faint praise. Anyone who thinks this is completely correct.
The sledding portion requires you to dodge enemies and trees. Crashing into anything results in a lost heart. I’ll give Titus credit for placing Kayley near the top of the screen, but it’s still too fast for you to have a realistic chance of dodging anything – even if you see the obstacles coming.
The section in which you ride on the two-headed dragon turns the game into a shoot-em-up, and they breathe fire as their primary means of defense. There’s not much strategy, as the monsters all die in one hit, so as long as you mash the attack button, they won’t come anywhere close to harming you. The boss requires you to become a little more tactical, but it’s still nothing too challenging.
Lastly, the rock-pushing puzzle is a simplified version of Sokoban. It has all of the same rules with the main difference being that you have to push a rock twice to move it the equivalent of one space in the original. Thankfully, if you fail, you can press “START” to reset the puzzle. Sadly, it’s far and away the best section of the game because it involves no combat whatsoever.
Going into the endgame, Quest for Camelot had many strikes against it, but Titus succeeding in saving the worst for last. The boss at the end of the eighth stage attacks by either charging at Kayley or with an attack that shoots projectiles in four different directions. She can only inflict damage when he’s about to launch debris, meaning you have to get within his striking distance to land a blow each time. If you stand in the wrong spot, you will get hit. Compounding the annoyance is that he switches between shooting in cardinal and diagonal directions, so you would do well to observe every single one of his attacks. If you land a hit in time, you can prevent him from attacking, but if it’s a fraction of a second too late, you will be caught in the blast. It’s even possible to drain his health meter and die at the same time.
Distressingly, it only gets worse after defeating him. Once you have, you are then thrown into a final confrontation with Ruber. The spin attack is the most reliable method of draining his health, and its terrible range and hit detection will ensure it misses more often than not. When his health bar is completely gone, it immediately refills. That’s right – Titus decided to observe the grand tradition of final bosses by giving him more than one form. It’s a bit of a disingenuous assessment, as he doesn’t transform, so the only difference lies in the tactics he employs. After draining it a second time, it fills up yet again as though you never made any progress. This time, your attacks will be completely ineffective. What is the solution to this conundrum? Before I can reveal the answer, I feel it’s important to establish the proper context.
A major plot point in Quest for Camelot is that Ruber’s minions are normal soldiers fused with their weapons. Ruber decides to follow suit in the climax by binding the Excalibur onto his sword arm. Kayley and Garret are able to defeat him by tricking him into stabbing the stone where the legendary sword once rested. This both dispels his evil magic and erases him from existence. Every time a stage is cleared, you are treated to exposition that loosely follows the film’s storyline accompanied with stills from the corresponding scenes.
However, for a majority of the experience, the story is primarily in the background, and as an understandable consequence to catering to this medium, Titus took some creative liberties with it. To wit, it’s clear that shoddy controls notwithstanding, Kayley is far more competent than her cinematic counterpart, singlehandedly winning her own battles, never fleeing, and exchanging a few snarky one-liners with the various NPCs. It would therefore in no capacity whatsoever stand to reason for the final encounter to end exactly as it does in the film.
Titus didn’t catch on to this potential disconnect because that is what you need to do to win. Specifically, you need to lure him to the center of the area where the stone is, and when he attempts to attack you, he will be done in by the sword’s magic. In addition to the one I just highlighted, there are at least four problems with this scenario. First of all, the game does not hint towards the solution. The stone doesn’t glow – in fact, it only barely stands out from the normal boulders surrounding it. Secondly, that Ruber still has a health bar can mislead players into believing there’s a trick to reducing it. Thirdly, the player at this point is unlikely to experiment with out-of-the-box strategies, as one cannot save after initiating the encounter with Ruber’s super minion in the previous stage. Finally, the biggest reason why this fails is because it’s not suited for its medium. Granted, the equivalent scene in the film was every bit as anticlimactic, but that feeling is magnified the second human feedback became a variable. In short, this game took many creative liberties with the film only to change its mind at the most inconvenient times, giving us the worst of both worlds.
Drawing a Conclusion
Licensed games have something of a negative reputation due to their often questionable quality. Especially throughout the eighties and the nineties, companies would commission them merely to cash in on popular brands. Countless good properties such as E.T. and Total Recall would be given to these developers only for them to churn out a subpar effort in turn. In case anyone was wondering if conversely getting ahold of a weak brand means a stellar game will ensue from using it, a few minutes of playing Quest for Camelot can discredit such a theory right away.
In a way, it is entirely faithful its source material. The film was criticized for blindly ripping off superior works without fully comprehending what made them work, and the same exact thing could be said of the game. Make no mistake – I’m not saying that this game is terrible only when compared to Link’s Awakening. Even if the Legend of Zelda series had no installments on the Game Boy, Quest for Camelot would fail on its own merits. It’s a broken mess of a game that is boring to play at the best of times and absolutely infuriating at its worst. I can’t help but compare it to Metal Morph in that while I can admire Titus’s desire to include multiple styles of play, it’s a meaningless endeavor considering none of them were executed with any degree of competence.
With all that can be said about Quest for Camelot, I have to admit it’s not the worst game ever made. It may be appalling, but it’s not as though what Titus created is the kind of bad game to which all other bad games are compared.
Final Score: 2/10