Greetings once again from my highly-fortified internet compound, Retroware readers! This is Franchise Fatigue, that thing I do where I examine some of gaming’s lost, unique, or ubiquitous franchises, and today I’ve got a game on my hands that I’m pretty sure you’ve all heard about – yet I doubt that many of you have had the stomach to ever finish.
Yup, it’s The Portopia Serial Murder Case! Or, Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken, if you like seeing Japanese words italicized in English.
So, lately, I’ve rekindled my love of Japanese adventure games and visual novels. I recently finished Chunsoft’s excellent new visual novel you might’ve heard about, called Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward. It’s picked up a few awards here and there, some “2012 BEST GAME OF THE YEAR” accolades, stuff like that. It’s legit. It is, as they say, the real deal. It’s a fascinating, bizarre, pull-no-punches sci-fi mystery with so many twists and moments of intrigue that it’s a wonder my spine remained relatively intact. After playing it, and saying to myself, “Holy Crap! That was excellent! I should familiarize myself with more of Chunsoft’s work!” I remembered something.
If you’ve been following along with the wonderful Chrontendo project, you’ve probably noticed that Enix wunderkind Yuji Horii is something of a sage, having popularized two longtime Western computer gaming staples – RPGs and adventure games – to a Japanese audience. Obviously, Horii gained worldwide acclaim with Dragon Quest, but the game that launched him to the forefront of the brave new world of superstar Japanese developers was clearly Portopia.
Originally released in 1983 for the delightfully archaic NEC PC-6001 home computer (16k of RAM!), the game was a modest success for Horii’s company Enix, inspired two sequels, and spawned a couple of imitators – notably Hudson, who created the original Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom shortly afterwards.
MURDER IN 4 COLORS
Then in 1985, the young upstarts at Chunsoft, founded by former Enix developer Koichi Nakamura, ported the game to the MSX computers and the increasingly ubiquitous Famicom. By 1985, the Famicom was beginning to approach critical mass in Japan; notably, Super Mario Bros. hit that year, and third parties who signed on early to develop games for the system were rewarded handsomely. Like fellow home computer developers Hudson, Enix was pleasantly surprised when Portopia sold close to a million copies.
The combination of familiar elements in Portopia nowadays make it seem like an obvious success in hindsight. Who doesn’t love an old-fashioned murder mystery? Plus, Portopia was painstakingly researched and used real locations in and around Japan – Portopia itself is a well-known railway station around Hiroshima – and had a colorful cast of good guys, bad guys, and even threw in some first-person dungeon crawling for good measure.
“Oh, so you’re a ‘sub’? Thank your lucky stars your game came out before fanfiction was invented, pal.”
Obviously, the game was never localized for US release – I had to play the game using the great fan translation by DvD – and it’s easy to see why. Western gamers were familiar with saltier elements such as murder, gambling, strip clubs, and chain-smoking criminals in computer games, but console games were another matter entirely. It’s telling that one of the few Japanese adventure games that did find its way stateside was the aforementioned Princess Tomato, since that’s about fruit and vegetables and stuff – I doubt something called “THE PORTOPIA SERIAL MURDER CASE” ever made it onto Howard Phillips’ desk for review. Remember kids – no smokin’ or dyin’ in your Nintendo games!
But, since the Japanese market was obviously more interested in the moral decay of youth by showing the gritty ugliness of life in video game form, Portopia was a huge hit. Now, it’s a very rare thing when you can trace a direct lineage of any gaming genre to one specific title. Adventure games themselves go back to the dawn of computing; we all know that DOOM popularized first-person shooters, but the jury’s still out on what the first first-person shooter truly is. Meanwhile, Japanese adventure games all share one very common ancestor.
With that knowledge in mind, and my love of Japanese adventure games firmly cemented in my head, I set about to actually, factually play Portopia.
Pictured here: NOA’s image of an army of American children should they have ever been exposed to Portopia.
And you know what? This game is impenetrable.
The original PC version used the familiar text-parser common with adventure games; you type “hit wall” and continue your string of verb-noun choices until something happens. The NES version combines all the unique text-parser phrases into a series of menu commands; this system has remained virtually unchanged in Japanese adventure games since then.
So, while it’s nice to have all your available interactive options on a menu screen, the game is rather unforgiving about offering any sort of hints to the player. I.e., me. See, even though there may be a logical solution to forwarding the game’s plot – “you say you saw this Hirata guy tailing the victim? Great! Let’s go talk to him!” – before you are allowed to follow that particular brand of correct logic, you need to input certain commands in a very specific order before you are allowed to advance to the next, logical conclusion.
This style of gameplay has carried over to modern adventure games as well. I’d always get frustrated by the Ace Attorney series of games, even though I love them, because certain plot developments and statements would obviously have logical implications, but I would get penalized for pursuing what I believed to be patently obvious. Of course, it turned out I was right, but I had forgotten to do some unrelated bit of business before I moved along to the next obvious thing. It makes sense now, I guess, to find this element alive and well – frustratingly well – in Portopia, the progenitor of them all.
Not to mention that, as I stated earlier, the game takes place in real locations in and around Kobe, Japan. The game sort of assumes a passing familiarity with neighboring areas, so – if you’re not familiar with how to get from Kyoto back to Kobe, I hope you’ve got a FAQ handy. In fact, ashamed as I am to admit it, a FAQ was required to get anywhere in this game. And don’t even get me started on that needlessly complicated first-person dungeon segment. “Hey! I’m Yuji Horii, and I really like Wizardry, but I haven’t gotten around to making Dragon Quest yet, so I hope this will suffice!”
Still, I’m glad I took the Portopia plunge. Like I said, it’s a rare chance to find the literal direct ancestor of a genre of gaming I love so much. It’s a little shocking to see so many of the tropes and maligned linearity of Japanese adventure games right there front and center in Portopia, and how comparatively little the actual gameplay of these games has evolved since 1985. Chunsoft kind of simplified this adventure game concept with their sound novels and visual novels, while tried-and-true Japanese adventure games have kind of died off, with a few exceptions like Ace Attorney. And for other people out there who might be curious about trying this out for themselves – eh, just grab a translation of Famicom Tantei Club instead. It’s quicker, it’s streamlined, and requires a lot less guesswork and FAQ-checking than this one.
I guess I still feel proud of myself, in spite of everything, for making it through Portopia as a dirty Westerner. This is a game that was made with every intention of never being available or accessible to the Western market, but me and DvD Translations showed YOU, Yuji Horii! Ha-hah!!!