If a game is no longer for sale, unless it’s extremely popular and recent, it often disappears from the wider cultural consciousness.
But learning more about the history of the medium can allow us to better analyze and understand the patterns that persist in that history and how they shape the present moment.
The Portopia serial murder case is a game that you don’t hear much about in the West. Created by Yuji Horii, who would go on to develop the hugely influential Dragon Quest series of role-playing games, this pioneering narrative adventure was first released in 1983 on the NEC PC-6001 computer, then ported to the Famicom (Japanese name for the NES). in 1985.
Portopia was far ahead of its time in its experimentation with now standardized and widespread narrative devices and mechanisms. If you searched the crime scenes of ace lawyer or questioned the inhabitants of Danganronpa, you’ll probably already be familiar with the fundamentals of game design.
Yet, despite its enduring influence, Portopia was never released outside of Japan. Instead, fan translators – particularly DvD Translations, Harmony7, and Shiroi – have worked hard to make the game accessible to English speakers. If you play Portopia in English, you’re not just experiencing the passion project of a young Yuji Horii, but also over a decade of fan translation efforts.
A massive influence
Visual novels have long been a niche genre outside of Japan. But the last twenty years have seen the storied format gain popularity internationally, thanks to series such as Ace Attorney, Danganronpa and Zero Escape. However, much of the genre’s rich pre-1990s history remains relatively unknown – and woefully underappreciated – in the West.
Portopia was one of the first titles ever released by Enix, along with only the 1983 puzzle platformer door door preceding it. It was also one of the first games that Horii wrote and designed himself. (His very first game dates back to 1983 Tennis Love Match, which won an Enix-sponsored contest for hobbyist developers). Unlike the RPG series it’s best known for, Portopia was the first game to use point-and-click adventure mechanics – even before Sierra Online quest for kings implemented a year later.
Many leading Japanese developers have cited Portopia as inspiration for their works, including visionary game director Hideo Kojima, creator of the Metal Gear Solid series. Kojima said in a 1999 interview with beautiful games (via shmupulations) that Horii’s game changed his ideas of what games could be.
“What made me decide to go into this industry myself was Super Mario Bros. and The Portopia serial murder case. These weren’t the ‘beep bloop’ games of yore; these games had their own worlds and stories. I sensed a certain authorial quality in them,” he explained.
Kojima adds that PortopiaThe world-building, story and dialogue convinced him that games could have “cinematic undertones”, a fascination that is still evident in his work until Death Stranding. Kojima and his desire to replicate that sense of “complete control” of narrative in his own work was a major inspiration for policemen and Thief. He even hid parts of Portopiathe code inside Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
“These weren’t the ‘beep bloop’ games of old.”
Alongside Kojima, other renowned game creators noted Portopiaalso its influence. Eiji Aonuma, known for directing The Legend of Zelda series, notes that alongside dragon quest, Portopia was one of the first games he ever played. Other notable personalities who have cited Portopia early inspirations include Yakuza and Judgment series creator Toshihiro Nagoshi and 428: Shibuya Scramble director Jiro Ishii.
Despite Portopiathe continuing influence of among Japanese game developers, the game remains relatively unknown in the West, although a number of dedicated enthusiasts have worked to preserve and publicize the game’s legacy internationally. Since 2004, fan translation group DvD Translations has localized two versions of the game and resurfaced dozens of articles and archival documents related to its history.
Portopia follows two detectives attempting to solve the murder of bank CEO Kouzou Yamakawa, taking them to locations inspired by the real-life Kobe waterfront. The game starts in the suburb of Hanakuma, but the player is then free to explore all available locations – Kobe Harbor, Shinkaichi, Portopia, the local police station, and the mansion where the murder took place – in the order they occur. he sees fit.
Unlike other mystery tales, we don’t even know the name of the protagonist – only that of his sidekick, Yasuhiko Mano, often referred to as Yasu. That doesn’t stop the detective duo from having a lot of personality and wit.
Throughout the game, many of the player’s actions can bounce off Yasu for comedic effect. For example, if the protagonist asks Yasu to look for someone who is not present, he is met with silence and replies, “No answer. So alone….” If the player attempts to touch certain objects in the environment, Yasuhiko will respond with “Tap tap tap. Hey Boss, what are you hoping to find with all that tapping?”
Unlike other early adventure titles such as 1987 manic mansionthere is no fail or endgame state in Portopia, and a big part of the experience is wandering the streets not knowing where to go next. (In my own game, I imagined myself as a detective who’s followed every lead and walks around to vent.) You can send Yasu to ask the townspeople to see what happened, call a lead, or maybe be walking into a bar where a suspect saw.
It’s often difficult to determine where the game wants you to look in each space, and like many older adventure games, Portopia seems to expect you to chase pixels. Yet each room is not just a puzzle to solve, but a space with little things to find. Then something clicks and the mystery continues.
PortopiaThe beauty of shines brightly in these quiet, aimless moments. Despite its rudimentary aesthetic, the game manages to evocatively recreate the real-world spaces that inspired him. The streets of Hanakuma stretch out into the ocean in the background. Kyoto is covered with large green hills. The water in Kobe Harbor is detailed only by the squiggles indicating movement. A Ferris wheel and a single building sit side by side in the background.
It’s like watching the ultrasound of a gender in utero.
It’s time to remember
Although ahead of its time in many ways, Portopia is held back by the hardware limitations of the early 1980s. The entire game is made up of still images and all noises are basically harsh beeps. Nevertheless, the ambition behind Horii’s first dream of what games could to be was unprecedented.
In a 1987 interview with BEEP (via shmupulations) Horii said he initially wanted Portopia to feature a fully sentient AI that would allow the mystery to unfold through conversation.
“The first computer I bought was an NEC PC-6001, and I learned BASIC very quickly afterwards. I thought programming was really fun and interesting. Then I started to get more ambitious, and I thought I could make the computer talk to you if I entered enough data… but I quickly realized that kind of thing was not possible, so I stopped. After that, I thought that if I couldn’t get the computer to create its own speech, then I would try to create a dialog for the computer beforehand and have it speak with you that way.
When Horii started developing Portopia, adventure games didn’t have much (if any) dialogue. Instead, they mostly focused on describing locations and asking the player to choose commands to move around and interact with their environment.
The original version of Portopia asked the player to input all commands through the keyboard. However, the Famicom port released in 1985 included a new interface called “command style”. (Horii first used it in 1984 Okhotsk ni Kiyu: Hokkaido Rensa Satsujin Jiken, the spiritual successor of Portopia.) The command style presents player options in a side menu, instead of requiring a keyboard. The format has become a staple of Japanese adventure games and has inspired countless command-style games, including the Famicom Detective Club titles that were recently remade for the Switch.
“Then I started having more ambitious.”
Portopia serial murders deserves greater esteem and wider remembrance for his groundbreaking ideas and impact on the medium. While the game is certainly showing its age, only one playthrough is a pleasant reminder of how far the genre has come since.
We’re coming to a time when visual novels are more accessible than ever, with some of the most notable titles in the genre made available via fan or editor translations very recently. However, for a very long time, the genre continued to be joked about by Western audiences or only recognized when it achieved popular status. They should not remain niche works left to enthusiasts, but games that we recognize and celebrate for their contributions to what we play today.