Nintendo dipping down into the history well isn’t uncommon, but sometimes the way it does so is. Just when you think nothing can surprise you anymore, you hear Nintendo has hired Mages to develop a remake of a 1988 Famicom Disk System visual novel. With enough budget for new visuals, tons of voice acting, elaborate animations and a localization. Literally the only (official) mention of this series in English was a trophy in Smash Bros. twenty years ago.
I dunno about you guys but I am stoked.
Famicom Detective Club is a game that defies the passage of time. Mages, a top-shelf visual novel developer known for the likes of Steins;Gate, Psycho-Pass and Corpse Party, hit this remake with all the aesthetic flourish of a modern game. But Mages and Nintendo want you to know this is an old school NES joint that would never in a million years have been sold in North America. But it is now, because what are you gonna do about it?
By that I mean Famicom Detective Club’s structure is unapologetically a visual novel from the late 80s published on Famicom hardware. This is an extreme limitation, especially considering these are mystery stories. Think about all the hoops many visual novel developers try to jump through to add active gameplay elements to their releases for fickle overseas audiences. There wasn’t enough space for hoops, especially for a game that was on the Famicom Disk System but still had to have a NES port.
Because of those limitations and a stubborn adherence to them in the remake, there’s a lot of railroading in Famicom Detective Club. Both titles are governed by a menu of verbs, similar to what you’d see years later in a LucasArts SCUMM adventure. But here you aren’t stuffing pulleys into rubber chickens. Instead you’re talking to people and desperately pressing them for clues. Your options are typically questions about various static topics (the victim, suspects, etc), and the pathway to narrative progress is choosing the right options in the right order.
The scene will not progress until you’ve done so, and aside from the occasional vague hint from the “Think” option you’re going to have to really read the room to know what to ask next. Otherwise you’ll be stonewalled with repeated text of the “...” variety until you find the next flag. There’s no fail state per se, just your own patience threshold and occasionally some variables that affect a rating of sorts after the credits.
The most fascinating aspect of this loop is how that order can go sometimes. There are several moments where you ask about a topic, get a vague response, and the correct response is to ask about that topic again, and maybe even again after that. You sort of have to grok the vibe of the conversation or how the sentence reads to be confident in the next choice. You could just hit every available option of course, but if you want a “perfect” game you really have to think.
That sounds kinda bad on paper, but in practice this system working smoothly is a testament to the writing, localization and logic behind Famicom Detective Club. I never once felt like I was dealing with a Grim Fandango sort of situation, even when I was struggling to find the next flag. Usually it was because I have trouble organizing things in my mind, not because the game was asking me to make nonsensical choices to find a clue only the developers would think to try.
While I have no comparison to the original games, the script for the Switch remakes is a really fun read. Each of the characters have distinct personalities, and are tied to their respective mysteries in ways that make sense and keep the suspense moving. The protagonist and his friends are very likeable, and there’s plenty of space made for humor and character development alongside the twists and drama.
The two mysteries (which can either be bought separately or together with a slight discount) are also super different from one another, which makes jumping into both of them an easy choice. The Missing Heir is more of a political sort of case, as the Scooby gang is dealing with insular familial conflict.
Meanwhile, The Girl Who Stands Behind has much more of a horror-slash-thriller vibe with a pinch of Japanese horror added for flavor. My only complaint would be that the ending plot twists often get a little campy, but the journey there is often a slick enough ride to make up for that.
Famicom Detective club truly is a visual novel in an almost flat, straightforward sense. The story goes in one direction, you can’t really lose or mess up, and there’s one ending. The rating I mentioned earlier is more of a cute bonus than something that’s part of the story. This is a game that I can’t believe exists frankly, especially when you can go into the options and change the soundtrack to the original Disk System and Famicom versions. The Nintendo Switch has truly become enough of a broad success to allow room for experiments like this, even from Nintendo itself. And that rules.
- Compelling storytelling
- Unabashed retro gaming vibes
- Animation is so awesome it’s shocking at first
- As much as I praised the logic earlier there can be some frustrating moments if you don’t pick up on the right cues
- More reverence for the original games (museum or something) would’ve helped with more context and flair
- I stayed up way too late one night because I couldn’t put The Girl Who Stands Behind down until it was over, and I was very tired the next day
A copy of this game (both stories) was provided by the publisher for review.