Sunday, December 16, 2018

Riverboat Ruse

「あま もし さいしょから やりなおす ことが できれば なんとか なるのに・・・」 
『ミシシッピー殺人事件』

"Oh dear! If only we could redo this all from the beginning..."
"Murder on the Mississippi"

In general, I take a positive approach when writing a review here. Even when I don't really like a book, I at least try to identify or guess what aspects do hold potential, or what elements might others even if the work didn't resonate with me personally. As I don't have any obligation to write something about anything I consume, I don't really see the point of me writing something down if I truly can't find something interesting to note about a work. Of course, some people might enjoy the act tearing a work apart (and they may be completely right too), but I myself don't really go out of the way trying to uncover bad mystery fiction.

That said, I really wanted to write about one piece of mystery fiction that is notoriously bad. When you consume a lot of mystery fiction, you usually have the masterpieces stand out in your memory, alongside the other works that might have made a lasting impression on you for some reason or another, but usually "bad" mystery fiction just becomes part of the pool of mediocrity, that sea in your memory where all the 'meh' books melt into one messy goo. It'd take a really bad work to stand out even among that dark mess. There are quite a few works where there's some kind of consesus that that agree that the work in question is an exceptionally good mystery novel. But what are the negative standouts in mystery fiction?

In Japan, there's a certain mystery title that is widely considered a total wreck and the source of much ridicule and jokes: the videogame Murder on the Mississippi: The Adventures of Sir Charles Foxworth. The game was originally released in 1986 by Activision and is available for various systems like the Commodore 64, Commodore 128 and the Apple II, but it's the exclusive Japanese version available on the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System) that is infamously bad, it's actually often also named as one of the worst, if not worst Famicom game. And there were quite a few Famicom games that weren't that good! Mississippi Satsujin Jiken, as Murder on the Mississippi is called in Japan, is set on the ship the Delta Princess, which is making its way from St. Louis to New Orleans. Aboard are also the famous detective Sir Charles and his assistant Watson (who is called Regis in the original English text). The two go out to meet the other people on the boat, but discover a dead body in one of the cabins, who is identified as Mr. Brown, who owns the boat. Sir Charles and Watson set out to find out who the murderer is.


At the heart of things, Murder on the Mississippi follows a familiar pattern, with a detective present on a boat where a murder occured. In theory, you'll be going around speaking with all the people on the boat, uncover hidden pasts and ties, find evidence and finally accuse the murderer. And to be honest, there are some interesting ideas in this game. Unlike games like the epoch-making Portopia Satsujin Jiken, you don't use preset menu commands like "Go" or "Investigate" to play the game, but you as the player control Sir Charles directly, like in a platforming game. It gives you a good sense of the Delta Princess, as you walk from room to room in search of evidence and questioning all the guests. The game also has an interesting mechanic where Watson can write down one (1) sentence per testimony made by a witness, which you can then present to the other witnesses (something you'd later also see in games like Danganronpa).


But the problem is, this game is really bad. I don't mean just that the graphics are bad (they're not, particularly), or that the characters are moving so slow, or even that the idea of Watson taking memos is hopelessly flawed as you only have one chance to write down the correct testimony even though you can not possibly know in advance what will be needed later and once you missed that window of opportunity, you're stuck until you reset the game and start all over again. No, what makes this a bad game, and a bad mystery story is that little of it makes sense. The most infamous part of this game is right as you walk inside the first room you see. For after just a few steps inside the (empty) room, Sir Charles will suddenly fall through a hole in the floor which wasn't there before, killing the player at once, leading to an instant game over. Watson notes it must be a trap and wishes he could re-do everything. The player obviously has to replay the game, but what makes this instant death trap absolutely nuts is that at this point the player hasn't even discovered the body yet. If you happen to walk into one of the two rooms with the invisible holes in the floor before you went to the room with the victim (which you are likely to do, one of the hole rooms is the room right next to yours!), you'll die before the case even started. I mean, why would the murderer even lay a trap door (which, practically speaking, can't even be done in a cabin room!) for Sir Charles when the body hasn't even been discovered and nobody's even aware of a murder!

Granted, the two rooms with the trap holes you can already enter before discovering the body are only present in the Japanese Famicom version (the original game is a bit nicer to the player), but there's another room where a knife comes flying straight at Sir Charles the moment he steps inside! Unless you know about the knife coming in advance and immediately move to avoid it, you are likely to get a knife right in your forehead. Again, this trap can be set off even before you ever find the body and learn a murder has happened on the boat (in fact, this makes Sir Charles the first victim...).

So if you somehow manage to avoid the death traps, select all the right testimonies needed to make all the suspects talk, find all the pieces of evidence even though one of them can not be seen and you just have to decide to examine a certain spot on the boat for no particular reason and you finally accuse the murderer and uncover how Brown was killed and why, the game also shows why it's not just a bad game, it's also a bad mystery story. Sure, the basic plot is already incredibly simple (if you know what you have to do, you can clear it within the hour), basically boiling down to finding a weapon and a document that proves motive, but even that bare-bones plot is riddled with plotholes. Confronted with Sir Charles' accusations, the murderer confesses they did it, but they say it was done in self-defense. The problem: this goes against all the things seen in the game seen so far. Why are there death traps laid out across the boat for Sir Charles if it was done in self-defense (and that's ignoring the fact the traps are active even before the player discovers a murder happened!). Why was the bullet hidden inside a desk, even though it had supposedly fallen through a hole!? Why had nobody heard the gunshot, unless it was timed exactly with the morning bird shooting of the other passenger? And what makes this the most ridiculous story is that eventually, every other passenger will immediately forgive the murderer and even offer to help hide the truth, as apparently everyone but Sir Charles and Watson basically hated the victim and they already knew enough about the murderer's past to want to protect them now they learned who's the murderer. It's almost like the game sets out to portray Sir Charles as the bad guy for uncovering the identity of the poor murderer!

As one of the earliest mystery adventure games on the home videogame console, Murder on the Mississippi has made a lasting impression on the generation that grew up with videogames, and not in a good manner. Of course, games like Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken and the early Tantei Jinguuji Saburou games had their quirks too (the two Famicom Tantei Club games were extremely well done in comparison), but Murder on the Mississippi is both a bad game, in the sense that is not designed to give the player a good time, and it's a bad mystery story, as the events that unfold don't match up with what's said had happened, resulting a thin plot, that's still somehow filled with more holes than there are trap doors in the Delta Princess. And this is why Murder on the Mississippi is a mystery story that a lot of people know and why it's also widely considered a horrible one too.

Original Japanese title(s): 『ミシシッピー殺人事件』

2 comments :

  1. "you only have one chance to write down the correct testimony even though you can not possibly know in advance what will be needed later and once you missed that window of opportunity, you're stuck until you reset the game and start all over again"
    Oh my god. Just... nejdudhjwhdhjskwbx

    On another note, what JLPT level do you think someone should be at to read mystery novels fairly comfortably? I was thinking the usual suspects (Takekuni, Nikaidou, Awasaka)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Kinda hard to say as everyone will learn language in a different manner, but I'd think that somewhere between N2 and N1, you'd be at the point where you won't be spending more time in the dictionary than in the novel itself.

      Delete