Saturday, March 5, 2011

「たたりじゃ、あ、あやしろけのたたりじゃあ!」

「ざけんなよっ!ガキの探偵はファミコンだけだ」
『ファミコン探偵倶楽部PartII うしろに立つ少女』

"Don't fuck around!  Kid detectives only exist on the Famicom!"
"Famicom Detective Club Part II The Girl Standing in the Back"

I think the very first Japanese mystery adventure game I ever played, was the Super Famicom port of Famicom Tantei Club Part II Ushiro ni Tatsu Shoujo ("Famicom Detective Club Part II The Girl Standing in the Back") (FamiTan 2). A time when I couldn't read Japanese. When we still had dial-up internet. A time when I was still computer-literate enough to do something as simple as download a(n excellent!) fan translation patch for a videogame ROM and actually patch it. While I had played many point and click adventures, FamiTan 2 was the first time I played a command-style adventure game. Nowadays, it seems like most adventures I play are of the command-style variety. Anyway, at that time, I knew there were other games in the FamiTan series, but as I couldn't read Japanese and there were no translation patches, not much could be done then.

But that's hardly a problem nowadays, so I decided to play through all the games this week. And it was at times a frustrating, yet certainly a satisfying week.

The first game Famicom Tantei Club Kieta Koukeisha ("Famicom Tantei Club: The Vanished Heir") (FamiTan 1) was originally released in 1988 in Japan for the Famicom Disk System, with big Nintendo names as Sakamoto Yoshio (Metroid, Kid Icarus) and Yokoi Gunpei (Game & Watch, GameBoy) involved with the development. Similar to the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series on the Famicom, FamiTan 1 was a mystery adventure game. And for people familar with Nintendo, or even more specifically Nintendo of that period, a very heavily plot-oriented game from Nintendo might be a bit surprising

A plot-device that isn't surprising at all though, is amnesia. FamiTan 1 starts when the (nameless) protagonist, a teenage boy, wakes up in the arms of a man. Which is not what it sounds like, because it seems the protagonist has been pushed off a cliff at the beginning of the game and he was just found by a man passing by. Because amnesia is something that occurs immediately when you hit you head (?), the player shouldn't be too surprised at seeing the protagonist wondering what he was doing near the cliff and what happened. As he investigates his own incident, the protagonist meets the girl Tachibana Ayumi, his colleague. He hears from Ayumi that he's the assistant of Utsugi Shunsuke, a famous detective and that he had just begun an investigation in the recent death of Ayashiro Kiku, a wealthy land-owner and head of the Ayashiro Trade Company, living in the village of Myoujin. While it seems like she had just died from a weak heart, her butler isn't so sure and had hired the hero to investigate her death for him. As it's obvious that his own 'incident' is connected to the case, the hero continues with the investigation.


As the hero investigates the family, he finds many people who had a motive for killing Kiku. Her two nephews, Kanji and Jirou, and her niece Azusa wanted to see Kiku dead to get her money. Her grand-nephew Akira had been seen loitering around the house lately. Or are Kiku's missing daughter Yuri and her missing adopted son somehow connected to Kiku's death? And then the case enters a new stage when Kanji is killed. And more follow.As more and more people get killed, the people of the Myoujin village recall the old legend of corpses getting back to life and getting revenge on the living. Are the murders the work of a revived Kiku?

Well, of course not, but FamiTan 1 sure is creepy. 8-bit music and crude pixel-art help a lot of course, but this game surely has the atmosphere right. The suggestion of the supernatural would remain a characteristic of the FamiTan series. As an adventure game, it's still quite rough with unnatural actions required to activate story flags (and a very irritating maze at the end). As a detective game, it's also quite crude, the game doesn't really allow you to think and there are only two or three instances where you have to input a name of a suspect / item to show your own deductions. And while Ayumi returns several times in the story, offering support, it's strange that detective Utsugi, who is supposed to be the boss of the hero, doesn't show up in the whole game. Not even once.

Yet, I really liked it. The atmosphere was creepy, the story OK (don't expect a masterpiece though) and for a Nintendo game, it was quite dark with the murders and all. It has a cool commercial too!

The second game is probably the most famous, also in the West. Famicom Tantei Club Part II Ushiro ni Tatsu Shoujo ("Famicom Detective Club Part II The Girl Standing in the Back") (FamiTan 2) was originally released for the Famicom Disk System in 1989, but it was ported to the Super Famicom in 1998 for the Nintendo Power cartridge system. As there is an English fan translation for the Super Famicom version available, this is probably the only FamiTan most people have played in the west. It's arguably the best of the series anyway.

FamiTan 2 is a prequel to FamiTan 1 and stars the same hero. The game starts with a short prologue explaining how the hero became the assistent of detective Utsugi (who makes an actual appearance in the game), followed by the discovery of the strangled dead body of the schoolgirl Kojima Youko. The hero starts an investigation at Ushimitsu High School, assisted by... Tachibana Ayumi, who was a close friend of Youko. The two of them had a detective club, and it seems like Youko had discovered something big. The murder of Youko seems connected with the school legend of the Girl Standing in the Back, a school ghost that would appear right behind you and the disappearence of a high school girl many years ago.


I don't why, but schools in Japan all seem to have some kind of urban legend. At least, that's what detective manga have taught me. And games. Anyway, as FamiTan 2 is mostly set in a high school, it's slightly less creepy than FamiTan 1, though those empty corridors and classrooms (with portraits hanging on the wall) can be quite scary too. Once again, not much is asked of the player's intelligence, but players will have experienced a satisfying story ties nicely in with FamiTan 1. I haven't played the Famicom Disk System version, but the Super Famicom version is actually fantastic. Nintendo's R&D1 did an outstanding job with some graphical tricks and music. As FamiTan 2 was released 8 years after the Super Famicom's release, R&D1 really pushed the hardware. And with an English translation patch available, this is the most easily accessible game of the series. Except for me. When I replayed this game yesterday, I got stuck on trying to patch the ROM, so I just gave up and played it in Japanese. I could do something as simple as that many years ago, why not now?

Anyway, storywise, the story ends with Ayumi joining the Utsugi Detective Agency, leading into the events of FamiTan 1. Set in the same year as the events of FamiTan 1, is the third and last game in the series.

Which was actually released one year before the Super Famicom version of FamiTan 2. 1997 brought us BS Tantei Club: Yuki ni Kieta Kako ("BS Tantei Club: The Past Lost in the Snow"), released on the Satellaview add-on hardware for the Super Famicom. Due to how the system works (connecting to a satellite), it's actually impossible nowadays to play the game (at least not with all the music and voice-over work). In the end, I had to give up and I watched a full play-through of the game on Youtube. From a VHS source. I hope I will never have to do that again.

This time, the protagonist is Tachibana Ayumi, who has gone back to visit her mother in Ochitani village, who is recovering from illness. When Kusano Genzou, the former mayor of Ochitani village is found murdered, Ayumi's mother is a suspect, because only her footprints were found in the snow leading to the crime scene. When the son of Kusano, current mayor of Ochitani village, is also killed, stabbed by a spear, the villagers start talking about a legend of a fallen warrior coming back to life to kill the corrupt mayor. Ayumi, helped by her friend Reiko, tries to find out the real murderer, but she finds out her family has had a family fued with the Kusano family for a long time. Is the murderer someone in her family?


BSTan is probably the shortest and weakest of all FamiTan games. While it features voice-work and a cleaned up interface, it's very small in scale with few characters and few developments. Which is a shame, as the story offers many opportunies to make it a grander story, but it never really gets anywhere. The footsteps in the snow? The locked room where they found Kusano's son? They are solved mostly as an afterthought. The ending is quite bad though. While the FamiTan games have always been more about telling a story, than making the player a real detective, to have Ayumi pretty much walk in on the murderer who happened to be confessing to the murder, well, that's a bit easy.

But the first two games were great and I do hope that Nintendo will revisit this little R&D1 series in the future again. But please not for something obscure this time please. Famicom Disk System, Nintendo Power cartridges, Satellaview, no wonder this game series is practically unknown except for a small group of fans.

Original Japanese title(s): 『ファミコン探偵倶楽部 消えた後継者』、『ファミコン探偵倶楽部PartII うしろに立つ少女』、『BS探偵倶楽部 雪に消えた過去』

Awesome music: ???- ファミコン探偵倶楽部BGMアレンジ (Famicom Tantei Club BGM Arrange)

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