Famicom Detective Club

Famicom Detective Club is one of those games that I had heard so much about in Nintendo lore but actually knew nothing about. The first real mention stateside was in 2001's Super Smash Bros Melee with a trophy for Ayumi Tachibana. Even the name is a bit opaque "Famicom Detective Club." What does that even mean as a game?

It really piqued my interest to know that they would be translating the remakes for Switch and I would finally get a chance to play them, or at least an updated version of them to really illuminate that part of Nintendo history for me. As it turns out the 2 games "Missing Heir" and "Girl who Stands Behind" are actually really compelling in their own right.

The 2 games are both visual novels. That have you selecting options in menus to advance the story. You are laid out an ever-increasing array of options to ask people about and your job is to pick the right one and the right time to uncover more facts. What this tends to turn into is just a guess-and-check where you systematically try everything until it can go forward. There's no penalty like say, Phoenix Wright, you just waste your time. The Missing Heir being the first originally released can be pretty brutal. There are lots of opaque reasons why you can't advance. You might need to use less common commands like "look" or "engage" on a person talking to you to get them to spill the rest of their testimony. So from that perspective it's not really that interesting to play and can be quite frustrating. The Girl Who Stands behind is a little more guided and limits some of the possible options and does more auto-advancing between scenes so you don't get stuck for as long.

Gameplay aside, the real draw here is the experience. The story is compelling but a lot of that is the good pacing. The Missing Heir is slower (and a longer game overall) but can be very satisfying as it twists like a good detective novel. The presentation is also really cool. It seems to use the same tech as Fire Emblem: Fates did for face-patting with hand-drawn art that algorithmically deforms to give a smooth pseudo-3D look. It's uncanny in some ways as it smoothly animates when characters are standing and breathing and then jumps to simple choppy animations for larger movements giving it a very unique style that's almost the reverse of an anime. The drawings for both characters and backgrounds are beautiful though. The animations really sell it along with the (Japanese-only) voice acting. It's something I'd like to see more of and presents a high-quality alternative to classic 2d, instead of celshaded 3D. The music is also great. Missing Heir isn't bad but Girl Who Stands has some fantastic tracks.

What I also really liked is how unapologetically Japanese these games are. They aren't just set in Japan, they are set in 1980s Japan, the temporal cultural distance is nearly that of the spacial cultural one. There are no cellphones, every table has an ash tray, people keep washing machines on the outside of their apartments, and people relay messages from landline phones. It wonderfully sets the place. This feels especially surprising to me to see how far we've come in terms of localization especially from when it was originally released. It would have been a near impossible feat back in the day. It used to be that everything would need a layer of localization to explain and make it approachable for the western audience but somewhere we realized it wasn't as necessary as we thought and the consumer base for very Japanese things grew. There's no English VA, names are not changed, it doesn't go out of it's way to explain what a hanko is (but gives you enough context). There's also the adult situations which just wouldn't fly on a system that was marketed toward kids. You are investigating bodies with some pretty gruesome detail. It makes me happy to see how much more varied and specialized things are allowed to be 30 years later.

Anyway it's not a very long trip but it was quite enjoyable. Very recommendable for those interested in visual novels.

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