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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.