More than 30 years after their original releases in 1988 and 1989, both Famicom Detective Club games have received modern remakes on Nintendo Switch. I had never played either game before, but I went into The Missing Heir and The Girl Who Stands Behind with nothing but high expectations. These games are an early example of a genre that’s been everlasting: mystery visual novels.
Oddly enough, playing Famicom Detective Club somehow hit that nostalgic spot for me, despite this being my entry into the series. I wasn’t sure why at first, but then it clicked. This was just like Detective Barbie: The Mystery Cruise, the game that introduced me to the genre and started my decadelong journey into detective games.
I absolutely love detective games. My earliest gaming memory involves me playing Detective Barbie until the disc could only be classified as trash. I took that game with me (PlayStation 1 included) on every extended trip; I moved it from room to room, house to house. It was a constant in my life that I had fully forgotten about ... until now.
If you’ve somehow never played Detective Barbie, the game has you play as the world-renowned Detective Barbie investigating a summer at sea turned murder mystery. Don’t get me wrong; The Mystery Cruise is not a visual novel. It’s firmly a point-and-click detective game. All it was missing was a text box or subtitling system (that’s a different conversation about accessibility for a different day), but the parts were there.
Famicom Detective Club uses the same Detective Barbie mechanics, but takes them 10 steps further. I have played a ridiculous amount of puzzle games and sleuthing games, so naturally, I came into these remakes of 30-year-old games extremely cocky. Within an hour of starting each game, I just knew I had already figured them out. But both games checked me multiple times and humbled my inner detective. The story leading up to the reveal is amazing, and the dialogue is compelling and unique to each character and their mood at the time.
Both The Missing Heir and The Girl Who Stands Behind come with fully animated and voice-acted cutscenes and character dialogue. Neither of those things distracts from the fact that these are two of the most classic visual novels you’ll find. The localization isn’t perfect, and the translation sometimes feels a bit heavy handed and oddly direct, but the intimacy that should be built into any good visual novel is present in both games.
The strongest points of Famicom Detective Club aren’t the updated mechanics but the story, which is charming and genuinely feels like a mystery being led by a teenage detective. Three decades later, the genre and narrative are still captivating. It’s a supernatural mystery with suspicious characters who refuse to answer questions straight. The games make you work for it. Even if the story being told is as common as a Tuesday, Famicom Detective Club knows exactly how to tell it. It’s the future of visual novels, reinforced by its past.
Conversations about genre are tedious and contentious. That being said, let’s get into it anyway. Famicom Detective Club is one of the best examples of a visual novel out there. Is it an adventure game? Sure. A murder mystery? Of course. But a visual novel? 100%.
Too often this conversation gets wrapped up in whether a game is too good to be a visual novel, or whether its mechanics are too complex for it to simply be a visual novel. Visual novels are, in my opinion, one of the simpler types of games to define. If a game is text-based, with dialogue boxes and choices that affect the narrative and characters’ responses, it’s a visual novel. Famicom Detective Club takes you where you need to go, but the choices you make still matter. While the outcome is consistent, your choices change your interpretation of the story, its characters, and what you as the protagonist feel. The Girl Who Stands Behind has both great and questionable moments that come purely from me messing around with dialogue options.
I know this is starting to sound like a piece more dedicated to visual novels than Famicom Detective Club itself, but I promise you it’s not. The games’ history and their context is just so important. Visual novels aren’t new, and they aren’t unpopular, but still they end up being categorized as a niche genre for specific people, or as “smaller” or “easier” games. That’s wrong, and Famicom Detective Club demonstrates that. These two games take mechanics from visual novels and adventure games of the past to create an immersive, diverse experience.
Detective Barbie was pivotal in my life because it provided an experience I didn’t realize could be a part of gaming. It told a story that anyone could connect with and let me be a direct part of it. I was actively shaping and discovering the narrative in my head while also controlling the pace and movement of the game. Famicom Detective Club reminded me why I love mystery games. It’s also current proof that the genre can be complex in its simplicity, and that it deserves its longevity.
Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir and Famicom Detective Club: The Girl Who Stands Behind will be released May 14 on Nintendo Switch. The games were reviewed using pre-release download codes provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.