When you think of a private detective, you might see a tough guy in a felt fedora, cigarette perched above his chiseled jaw, puffing moodily in an office chair with the blinds drawn. If Nintendo has anything to say about it, though, next time you picture a gumshoe it will be a skinny, teenage boy who can’t remember his own name.
That’s because the publisher has resurrected both Famicom Detective Club outings: The Missing Heir and The Girl Who Stands Behind. This pair of adventure games debuted on the NES in the late ‘80s and cast players as a kid sleuth solving crimes in rural Japan. These remakes are impressively thorough, eschewing the pixelated graphics of the originals for a striking anime-inspired look and full Japanese voice acting. Mechanically, both titles are still products of their time and, as a result, progressing through the story can sometimes be frustratingly opaque. But, the stories themselves–particularly The Missing Heir’s–are compelling enough that I was willing to put up with some outdated design to see them through to their twisty conclusions.
In Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir, your 17-year-old protagonist wakes up at the foot of a cliff with no memory of how he got there or who he is. With a little help from the man who found him, he heads back to his job as an assistant sleuth at the Utsugi Detective Agency. The eponymous detective is nowhere to be found so our forgetful friend–who I dubbed Philip Marlowe, after Raymond Chandler’s PI–must work to solve a case with his fellow assistant detective, Ayumi Tachibana. The case in question involves the death of Kiku Ayashiro, matriarch of the rich and powerful Ayashiro clan and chairwoman of the corporation that made them rich and powerful in the first place. While the autopsy results suggest that Kiku died of natural causes, the family butler Zenzou suspects foul play. Prior to your amnesia, he had hired you to investigate her death. As you begin again, you have two mysteries to solve: who murdered Kiku, and who were you before you lost your memory.
As you get back into the case, you’ll work to solve the mystery using a menu-based system of interactions. While Famicom Detective Club’s updated presentation has a lot in common with modern-day visual novels, the gameplay is reminiscent of old school LucasArts adventures like The Secret of Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle. Like those games, you don’t have direct control of the camera and instead move from tableau to tableau. In each scene, you have objects to inspect, NPCs to talk to and a list of topics to discuss. You can talk through a list of topics, call out to NPCs to switch between multiple conversations, examine objects in the room and pick them up. You can also “remember,” which occasionally allows forgotten information to bubble up from the clarity of your subconscious.
As you gain information, the game sorts it into a notebook organized by character names. While the core mechanics feel distinctly of their time, the Switch version of Famicom Detective Club has added quality-of-life features that make the process of keeping track of all this information a smooth and seamless process. For example, when you learn a new piece of information, the font for the character’s name turns yellow in your notebook. If that piece of information relates to a second character, their name will turn pink. Often, the notebook also records which character told you something, allowing you to make your own decisions on whether the information is reliable. All of these features make it easy to keep track of Famicom Detective Club’s sprawling cast and the many clues you uncover.
And that cast is made up of striking characters, each memorable thanks to strong writing and animation. Some characters only show up for a scene or two, but still manage to leave an impression thanks to memorable art and dialogue. This is especially true of the central members of the Ayashiro family: the snide Azusa, the shrewd and cagey Jiro, and the brash Kanji. This isn’t quite a Knives Out level cast of wealthy rogues, but I had no trouble remembering the important players as they came and went. The mystery unfolds slowly, over the course of many conversations, and these chats can be a bit of a chore to get through at times. There’s no simple way to advance dialogue: you need to select a specific topic each time, and sometimes you run out of things to talk about but the conversation still won’t move forward. This is frustrating, but the dual mysteries of your identity and the identity of the killer kept me going.
Though the game can feel a bit on rails at times, my favorite moments in The Missing Heir are the bits when the game puts you in the driver’s seat. Occasionally, you’re asked to type in a piece of information. It could be a suspect’s name or an important location or an item that could prove critical to solving the case. The important thing is that you figure it out yourself and type the answer in. These bits reinforce the idea that you are the one solving the crime and that, as such, you had better be paying attention. In these moments, The Missing Heir is more than just a good detective yarn; it manages to make you feel like a detective. It’s a shame the next game drops the ball on this.
While The Missing Heir is focused on corporate intrigue and family politics, The Girl Who Stands Behind is a school story with a creepy supernatural undercurrent. Originally released one year after The Missing Heir, The Girl Who Stands Behind is a prequel starring the hero of the first game–this time with memories intact. As it begins, the kid sleuth meets Utsugi, the absentee detective whose agency we worked for in the first game, who offers to bring our detective on as an assistant at the agency. Soon after, the protagonist is sent to investigate the death of a local school student, Yoko Kojima, whose body washed up along a nearby river.
When we discover bruises around the victim’s throat, Utsugi sends the kid sleuth to investigate goings-on at Yoko’s school, Ushimitsu High. We soon learn that her fellow students believe a dark rumor: that a ghost haunts the school’s halls. Sometimes when you’re alone, they say, you may see her standing behind you, covered in blood. Our detective finds out that the rumor started 15 years prior, when a female student, Shinobu Asakawa, disappeared the same night that a local loan shark was murdered. The Missing Heir has horror elements that occasionally come to the surface–the villagers’ claimed that they had seen a resurrected Kiku stalking through the town at night–but this subplot in The Girl Who Stands Behind gives the game a consistent eeriness throughout that I really enjoyed.
As in The Missing Heir, our hero must solve two mysteries, the murder of Yoko and the murder of Shinobu years before, which are more connected than they at first appear. And, as in The Missing Heir, he will do it using an old-fashioned menu system and plenty of trial and error. The story this time is more cinematic, amping up the thrills at the expense of the mystery. The game opens with the kid detective running from the cops, and our sleuth will confront multiple men brandishing knives before he can hang up his pipe and deerstalker cap. The game is likewise more streamlined and takes less time than The Missing Heir to lay out all the clues. The notebook is back in this entry, but I found myself using it significantly less. Additionally, my favorite mechanic from The Missing Heir, which asked you to type in the killer’s name, has been replaced by a multiple choice quiz, in which you select their identity from the names in your notebook. This contributes to the feeling that The Girl Who Stands Behind is even more on-rails than its predecessor, guiding you straight to its conclusion. That conclusion is still worth seeing, though, and the trip to get there is still a thrilling ride.
The Missing Heir and The Girl Who Stands Behind, while mechanically similar, offer pretty different takes on the detective game. Do you want to slowly unravel the conspiracy behind a powerful woman’s death in a quiet village? Or, would you rather chase down a murderer in a high-octane, spooky thrill ride? The former is better executed, but both are worthwhile opportunities to dust off your magnifying glass.
Editor’s Note: For the purposes of distinguishing the two games in The Good and The Bad section below The Missing Heir will be denoted as (TMH) while The Girl Who Stands Behind will be denoted as (TGWSB).
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(TMH) This carefully plotted mystery is a joy to unravel
(TMH) Smart pacing gives the case room to breathe while the story steadily moves along
(TMH) Winning anime art style provides a smart update on the ‘88 original
(TMH) Typing in answers tests your sleuthing skills.
(TGWSB) Strikes an excitingly eerie tone that successfully differentiates it from its predecessor
(TGWSB) The art style still rules, and this game's action scenes and horror imagery make good use of it
(TMH) Progression can feel arbitrary and you often just end up spamming menu options until the next story beat unlocks
(TGWSB) The mystery is less fleshed out here and takes a backseat to the action
(TGWSB) Progressing conversations is still annoyingly spammy
(TGWSB) Mechanics have been simplified for a more streamlined game that lacks depth