Despite its reputation as a genre brimming with high school anime romance, visual novels didn’t originate with romance stories. Those only became popular in the mid 90s or early 00s, when dating sims began exerting a real influence on the genre. Before that, players knew them as a reliable source of murder mystery stories. So many of them focused on murder cares, and so many of them included that exact phrase in their titles, that Capcom released a game of their own lampooning the trend. This shows that while the market for early visual novels was saturated with many similar games, developers at the time were willing to push at the boundaries not only of visual novels, but also the narrow field of murder mystery visual novels.
I bring this up because somehow, Famicom Tantei Club: Kieta Koukeisha (The Case of the Missing Heir) occupies both poles simultaneously. A brief glimpse at the game would be enough to tell you that this is a game that’s deeply rooted in its tradition. Yet to dismiss it as just another adventure game would be to do Famicom Tantei Club a disservice. While it does include a wide number of genre cliches, it doesn’t engage with them in a way that Pro Yakyuu? Satsujin Jiken! could satirize. It’s more an active performance of the genre than anything else, letting the genre’s conventions define the experience as thoroughly as it possibly can.
Oddly enough, Famicom Tantei Club’s performance entails a subtle rejection of adventure game logic. I know how counter-intuitive that sounds, given how well the detective format lends itself to puzzle solving gameplay: there are clues to gather, evidence to investigate, and pieces that need to be put together. However, I’m not sure how well this applies to the game in practice. If a game wants to make the act of puzzle solving appealing to the player, then it must give that player a certain level of autonomy within that puzzle solving process. Many Western adventure games REALIZED this, which is why they gave their players a universal set of commands and presented their worlds as a series of loosely connected puzzles. A set-up like that centers the player’s ability to reason through whatever challenges the game presents them with. A player with the right knowledge (or, more likely, a walkthrough giving them that knowledge) could even use their ability independent of the game unfolding its information to them.
Not a single part of Famicom Tantei Club is conducive to that puzzle solving format. The context-specific commands, for instance, join the game’s challenges with the narrative in such a way that the player can’t solve a single puzzle independent of the story. Assuming they knew the answer ahead of time, the game would not let them advance through the story without first coming across the information they’d need to arrive at that answer, anyway. Thus the game holds more agency over the narrative than the player, and the latter’s ability to reason their way through the game becomes irrelevant. And while the seamless integration of puzzles one after the other works for writing a cohesive story, it suspends that feeling of closure you would need to enjoy the act of solving them.
So instead, I get the feeling that the actions the game presents you with are intended to simulate the narrative as it unfolds. That would put it in line with other contemporary visual novels, most of which use the same contextual choices and strictly enforced narratives that Famicom Tantei Club does (see: Metal Slader Glory, Snatcher, etc.). Where these contextual actions were usually included in games to suggest a believable, relatable world (and you could make the argument they do the same for Famicom Tantei Club), the game’s presentation serves as a reaction against that kind of realism. The art may represent things in a naturalistic manner, but by compartmentalizing the visuals/speech/actions into neat little squares, the presentation abstracts things in such a way as to draw attention to the game’s fictitious nature. The original Final Fantasy does something similar, and I see some interesting parallels between these two games. Just like Final Fantasy feels like playing a session of D&D, so too does Famicom Tantei Club feel like thumbing through a mystery novel, jotting down notes and trying to solve the mystery for yourself.
Indeed, one of the game’s most notable strengths is its performance of detective fiction convention. The story itself is by the number, as far as detective stories go: the head of the wealthy Ayashiro family has died under mysterious circumstances, and he hasn’t left an heir to inherit his legacy. It’s the protagonist’s job to investigate this case and the mysterious deaths connected to it. (He’s also an amnesiac hero trying to reclaim his lost identity, but that doesn’t become relevant or interesting until the very end of the story.) The irony here is that for a game whose theme is “rational modern inquiry will always conquer old-fashioned superstition”, Famicom Tantei Club is firmly entrenched in detective genre tradition. Every trope you could think of shows its face in this game, whether that’s the wealthy family and their infighting, the loyal family butler, the superstitious townsfolk warning you to stay away from the haunted mansion, or the Girl Friday-esque sidekick the hero occasionally consults with.
Yet these cliches rarely bothered me. It wasn’t because the story used them to communicate a nuanced message or anything like that. The game never shows any interest in high minded ideals, and its story is too simple to achieve such a goal, anyway. Nor was it because the story was particularly well executed; it was, but that’s irrelevant to what makes the cliches work. So what was it? I think it comes down to the relationship the game establishes between its cliches and its performance of genre: they feed into it, or at least rely on it in an important way. Because the game is so quick to acknowledge itself as a work of fiction, I don’t find myself bothered by the idea that it’s lifting so many of its story beats from a larger body of fiction. If anything, that fact makes Famicom Tantei Club a more engaging experience. It becomes a novel meta-game centered around following the story arc and seeing how the game develops it. Not in the sense that you’re trying to solve the mystery you’re presented with, but in the sense that you’re keeping track of how many mystery story conventions the game can reference while still maintaining a basic level of cohesion.
Perhaps most interesting of all is how the game’s production interacts with its narrative. Like a lot of Famicom Disc System games (indeed, like a lot of contemporary PC games), technical limitations forced Famicom Tantei Club to be released across multiple discs. But rather than accept this as a simple technical limitation, Nintendo instead decides to incorporate the multi-disc structure into game itself. They delayed the release of the second disc by a few months, for example, and ended the first disc on a significant cliffhanger that they promised would be r. Minor decisions, yes, but they’re enough to give the game the serial fiction ambiance it wants. Not only does that ambiance pair well with Famicom Tantei Club’s detective narrative, but it also helps further situate the game in detective fiction, a genre well known for its serial format.
All of this speaks to how much of our engagement with games lies outside the actual act of playing the game itself. When analyzed along those lines, Famicom Tantei Club turns out to be a very average game. That’s not a problem, but it does leave me very little for me to comment on. It’s when we step outside the events that are contained within the game – when we consider factors like its production, the larger body of work in its genre, and how it reacts to these things – that the game becomes a richer experience. At the very least, I don’t see how ignoring these would benefit anybody when they form such a vital part of the game.