Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (Famicom)

Murder was the case that they gave me.

Sometimes it’s good to branch out a little. I’m normally pretty content with my platformers, run-and-guns, action RPGs, and shooters. Okay, so “absurdly content” is more like it. Of the over 130 games I’ve covered in detail prior to today’s subject, there’s been only a handful which didn’t center on real time action of some kind. The most recent of these outliers was Chunsoft and Enix’s groundbreaking console RPG Dragon Quest (aka Dragon Warrior). It was in that review almost a year ago now where I briefly touched on Dragon Quest lead designer Yuji Horii’s first major success: Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (“The Portopia Serial Murder Case”), an adventure game first published for home computers in 1983 and later converted to the Famicom in 1985, where its popularity exploded. Since that initial mention, I’ve known I would take on Portopia itself at some point.

Why? Because it’s completely unknown here in the West despite being one of the most influential games to ever appear on Nintendo’s 8-bit machine. I’m not exaggerating, either. For an entire generation of Japanese gamers, Portopia was a Super Mario or Legend of Zelda magnitude revelation. Clones started popping up almost immediately and the Famicom library as a whole is packed to the gills with menu-driven adventure games, many of which share similar detective mystery themes. Nintendo themselves eventually got in on the act with their Famicom Tantei Club series and celebrity game designer Hideo Kojima credits Portopia as the inspiration for his own Snatcher and Policenauts. Pre-Internet NES owners were largely oblivious to this trend, as none of these text-heavy titles were picked for localization in their day with the sole exception of Hudson Soft’s bizzaro fantasy epic Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom for some reason. The closest thing we had here in North America was the occasional port of a domestic computer adventure game like Maniac Mansion. It wasn’t until the era of the Nintendo DS that heavily Portopia-inspired properties such as Phoenix Wright and Jake Hunter (Tantei Jingūji Saburō) would find themselves a home outside Japan. I’m thankfully able to experience Portopia myself courtesy of DvD Translations.

As with the later Dragon Quest, Horii’s masterstroke here was to start with a genre that was already popular in the small world of early ’80s computing and adapt it for the Famicom owning millions. This involved making some clever tweaks to the user interface in order to ease the transition from a full keyboard to a two-button Famicom pad. The computer version’s text command line is gone entirely, replaced by a menu containing every valid command and a cursor to allow for interaction with people and objects in the game world via those commands. Anyone familiar with ICOM Simulations’ MacVenture titles (Déjà Vu, Uninvited, and Shadowgate) will know the routine. As an aside, actually seeing Portopia’s menu system in action makes me understand at long last what Konami was getting at with those strange first-person adventure segments in The Goonies II. They were consciously attempting to hybridize their first Goonies release with Portopia and doing it in a very tongue-in-cheek way. After thirty long years, beating up on helpless NPCs to progress in Goonies II (also necessary during some of Portopia’s interrogation scenes) finally makes some degree of sense! These bits still aren’t very fun, but at least I get them now. Hallelujah!

In case you’re wondering, the name “Portopia” itself comes from Port Island, a large man-made landmass in the Kobe harbor which was officially opened to the public with a massive festival called Portopia ’81. It was (and is) quite the tourist magnet and triumph of Japanese engineering, so it would have seemed like a cool place to set a mystery story around this time. In the game, the player assumes the role of a seasoned police detective dispatched to investigate the apparent suicide of Kouzou Yamakawa, a wealthy bank president found stabbed to death inside a locked room in his mansion. Of course, nothing is ever that open-and-shut in a tale like this and it doesn’t take you long to determine Yamakawa was actually the victim of foul play.

Now, when I say the player assumes the lead role in Portopia, I mean it. The game’s silent protagonist goes entirely unseen and unnamed throughout. For all intents and purposes, it’s you on the case. I love this choice, myself. It’s inherently immersive and takes advantage of the interactive medium to present the mystery in a way that just wouldn’t work in a detective novel, where the central figure obviously needs to be described to the reader in some fashion. You’re provided a Watson to your Holmes in the form of your junior detective colleague Yasuhiko “Yasu” Mano. Yasu is mainly there to provide exposition about your surroundings and backstory on the murder victim and the suspects. There turns out to be quite a lot to for the two of you to mull over as you delve into the sordid details of the not-so-innocent victim’s murky past.

This is a classic whodunit in the Agatha Christie tradition with all the red herrings and surprise revelations this implies. As a mystery lover myself, I couldn’t help but notice it bears a striking resemblance to one Christie work in particular. I won’t say which one, just in case you also happen to be well-read in the genre. While a lot of its beats are familiar, Portopia’s storyline actually works as a mystery yarn. Its ultimate solution is fair and the journey is even peppered with those seemingly irrelevant little details and apparent throwaway lines that only assume greater importance in hindsight. I love that trick.

So far, we’ve established Portopia as a historically important release with a nifty plot. How is it as an adventure game? In a word, rough. Portopia leaves much to be desired aesthetically. The graphics are decidedly crude and unappealing and I’m not just saying that because it’s an old game. For my money, there’s actually a tremendous amount of graphic design skill which goes into making the pixel art for a game as primitive as Pac-Man or Donkey Kong truly timeless. In contrast, Portopia’s in-game art looks like I could have contributed to it, and that is most definitely not a compliment. As far as the soundtrack goes, all I can really say is I’d critique it if I could. Enix didn’t see fit to include so much as a quick jingle for the title or end screens, just a handful of basic Famicom sound effects dotting a vast sea of stony silence. Conflict between the game’s extensive script and the severely limited space on early Famicom ROM chips likely explains why we didn’t get any music, but I’d venture to say the graphics could have still been much better drawn if the necessary care had been taken.

Portopia’s frequent game design sins also bear mentioning. While its mystery plot plays remarkably fair by literary standards, its puzzles chuck the point-and-click rulebook out the window with wicked abandon. Numerous plot-crucial bits of evidence are invisible, requiring the player to click small, seemingly empty areas of the screen more or less at random in order to progress. Even worse, one puzzle late in the game which involves finding a secret in a sprawling Wizardry style first-person maze is so cunningly oblique that it comes across as hateful. Suffice to say the method required to reveal said secret is completely unlike the ones used to investigate literally every other area and object in the game. As much as I generally advise against playing any game with a walkthrough by your side, Portopia’s more hair-pulling moments are so absurd one could easily argue it cheated first.

Capping this all off, there’s no password or other save mechanism built into the game. It’s short enough that you can beat it in mere handful of minutes once you already know the steps necessary, but if you’re working it all out the first time, expect to devote hours to the task. I hope you’re good at taking down notes in the event you need to break your playthrough up into multiple sessions. In fact, old-school paper note taking is encouraged in general, since adventure games of this vintage weren’t known for their user-friendly in-game journal futures.

What we’re left with here is a great game with no great gameplay in it. In a sea of simple early Famicom arcade ports, platformers, and puzzle games, Portopia was a watershed. A gritty murder mystery set in an authentic modern Japan! Real characters! Plot twists and shocking revelations! Unfortunately, precisely none of this initial thrill is reproducible now. There’s still a solid detective story to be had here if you feel like digging for it, but shoddy presentation and some egregiously unfair puzzles make the total package less of a whodunit and more of a whocares.

Antarctic Adventure (Famicom)

Hey, look, it’s Penta! You all know Penta, right? Konami’s famous penguin mascot? The star of awesome games like Yume Penguin Monogatari, Parodius, and Konami’s Ping Pong? Man, Mario and Sonic have nothing on old Penta here.

Okay, okay, so you most likely have no idea who this little guy is. I don’t blame you. Virtually none of his games were published in North America (the 1984 ColecoVision port of Antarctic Adventure is the only exception I’m aware of) and his star was definitely waning after 1988 or so. Still, I’ll wager he’s quite the nostalgic figure for Japanese gamers of a certain age. Not Pac-Man nostalgic, mind, but maybe Q*bert tier.

The original 1983 version of Antarctic Adventure for Japanese MSX computers was Penta’s gaming debut and this Famicom port from 1985 was one of Konami’s earliest releases on a Nintendo system. It’s also a minor personal milestone for me, as this is the last of the reviews covering the 21 new games I picked up at last October’s Portland Retro Gaming Expo! I suppose I could have gotten through them all much sooner if I hadn’t sprinkled in another 25 from my general backlog. Still, that’s not a bad turnaround, if I may say so myself.

Given the subject matter and the era in which it was released, you might expect Antarctic Adventure to be an early platforming game. Not even close. What we have here is an old-school arcade style rally racing game with a “behind the car” view, very similar to Pole Position, OutRun, or Rad Racer. The only real differences are that the “car” is a pudgy waddling bird and the standard racetrack is replaced by an endless stretch of polar ice. It seems that little Penta is hell-bent on sprinting his way along the entire length of the Antarctic coast in order to visit a series of ten research stations belonging to different countries. Since the game has no proper story that I’ve been able to track down, I suppose you’re free to imagine any motivation you please for this strange avian odyssey. Maybe Dennis Hopper planted a bomb on Penta and he can’t stop or he’ll explode. Maybe he’s being chased by John Carpenter’s The Thing. Anything goes!

Each of the ten legs of Penta’s marathon play out about the same. You’re given a set distance in kilometers to traverse within a time limit. If you make it before time runs out, it’s on to the next course. If you don’t, the game is over. There are no extra lives or continues. You just keep running for as long as you can in order to rack up as many points as possible. Once you reach the 10th research station, the game starts looping back at stage one with the time limits for each course decreasing on each successive loop. There’s no true ending as such. Penta just keeps on sprinting like a bird possessed until he can’t anymore. Rather grim when you look at it that way.

Of course, there have to be some obstacles set up between Penta and the finish line or it wouldn’t be a proper game at all. Instead of other cars or roadside barriers like in most racers of this vintage, Antarctic Adventure’s courses are littered with ice holes, crevasses, and overly friendly seals. Touching any of these hazards will halt Penta’s forward movement and stun him for a brief time. The solution is to either run around or jump over them, with the caveat that the grinning seals popping out of the ice can’t be jumped. In cases where many obstacles are packed closed together, it’s possible to slip up once and then get ping-ponged between multiple ones, losing a ton of time in the process. Thankfully, there is one power-up of sorts that can help in avoiding these dreaded occurrences: Picking up a flashing flag equips Penta with a tiny helicopter propeller that can be activated by rapidly pressing the B button mid-jump. This lets him fly right over any holes and crevasses in his path for a few seconds before it runs out. You still can’t bypass the dreaded seals this way, though.

Beyond this, the only other things to look out for are the fish and flags of various colors that award bonus points when collected. Antarctic Adventure is an extremely basic and repetitive game, a holdover from the tail end of the arcade Golden Age. This extends to the art and music. Penta is cute and the overall look of the game is clean and colorful, but the scenery is just ice, ice, and more ice. Visual differentiation between stages is limited entirely to the occasional switch from a blue sky to an orange one. The score consists of a single classical piece (Émile Waldteufel’s “The Skater’s Waltz”) that plays over every race and a few brief incidental fanfares; about one minute of music in total.

With its simple gameplay and bare bones presentation, Antarctic Adventure isn’t going to make many “best of the Famicom” lists. As any Atari fan can tell you, however, simple is far from the worst thing a game can be, and this one is a very competent example of a time trial racer circa the early 1980s. If you enjoy similar titles, you’ll almost certainly enjoy Konami’s more lighthearted interpretation. You’ll probably find yourself wanting to move on to something more substantial after thirty minutes or so, but it’ll be a fine thirty minutes. Plus, if you really want more, the 1986 MSX sequel Penguin Adventure greatly expanded on the core gameplay with shops, branching paths, boss fights, and multiple endings. Penguin Adventure was also the first game designed (in part) by the famous Hideo Kojima. Say what you will about penguins, at least they don’t talk your ears off about nanomachines or whatever while you’re just trying to play a video game.

Godspeed, Penta. Here’s hoping Mascot Heaven has an all-you-can-eat sardine bar.