Famicom Detective Club is not something I would ever have expected to see on Nintendo Switch. A pair of relatively obscure adventure ’80s Famicom adventure games that never saw a worldwide release doesn’t exactly seem like it’d be a high priority for the remake treatment. But here we are, and I’m certainly not complaining—a few hours in, The Missing Heir and The Girl Who Stands Behind are building up to be an enthralling pair of detective thrillers with a supernatural twist.
But before you even get to the mysteries, the most immediately striking thing about Famicom Detective Club is its art style. It’s a sort of hybrid between the 2D stills you’d normally associate with visual novels, the semi-animated nature of motion comics, and the fluidity of full animation. In quiet moments of dialogue, the frame sits mostly still, but with subtle animations like hair blowing in the wind, changes in facial expression, mouths moving along with the voice track. But a dramatic twist and suddenly, seamlessly, a character will burst into fully-animated sprint, or an intersecting comic panel will carve its way into view to introduce some off-screen character. It’s a difficult effect to do full justice with words alone, but the announcement trailer gives a good sense of what I mean. And in person, that effect is so much more impactful.
Which is only fitting for the sort of suspenseful, dramatic detective stories that each game is built around. Both games follow the journey of a young detective-in-training as he investigates a strange case, with old legends and ghost stories creeping in to help obscure the truth. In The Missing Heir, you’re trying to uncover the truth behind the death of the monarch of a powerful family, with local rumours about a vengeful curse that go back to the Sengoku period; in The Girl Who Stands Behind, the discovery of a student’s corpse sends you down the well of tragic schoolyard ghost stories. I’m still only in the early parts of each, where there are far more questions than answers, but the suspense is already high, and the stories pulling me back to dig deeper into each mystery.
And digging into those mysteries is the driving force behind Famicom Detective Club. These games have their roots in the graphic adventure games that were so popular in the ’80s, especially in Japan—not quite a visual novel, but not quite a point-and-click adventure, but somewhere between the two. Each scene sees you trying to investigate through a variety of different text commands, talking to witnesses and examining evidence, piecing together the clues as you go. Each scene is a puzzle of sorts, as you try to use what you already know to figure out the right topics to bring up with whom, thus sparking new routes of investigation. But when you’re not sure, meticulously going through each option one by one works, too, and often comes with some fun extra dialogue that you’d miss if you went straight to the obvious solution.
It’s a lot of fun, delving into each case and seeing these stories unfold as you build up your collection of evidence and testimonies. But Famicom Detective Club has its frustrations, too: namely, an extremely slow cursor and a bit too much pixel hunting in moments when you need to manually inspect a scene for clues. Prompts to examine things more closely only pop up when you move your cursor over just the right spot, and it can be a nuisance when you already know and can see what it is you need to click on, but the exact right spot keeps evading you.
I’m also a little disappointed—if not surprised—that there doesn’t seem to be way to play the Famicom originals. Beautiful and impressive as these remakes are, there’s a lot of nostalgic and historic value in keeping the original games alive and available, exactly as they were when they first came out, especially for a western audience that’s never had an easy way to access them. A full translation of the Famicom versions, a la Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, would be a dream, but even just the Japanese-language version would be nice to have included. Remakes are great, certainly, but originals are worth preserving, too. Maybe I’ll get a nice surprise later on, but I’m not holding my breath.
Even so, Famicom Detective Club is shaping up to be something remarkable. This is a pair of captivating mystery games that, despite a cult following, have been far too hidden for far too long. To have them finally making their western debut after so many years, in the form of a particularly impressive remake, is a wonderful thing, and I’m looking forward to seeing where these rabbit holes lead.
Famicom Detective Club launches May 14, 2021 for Nintendo Switch.