In remaking any game from the last century – especially those that hail all the way back from the 70’s or 80’s – there’s a sort of balancing act that has to occur. Any game from that period is, by its very nature, antiquated, and those updating it for modern audiences must consider how much of its design to preserve and how much to overhaul. If left untouched, outdated or obtuse design can make the game difficult for modern audiences – but refurbish too much and you scrub the product of what makes it charming and flavorful in the first place. But usually, you have to change something.
Perhaps what stands out so much about the first Famicom Detective Club title remastered for Switch (The Girl Who Stands Behind came out second originally) is how much it holds up while seemingly having changed very little when compared to the original. The visuals are now on par with modern VNs, and the characters speak, but play the game for ten minutes and it feels like something straight out of… well, the NES era. And it’s great! Instead of coming across as rusted or disconfigured, FDC has the vintage musk and milieu of a classic.
Obviously the focus of an old school adventure game/visual novel is in the plot, and for what it is (a traditional genre fiction crime thriller), The Missing Heir hits all the right notes. You play an amnesiac detective beached on the shore, left to scrounge for direction and clues as to what you were even doing. You soon come across the death of the matriarch of a wealthy Japanese family, untangling a web of clues as incidents pile on and pile up in a grand scheme that still feels wild almost 25 years after it originally came out.
The Missing Heir’s story is tropey – almost cliche at times – but it’s tropey in all the right ways. You’ve got mysterious pasts, hints of supernatural intrigue, witnesses holding out with key information, and enough eleventh-hour plot twists to last you long past midnight. But it’s delivered with tonal consistency, neither too goofy nor too self-serious and able to provide thrills in abandon, and by the end you’ll be gasping at all the right moments. Is it a tad melodramatic and contrived at times? Undoubtedly, but that’s what makes it loveable.
The story plays out via investigation. The various inhabitants of Myojin Village all have some opinion or clue to drop, and it’s in the course of talking to them that you progress. Your specific options in each area vary, with the ability to talk, look, poke around, and jog your memory pretty consistent, alongside more context-specific options (like picking up a ringing phone). Once you’ve thoroughly investigated, the protagonist will mention needing to go somewhere else, and you can go on your merry way.
The interface is old-fashioned, which at times is endearing and at others quite frustrating. Progressing isn’t usually an intuitive act and sometimes comes down to mashing every menu option you have at a given moment, compounded by how you might have multiple locations to travel to at any given point. Advancing is also so simple (done almost purely with dialogue and examination instead of say… presenting evidence or something along those lines) that the adventure can sometimes feel a tad stilted. It’s honestly plenty playable for a game from 1988, but there were moments where the specific actions to advance were so byzantine that I had to open up a walkthrough for just a moment.
This varies in scope and scale. For example, at one point, you need to show a woman a photo of a victim in order to confirm his identity, and the protag laments not having one on hand. This is a pretty significant tell to search elsewhere, and effective at telegraphing where to go and what you need. But these moments are haphazardly placed, and a lot of the time the options needed to advance feel strange and arbitrary. The frustration is usually temporary, but around the middle of the game they really start to pile up, compounded by a few moments where you have to input a word manually to proceed and the game is persnickety about options. For example: “Pipe” and “smoke” didn’t work in one context when the answer was “tobacco” – hardly a big deal, but situations can add up.
Another aspect that can become grating after a bit is the music. It’s not godawful, but it is pretty generic and boring. The game gets points for including the original 8-bit soundtrack alongside an arranged score (and the ability to swap between the two at any time), but when neither is great, you feel inclined to turn the sound off. Which is a shame, because the voice acting is great and has some A-listers onboard (my man Tomokazu Sugita kills it as always). The visuals are great, bolstering some very “realistic” and varied anime designs with simple animations and smooth UI. Even the sound effects are weirdly pleasurable. Can’t remember the last time I made a note of that for a game.
But even if a couple aspects are off, it’s frankly remarkable how well this murder mystery holds up over two decades later. As a big fan of both Ace Attorney and Zero Escape, I could see the roots of both franchises in this game (even if the cast wasn’t quite as colorful), and as part of the lineage of the genre it can’t be overlooked. While not a title that’s going to sell anybody on wordy crime VNs if they’re not already interested, for those who are fans of the genre, it’s a mustplay. If only to see where many of the game elements would come from, and where they’d end up. While I’m a little bit into The Girl Who Stands Behind and already have a feeling that that’s going to end up the stronger game of the two, The Missing Heir is worth your time and investment too.
System: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: May 14, 2021
Categories: Adventure, Visual Novel