In 1988 and 1989, Nintendo released two murder mystery visual novels in the form of the Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir and The Girl Who Stands Behind. A very notable deviation from the usual bright and cheerful Nintendo that we know, these games followed the path of a young man as he became embroiled in the investigation of various murders. These were some of the very early examples of visual novels and some of a few directly handled by Nintendo itself. A little more than three decades later, Nintendo not only decided to unearth these games and remake them, but offer them worldwide, and having looked at where they came from, the new Famicom Detective Club games might be one of the more interesting and feature-rich visual novels I’ve seen, especially if you’re down for a good mystery.
Two Mysteries, two legends, two paths to truth
The Famicom Detective Club games bring both The Missing Heir and The Girl Who Stands Behind back in a completely recreated format. Technically, The Missing Heir came first, but The Girl Who Stands Behind is a prequel and both are very different stories, so the good news is that it doesn’t matter too much which one you start with. In both cases, the connective tissue is that you are a late teen boy who serves as an assistant to the Utsugi detective agency. When you input your name, you can even transfer it across the two games to keep some form of consistency if that matters to you.
In The Missing Heir, you wake up from a nasty fall off of a cliff with amnesia. You find out soon enough that you were investigating the death of a wealthy company and family matriarch in a quiet country town who passed away suddenly. You were on your way to meet a supposed informant, but nobody knows what happened from there. There’s also a supposed curse on the family that speaks of vengeance from the grave if someone dies in vain. The truth, the legend, and your own memories are waiting to be unraveled as you seek out the line of questioning and investigation that will lead to answers.
Meanwhile, in The Girl Who Stands Behind, you have just begun your tenure with Detective Utsugi – just in time to take part in the investigation of the death of a local high school student at a river. What first looks like an accident turns far more sinister. Complicating things further is the rumor of a ghost that haunts the school of the victim: a bloody girl who will appear behind you when you least expect it. As this grisly rumor muddles reason and creates panic, you’ll have your work cut out for you separating the facts from ghost story fiction.
The common threads between The Missing Heir and The Girl Who Stands Behind should be pretty blatant. Alongside each murder mystery, there is a large portion of the cases caught up in supposed mythology and supernatural elements. In each story, it really serves to give a fun and engaging twist to the narration that’s playing out. There’s a sense that it most certainly could not be ghosts or other supernatural forces at work… but what if it was? That’s a question the Famicom Detective Club games have you dealing with to great effect, all while telling good, smart mystery narratives.
Investigative methods have changed a lot since 1988
Getting into the nitty gritty of how you move the story along and unravel the mysteries in the Famicom Detective Club games, it’s a pretty rudimentary visual novel system. The story will often take you to different locations where you’ll meet people or be faced with an empty scene to explore. From there, you can look around with a point-and-click system to search scenes for points of interest. Sometimes you can even take objects that act as key items to the game. You can also engage in conversation with characters in which you can ask them about certain topics of interest that have been revealed to you in previous conversations. Finally, you can either “Think” or “Remember” to take an introspective attempt at drawing to mind relevant info or travel to other locations to continue your investigation.
In all cases throughout both games, there is often a single key track that will move the narrative along in the game. For example, that might include discovering a mysterious mark on the floor of a place and then questioning the housekeeper about the burn mark you discovered – an avenue of discussion that wasn’t previously available to you if you hadn't interacted with the mark. Oftentimes, when the path is pretty critical, the game will even point you towards key avenues of talking points, travel, or investigation you should pursue by highlighting the option among your investigative choices. That said, it doesn’t always let you know what to do and when the track of progression is vague, I kind of wish I had that highlighter to tell me what I’m missing, like a hint system when I’m stumped. Unfortunately, it’s entirely up to the game when it wants to give you this kind of artificial direction.
That said, I do feel the Famicom Detective Club remakes are quite faithful and also thoroughly evolutionary of their source content. I went back to look at the original games and how they play out and it was fun to see comparisons between the two. Characters in the remakes have animations, every character is fully voiced throughout the game, the interface is much less invasive, and the art and music throughout the game is very well done, but nothing deviates entirely from the source material and that’s also very cool. I do feel like The Girl Who Stands Behind has a little higher quality in its scenes and animation, but even that seem like a consequence of being made after The Missing Heir and having better source material to work from.
I’d say the only flaw here is that the games truly do stick to the visual novel format in the strictest sense. Where later games like Phoenix Wright would go on to give you more choice and engagement, the Famicom Detective Club remakes boil down to just making the right choice that moves things along or being stuck in a situation of repeating dialogue until you do. On one hand, there’s no risk of losing or failing due to a bad choice. On the other, it makes the game more of a picture book waiting for you to properly turn the page than a game. Fortunately, the games' narratives were good enough to carry this style and keep me turing the pages.
A club to die for
It’s interesting to look back at the original Famicom Detective Club titles and see where we are now with these remakes. In terms of quality, art, animation, and other things, the remakes are nearly entirely new games. But in the narration and operation, they’re also entirely true to the 1988 and 1989 titles. Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir and The Girl Who Stands Behind don’t exactly have a lot of true “gameplay” to them and there are no consequences for wrong decisions, but the story that plays out as you figure out what to do next and apply logic and reasoning to investigations is a thrilling romp. If you want a high-quality visual novel, a good mystery story to follow, and a time capsule of game design all in one, the Famicom Detective Club remakes feel like a solid call.
This review is based on digital copies of both games supplied by the publisher. Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir and The Girl Who Stands Behind are both available on May 14, 2021 on Nintendo Switch as separate games.
Famicom Detective Club remakes
- Two solid murder mystery stories
- Rudimentary but functional investigative mechanics
- Most of the games pay solid homage to the originals
- Music and art gorgeously upgraded
- Fully-voiced and well-delivered dialogue
- Mostly trial and error without consequence
- Hints are uncontrolled and random
- Very simplistic, full-on visual novel with little actual gameplay
- The Girl Who Stands Behind seems better remade than The Missing Heir