Murder, sexual innuendo, and crime mixed together in the strange adventure game known as the Portopia Serial Murder Case (Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken). What was even stranger was that its principal designer was a young Yuji Horii, the man who’d go on to develop the Dragon Quest series and become a household name in Japan. It was 1983, and the platform was the NEC PC-6001. The Portopia Serial Murder Case had the distinction of being the first adventure game for the Famicom (for which it was ported in 1985), as well as inspiring Hideo Kojima to become a game developer (it’s supposed to exist as an Easter Egg in MGSV). Portopia was never released for American audiences, and so I only recently became aware of the game. Considering its mature themes, it’s not a big surprise. Fortunately, a fan group called DvD Translations did a faithful translation into English that allowed western gamers to experience it directly for the first time. Its remarkable place in gaming history has as much to do with the fact that it influenced the entire visual novel genre as it did its innovative storytelling that had gamers puzzled, perplexed, and hooked. I’m starting a series of articles about Yuji Horii’s games and I thought this would be the perfect launching point.
Portopia is a dark, macabre, first-person adventure game with a nonlinear open world that takes place in Japanese cities like Kobe and Kyoto. It sounds impossible back on the NES era, but Horii’s st1orytelling chops take the forefront in a noir experience that’s more akin to an interactive novel than a game, especially with the bright and simplistic sprites that leave much to the imagination. You play as a detective investigating the murder of a rich bank president, Kouzou Yamakawa, and are the embodiment of the silent protagonist with the title of “Boss.” You do all your talking through your actions and never physically show up, even though several women attest to your good looks. Instead, the face of the game is your assistant, Yasuhiko Mano.
Yasu is the typical police sidekick; young, eager to please, exchanging banter with you, and even calming you down when you lose your temper. He carries out your orders, uncovering valuable information, and asking potential witnesses what they’ve seen, all of which he’ll report back to you. While solving the murder is the impetus for the story, the anchor is your relationship with Yasu who also provides comic relief as well as social commentary on the events that transpire.
I’m amazed even now that Horii lets the player determine the path of their investigation, and aside from a few cues, doesn’t give much direction in terms of where to go or what to do. That can either be incredibly frustrating or a boon depending on the way you like to approach adventure games. I like trying everything, so I didn’t mind too much, even though some of the puzzles could be old school adventure game obscure.
Horii experiments with the genre skillfully, embedding suspense with a limited palette and almost no music. The silence is eerie, but intensifies the feeling that this is more of a cerebral experience than a visceral in-your-face murder case. There’s several agendas at play among the eclectic characters, and as there is no save feature or even a password, it means you’ll have to start over from the beginning every time you power down. That’s not a bad thing as each playthrough reveals a slightly different perspective depending on what evidence you’ve uncovered. The seedy world of strip clubs and hostess bars can be explored at your own pace, especially as there’s no death.
There’s a surprising number of menu options available to navigate with on the Famicom, simplifying the text parsing of the PC version; move, ask, show item, and arrest, as well as others like phone calls to suspicious numbers. Depending on what you ask about and which items you show, more selections will appear. You could order Yasu to beat prisoners to get information out of them if polite questioning didn’t work. That disturbingly includes an old man, Mr. Komiya, who will then reveal more about his involvement in the case after you hit him in the face. If you didn’t torture him though, moral implications aside, it wouldn’t change the ending, only leave out a piece of evidence that might have been helpful in better understanding the mystery. Episodic triggers pushed forward the story, but there were multiple ways to get there. At a time when many games were linear platformers, this type of variability must have been startling for people going through the case for the umpteenth time, unable to figure out who killed Kouzou. Add in the serious themes, the complex plot (at least for the time), and the mental obstacles rather than physical ones you had to jump through, and it made for a unique experience unlike any other, especially so early in the history of the Famicom.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get better, along came one of the best twist endings in gaming.
Warning, I’ll be talking major spoilers in the next part, including the identity of the killer.
There are plenty of red herrings in the case, a convoluted mystery that in many ways reminded me of Persona 4. Mr. Kawamura is one of them, a corrupt businessman who swindled the Sawaki Industries together with Kouzou (when he was alive) and drove the owners (Mr. and Mrs. Sawaki) to suicide. When Kawamura ends up murdered and his stripper girlfriend doesn’t have any more clues, it seems like we’re at another dead end. The focus then shifts to finding the son of the Sawakis. He’s gone missing and is only recognizable by a birthmark shaped like a butterfly on his shoulder.
Uncovering the true culprit involves a mechanic that Horii sets up earlier where you can take the clothes from suspects at the police station to strip search them (this also spurs one of the edgier exchanges in the game). Once you uncover the secret journal of Kouzou, your partner, Yasu, reads it and summarizes it for you, surprised that Kouzou actually felt guilt for what he’d done to the Sawakis. When we return to the station, you can ask Yasu to remove his clothes. He, of course, refuses, and I thought it was part of a gag. But ask him three times straight, and he’ll take off his shirt, revealing the butterfly birthmark on his shoulder. He is the son of the Sawaki couple and the one who killed Kouzou to avenge the death of his parents.
His observations, his comments, even his seeming subservience, all take on a completely different light, knowing he was the murderer. I was shocked that a Famicom game was capable of conveying and evoking so many different emotions; I felt horrible for the Sawakis, a conflicted sense of sorrow for Kouzou who sought atonement, but also a great deal of sympathy for Yasu. After city-hopping all over Japan and spending hours with Yasu, he felt more like a friend than a working partner. Amidst the corruption and criminal exchanges you were confronted with, he was the one person dedicated to justice. And in a sense, he remained so until the end, even if it was through murder.
Horii, despite the limitations of an 8-bit console, caused me to feel empathy for multiple characters, each with their own quirks. It was a new type of game that didn’t require fast reflexes, but instead, caused you to have a stake in the story. It’s easy to see why Kojima was so inspired by Portopia, and in many ways, the original Metal Gear could be considered a fusing of his two biggest inspirations, Super Mario Bros. and Portopia, a formula he would take to near perfection with Snatcher. I can only speculate if the same dynamic of Solid Snake and Big Boss in the original Metal Gear was a tribute to the boss-Yasu relationship, complete with twist ending.
As I played the game, I wondered how I would have taken it as a kid. If I’d had the patience to finish it, I probably would have had my mind blown, the same way the Dragon Quest series redefined what fantasy meant for me.
Horii was said to have conceived the idea for Portopia by reading a PC magazine about the adventure game genre, so that this was his interpretation of what constituted an American adventure game. It’s amazing to see where he started, charting the inception of his creative storytelling. It’s almost like the murder case is a glimpse into his younger self.
Horii’s later interpretation of what a RPG should be through the Japanese lens would lead to the brilliant Dragon Quest series that would make JRPG history (even in Portopia, he incorporated what he’d seen of Wizardry into Kouzou’s underground sequence for the Famicom port). Portopia’s success in selling nearly a million copies might have been one of the factors that gave Enix the financial freedom to undertake something as risky as Dragon Quest so it would be fair to say their existences are linked.
All creators have a sense of trepidation- how far can they push the medium? Often times, one of the best motivators is success which helps them reach for higher plateaus.
The Famicom version brought together Horii with Koichi Nakamura (of Chunsoft fame) who programmed most of the port. Most importantly, what Horii was able to achieve with Portopia’s narrative would be important in imbuing the DQ series with the kind of storytelling that elevated the JRPG from the normal tropes associated with fantasy games into something that resonated with Japanese gamers. What other RPG until that time had the option of allowing the hero to join the main villain at the end? It opened doors for both designers and gamers who were hungry for more.
Portopia would go on to have two sequels, The Disappearance of Ohotsuku and The Karuizawa Kidnapping, as well as a mobile phone remake. I haven’t played either of the sequels or the remake, but I hope to if and when translations become available.
While Portopia’s influence is undeniable, it’s the tragic back story, the strange vicissitudes the characters face, the uncanny freedom to investigate, and the haunting uncovering of the killer that makes it so special. The biggest mystery now is why that remake isn’t translated and ported over to the States immediately.
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Peter Tieryas likes good old fashioned murder mysteries, especially if they have dragons and Entropy (of which this article is an updated analysis). He once blabbered about monsters here.