Anime was weird last year.
In the late 80’s, Nintendo branched out into the adventure games genre with a new series, Famicom Detective Club, for the Family Computer Disk System. Both games, The Missing Heir and its prequel The Girl Who Stands Behind, told the story of a young man, solving murder mysteries in the Japanese countryside while uncovering the truth about his own past.
Yoshio Sakamoto, who would later be known for his work on the Metroid series, took on the pair of games as his first writing project. He was heavily inspired by Chunsoft’s point and click adventure game, The Portopia Serial Murder Case. Chunsoft would go on to become very well known in the supernatural mystery and visual novel genre worldwide for titles such as Danganronpa and Zero Escape. On the other hand, Famicom Detective Club was never released outside of Japan, remaining a cult classic among hardcore Nintendo fans and importers, and forgotten by Nintendo for many, many years.
Fast forward to February of this year, it was announced that remakes of both Famicom Detective Club games would be releasing for the Nintendo Switch in May; with new graphics, music, voice acting, and most importantly a worldwide release. People who might have wanted to check out the series but never got the chance to, or those just discovering them, would finally be able to experience the games with a fresh coat of paint. I was in the camp of people who had never heard of the games before and was not just interested in checking them out, but also seeing how Nintendo would modernize them. I have played plenty of modern murder mystery visual novels, but I had never checked out anything from this era.
It’s interesting to note that right when starting up Famicom Detective Club that the games can be played in any order. While The Missing Heir came out first, chronologically it takes place a couple years after The Girl Who Stands Behind. Playing them in release order or the other way around makes no real tangible difference. Although, if you play them in release order, you would know the big twist at the end of The Missing Heir before you get a chance to get to know the main character when he was younger. It’s really up to the player as to which one they wish to start with. One nice touch is when you begin either story, you’ll be asked to input a name for the main character, which will carry over between games.
The Missing Heir begins with the protagonist being discovered after falling off a cliff by a man named Amachi. Soon after, the protagonist comes across a girl named Ayumi Tachibana, a long time friend of his. Ayumi tells him that he is an assistant detective at the Utsugi Detective Agency who has been investigating the death of Kiku Ayashiro, the head of the Ayashiro family. The investigation takes him to the Ayashiro estate in Myoujin village, where he meets the family butler and housekeeper who are distraught after the death of the elder Ayashiro. More members of the Ayashiro family visit the estate, and the tension brewing between them is gradually uncovered.
The Girl Who Stands Behind takes place 3 years before the previous game. The protagonist is 15 years old and on the run from two police officers after running away from his orphanage to find his parents. He runs into a private detective named Shunsuke Utsugi who tells the police that he will take care of the boy, quickly making the protagonist his assistant. Flash forward to a few months later, and the detective receives a call to investigate a crime scene at a school. A girl named Yoko Kojima has been murdered and upon further inspection, it is determined that she was strangled. Yoko was working on investigating “The Tale of the Girl Who Stands Behind”, a school legend about a blood-soaked ghost of a girl who stands behind students in a threatening manner. Her friends noticed that Yoko was acting strangely before she was murdered, like her entire life was riding on figuring out the truth about this old rumor.
In both games, the concepts at play are the same; you’ll need to ask certain characters questions related to things such as people involved in the situation, events, items in your possession, and/or their alibi. Sometimes you need to ask specifically about a key person in the murder case several times before you’ll get answer. This repetition makes it feel like the stakes are high, and you are trying to calm someone down before they’ll give you information. Asking someone every single choice that you have, and finding a new clue will prompt a “Ah ha” sound making it clear what your next plan of action will be while making it feel like you have learned something very important. The story was filled with twists and turns that kept me engaged, and I was always ready to see where the next plot thread took me.
Important information will be stored in the game’s notebook to look over at any time. Only when you ask the right questions, or show characters items in a specific order, will you make another breakthrough or be able to travel to another area to advance the story. Using the menu options including Take, Show, Remember, Ask, and Travel, the protagonist is able to look for clues in the environment. The point and click gameplay, where you might find an item needed for evidence or pick up the phone isn’t very prevalent compared to dialogue, but it does still come into play every now and again. This may be because the games rely more on the dialog choices that this became more of a secondary way of finding clues. Personally, I prefer interacting with characters to find out information more than just clicking and picking up clues.
At no point does the story in both games stray from the mystery that needs solving. It feels refreshing to not see any instances of fanservice or comic relief that take away from the experience. At some point, the doctor in The Missing Heir does joke about how cute he thinks the missing Ayashiro family member Yuri is based on her photo, but it’s still a huge difference from the type of humor that games like Danganronpa have that can break the mood. In a market with tons of games with fanservice it’s nice to see something a little more grounded. It was a pleasant surprise from what I’m used to that I’ve played in the last ten years and I am very interested in checking out more 1980’s adventure titles.
When it comes to the soundtracks for these games, you can really tell the composer wanted to keep the tone of the original games while still wanting them to feel more modern. There are two separate original soundtracks for each respective game. Kenji Yamamoto, the music director, is also well known for his work on the Metroid series and more recently Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Going in, I thought that both games would share the same music because of how short they are, but this was not the case. The music in The Missing Heir has tracks that give off the feeling of a small town with an ominous atmosphere, where people are spreading rumors about a murder that has just taken place or is about to. The music helps set the stage by implementing a more synthetic sounding intense track for a murder scene letting the player know that the stakes have been raised. On the other hand there are a lot of calming songs that utilize the keyboard and flute for a quiet and familiar setting. These are among some of the most heard tracks in the game. This game has less tracks than The Girl Who Stands Behind, and that was a little bit disappointing to me. Don’t get me wrong, they are all used effectively to fit their scenes, but after a while they can feel repetitive. The Girl Who Stands Behind is more memorable to me, and gives off more of an upbeat tone while still retaining a mysterious vibe. I got the feeling that they really wanted to bring some 80’s style beats into the mix along with the synth style of music. Just listening to the credits roll from The Girl Who Stands Behind feels like the perfect outro for a crime drama show in the 1980’s. There are even alternate versions of the tracks in a higher key that are perfect mood setters.
The character designs are gracefully and respectfully upgraded for a new generation and among the best aspects of these two forgotten gems, but there are a few downsides. After looking up the original’s sprite artwork, it is very much a product of its time, but it has this gritty charm that is missing from the reimagined aesthetics. The washed out colors of the 1980’s box art almost look like watercolors which is a vibe that would have been an interesting artistic challenge for them to tackle. In this day and age hand drawn illustrations aren’t as prevalent so seeing this is always nice. Still, the new designs are all unique and never feel out of place despite the drastic art style change. I feel that it captures the tone of the period that the original games come from, while still looking like a brand new visual novel. It makes me wonder how long it’s going to be until we see modern crime drama games like Phoenix Wright with an 80’s anime art style for a brand new entry.
My favorite part about the new art was the fact that even if a character made a very small appearance, their sprite was just as expressive as the key characters in the story. What I mean is that many visual novels don’t usually give very minor characters detailed sprites, and this was nice to see. For example, an old nameless woman who gives you clues while her facial expression changes from scared to terrified the more you speak to her. Emotion plays a huge role in the narrative, and pairing the artwork with the expressive voice acting was a big part of why this game works so well in my opinion. I could tell that this was a project that a lot of people were passionate about, and the addition of the updated artwork was a must to tell the classic story to a brand new audience as well as reintroduce it to old fans.
The characterization and personalities of the key characters feel like a mixed bag. The protagonist, rightfully, is a blank slate in both games, and this made me feel like he was a character who I could slowly help piece together an identity for. I liked how he was frustrated about remembering who he was while trying to solve a mystery that he may or may not have been directly involved with because of outside forces.
Most of the members of the Ayashiro family have very minor roles, but I did like that they fit the stereotype of the rich relative who has better things to do with their time. One of the Ayashiro’s that stood out to me was Kiku’s niece Azuka Kasuga. She planned to live in the family home after the reading of the last will and testament and had a large debt that she depended on Kiku’s inheritance to pay. This was totally in character for someone looking to benefit from a dead family member, and was very believable. In my opinion Asuka is one of the family members most affected by the events that took place, and she becomes the next target. I appreciated that she had a lot of depth from her illness justifying her mood, to her need to find the missing heir and settle the problem of who inherits the company. I also really liked how enthusiastic Dr. Kumda was wanting to help solve the mystery and how quickly he changed from one minute helpful in the autopsies to goofing off the next. He added some much needed light-heartedness to the situation and was a great choice for someone for the main character to rely on. These characters dealt with loss in different ways whether it be looking to use the situation to her advantage or supporting those who are trying to uncover the truth because of a long time commitment he had to the family.
On the other hand, Detective Utsugi was too nice of a guy when I first met him. He took a random boy off the street and instead of giving him to the police or sending him back to the orphanage, he made him his assistant. I felt like his generosity to take in this kid without knowing much about him was a bit strange. Maybe Utsugi could have told him that he reminded him of a younger version of himself and that was why he was being so nice. The main character is too quick to trust this man and the skip to a month later without seeing how he is integrated into the agency is a little bit unrealistic. I felt it was a lot like comparing it to anime where the main protagonist quickly becomes the best at what he does with very little character development shown to fill in the gaps. Of course this is a short game and they needed to get the plot going, but I still would have liked a small montage of cases the two worked on together during that month.
Ayumi is the fan favourite character from the series, and I can see why people really have taken a liking to her. Many consider her the series mascot, as she helps the protagonist out with the murder cases. With the new character sprites Ayumi looks even better then she did in the 80’s and I can see why fans wanted her to be in Super Smash Bros. Melee. Her optimistic personality and willingness to help the main character is a big part about her character in my opinion, and she feels like a very down to earth girl that would be popular in a real life Japanese school. I could feel that she genuinely cared about helping the young detective regain his memories and discover the truth. I can honestly say that returning to the office after a day of looking for clues and discussing what is known so far with Ayumi was one of my favorite parts of the game.
Voice acting is a new addition to the series, but there is no English dub included. Since the games take place in a Japanese setting, it makes sense to maintain the Japanese voice cast, as it is very important for the effectiveness of the narrative. It relies heavily on inspiration from Japanese customs and folklore. Many times when games have English dubs mispronouncing Japanese words can feel off putting and immersion breaking. All of the voice actors perform their roles perfectly, and this one one of my favourite new additions. Nintendo got a lot of well known actors and made sure that the voice direction was ominous and dark. The protagonist is voiced by Megumi Ogata, who many consider to be a fan favorite and is known for her past roles as Shinji Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion and Haruka Tenou from Sailor Moon.
Overall, The Famicom Detective Club duology is a pair of great but very short games. Each one can be finished in about 5 hours. While not perfect in every aspect, I can see how much love and passion was put into these remakes. Although I can say that this was a well written experience that could be accessible to people from all walks of life no matter if they have gaming experience or not. Murder mystery fans and those who love modern adventure games will especially enjoy them. These games made me happy to be a Nintendo fan even if this came out of left field as something that would get a remake. It definitely deserved the revamp and I am glad that it came to be.
It feels like Nintendo might have been trying to gauge interest for a brand new game in the series by remaking the old titles. If that were the case I would love to see a longer entry in the series containing about 20-25 chapters instead of the 13. Whether it takes place directly after The Missing Heir, or follows a completely new protagonist in a more recent time period. I would be very interested in seeing the team that worked on the remakes reprise their roles for a brand new mystery adventure game in the Famicom Detective Club series. If that never comes to be, however, I am glad I got to experience them, and become interested in checking out more adventure games similar to this one.