Solaris Japan

Friday, 15 January 2016

Snes Review - Famicom Detective Club (Part II) (Game 097)

Visual novels are finally catching on in the West, but Japan have enjoyed them for decades. Is it worth re-reading the classics?

Developed by Tose
Published by Nintendo
Released in 1994


Video gaming as a creative medium is still so young that many can play a game and remember the other titles that have clearly inspired it. You'd struggle to find a platformer that doesn't owe some debt of gratitude to 'Super Mario Bros.'. First person shooters still remind us of the pioneers of the genre ; 'Doom' and 'Wolfenstein 3D'. Many even argue that every 'Legend of Zelda' game is the same, each one only expanding on the blueprint set by the NES original. But while the lineage of well known genres is apparent, it's not so easy to trace the growth of smaller game types.

It wasn't till I started commuting that I found that there was a great deal of enjoyment to be had from visual novels. In their rawest form these games involve you reading text (or having the words read to you) while looking at attractive visuals, which typically depict various talking heads. In the most simple visual novels your only requirement as a player is to press a button to advance the story. However, often more involving games are still classified as "Visual Novels" even though there's puzzle or adventure aspects to them. The 'Professor Layton' games for example weave fantastic tales around logic puzzles,  where you can only progress the story if you solve enough brain benders. Similarly the 'Phoenix Wright' games are "Visual Novels" with murder investigations and court cases thrown in. I'm a huge fan of these games in particular and have aided the Ace Attorney through all five main games and the three spin offs. Though I knew the games originated on the GBA in Japan, I naively thought that this was when visual novels reached the mass market. Of course I'd played LucasArts point and click games throughout my childhood, but these couldn't really be described as Visual Novels. While they have (typically hilarious) stories they are more accurately labeled adventure games; there's much more clicking than reading. I also played text adventure games when I was very young, but with no pictures to look at I don't think they have quite enough "visuals" that's needed in "Visual novels", clearly they are simply digital "novels". Evidently though, while I was helping Guybrush Threepwood become a mighty pirate and learning to spell playing 'Zork', someone in Japan was playing a visual novel on a NES. Twenty five years before I had even had the chance to make Phoenix Wright object to anything, they were investigating murders.


'Famicom Detective Club Part II' was originally released for the Famicom  Disk System and like modern adventure games it was released as two separate episodes in sequential months in 1989. While the name would imply it's a follow up to its predecessor, 'Part II' in this situation actually comes before 'Part I' since the two episodes form one single prequel.

While the original Famicom disc release of 'Famicom Detective Club Part II' was greeted with praise, it was the re-release on the Super Famicom that really excited the critics. However, despite the critical praise, getting hold of the game was actually quite a challenge for potential players. The Super Famicom version of the game has never been officially available in physical form. Much like a precursor to modern day download games, it could only be obtained through the "Nintendo Power" program,  exclusively in Japan. In order to play 'Famicom Detective Club Part II' you would first have to buy a blank flash RAM cartridge. With this, the player would either have to send their cart to Nintendo who would copy the game onto their flash-cart, or they would have to go into a store that had a "Nintendo Power copier" and get the game loaded onto their cartridge that way. One game would fit on a cart at a time, so once completed many would simple replace their copy of the game with a new game. As a result very few authentic physical copies of the Super Famicom version of 'Famicom Detective Club Part II' exist today. It was a convoluted system and perhaps its because of this that so few people, even in Japan, have heard of 'Famicom Detective Club Part II'.  This is a shame as it's clearly a game that influenced the creation of the 'Phoenix Wright' series, something series director Shu Takumi readily admits. "I’ve always liked [Famicom] mysteries, and I actually joined Capcom because I wanted to make detective games."

The Super Famicom remake of 'Detective Club Part II' is certainly the ultimate version of the game, a complete overhaul of the original. In the main, the story is the same; a consolidation of the story seen in the two episodes released on Famicom discs. However the visuals and audio see noticeable improvement. This was probably down to the involvement of much of the team who had worked on 'Super Metroid'. Legendary pixel artist Tomoyoshi Yamane was the guiding hand behind the 16bit  visual update. It’s hardly comparable to the Famicom original, and not simply because it was on the far superior Super Famicom. The static screens that tell the complex story have become animated, with large detailed characters that wouldn't look out of place in a modern Visual Novel game. Cut scenes have been expanded and with scrolling screens and fading scaling sprites, the game is often quite inventive within the constraints of the genre. There is also a significant leap in the quality of the audio, which is largely because Kenji Yamamoto was allowed to finally realise the ideas be had for the original version. He was the composer of the Famicom Disc original’s score and with the Super Famicom's fantastic SPC700DSP sound chip the music  of that game finally sounds the way it was always intended.

While the music and visuals certainly enhance a visual novel (as the name suggests), the genre is only as good as its story. However, with this being a detective game filled with narrative twists and turns describing too much would ruin the fun. You play as a young protégé of a respected private detective. A school girl has been murdered and her body has been discovered washed up on a river bank. However, as the game progresses links to a previously unsolved mystery start emerging and it becomes obvious to all involved that perhaps this latest murder isn't as random and isolated as initially believed. It's an intriguing plot certainly, one that has been echoed in many later Visual novel detective games.  Indeed one of the case in the fantastic 'Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair' actually includes a tribute to this game. In this recent game the player discovers a body which is in an identical pose, wearing a similar school uniform. It is even depicted at an identical angle (although the means of death differ). It's nice that the creators of the 'Danganronpa' series, Spike Chunsoft, acknowledge their games' roots and influences.

Indeed much of the gameplay aspects you would think we're devised for recent games can actually be seen in 'Famicom Detective Club Part II'.

Like the investigation sections of a 'Phoenix Wright' game, this game sees you exploring locations from a first person perspective. While in cutscenes you see your playable character, for the most part you are looking through his eyes and accordingly the charters you meet look directly at the player. You progress the story by selecting from various activity options. At any given moment you can instruct your detective character to talk to others, investigate their current location or perform other environmentally dependant activities. As Shu Takumi acknowledges, for a designer it’s all about giving the player an illusion of control when in reality they are following a path. "Most mystery adventures have the player choose from a number of different dialogue options for their character in order to progress the story. You know you've succeeded [as a game designer] when you can make the player feel like they have made their own choices and driven the story forwards themselves, even though it was essentially linear." As the Phoenix Wright director suggests, it's really just a case of exhausting the options until you find the one that the game requires you to perform. You're never penalised for picking the wrong option, nor are you punished for repeating an action or questioning someone twice. As new information is revealed further conversation options open up, coloured yellow to draw the eye and heralded with an Audio chime.  All you really need to complete the game is patience. Obviously you don't need to ask everyone, everything but the more time you spend in a location the more you will learn about the characters and the murder cases. 'Famicom Detective Club Part II' is a game that rewards time investment. Yes you can romp through the game quickly by following a guide and picking the correction action every time, but to do so would miss the point. Like so many similar games the enjoyment comes from the reveal, from learning about characters.

Regardless, there's no need to ever resort to a game guide as there is enough help within the game. Unique to the Super Famicom version of 'Famicom Detective Club Part II' are Memo Functions and a Logbook. These serve as a way for players to go back and review information pertaining to the case. With so many people to talk to and so many locations to perform actions in, the volume of information to remember is almost overwhelming. Judicious use of these functions helps alleviate confusion somewhat.  The Memo Function is also used in ‘review’ sessions, where the game prepares you for a new chapter by going back over the significant story points. It's an idea that's now a key part of Detective focused Visual Novels but at the time it would no doubt have been unique. With a complex plot having a reminder of what's happened really does aide understanding of significant narrative points. It's little wonder that it's something that continues to exist in the 'Phoenix Wright' games today. Similar the "explanation" sections play very similarly to the "closing argument" sections in the 'Danganronoa' games. "Here you will be asked to complete various sentences choosing a name which appropriately fits each sentence", to borrow the instructions as written in 'Famicom Detective Club part II'. As with the rest of the game (and unlike 'Ace Attorney') there's no punishment for making the wrong connection. It’s a device that varies the game play while also reinforcing important plot points in an elegant way.

For anyone who has played a TellTale Games series, another familiar feature will be The Personality Assessment. Again, unique to the Super Famicom version of 'Detective Club' it shows the player what type of detective they are, based on their actions throughout the game. It seems strange now that the 'Walking Dead' TellTale adventure series was considered original for showing you how your choices compared to other player's and how your actions evolved the plot. 'Famicom Detective Club Part II' was doing a similar thing four console generations prior.

Of course an English speaker can only play 'Famicom Detective Club Part II' thanks to the tireless efforts of the fan translation community. Initially this games localisation was  a labour of love by a user who goes by the handle Tomato. However, they greatly underestimated the amount of text that's inherent to these types of games. To save the project from being abandoned a second translator known as Demiforce completed the project. 'Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Justice for All' producer Minae Matsukawa knows that "Good localization is critical to making [a game] entertaining for players. Especially for a text game. Localizers[need to find] ways to preserve the spirit of the original Japanese text while making it entertaining for Western players." Demiforce and Tomato have certainly made the game entertaining and while they should be applauded for translating nearly 20,000 words into English it is not a flawless effort.

It's a rather literal translation, summed up by the subtitle 'The girl in back'. The grammatically incorrect sentence has come from a direct word-for-word replace of the original Japanese subtitle; Ushiro (behind) ni (at) tatsu (stand) shoujyo (woman). We're this officially translated,  it's likely the game would have been called 'The girl behind you' or 'The Girl in the shadows'. Both of these subtitles would have made sense grammatically while remaining true to the narrative shown in the game. As 'Ace Attorney' translator Janet Hsu explains, sometimes accuracy isn't what best suits the game. "It’s kind of a delicate balance because as the translator, you don’t want to write new things into a script because that changes the gaming experience for the Western audience. It’s about 'How do I recreate the feeling and experience Japanese gamers had in a way that is understandable to a Western audience?'"

Too much authenticity to the original Japanese source has an effect on its accessibility to an English speaker. Too little and it becomes a different story and ultimately a different game. While Demiforce and Tomato have done an incredible job of translating the game, they have neglected to localise it. According to Capcom's Brandon Gay its a mistake that's even made by professionals. "As a translator it is easy to fall into the mindset of literal translations.The translators may have translated the text word for word from Japanese to English, but if the final English does not flow well or in the worst case, even make sense, then a 100% accurate translation is of little benefit. It can be a fine line at times to keep the original ideas intact, while making it accessible to an English speaking audience." This is why according to Brandon Gay, a game translated professionally actually goes through two stages. "One, where it is translated into one language from Japanese, and the second phase where an editor polishes and smooths the text out for their audiences". Evidently the translation of 'Famicom Detective Club Part II' is superb, but additional work on the editing was needed. Still, its easy to be critical and it is always worth noting that translation community did all this work for free, simply to bring a great game to an appreciative audience.



For all its similarities to the 'Phoenix Wright' games, 'Famicom Detective Club Part II' is a much darker more serious game. Of course the Ace Attorney sees some horrific crime scenes and some diabolical characters, but they typically have names that are puns which rather lightens the mood. Equally, their wild expressions and over-the-top reactions dilutes the disturbing nature of mass murder. In both the original game and the translation of 'Famicom Detrctive Club Part II' there is noticeably less humour and mirth. Tomato and Demiforce have included some jokes but they are few and far between. Police Detectives are all business; a far cry from Dick Gumshoe and his inability to notice obviously clues. Humour has been replaced with supernatural elements and as the game progresses it veers away from realism and ventures into explanations involving ghosts. Perhaps in this way it's closer to the 'Apollo Justice' game or 'Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations'. That's not to say it isn't a great engaging story, but at times the player does have to accept certain plot points as truth even though they seem to be the least believable explanation.

Some have called 'Famicom Detective Club Part II' "the most mature game Nintendo have ever made". This is in no small part to it being written by the co-creator of the Metroid series Yoshio Sakamoto. While employed by Nntendo this is a man who consciously tries to break the family friendly mold. Yoshio Sakamoto believes his mission is not to compete with the established Nintendo franchise but to "always come up with something very different from what ['Mario creator] Mr. Miyamoto is likely to do". Indeed the GBA release was actually given a CERO (ages 15+) certificate making 'Famicom Detective Club Part II' the first Nintendo developed title to receive a parental advisory rating.

Despite this, some have even labelled 'Famicom Detective Squad Part II'  "a masterpiece". This is perhaps giving the game too much praise. For a modern connoisseur of Visual Novels it will actually feel somewhat limited, with little variety in gameplay (especially when compared to the barrage of play styles seen  in a game like 'Danganronopa Trigger Happy Havoc'). However, if a visual novel is judged on its story above all else, 'Famicom Deyective Club' is a very good game. Also because it was made at the very end of the Super Famicom's life (by a team very accustomed to the hardware) 'Famicom Detrctive Club Part II' is a game that looks and sounds as good as the console would allow.  Perhaps because so few got to play the game on its original release, 'Detective Club' was re-released on the GBA in Japan as part of the Famicom Classics collection. I find it rather satisfying that this re-release would have sat alongside the original 'Ace Attorney' games, as they too found a home on the GBA. The longer you spend playing the game the more you see the genesis of the gameplay devices seen in other later games. Consequently, 'Famicom Detective Club Part II' presents us with an interactive history lesson in the origins of modern visual novels.


Where Did I get this game from?

To import games from Japan, eBay isn't your only option. I always check on sites like Solaris Japan as often they have a game in stock cheaper than the final price it goes for on eBay. The also have a few gadget that removes any worry of getting charged at customs, so they're worth a look.



Given the fact that ‘Famicom Detective Club Part II’ was never released physically or in English, to own a SNES copy you have to go down the reproduction route. I got my cart from OCD Reproductions, who are great value and will happily burn any ROM to a cart (provided that it is impossible to buy legitimate copy). I designed the box and cartridge label myself using my limited PhotoShop skills. This was then turned into a box by my good buddy Marko at Imbagames. I’ve always liked the boxes they produce here, as it’s a high quality print and a fancy box, dipped in plastic for protection. 

If you would like the files to make your own box get in contact.

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