Visual novels aren’t exactly the most popular game genre here in the United States, which is why it was such a surprise when Nintendo announced that the two Famicom Detective Club games were coming to Switch, completely remade. The games originally came out in 1988 and 1989 on the Famicom Disc System. For the record, that’s before some Engadget staffers were born, on a Japan-exclusive console that was discontinued a year later. So this is quite a deep cut from the Nintendo archives, one that really highlights the Switch’s strength as a home for quirky and intimate titles.
The two installments, The Missing Heir and The Girl Who Stands Behind, will both be available in the eShop for $35 each starting May 16, though you’ll get $10 off the second game if you’ve already bought one. While that’s significantly cheaper than most new Switch titles, it still feels like a stretch for something 33 years old. But you’re not really paying for a three-decade-old game, as it’s been completely rebuilt from the ground up by independent developer MAGES (with some assistance from the original developer, TOSE). MAGES is best known as a maker of visual novels, most notably the Steins;Gate series. So the company was a perfect choice to bring these old titles back to life.
Almost everything has been rebuilt or redesigned. The characters and settings now sport a slicker art style with a more contemporary look, even if the story is still firmly set in the ‘80s (landlines and all). There’s some limited animation from time to time, but the biggest change is the addition of voice acting. Each character’s dialogue is fully voiced, though the text will still be displayed at the bottom of the screen (and you can skip the spoken dialogue if you’re impatient like me).
The games look like a modern visual novel, and fans of the Ace Attorney series will find it instantly familiar, as the game play is very similar to the investigation phase of Capcom’s lawyer series. You travel to locations, move the cursor around the scenery until you find something worth a closer look, and you interrogate witnesses and suspects. If you wished Phoenix Wright could do more of the detective stuff instead of yelling at Edgeworth in court, you’ll probably enjoy the Detective Club games, though they are more serious in tone.
The first game, The Missing Heir, deals with the mysterious death of a wealthy businesswoman. You’ll have to question her family as to their whereabouts and what each of them has to gain from her death — it’s a pretty standard plot as far as mysteries go, one that we’ve seen before in novels and films like Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. But it’s a good one, and I am fully invested in figuring out whodunit. The characters aren’t as colorful as those in the Ace Attorney series, but that’s a bonus in my book, as I don’t feel the need to pick favorites or even empathize with these fishy people. The lack of color extends to the protagonist, who doesn’t even have a canonical name in the game. You can name him whatever you want, even if it feels vastly out of place in the overtly Japanese setting. (My guy is “Kay Ramirez.”)
That name can be transferred over to The Girl Who Stands Behind, which features the same protagonist at the start of his career as a detective, investigating the death of a high school student. Yes, it is a prequel, set roughly two years prior to The Missing Heir. If you wanted you could play the second title first since there are no spoilers to contend with, but I’d recommend playing them in their intended order as the game mechanics expand a little between installments and it’s always rough to go back to an older title with fewer features.
The game play mechanics are the one thing that didn’t get a substantial update. You’re given a menu of options that can be performed in a given setting, including “look/examine,” “talk” and “take.” If a particular option or location isn’t available at the time it won’t be displayed at all, which is a nice change over games like Phoenix Wright where, if you get stuck, you end up spamming every action and traveling to every location until something shifts in the narrative.
Unfortunately, the Famicom Detective Club games aren’t free of the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” manner of game play. When a new option opens up in the menu you’ll see it highlighted in yellow, which is easy enough. But the game doesn’t tell you when selecting an old option will initiate new dialogue, so you have to either figure it out by context (which isn’t always clear, even with the hints in the “think” menu option) or just… shake every menu tree until something comes loose. It’s as much a game about being thorough and persistent as it is about deduction.
Still, the games are pleasant in their simplicity. They’re devoid of all the bells and whistles that the visual novel genre has picked up over the years, with players asked to perform such varying and oddball tasks as mixing drinks, unlocking people’s hearts, channeling the dead or even deleting files from their computer IRL. Long-time visual novel fans might find Famicom Detective Club underwhelming, but newcomers to the genre will find them a solid introduction to what all these “interactive stories” are all about.