Before I start no I’m not referring to a real murder incident, but rather the classic Japanese exclusive retro game The Portopia Serial Murder Case (ポートピア連続殺人事件). First released by Enix in 1983 for the PC-6001, The Portopia Serial Murder Case was later ported to both the MSX and the Famicom in 1985. It has also gone on to be released various times on mobile devices in Japan by Square Enix following the merger of the two famous companies in 2003. Yet despite its popularity and success, it has never been released internationally. A decision that was taken largely due to its mature content, which included themes such as fraud, murder, strip clubs and interrogation beatings.
The Portopia Serial Murder Case tells the story of a successful bank President found dead inside a locked room within his mansion. The scene seems to indicate suicide, however the police feel differently and send in a detective to investigate the case. This starts an investigation that takes the player all over Japan, to real life locations such as Kobe and Kyoto. This all plays out in a first person perspective along a narrative, being very reminiscent of visual novel titles such as Ace Attorney. The game also featured branching dialogue and alternate outcomes and endings. All in all, The Portopia Serial Murder Case was a highly advanced and mature game for its time, and this didn’t go unnoticed.
First conceptualised in 1981, The Portopia Serial Murder Case was developed and written by famous Japanese video game developer Yuji Horii. Horii initially came up with the idea after looking at the Adventure genre of games in America, and saw a gap within the Japanese market. However, rather than just cloning what was being done in America, he actively looked to evolve and change the genre. Not only would the game go to gain lasting popularity within Japan, but Yuji Horii and The Portopia Serial Murder Case would send ripples throughout the industry, ultimately defining not only the Japanese visual novel genre, but the wider industry as well.
Many outside of Japan may not have heard of Yuji Horii, yet his work at Enix, and later Square Enix, will certainly be well known to most, including Dragon Quest and Chrono Trigger. In fact, alongside games such as Wizardry and Ultima, Portopia and its branching decisions and alternate outcomes would act as key part of Horii’s inspiration for creating the Dragon Quest series. The importance of this cannot be understated, especially as the original Dragon Quest is justifiably seen as having created the blueprint for Japanese RPGs, in turn paving the way for the creation of games such as Final Fantasy. Portopia was also the first time Yuji Horii would collaborate alongside the now President of Chunsoft Koichi Nakamura, prior to Dragon Quest. Not only that but it was Koichi Nakamura who programmed the Famicom release of the game, believing the game would fit well on Nintendo’s home console.
However, Dragon Quest wasn’t the only game to be inspired by Portopia, and Koichi Nakamura wasn’t the only person either, with many more games and developers being inspired by its release. Aspects of the game can be found littered across the industry, with elements found in a wealth of titles. These include Dragon Quest, Snatcher, Déjà Vu, the Zero Escape series, and the legendary Ace Attorney series, a personal favourite of mine and the reigning king of the genre Portopia defined.
Moreover, Hideo Kojima has even named The Portopia Serial Murder Case as one of the leading inspirations in his career. Kojima has stated that not only did Portopia in part inspire him to create Metal Gear, but also inspired him to enter the industry in the first place. This is something seen in the following quote from an interview with the Metal Gear creator.
It was when I played Portopia Murder Case (Famicom) by Yuji Horii (Dragon Quest). Along with my encountering Super Mario Bros., experiencing this game led to my working in this industry. The player is a detective and tries to solve this murder case with his colleague called Yasu. There’s mystery, a 3D dungeon, humor, and a proper background and explanation of why the murderer committed the crime. That is why there was drama in this game. My encountering this game expanded the potential of video games in my mind.
The player can even find in game tapes within the recently released Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain which use Portopia’s loader.
Despite all the praise, influence and success, the game has never seen an international release. This really is a shame, not only due to the increased popularity the visual novel series has seen since the release of Ace Attorney in the West, but also because the game went on to spawn two sequels. As such not only did Western gamers miss out on one unique and revolutionary game, but they actually missed out on the entire Yuuji Horii Mysteries trilogy.
This hasn’t stopped fan translations doing the rounds though, with an unofficial English fan translation of the Famicom version being developed by DvD translations in 2006. Nevertheless, for most the lack of an official translation makes the text heavy nature of the game impenetrable for most. Ultimately meaning that The Portopia Serial Murder Case criminally remains a mystery for those outside of Japan.