Friday, December 2, 2022

Programmed for Murder

"There's no code I can't crack!"
"Project Hacker: Awakening"

A short post this time because today's topic isn't really a mystery game, but as there aren't really many write-ups on this game in general...

Amatsubo Satoru is a gifted hacker who in his free time enjoys breaking into computer systems, though all he does is "innocently" weaving his way through security systems and peeking inside, and usually he leaves right away without causing any damage. One day, he returns to his apartment to find it completely ransacked by two threatening men who are demanding a CD-R. Satoru manages to escape to Rina, his 'always-act-before-thinking' childhood friend and after some conversation, Satoru realizes the men were actually looking for Rina: she had picked up a CD-R by accident, and the men had accidentally assumed Rina was living with Satoru. Checking the disc, Satoru realizes it holds a special virus program targeting mobile phone models from one company, and this of course means they're now involved in a big corporate scandal. Satoru decides to use his hacking skills to fight back against the men who are after them, but this only puts the two of them in danger again, until they are recruited by the Japanese division of GIS, an international counter-cybercrime organization. As part of GIS, Satoru is put on several cybercrime cases, often involving the mysterious cracker Blitz, and these cases demand quick thinking and even faster hacking in the Nintendo DS game Project Hacker: Kakusei ("Project Hacker: Awakening" 2006).

Project Hacker: Kakusei is a mystery-themed adventure game on the Nintendo DS which people nowadays probably only know from a Spirit reference in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The game was only released in Japan, though it was apparently planned for at least a North-American release, but for non-specified reasons these plans fell through. The game is rather interesting in terms of publication, because while Project Hacker was developed by Red Entertainment (of Sakura Taisen fame), it is published and co-owned by Nintendo itself. Nintendo doesn't have that many mystery adventure games in its catalog, and let alone one where you play a hacker! While the game does seem to set things up for further adventures, the game never saw a sequel and is basically a mostly ignored IP.

As mentioned in the opening line, for the most part I wouldn't say Project Hacker really should be discussed here. It is, for most of the time, a fairly conventional command-based adventure game, where you can travel to various locations to talk with people, from whom you will learn new information which will allow you visit other locations or confront other people with your new knowledge. No surprises here. The episodes in this game always start with Satoru and Rina being assigned a mission to investigate a certain cybercrime, like a company's money being transferred to a charity, or having them investigate rumors of an IT problem having led to deaths in a hospital, the plots themselves are fairly straightforward and don't really read like a mystery stories, more like thrillers or tales of suspense, though with a fairly light-hearted tone, with Satoru and Rina always arguing and fairly out-of-there characters like a high school student prodigy programmer who also happens to be incredibly into aliens. But don't expect brilliant cybercrime puzzle plot tricks from this game or having to connect clues together to figure whodunnit or howdunnit.

One very memorable aspect of the game however is its (fake) web functions. Within Project Hacker, you can use computers or your special handheld device to access the web, or at least, the web as it looked like in Japan around 2006. When you connect (in-game) to the web, you're brought to a homepage like you had in the earlier days of consumer internet: a "curated" list of links to all kinds of websites all categorized. You can explore all these links, which can range from corporate websites to homepages of hobby clubs or bands, or personal blogs. The pages are of course all fake and made for this game, but they do feel a lot like the mobile feature phone sites you had in Japan around this time and playing this game now in 2022 does feel a bit like you just opened a time capsule. The layout of these pages, the visitor counters, the type of content you'd find there... it's all really neat to see now, and while it feels like a time capsule now, upon the 2006 release, these websites must have felt pretty "real" too. I think there are like easily over 100 different pages about a variety of topics to be found here, which is quite impressive considering each site does feel distinct. This faux web environment of course plays a role in the game: often you have to do some background research using this internet. One of the earliest examples is simply finding the address of a certain company, so you look up their website and check out their directions sub-page, but later cases have you explore these sites for more subtler hints and sometimes it takes a while for you to find the specific page you're looking for, and this is quite fun. The lower screen on the DS can be used to take notes by the way.

But getting back to me discussing this game here despite me saying it doesn't really belong here. The main reason for that is the hacking gameplay in this game, which is pretty interesting, and definitely a fun mystery mechanic At least, part of the hacking is. Hacking in this game can mean two things, you see. The boring hacking in this game is just a series of minigames that test your hand-eye coordination. Breaking through a firewall is sometimes literally breaking a wall in a "cyber-environment" using well-timed taps on the touch screen, making a conection is often like a racing game, where you rush down a "cyber-corridor" while avoiding obstacles, and sometimes you're just playing a shoot' em up to shoot down viruses. These minigames can be pretty tricky near the end of the game actually, giving you little room (time) for failure, so for those not used to action games, this part of an otherwise slow adventure game might be difficult. But these minigames are the not fun part of the hacking in Project Hacker

So what is the fun part of hacking? That is when you have do social engineering to find out passwords for computer systems! Every once in a while during his investigations, Satoru will find himself confronted with a locked computer or door which requires a password. How do you learn this password? By looking around, both in the actual room you're in, but also on the web! Of course it's never as easy as finding a note with the actual password inside a drawer. But if the owner of the computer for example has posters of the series Captain Pepper hanging on the walls, why not check out the homepage of Captain Pepper and see what words could be used as a password? Could it be the release date, or the name of the creator? Is it perhaps that character they have multiple figurines off in the room? While the first passwords you have to guess are very straightforward, other passwords have you explore more possibilities, for example when a person has multiple hobbies, and because you don't know the length of each password (though always alphabet and/or numbers), it often takes several tries to find the exact one, but it is still very fun, because you really have to read through the (fictional) sites and determine what could be a password. Later passwords have you look at multiple sites about very different topics, but which may have a surprising link with a common term for example. But it is during these moments that the game feels the most like a mystery game, where you look at hints in the room, and search for other clues on the web, and have to guess what the password could be. Because the sites are all fairly well-designed as "proper" sites, these passwords are hidden quite organically in the text and there are of course many 'dummy' pages which I don't think are ever used in the game, but put in there to flesh out the fictional web environment and act as red herrings. It's a shame this mechanic only comes up like two or three times per episode, because it's by far the most fun part of the game.

I assume more people have played Flower, Sun and Rain given the Nintendo DS version was actually released in the West, but the main mechanic there is quite similar to the hacking mechanic here. In Flower, Sun and Rain basically everything required a numerical code, which you could find based on dialogue hints and hints and clues found in a tourist guidebook to Lospass, the island that serves as a setting for the game. The guidebook is acquired at the start of the game and you can look through every single page right from the start and it does actually read like a travel guide, but as the story develops, you'll find all kinds of clues necessary to solve the numerical codes hidden within these pages, so in that aspect, it's very similar to the websites found in Project Hacker, being an "universal" clue you use from start to finish, with the guidebook/websites only turning into proper clues once you have the correct context and know what you're looking for.

Project Hacker looks pretty good for a DS adventure game by the way with interestingly animated characters and really well-designed backgrounds. The characters have a 90s anime vibe with their broad shoulders and fashion, though the music is a bit... limited. Like, the main overworld/investigation theme isn't really exciting or fun to listen to, but you'll only be hearing that for 80% of the game...

Again, Project Hacker: Kakusei isn't really a mystery game, so don't expect too much of it in that regard, but it's overall a competently created crime adventure game, and while I feel really indifferent about the hacking minigames, the social engineering parts of this game are really the highlight of the game and that coupled with an interesting cast and a game that overall has good production values, it's certainly worth a playthrough if you're looking for adventure games on the Nintendo DS, especially as even a brand-new, unopened copy doesn't cost much now.

Original Japanese title(s): 『プロジェクトハッカー:覚醒』


  1. The password cracking gameplay seems fun. I will try it when I have learned enough Japanese. I also bought Death Note: Kira Game for DS last year, although I haven't been able to play it yet.

    Speaking of mystery games, I recently finished AI Somnium: Nirvana Initiative. In general, I still prefer the first story. However, I must admit that the sequel's overall plot is very ambitious. I remembered that one of your complaints in the first game is the 'trial-and-error' nature in the somnium. I think there is an improvement in the sequel, although I think they almost made it too easy. There is an additional gameplay element, such as a 3D investigation section. There are also a couple of puzzle-solving elements reminiscence of 'Zero Escape' series, which I like. Overall, although I prefer the first game, I still like the sequel. Although a bit clunky, I like the ambition of the plot.

    1. Oh, Kira Game is the one that's kinda Werewolf right, with a social deduction mechanic like Gnosia? Always wondered how that'd work, especially on a DS.

      Yeah, I felt the "dream-logic" in the Somnia in the first game often just became kinda trial and error, like, you couldn't really tell in advance what an action would do or if it would just be a waste of precious time. I picked up the first game during a sale, which I expect I'll also do with the second game eventually ^_~