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 that 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 that 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 then, I’ve known that 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 bring it to 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 that 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 that 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 that implies. As a mystery lover myself, I couldn’t help but notice that 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 that Portopia is 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 in 2018. 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.

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Clock Tower (Super Famicom)

The morning sun has vanquished the horrible night.

Three Japan-exclusive horror games in a row? Why not? ‘Tis the season, after all!

This is 1995’s Clock Tower from Human Entertainment, also known as Clock Tower: The First Fear when it was later re-released as an enhanced port for PlayStation, PC, and the Bandai WonderSwan of all things. Like many of Human’s other non-sports titles (Monster Party, Kabuki Quantum Fighter), Clock Tower is an odd duck. To my knowledge, it’s the only point-and-click adventure game developed for the Super Famicom. These sorts of games were typically confined to home computers with native mouse support and while you would occasionally see one ported over to a game console, most famously the NES version of Manic Mansion, creating one from scratch for a Nintendo system must have been a hard sell indeed. Weirdest of all in my book: This isn’t one of the several dozen games that support the Super Famicom mouse accessory that came out in 1992. Huh.

While this original Clock Tower title has never been officially released outside Japan in any of its various incarnations, all of its sequels have. Clock Tower 2 for the PlayStation was rather confusingly retitled simply Clock Tower outside of Japan, but make no mistake: These are two distinct games. Thankfully, I’m able to enjoy the Super Famicom original thanks to a fan translated reproduction cartridge.

In Clock Tower, you play as Jennifer Simpson, a young girl who has just been adopted from a Norwegian orphanage by wealthy recluse Simon Barrows, along with three of her fellow orphans, Anne, Laura, and Lotte. Soon after arriving at the Barrows mansion, Mary, the woman escorting them, leaves to go fetch the master of the house. Noticing that Mary is taking an unusually long time to return, Jennifer volunteers to go find her. Before she can travel far, however, Jennifer hears screams from behind her and rushes back to the foyer only to find it dark and empty, her three friends having seemingly vanished into thin air. Jennifer is now left all alone in the cavernous old house, mystified as to who or what is stalking her and her companions.

The first thing you’ll notice once you take control of Jennifer is that this is a true point-and-click game. You have no direct control over Jennifer’s movements with the directional pad and are limited to using an on-screen cursor to direct her what to walk or run toward and what objects to interact with. You can also press the X button to cancel your last issued command and bring her to a standstill if you change your mind once she’s underway. You’ll have plenty of time to think it over while en route, too, because the second thing you’ll notice is how absurdly slow Jennifer moves. Despite being under mortal threat at all times, she shuffles down long hallways like she’s leisurely perusing the exhibits at an art gallery. If you need to take a quick bathroom break while playing, just have her climb a flight of stairs, which takes the better part of a full minute on its own. You can double tap the button to make her run, but this will rather perversely deplete her color-coded stress meter, basically this game’s version of health, even if she’s not running away from any specific danger.

You’ll want to keep her stress level at a minimum because it directly affects her ability to survive attacks by the mansion’s hostile residents. If Jennifer is under assault, her portrait in the lower left corner of the screen will flash, indicating “panic mode.” When this happens, mashing the action button as fast as possible can save her, provided her stress is not already in the red. Once the immediate threat has passed, you can lower the stress level by resting, which is triggered by standing still in a safe area for a period of time. Make sure to do this as needed, as there are no weapons or attacks available in Clock Tower. Other than panic mode, Jennifer’s only other form of defense is hiding from a pursuer. There are several hiding spots scattered throughout the mansion, but they’re not always guaranteed to work. If you successfully hide, your attacker will wander off and Jennifer will be free to do more exploring. If it doesn’t, it’s game over. Rather generously, though, there are unlimited continues in Clock Tower and they automatically put you back in the room where you died, so progress is never lost. I suppose this is one less thing to worry about, although it can bleed away a little of the game’s all-important tension if you stop to think about it too much.

Most of your play time is spent exploring the various rooms of the Barrows estate, collecting inventory items, and using them to solve puzzles that will allow you to progress to new areas and advance the story. Actually, calling them “puzzles” might be a bit of a stretch in most cases. I know this is a difficult balance to strike for any game like this. Too much abstruseness and you end up with the sort of “moon logic” scenarios that many adventure gamers utterly despise. Giving a granola bar to a rat to get a wallet, that sort of stuff. I get that. I would argue that Clock Tower swings the pendulum a bit too much in the opposite direction, though. Does a gap in the floor with a wooden plank standing right up against the wall alongside it really constitute a puzzle? Unfortunately, it’s par for the course here. There’s nothing in the way of thought demanded. If a door is locked, just keep looking around until you find the key in a box or sitting on a desk or what have you. Pesky insects in your way? Keep checking rooms until you happen on some bug spray. This is probably Clock Tower’s biggest missed opportunity for me. It has enough well-executed horror (pun very much intended) to still be worth your time, but some properly satisfying brainteasers would have made it much more of a total package as far as games in this genre go. Perhaps the designers were afraid of alienating a console audience that may not have had much exposure to similar titles?

Between the complaints about the gratuitously slow movement and shallow puzzles, it’s sounding like I’m a bit down on Clock Tower as a whole. Let’s correct for that a bit, because it really gets a lot of other things very right.

First and foremost, the sheer sense of atmosphere is practically unmatched on the system. It’s right up there with Super Metroid in its ability to pull you into its world with a one-two punch of sumptuous locations and brilliant sound design. Every room of the mansion is packed with eerie detail and has its own unique identity. Furthermore, all that detail is never allowed to get in the way of the gameplay due to the smart decision to have the cursor change shape from an arrow to a box whenever it passes over an object that you can interact with. Important scenes and objects are also illustrated with close-up shots so intricately rendered that they almost look like digitized photographs. Music is saved only for important locations and circumstances. Most of the time you’ll all alone with the sounds of creaking doors, distant screams, and Jennifer’s footsteps, which is great way to emphasize that looming threats can strike from anywhere at any time and to lend them even more impact when they finally do.

Then there’s your nemesis, the infamous “scissorman.” This deformed maniac has the uncanny ability to appear when and where you least expect him, eager to put an agonizing end to Jennifer’s exploration of the mansion courtesy of his giant pair of shears. He isn’t the only fiend you’re up against, but he’s easily the most persistent and memorable of them all. Evading this pint-sized unstoppable freak is half the fun of Clock Tower. Most of the remaining half is trying, usually in vain, to anticipate his next appearance. It really does feel like an interactive slasher movie.

Clock Tower also has a decent amount of replayability. This is welcome indeed, as it’s a very short experience. The first trip through will likely take you an hour or two, but once you know how the game is structured, you can get that down to a half hour easily on subsequent sessions. The game employs a few tricks to keep these replays interesting. Key items and even some rooms within the mansion will switch places randomly, the exact item you need to locate in order to open the way to the final part of the mansion can vary, and even some plot elements and story scenes might only appear on some playthroughs. There are also nine different endings to discover and the game will keep track of which ones you’ve already seen. It won’t tell you exactly which actions you’ll need to take and which events you’ll need to witness in order to achieve each ending, however, so experimentation is encouraged. These endings are short but fairly varied. Depending on what actions you take, Jennifer could meet an untimely end, wind up a sole survivor, or successfully save some of her friends.

Viewed strictly as a game, Clock Tower is extremely limited. As an interactive horror experience, it’s not to be missed. The game’s director, Hifume Kono, makes no secret of the fact that his goal was to make a game based on his favorite scary movies, particularly those of Italian auteur Dario Argento. The plot and characters of Clock Tower borrow extensively from Argento’s 1985 film Phenomena, right down to the name and look of the lead character Jennifer. Even the music in Clock Tower seems to have been inspired by the scores that the prog rock band Goblin contributed to several Argento films. Kono has also stated that the scissorman was inspired by the famous hedge clipper massacre scene in the 1981 slasher flick The Burning. That makes two references to The Burning in two consecutive game reviews for me. How weird is that?

If you have any love for slasher movies, adventure games, or gorgeous 16-bit pixel art, you need to make time for Clock Tower.

The Goonies II (NES)

The Goonies ‘r’ good enough for the NES…barely.

Most everyone who was a kid at the time would agree that 1985’s The Goonies is a pretty great movie. It combined slick production design, a classic adventure storyline about hidden pirate treasure that would make Robert Louis Stevenson proud, and that rarest of things: An ensemble cast of child actors that didn’t suck. And Sloth. Sloth is the man. Considering that I just recently got back from a vacation to Astoria, Oregon where I toured the shooting locations and even went out to the Cannon Beach overlook with a replica of the doubloon coin from the film to reenact one of the scenes…well, I guess you could say I’m a fan.

So when Konami released their game The Goonies II in 1987, I was all over it. Unlike a lot of others who played this one back when it came out, I wasn’t confused by the name. Many thought that the game was supposed to be based on an upcoming sequel to the movie, but I had actually played Konami’s earlier Goonies game in arcades before, and the resemblance is unmistakable. These days, the existence of this original Goonies game for the Famicom and its limited arcade release in North America is common knowledge, but it was easy enough to overlook at the time. Of course, Konami had also released a third Goonies game for the MSX computer system in Japan, so I guess we should be thankful that they didn’t call this one The Goonies III and really mess with our heads.

Coming off The Legend of Zelda and Metroid, I was primed for more games that combined action with exploration and secret hunting. Goonies II fit the bill, and I spent countless hours bombing and hammering every nook and cranny of the Fratellis’ hideout looking for hidden passages and items.

That’s why it’s really tough for me to overcome my nostalgic attachment to this game long enough to admit that it’s actually pretty bad.

This time, the Fratellis (the family of crooks that pursued our heroes in the movie) are back and they’ve kidnapped all your fellow Goonies as well as Annie! Who’s Annie? The mermaid, of course. You remember her, right? Yeah, even before you’ve made it past the title screen, you’ve already been given your first hint of how downright weird this game can be. Brace yourself, because you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Starting up the game, things seem fairly promising. A nifty chiptune version of the beloved “The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough” song by Cyndi Lauper kicks in and you find yourself controlling Mikey Walsh in traditional side-scrolling platformer style. Your task is to explore the Fratellis’ maze-like hideout and rescue all six of your missing Goonie pals plus the inexplicable Annie. Everything looks and sounds decent by 1987 standards, Mikey controls pretty well, and his main weapon, a yo-yo, is fun to use. These action scenes aren’t exactly great, but you’re probably having an okay time battling snakes, spiders, and the occasional gangster.

It’s only when you step inside one of the numerous doors scattered around the hideout that things start to go south fast. Surprise! Goonies II is also a first person point-and-click adventure game like Déjà Vu or Shadowgate! A really half-baked and boring one. Using a menu of basic commands, you can move between screens, punch walls to reveal hidden items, and use a small selection of tools that you find during your quest (a hammer to uncover secret doors, a candle to light up dark areas, and so on). This had the potential to be compelling stuff. Unlike in the similarly-structured games mentioned above, however, there are no true puzzles to solve, cool locations to see, or even entertaining text descriptions of your actions to read. Just the exact same plain square rooms, where you’ll be expected to robotically run down your list of commands trying each one before moving on. There’s nothing challenging or stimulating to be found in these portions of the game. You simply perform every possible action in a given room before moving on to the next. See a blank wall? Try the glasses. No result? Punch the wall. Still nothing? Try the hammer. Now do the exact same thing with every other wall in the game. Every. Other. Wall. Even when this repetitive and agonizingly slow process does actually result in finding a hidden passage or item, you don’t get the satisfaction of feeling clever or accomplished. What else were you going to do? Not hammer that wall?

You’ll occasionally meet with an NPC character in one of these rooms and they’re simultaneously one of the best and worst things about Goonies II. The best because they’re usually abject weirdos spouting hilarious badly-translated gibberish and the worst because they almost never do or say anything useful. There’s a surprising number of generic old people, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, an Eskimo named Eskimo, and a superhero called Konami Man (who later starred in Konami Wai Wai World on the Famicom), among others. At least Konami Man will heal you when you visit him, so he’s okay by me. The others will mostly do stuff like tell you that the room you’re currently in that warps you to another part of the map is a warp zone (really!?) or declare “It’s fun to play The Goonies 2!” Brilliant.

So the first person segments are a wretched slog, but even the platforming segments have issues that become apparent as you play on. For starters, there’s absolutely no challenge to be found. Oh, there are plenty of ways to die. Enemies, bottomless pits, lava, all that stuff. There’s simply no incentive not to die a lot, since you can instantly continue from the same screen you lost your last life on as many times as you want. You lose any expendable items like keys and bombs that you might be carrying, but these drop all the time from random enemies, so you’re constantly picking up more. Combine this with the fact that some of the late game foes can take a dozen or more yo-yo hits before they finally go down and you have a game where you’ll be sorely tempted to just plow right through enemies heedless of the damage sustained just to save time getting from point A to point B. Not exactly riveting stuff.

How about the fact that the map system is just plain bizarre? There’s actually two maps of the hideout, labeled as “front” and “back.” You transition between the two sides by passing through certain doors and reaching a given destination usually requires taking a specific series of doors, going back and forth between the two sides multiple times in the process. If all this sounds stupidly baffling and unintuitive in the abstract, I can assure that it’s just as bad in practice. I played Goonies II so much as a kid that I can still complete it without a map or a walkthrough by my side to this day, but unless you did the same, count on getting very lost very fast.

Did I mention there are no bosses? Because there aren’t. Not one. And the last straw? The very worst thing of all? No Sloth.

Despite it all, I still can’t make myself hate The Goonies II. It filled a void at a time when complex adventure style games were still few and far between on the NES. It’s got some great music and it’s very, very strange. It may even qualify as an influential title. I’ve always suspected that Mike Jones, the hero of Nintendo’s later StarTropics games, was inspired by Konami’s take on Mikey Walsh. The names, the red hair/blue shirt combo, the yo-yos. Both of them even hail from right here in the great Pacific Northwest. If it’s some of kind of coincidence, it’s a wild one.

Konami was doing a lot of experimenting with integrating RPG and adventure game elements into its platformers around this time. If you’re interested in what happened when they (mostly) succeeded at it, I’d say to check out Getsu Fūma Den. It’s pretty great. If you want a good Goonies game specifically, check out the original one for the Famicom. It has all the strengths of Goonies II’s action bits while also being much more accessible and challenging.

But The Goonies II? I feel like I’m babysitting, except I’m not getting paid.