Nintendo remakes two old school NES games that have never been released outside of Japan before, so how do they work as Switch titles?
Like every Japanese company, there are plenty of Nintendo games that have never been released in the West. In most cases that’s because they’re considered too quirky, too reliant on a knowledge of Japanese culture, or simply not good enough to justify the effort. The reason Famicom Detective Club has never made it out of its home country before is slightly different though, as its primary problem has been how much text there is to translate.
If not for the pandemic, Nintendo may not have deemed it worth the effort but due to the need for more Switch exclusives Western gamers finally get to play one of Japan’s favourite visual novels. Although the situation has changed somewhat in recent years that’s a genre that many gamers will probably be completely unaware of. The name is pretty self-explanatory but the only mainstream example that is likely to be recognised is the Ace Attorney series, which itself was heavily influenced by the original versions of Famicom Detective Club.
The Famicom is the Japanese version of the NES and while the original Famicom Detective Club games were released as two separate volumes, both are contained within this one download (they also seem to be available separately in the US but apparently not in Europe). The Missing Heir was released in 1988 and The Girl Who Stands Behind a year later, with both coming from a surprisingly long history of detective themed games in Japan. Apart from Return Of The Obra Dinn that’s not a concept that has ever really worked in Western games, but the Japanese approach is surprisingly effective.
Even today, many visual novels have very minimal interaction, some doing little more than displaying on-screen text alongside a few images or animations. Famicom Detective Club has a similar level of interactivity to Ace Attorney in that while there are many sequences where you’re just watching and listening to what’s going on there is still traditional gameplay as well. A comparison is often made to old school text adventures but while there is some surface similarity Famicom Detective Club certainly doesn’t have that same level of complexity in its puzzles or interface.
The two games only have a minimal story connection and while The Missing Heir came out first The Girl Who Stands Behind is a prequel, so it really doesn’t matter which you play first. Although the best answer in any similar situation is to stick with the release order.
Although Nintendo is charging full price for the games, the fact remains that these are remakes of 30+ year old NES titles, and ones that stick very close to the original gameplay and interface. There are no 3D visuals and the animation style is very simplistic, like a lower budget Flash cartoon. Sometimes the animation can be surprisingly expressive, other times less so, but it does have a certain retro charm either way and effectively communicates the age of the games without trying to update the original pixel art too literally.
The more controversial aspect of the presentation is that while there is voice-acting for all the dialogue it’s only in Japanese. There’s no English voice track at all and while that’s understandable in terms of the setting, which is very clearly Japan, and the history of the game it does increase the impression that this is a low budget release being sold at full price for no defensible reason.
It would make a difference if the games were of such high quality that they justify the price tag but since much of the appeal here seems to be nostalgia that’s a difficult thing to quantify when it comes to a Western audience. But while the gameplay is very old fashioned, and the script translation occasionally too literal, like any good story, the plot holds up surprisingly well.
The Missing Heir involves an amnesic protagonist who turns out to be a junior detective investigating the death of a businesswoman, whose family are the subject of a local curse. The Girl Who Stands Behind has even more of a supernatural tone, with local students being stalked by a ghostly figure. There’s a surprising amount of death involved – this is a rare Nintendo published title with a 16 age rating – and while both stories stretch plausibility by the end they do offer up an impressively steady stream of surprises and red herrings.
In gameplay terms, how and when you can interact with other people frequently seems arbitrary, as you just end up asking every one of the possible questions until you’re satisfied you’ve pumped everyone for enough information. There’s virtually no signposting about what you should do or talk about and no hints in any of the dialogue, which makes progress feel random and unearned.
The only interaction more complex then choosing who to talk to from a menu is when you have to search a screen for clues. There’s a term used in point ‘n’ click adventures called ‘window washing’ where, once you become stuck or convinced there’s an object nearby that you haven’t picked up, you start systematically moving the cursor up and down the screen, left to right, until you find everything.
This technique is necessary right from the start in Famicom Detective Club and, just like with the verbal interrogations, there’s usually no clue as to where an item might be or whether one is even present – except for the fact that there seems to be no other way to progress.
These are a clear sign of the game’s age but while they might well be accepted if you have some nostalgia for the original titles that’s not going to help for the majority of people playing outside of Japan. Apart, perhaps, for an English dub there’s nothing much Nintendo could have done about the issue, but the fact remains that these are two decent stories where the gameplay element does nothing but get in the way.
Whether these remakes were just an opportunistic attempt to fill the Switch’s release schedules or part of a wider move to revive the series remains to be seen but taken on their own merits the games are difficult to recommend without a number of caveats. It’s certainly a style of game that deserves to be seen more of, but ideally without the burden of also being a retro curiosity.
Famicom Detective Club review summary
In Short: An interesting historical curio that has its charms, and some surprisingly good storytelling, but the old school gameplay and very modern pricing are not a good combination.
Pros: A lot of love has clearly gone into remaking the original titles and while the script needed a little more work the actual stories are surprisingly well constructed.
Cons: Limited gameplay, with non-existent signposting and irritating clue searching mechanic. Cheap looking animation and no English voice acting.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Mages and Nintendo R&D1
Release Date: 14th May 2021
Age Rating: 16
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