In 1988, Nintendo released Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir upon the Famicom Disk System. Though the lack of global release meant it’s long been an obscurity outside its home country, it made quite the splash in Japan. For one thing, it gave Yoshio Sakamoto—best known for his work on the Metroid series—his first experience with scriptwriting, and boy did he turn out something impressive: a rich, complicated detective story, full of the sorts of twists you’d expect from the genre, but also plenty of depth in its characters and nuance in its storytelling. A year later, Famicom Detective Club: The Girl Who Stands Behind took that even further.
But it was a groundbreaking game that the rest of the world missed out on at the time. Console-based adventure games weren’t nearly as popular in the west as they were in Japan at the time, and the process of translating games as text-heavy as these would have been a monumental task. So Famicom Detective Club was left to become a cult favourite in the west, beloved by importers and the fan-translation community, but never given a shot at widespread appeal.
Until now. Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir & The Girl Who Stands Behind brings two full-fledged remakes of those classics to Nintendo Switch, both as standalone releases and in a bundle that includes both, and also makes them officially available in English for the very first time. It’s an unexpected move from Nintendo, to say the least, but an extremely welcome one, because these are two of the most riveting crime dramas you’ll find in video games.
At the centre of both games is a teenage detective, with no memory of his childhood but a penchant for solving cases he discovered after being taken in by a well-known investigator. Whether it’s the death of the head of a wealthy business family by a sudden, very suspicious heart attack or the murder of a young woman who was investigating one of her school’s ghost stories, this young detective has a way of finding his way through the complex web of clues, lies, cover-ups, and apparent supernatural phenomena to find the truth.
They’re stories that will keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish, with a masterful command of how to lay misdirections, set up those big, shocking twists, and keep you guessing right until the final revelation—even when you think you’re sure who the killer is, these games manage to bring out some big surprises. But there’s more to a good mystery story than the mystery itself; the characters and atmosphere play an equally crucial role.
This is where Famicom Detective Club truly shines. There’s a supernatural element to each story—schoolyard rumours of haunted classrooms in The Girl Who Stands Behind, and legends about a family curse dating back to the Sengoku era in The Missing Heir—that put an eerie spin on things. Rural Japanese settings, supporting characters that range from comical oddballs to the most downtrodden and desperate people you can imagine, bring depth and emotional weight to these stories. They’re exciting in the way that watching a good mystery unfold always is, but also tinged with thoughtful melancholy—a fitting mood, given the grim subjects that both games traverse.
As you’d expect, your role in all this is to investigate each case. Famicom Detective Club has the look and feel of a visual novel, but it’s much more of an adventure game, really, with questioning suspects and witnesses, examining crime scenes, and piecing together clues being the driving force behind the stories unfolding—for better and worse.
When it works, Famicom Detective Club creates some truly impressive deductive puzzles to solve. Even within the relatively limited framework of a set of basic text commands—talk, examine, take, think, and so on—each game finds ways to twist those mechanics to really make you think. Sometimes the right way to get the answer you need is to keep asking a witness about the same subject over and over, pressing them for more information. Sometimes the order you ask things becomes a crucial route to the truth. You might even need to threaten to quit the investigation (and the game itself) altogether.
The flipside of this is that when the puzzles don’t work, they really don’t work. The Missing Heir is particularly guilty of puzzles that feel illogical and arbitrary, forcing you to meticulously go through every available option, trying every combination of options until you find something that sticks. That’s always a tiresome experience, but especially when it seems to directly impede the actual investigation—it’s not uncommon to have found a vital clue, and have characters urging you to go investigate it immediately, but to not actually be able to do that until you’ve stumbled upon just the right sequence of commands to trigger the next scene.
This is, I’d assume, a product of the time that these games were first made. Though the Switch releases are a complete overhaul of the originals in terms of presentation, as far as I’m aware, the puzzles are a direct, exact conversion of a pair of games from a time where deliberately obtuse game design, particularly in adventure games, was common. Some part of me respects the decision to remain so true to those originals, but at least some sort of hint function wouldn’t go amiss.
While the puzzle design might be dated, the presentation is anything but. Famicom Detective Club looks absolutely stunning, making incredible use of cel-shading to create an art style that combines all the best parts of the visual novel aesthetic, motion comics, and 2D animation. Every character portrait looks like the kind of hand-drawn, detailed stills you’d normally see in a visual novel, right down to their poses and the deliberate lack of full animation to create that visual novel effect. But when they move—changes in facial expressions, mouth movements as they speak, little details like hair blowing in the wind—the fluidity and attention to detail is remarkable. I said in my preview that I there are no words to truly describe the effect, and that remains true: the hybrid of visual novel stills and animation is wholly unique, impressive, and does a remarkable job of setting the mood.
The soundtrack adds to that, with quiet haunting melodies playing through the background and the telltale jingle when you uncover a new clue. The remake has new arrangements for each piece of music, as you’d expect, but there’s also the option of switching to the Famicom versions, if you want that retro feel. I still wish the whole original games were included, or even released separately in all their 8-bit glory and historic value, but at least there’s the sound option to tickle that sense of nostalgia.
The fact that Nintendo would remake Famicom Detective Club at all might be one of the most welcome and unexpected surprises of this year, and they’ve turned out remarkably well—dated puzzle design notwithstanding. An art style that combines the best parts of visual novel stills and fluid animation helps to lay the groundwork for a pair of truly engrossing detective stories. The way each mystery unfolds as you piece together the clues is nothing short of masterful, with the atmosphere, nuanced storytelling, and emotional underpinnings to tie it all together beautifully.
Title: Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir & The Girl Who Stands Behind
Developer: Nintendo, Mages
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed)
Release date: 14 May 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.