Among many classic home computers, the Commodore 64 is far from being the ideal platform for the point’n’click genre, beyond the usual technical limitations, there is one glaring problem: no mouse support. Textual adventures were definitely more at home on the dear ol’ breadbin, along with being easier to program in BASIC. Still, graphical adventures became anyway a pretty established genre on the sixtyfour, especially those that managed to combine text adventure-style gameplay with point’n’clicks’ immediate accessibility.
The Detective amply demonstrates that this melange can work wonders, when done correctly, being one of the best examples of the genre on a 8 bit home computer.
The Detective Game, developed by Sam Manthorpe and released in 1986 by Argus Press Software, stars Inspector Snide, a hard boiled detective from Scotland Yard, called to investigate on a case in a huge luxurious villa. The year is 1974, the grouchy old millionaire Angus McFungus has just died in mysterious circumstances. Snide, being the grown up inspector that needs no backup, goes in alone to investigate the villa in order to find out what happened. Unfortunately, as these things usually go, it’s not long before the other guests begin to also dropping like flies: it’s up to Snide to survive and discover, naturally, whodunit.
Definitely a “Clue”-inspired game, even the cast of usual suspects seems to mirror those of the board game, along with a pretty unsympathetic butler. Naturally, the first order of business is to collect pieces of evidence. These are individually stored in bags, there are ten of them to collect throughout the story and, only then, Snide can finger whodunit.
The Detective Game is played in real time, or at least a reasonable fac-simile since certain events will not come to pass if the player is not exploring and moving around the house. Standing still will run out the clock, but will not cause certain events to happen. Overall, the player has two hours and twenty minutes of real time to solve the mystery or else it’s game over.
The McFungus villa is pretty big and features lots of secrets waiting to be uncovered by the player, who controls Snide directly on an isometric plane. The interface of the game works like one would expect: by pressing the fire button, a menu opens with a selection of actions. It is possible to talk to everyone and get their opinion about guests and objects, use items and even combine them together. The basic skeleton of an adventure game is here and it is also pretty solid, honestly.
It might be argued that it is a primitive design system, but frankly, being that there are no weird puzzles, no cheap deaths or other stupid genre tropes, I’d argue it is a solid logical design. To be fair, a couple of features end up being underused: questioning guests is barely useful at best, only providing a couple of hints, that’s one feature that Manthorpe probably didn’t have time to further develop.
Naturally, there are no multiple endings here: either Snide gets his man or he will die trying. Still, the Detective is complex enough and there’s so many things to discover that it will take most players at least three or four tries before finding out what is going on. As said before, Snide can indeed meet an early demise, but deaths are different from those of a typical text adventure of the 80s, but may indeed come as a surprise since they only start happening halfway through. The plot is exceptionally well done for a game dating back all the way to 1986, I won’t spoil anything but everything will click into place by the end and its set of twists and turns will take most people by surprise.
Graphically, the game is well made, with each character having a comic book style appearance coupled with some nice animations, but the effect is not exaggerated as not to ruin the “mystery” atmosphere. There are some weird graphical glitches, for example it is possible to make Snide walk off at the right of the drawing room and into the darkness, but it doesn’t matter, those are part of the charm of an old game. Especially grandiose is the effect of the storm raging outside in some rooms at the edge of the corridor.
Sound is, naturally, limited to a few sound effects and a couple of musical themes. Apparently Manthorpe is particularly proud of the time spent to get the rain sounds right, (quote to be confirmed as his!) that is some attention to detail there. As a kid, I was always more terrified by sound than graphics, so when the three notes “discover of a body” theme played, I would run straight for the door. To overcome my fear I would turn up the volume all the way and just stand there basking in those overwhelmingly loud three notes. Of course, my mother didn’t especially like that and would scream at me from the other side of the house.
The Detective Game is also how I started to learn English, in front of the TV I would look up each word on the dictionary. Only to be letdown by not being able to find “ought”. My endless fascination with it also led to my discovering love for all things thriller and crime, by the age of 10 I was already reading Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie.
I think The Detective Game has done more for my education than most of all the high school and university teachers I’ve met in my lifetime. Just for this, I owed to sir Manthorpe to finally write about one of my favourite adventures and, finally, being able to say thanks, in the hopes that he will someday read this.
For adventure game fans, this is one title to take a look at: it might be old and a bit creaky, but the atmosphere and plot are great reasons to take a trip at the McFungus villa.
There is also a remake of the game on Nintendo DS, of all consoles, free to download and play, which is also pretty well done.