June 15, 2021

These Famicom Detective Club Games Have Aged Surprisingly Well

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Ayumi is outstanding in her field.
Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku

There’s nothing about the art, animation, voice work, or music of Nintendo’s new Famicom Detective Club games that betray their origin as a pair of Japan-exclusive Family Computer Disk System adventures from the late 1980s. The dated gameplay, however, is a dead giveaway.

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Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir and its prequel, Famicom Detective Club: The Girl Who Stands Behind, were released for the Famicom Disk System in 1998 and 1989 respectively. The games’ stories were written by Yoshio Sakamoto, better known for his work designing and directing the Metroid series. Each game casts the player as a young detective wrapped up in a series of hideous murders. Using a largely text-based interface, the player must question suspects, search for and analyze clues, and uncover secrets that bring them ever closer to closing the case.

Nintendo tapped Japanese developer Mages to bring this pair of former Japanese exclusives to the Western world for the first time, and they’ve done a brilliant job. The primitive sprite graphics of the originals have been replaced with lush and colorful anime art. Subtle animations, like character’s hair moving as they change expression or clothing blowing in the wind, add life to the game. The original soundtrack (which can be turned on in the new games’ menus) has been replaced with a full symphonic version. And, for the first time ever, every character in each game is fully voiced in Japanese.

Here’s a shot of character Ayumi Tachibana from the original disk version of Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir.

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We were so stupid back then.
Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku

Here is the same shot in the same setting in the Switch version. Ayumi Tachibana has gotten quite a glow-up.

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Now with an even more intense stare.
Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku

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Aesthetically the games have gotten a complete overhaul. Unfortunately, they still play like three-decades-old adventure games. Investigation in The Missing Heir and The Girl Who Stands Behind are performed by cycling through menus to perform tasks like talking, looking around, engaging with different characters, and interacting with objects. Searching a location brings up a little magnifying glass icon, which is moved about via analog stick to highlight objects, most of which are merely set decoration.

Talking to witnesses, suspects, and other important characters takes place via menu as well. As our detective learns more about the circumstances surrounding the two games’ twisted murder plots, more and more talking points are added to the menu. Considering covering these talking points is often the only way to progress the story forward, you’ll have to hit all of them, sometimes multiple times, in order to move on to the next scene.

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You can almost smell the stale cigarette smoke.
Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku

What’s fun is there’s no real indicator of what you should be asking, and the longer the menu gets the easier it is to skip topics. While playing through Missing Heir, which I completed after around eight hours, I encountered several situations where I swear I asked a character about a topic multiple times, only to have them suddenly react to it differently. If you don’t pay close attention, you’ll find yourself going through every menu option one by one, hoping to stumble upon the one that moves things along.

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Frustrating moments aside, I quite enjoyed playing through The Missing Heir. It’s a twisted little murder mystery about a rich family in a remote village whose matron mysteriously dies. Having fallen off a cliff while investigating previously, our main character has a bit of the amnesia, so the mystery is as much about discovering himself as it is uncovering the murderer. I figured out the ending far before my character did, but that’s part of the fun of murder mysteries.

Don’t worry, there’s a strong anti-smoking message in the game.

Don’t worry, there’s a strong anti-smoking message in the game.
Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku

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The stories mostly hold up, showing their age in little details like ashtrays in public offices, which I find completely charming. Even with all of these shiny updates, the Famicom Detective Club games remain a product of their time.