Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir & The Girl Who Stands Behind – Murder Mystery Double Feature
Though the series made its original debut on the Famicom in 1988, and despite several re-releases in the form of ROMs or appearances on Japanese Nintendo online stores in later years, the Famicom Detective Club series is new for most people outside Japan. The 2021 re-release of both games in the duology, The Missing Heir and The Girl Who Stands Behind, marks the first English localisation of the titles and finally provides an opportunity for amateur sleuths across the wider world to step into the shoes of its teen protagonist. As someone who wishes every single game had some kind of mystery and/or crime-solving element, I was beyond ready to take on this challenge – but do these crimes still hold up 33 years later?
Yes, because it turns out the joy of cracking a mystery wide open is timeless, but some elements of the titles are still living in the past.
Both games are deceptively simple in their mechanics. You take on the role of a teen detective with a name of your choosing who is initially called to investigate a murder, and from there, your job is to ask questions, examine crime scenes, and follow up leads as you move from place to place trying to get to the truth. Normal detective things. The first game doesn’t really make it clear that you’re choosing the name of a male protagonist, so when I called him Jess Zammit (it was late, all my brain power was going towards solving the upcoming crimes), I accidentally set myself up for a weird gender disconnect. Thankfully, I was able to correct this in the sequel when he was renamed Jespersen Zoomit and everything felt right again, but the name fiasco was the first sign that these games weren’t going to be thorough in their explanations of how things operate.
Thankfully, things do work mostly as you’d expect, but some slightly annoying quirks make being a detective very finicky work. With each new person met, each new conversation had, and each new area examined, you’ll uncover new leads that allow you to go to new locations or open up new topics of discussion with suspects and allies alike. The whole game is one big string of talking to people and poking at new areas, like a never-ending loop of the investigation sections of Ace Attorney. When it works, and you can find yourself happening upon the right series of questions and prompts and opening up just the right avenue of questioning, you do feel a bit like a proper sleuth. But all too often I found myself asking what should have been the obvious questions and getting nowhere, and eventually realising that what the game wanted was for me to repeat a question that had previously yielded no new information. It was like it was waiting for me to trigger a series of prompts, but without giving me the rules around how they worked. All too often it was a game of trial and error and frustration, even when I knew exactly how the game needed to progress.
The frustrating sections are relatively few and far between, but they do interrupt what is otherwise some great Japanese Nancy Drew-esque mystery. The Missing Heir drops our young detective into the midst of some intense family drama as he tries to solve the murder of matriarch Kiku, all the while grappling with amnesia and trying to uncover his own identity. The prequel, The Girl Who Stands Behind, tells the story of an earlier case – one that led the newly enlisted detective to a school, where he investigated the murder of a schoolgirl with the help of her close friend and wannabe-detective Ayumi. To talk too much about the events that unfold would ruin the game’s strongest element, but the twists and turns felt both surprising and logical in really satisfying ways. Like genre-buddy Ace Attorney, both games did seem to struggle a little with defining their relationship to the supernatural (is it real? Is it not?), but I was pleasantly surprised by how coherent the mysteries were in both titles. Given they feel like part adventure game, part visual novel, the stories really needed to shine – and they didn’t disappoint.
Each came with its own largely unique set of characters, most of whom were likeable and irritating in equal measure, as I’m sure people often are when they’re annoyed that you’re gently accusing them of murder. The updated art style of the remakes gave each character a real sense of personality, with minimal but effective animations doing a lot of the hard work in bringing them to life. Looking back at old screenshots of the originals, they’ve stayed true to the roots of each one, but the character updates in the remakes are undoubtedly worlds above. If I was going to have to see static screens over and over again while I tried to arbitrarily trigger a way forward in any game, I’d want it to be one as nice-looking as these are. A lot of love has clearly gone into each space, and each character, even if they only appear for a second. The games are also fully voiced in Japanese, and even those of us who can’t speak it very well can appreciate the obvious moments where characters say the Japanese equivalent of ‘OH GOD, WHAT’, and become just that little bit more relatable. There are quite a few of those moments in these stories, and it’s nice to know that characters are reacting with the appropriate amounts of shock and terror.
It feels rude to compare these games too much to the Ace Attorney series given these came so far before them, but it’s impossible not to. If you like that series but for some reason wish it had less courtroom drama, then these are the games for you. They effectively scratch that detective game itch that so many of us have and even with a few frustrating mechanics, left me feeling like I’d done some solid sleuthing. The horror elements in the game are stronger than some other games of the genre, with some graphic imagery providing the occasional shock – but there’s nothing too scary. For the most part, you’re in for a few solid crime-solving sessions in the shoes of an absolutely unqualified amateur detective – a role most of us are pretty familiar with playing (in life, and in games). There are mysteries to be found in these solid remakes of the old Famicom Detective Club series, and they are well worth solving.
Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir & The Girl Who Stands Behind was reviewed on Nintendo Switch with a code kindly supplied by Nintendo.