Released in 1988 for the Famicom Disk System, Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir marked a rare foray into visual novels for Nintendo. It would get a sequel the next year with The Girl Who Stands Behind, both games going on to become quite influential in the visual novel genre. Over thirty years later, both a new generation of gamers and fans of the original releases can experience both games with updated audio, video, and the inclusion of voiced dialogue. Worth noting is the fact that this is the first time the series has been released outside of Japan.
The first game of the Famicom Detective Club series, The Missing Heir, starts with the main character being stricken with amnesia underneath a cliff. He soon encounters a girl who informs him that he in fact works as an assistant for the Utsugi Detective Agency, who lend their investigative talents to police cases. Unable to remember how he got there or the specifics of the case he was investigating, the young man sets out to uncover these details over the course of his investigation. Like any good murder mystery, the circumstances behind the case are far more complex than he is prepared for, and the stakes are raised as he draws closer to its conclusion.
The events of The Girl Who Stands Behind take place several years before the first game. The game starts with the returning main character’s first meeting with his eventual boss, Detective Utsugi. Later, you begin investigating a case involving a high school girl who was found dead in a river. You soon find that this girl was doing some sleuthing of her own, as she had been seen asking questions about a case from fifteen years ago, as well as the origins of a local urban legend known as “The Girl Who Stands Behind.” It then falls on you to find out not only how this girl met her demise, but how her death is related to the events that took place over a decade prior.
The plots of both Famicom Detective Club games offer some solid murder mystery content. Each has unique elements to their story that aren’t found in the other, most notably how supernatural in nature The Girl Who Stands Behind tends to be at various points. Between the two, The Missing Heir might come off as having a weaker and less riveting plot, which could be expected as the developers were able to refine the second game and improve all of its aspects. Even so, those that enjoy twists and surprises will be pleased with both titles, though a few of the big ones can become obvious if you’re especially observant or have experience with other murder mystery stories. A feature that is particularly welcome is the short (but thorough) plot synopsis given anytime you load a save, reminding you exactly what you were doing prior. This allows you to jump right back into the story no matter how long it’s been since you last played.
The Famicom Detective Club games feature gameplay consisting of investigating locations and talking with persons of interest. In this way, the titles aren’t exclusively visual novels, as there is a good amount of interactivity when examining your environment (similar to the Ace Attorney series). A murder mystery/investigation theme permeates the gameplay. You gather clues, learn new things, and talk to individuals related to the cases. This is all done through a menu of commands that dictate how you interact with the environment.
This system works well in the games, but there are plenty of times when you seemingly have no way to advance forward through the commands, no matter how much talking and examining you do. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if there were any clues as to what needs to be done, but the games rarely make things that clear, especially in the case of The Missing Heir. As a result, it’s imperative to be meticulous in exhausting all dialogue topics (multiple times) and examining everything. Otherwise, you will be scratching your head in puzzlement at many points while playing these games.
Detective Command Menu
While playing either game, you will see a menu of the left side of the screen any time you aren’t actively engaged in conversation. This is known as the Detective Command Menu, the central means of engaging in various actions in the Famicom Detective Club series. The “Examine” option, for example, is used when you want to get a closer look at things in the immediate area. Unfortunately, the pointer used to select areas of interest moves quite slowly, and there is no option to increase its speed. This makes examining crime scenes and other locales more of a chore than it should be. The command menu also has options for talking and a few other contextual options throughout both games.
This type of menu system was popular in the 1980’s and 1990’s in visual novels and point-and-click games. It works well in both of these particular games as a means to carry out your investigations, making the process very methodical in nature. Many younger players won’t be familiar with this style of gameplay. If you’re not accustomed to it, there may be an initial period of adjustment. Luckily it’s an easy system to get the hang of.
There is a section seen in the pause menu of both Famicom Detective Club games called Investigation Notes that compiles information about important topics and people involved with your current case. This fills up with new information about each topic as you learn it through conversation and examination. This new information can be seen by scrolling through different pages on each topic with the L and R buttons, something the game doesn’t explicitly tell you. The Investigation Notes section is a helpful way to stay on top off all of the latest intel you gather, though the story isn’t often complicated enough that you’ll need to rely on it all that much.
There are a few instances of puzzles spread throughout both games, though they aren’t very common. In The Missing Heir, most of these instances occur in the later portions of the game. Most of the puzzles in the game consist of “fill in the blank” segments where you have to spell out or choose an answer to another character’s question, which aren’t very hard. However, there is one particular puzzle that changes the gameplay completely and requires a different way of moving and interacting with your environment. This was a welcome surprise and did a great job of varying the gameplay experience.
The Girl Who Stands Behind contains mostly the same type of word puzzles as its predecessor, though they appear more toward the beginning and middle of the game. Also, there are several instances of multiple-choice questions, though these don’t have any actual impact on the story. Visual novel fans may be used to these types of choices serving to branch out the story into separate “routes” with multiple endings, but here they have no such purpose and seem to only be included as a way to affect your compatibility rating with another character in the game (more on that later). Overall, the puzzles you’ll see are extremely easy and won’t challenge you all that much.
With the simultaneous release of both Famicom Detective Club titles, and the fact that the sequel of the two is technically a prequel, you might wonder if there is a “correct” order to play them. Since The Missing Heir originally came out first, and The Girl Who Stands Behind features gameplay and plot that is noticeably improved, it might seem like a good idea to play them in that order to experience the natural progression of the series as a whole. However, there’s also a strong argument for playing The Girl Who Stands Behind first, as it takes place before the events of The Missing Heir, and the ending even leads directly into it. Ultimately, know that playing either title first has its advantages, and that there isn’t a wrong order in which to play these games. Both contain plot details that better develop the other game, making the second title you play that much better.
Something that is undoubtedly noticeable about these new releases of the Famicom Detective Club series is how improved the visuals are. The original games came out over thirty years ago, so their graphical detail isn’t the best when viewed with modern eyes. With more sophisticated tools to work with this time around, the developers were able to breathe new life into the game, illustrating all the backgrounds and characters with great detail.
The character sprites even move, occasionally blinking or having their hair move in the wind. Many visual novels simply switch stationary illustrated character sprites depending on the tone of the conversation, but here they change expression in real time as they talk. These animations are even seen in the detailed backgrounds, really immersing you in these locations. Comparing the games to their original incarnations shows just how much work the developers put into revitalizing a series that is revered so highly in its native Japan.
MUSIC & VOICE ACTING
The audio improvements in both games are no less impressive. The games feature Japanese voice acting for all dialogue, with English subtitles. There is no option for English voices, so those averse to subtitles will have to make do. A neat feature is being able to choose what version of the game’s tracks you’d like to use. These remade songs are the same ones in the originals, but remastered and made with more sophisticate arrangements. Even so, you can opt to use the game’s original music tracks, and can even use the songs made for The Girl Who Stands Behind‘s Super Famicom version, which were very solid in their own right. This can easily be done in the options menu, and can be switched back and forth at any time during gameplay. You can’t go wrong with any version of these tracks, as they are all great songs that fit the moods in the games well. If you like the tracks, both games have a Music Mode that unlocks after finishing the game, so you’re free to listen to your favorites at your leisure.
In addition to the Music Mode in each title, there are a few small things that could compel you to replay the story again, though only in The Girl Who Stands Behind. At the conclusion of that game, you’re given a brief assessment of how you played. This is presumably determined by the topics you choose to discuss with characters and what things you examine. Also, you are assigned a compatibility rating with Ayumi, the game’s main female side character. This too is based on your actions in the game, as well as the few multiple choice questions you’re asked at various points. Both of these evaluations require complete knowledge of the game to get certain results, so replaying the game is the only way to get “good” rankings in either case. Know that these are purely for entertainment purposes though, so don’t be too discouraged if you get a bad evaluation and the game makes it seem like you did something wrong.
Both Famicom Detective Club games offer a window into the visual novel genre’s past. The command menu system works well to direct the gameplay, but the antiquated mechanic could be off-putting to some. The graphics and audio overhaul is a great achievement for the developers, and animations really set it apart from not only the original releases but even modern visual novels of its kind. Unfortunately, since the gameplay itself has remained unchanged, both titles show their age while playing. Gameplay often hits a standstill as you’re fumbling to find what exact topic you have to talk about or object you have to look at to advance the story, something more recent games tend to avoid through better direction and copious hints. Also, both have runtimes that are quite short for visual novels, and contain the branching path systems that have become commonplace in the genre. However, the quality of the updated visuals and music help to elevate The Missing Heir and The Girl Who Stands Behind past their shortcomings. Both games are a fun and gripping experience that shows that a good old-fashioned murder mystery never gets old.
Final Rating: 8 out of 10.