Greetings readers and bored explorers of the internet, today instead of the usual Still Loading article I am trying a little experiment. So, if you came here expecting to finally see part 2 of my games and art article… sorry. It’s coming eventually, I promise. At any rate, I hope you find this “evolutions” article interesting and if it does well you might see more.
Adventure games are nothing new. Far from it, actually. They’re one of the oldest genres of PC gaming starting with text adventures like Colossal Cave Adventures and Zork in the 70’s and continuing on with early graphic text adventures. This starts with Sierra’s first success, Mystery House and the much more graphically focused King’s Quest in the 1980s. It’s a little past this point that the adventure game matured and transformed across various focal points and sub-genres with games like Myst and the Lucasarts SCUMM games (like Monkey Island,) and spread its grasp on games across the world including far away countries like Japan.
To be perfectly honest, as fond as I am of adventure games and as much respect I have for them for bringing out the playfulness of interactive storytelling, I don’t actually have a ton of experience with the genre. Well, at least not in the more traditional, familiar sense. Most of my experience with adventure games, at least in recent years, are with the Japanese variety. It started with games like the Ace Attorney series but as both a retro and modern gamer I’ve been able to visit several adventure titles form the land of the rising sun across different eras. I’ve noticed several patterns in gameplay and gameplay evolution and it has followed a less varied/more focused path than much of it’s point and click brethren in the west. In a similar way to Japanese RPGs, things can be traced to a specific game trying something new with changes made along the way to simplify things for a mainstream release.
The Portopia Serial Murder Case for the Famicom fan translated
The Portopia Serial Murder Case wasn’t exactly the start for Japanese graphic adventure games, but it is probably the most important early title in terms of the history of the genre. It was first released by Chunsoft and Enix on home computers with a standard parser system but was simplified with a branching menu/cursor interface when it was ported to the Famicom and became a hit. It’s not unlike Chunsoft and Enix’s situation with adapting RPG gameplay and simplifying those systems for the Famicom with Dragon’s Quest which they did not long after working on Portopia. This simplified interface system got the attention of many publishers and developers and really caught on.
I’’ll be going over the evolution of the genre along the main vein of it all. Here I think things can be grouped into eras/phases in the growth and development of Japanese adventure games. It is the use and exploration of trends in those areas, starting in the late 80s, early 90s when I believe the the genre is more or less fully formed and shares some common threads so it’s easier to talk about.
Digital comic style games were huge starting in the late 80’s through the early/mid 90’s. The style of gameplay here is pretty similar to games in the early days of Portopia, but sometimes fleshed out a little more. Gameplay is still extensively, if not totally, menu driven and goals revolved around advancing and observing the plot above all else. Games like this in this era tend to have a good list of options to select to explore the game and get bigger conversations, but there isn’t a ton of innovation in how the exploration of the game environments and characters is done. However, there are exceptions if you take time to look. This style became very popular for games based off of or expanding manga and anime stories. It seems like you can’t shake a stick at the Japanese PC-Engine CD or Sega CD Libraries without hitting several of these types of games for popular franchises. Ranma ½, Bubblegum Crisis, Nadia The Secret of Blue Water, the list goes on.
Phantasy Star Adventure, Maison Ikkoku, Bubblegum Crash: Knight Sabers, and Ranma 1/2 Toraware No Hanayome
INVESTIGATIVE/ACTIVE GRAPHICAL ADVENTURES
I looked around for a label for this type/era of Japanese adventure games, but there wasn’t a name thrown around as much like digital comics was so making up my own term will have to do. I called this group “investigative’ because a lot of the noteworthy games have a core element of problem solving and deep investigation. There’s a big trend of mystery stories as well. Things this time around are still fairly heavily menu based but there is a greater emphasis on exploration and detailed inspection to succeed. Plot is still a main focus for these games but the player elements become further entwined in this. Compared to earlier digital comic type japanese adventure games the pacing is more structured in a way that meshes with the ebbs and flows of what’s happening with the player’s action and the story’s movement. Many games like Kojima’s excellent cult classic Snatcher and J.B. Harold Murder Club on the Turbografx CD give players a sense of freedom not easily found in earlier titles by allowing players to freely come and go to a good range of locations and discovers some things in their own way. Games coming about in this era are increasingly more and more cinematic in their approach, be it with highly expressive sprites and framing like in the SNES remake of Famicom Detective Club II, or with lots of voice, cutscenes and clever composition like in Policenauts.
Snatcher, J.B. Harold Murder Club, Famicom Detective Club II, Policenauts
That leads us to the more modern Japanese adventure games. These are some of the games that most players are familiar with and it is games in this phase that have finally found a real following in the west. Many of these games have succeeded by playing with formulas and breaking things up so their are multiple modes with multiples methods of interaction, changing how things develop and ultimately how they turn out. The Ace Attorney games are a good example of this. There’s the standard “talk to this person, go through a menu, advance, etc.,” but it’s not really as simple as that. There’s game is broken into two sections: Court and investigation. While investigating you can talk to people, investigate scenes and use and expand evidence and in court you really have to use logic and experience. All of these components still add to a linear structure but modern games like this are less guided. What do I mean by that? Well, it’s like this: yes you move through space by doing the right things in the right order to an end, but it’s not like going through a narrow hallway, it’s like you are running through a field doing what you need to do then going to the exit. Games like the escape series have more possibilities, but they many games in this grouping, including Dangan Ronpa, have a more open and player driven feel with more ways to bring the player into the story than ever before.
Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward
And the other thing about Modern Japanese adventure games is that the genre is evolving and surviving by rolling into other game types. Professor Layton may be a puzzle machine, but the fabric that holds things together is an adventure game. Half of Persona 3 & 4 is the relationship/school time mechanic, and not only is that half traditional Japanese adventure game, many would say it’s what brought exploding popularity to the franchise. The Adventure game elements of Shenmue are so deeply woven in with other things that I had to poll twitter for their opinion if it counted, (and it counts,) just in a more abstract way than the others.
Japanese adventure games continue to stick to their routes and that makes their evolution easy to track, but the genre is starting to evolve and explore in new ways not done before. As these elements bring in new players and fans it’s curious to watch some explore the genre to find more things they might like. It always fun to broaden horizons and part of doing that is observing history. Not only to learn what’s farther up the chain but to read what’s coming in the future by playing to the past.
Hotel Dusk: Room 215
(Go play it, it’s awesome)