The Portopia Serial Murder Case

The Portopia Serial Murder Case

The release of Colossal Cave Adventure in 1976 cemented the concept of the text adventure game. Themselves inspired by the works spawned in the wake of Colossal Cave Adventure, a writer named Roberta Williams, along with her husband, Ken Williams, created a game in 1980 entitled Mystery House. Taking cues from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and the Winchester Mystery House situated in San Jose, California, Ms. Williams’s work broke ground by featuring visual graphics in a time when most computer games did not. Slowly yet surely, the solely text-based titles made way for the graphical adventure game, although the Williams couldn’t possibly have known the influence of Mystery House would extend across the Pacific Ocean.

One year later in Japan, 27-year-old Yuji Horii read a PC magazine article detailing the rise of these adventure games. He was intrigued by their concept, but couldn’t help but wonder why the market of his native homeland lacked such games. Realizing the potential in this genre, he sought to introduce it to his peers by creating an adventure game of his own. Using his knowledge of the BASIC programming language, Mr. Horii began his project.

He started off wanting to create “a program in which the story would develop through entering a command and by receiving an answer to it”. It would be a game that progressed through a conversation between a human and a computer. He attempted to craft an artificial intelligence language algorithm, but realized it simply wasn’t possible with the technology afforded to him at the time. Instead, to make his game stand out from his inspirations, he experimented in non-linear storytelling wherein the main scenario composed 20% of the experience and the remaining 80% was to be allotted to responses to the player’s actions. Memory limitations made this extraordinarily difficult, causing him to scale back to several scenarios with short branches, though he still found it more interesting than programming one long linear path.

This game, entitled The Portopia Serial Murder Case was completed in 1983 and saw its debut on NEC’s PC-6001 home computer. It was eventually ported to other platforms, including Konami’s MSX computer and Nintendo’s Famicom console. It was notably the first adventure title to see a release on the latter platform, and its unique gameplay quickly caught on with the consumers, selling 700,000 copies. Critics were receptive to Mr. Horii’s work as well, enjoying its good storytelling and dynamic gameplay. The game notably resonated with future artists as well. Hideo Kojima, who would make his own impact on the industry a few years later with the stealth-action title Metal Gear, considered it one of the three most influential games he ever played. It was also one of the first games a man named Eiji Aonuma ever played; he would later go on to direct many installments in Nintendo’s venerable The Legend of Zelda series. Although its lack of a Western release ensured it remained unknown outside of its native homeland, its influence cannot be overstated. How was a single game able to leave this much of an impact on the medium?

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Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen

In 1988, Enix and Chunsoft had a hit on their hands in the form of Dragon Quest III. Naturally because of this, the public wanted a sequel, and the creators obliged, releasing Dragon Quest IV: The Guided Ones in 1990. Enix, having learned their lesson from last time, wisely decided to release it on a Sunday. There was an urban legend that the Japanese government intervened by forbidding the creators from ever releasing any future Dragon Quest installments on a school day, but in reality, Enix themselves made the choice.

To place Dragon Quest IV in context, Nintendo was working on a successor to the Famicom, the platform on which the previous installments saw their initial release. NEC Home Electronics had launched the PC Engine to compete with them a few years prior while Sega followed suit with the Mega Drive a year later, a console boasting more processing power than their competitors at the time. When the Super Famicom was released later in 1990, it marked the end of an era. Does Dragon Quest IV manage stand as one of the Famicom’s final hurrahs before a new wave of consoles ushered in a new generation?

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Dragon Quest III: The Seeds of Salvation


In the mid-1980s, unbeknownst to Western hobbyists, the Eastern scene was quickly developing an interest in RPGs thanks to the Dragon Quest series created by Yuji Horii and Koichi Nakamura. The first two installments were tremendous successes, selling around two million copies apiece, so when Enix announced a sequel, the anticipation was higher than ever. Dubbed Dragon Quest III: And thus into Legend…, it was released in February of 1988 – a little over a year after its predecessor’s debut.

It is almost impossible to overstate exactly how ecstatic the Japanese fans were for this new chapter. So great was its popularity that over one-million units were sold on the very first day. As its release fell on a weekday, the police ended up arresting nearly 300 students who skipped school to purchase a copy. Some of them, mostly high-school students, even dispensed with the whole notion of purchasing it legally by mugging small children on the way home from the local game store.

As was the case with the game that came before, Enix made efforts to publish Dragon Quest III in the West in 1992, hoping it would match or surpass the staggering 3.8 million copies sold in its native homeland. Called Dragon Warrior III in the official NES localization, it met with the same tepid reception of its predecessors. Western gaming fans had no idea of the sheer impact this game, which would eventually be known as Dragon Quest III: The Seeds of Salvation, left on their counterparts across the Pacific Ocean.

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Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line


Yuji Horii’s 1986 effort, Dragon Quest, would go on to sell more than two-million copies. In doing so, it introduced the role-playing game to a whole new audience. Naturally, it didn’t take long for fans to start asking for a sequel, and this time, the creator was one step ahead; plans for Dragon Quest II began one month before the release of its predecessor. Despite the warm reception Dragon Quest enjoyed, the development team was confident they could create a game to surpass it in every way. Much of the personnel who worked on Dragon Quest remained for the sequel’s creation as well; Akira Toriyama handled the concept art while Koichi Nakamura, the president of Chunsoft, would serve as its director and lead programmer.

The team was divided into two groups: one handled the programming and the other focused on story development as well as the monster designs. When asked by the producer for a deadline, Mr. Nakamura set it for early November of that year, but the project was hit with a brief delay. During playtesting, the team determined that their product was excessively difficult, necessitating them to make minor adjustments to the game’s balance. Luckily, this hurdle was easily overcome, and the mid-December marked the completion of the final version. After rushing to Nintendo to create physical copies, Dragon Quest II was released in January of 1987, and it too successfully moved over two-million units. Undeterred by the relative failure of Dragon Quest in North America, Enix themselves published the game overseas in 1990. Initially, it was localized as Dragon Warrior II, but as time went on, the series reverted to its original name, and the game eventually received the title, Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line.

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Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride

Yuji Horii’s Dragon Quest series saw four of its installments released on Nintendo’s 8-bit console, the NES (Famicom in Japan). The franchise’s popularity was immense in its native homeland, with the third title in particular codifying the Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) in the public eye. Taking note of the millions of copies sold in Japan, Nintendo and Enix put forth an impressive effort to translate each game in the hope of replicating that success in the West. Unfortunately, as there already existed a thriving RPG scene in the Western world long before Dragon Quest was even an idea, it was doomed to fall into obscurity.

The year 1990 marked the release of the Super Famicom, the 16-bit successor to Nintendo’s bestselling console. As fan demand for a sequel on this new platform was high, it naturally didn’t take long for Mr. Horii and the rest of Chunsoft to begin working on one. This project was completed in 1992, and continued the series’ stellar track record by selling nearly three million copies. Taking a look at the poor sales figures of the previous four entries in the United States and taking note of the high costs associated with the larger cartridge ROMs needed to fit an English translation, Enix judged such an investment would not have been profitable, thus it wasn’t localized. In the late nineties, JRPG fans decided to provide their own translation via emulation, but for the longest time, it seemed as though it would never see an official Western release.

Although it would eventually see the light of day outside of Japan, that it never made its way onto the Super NES is a bit of a shame because Mr. Horii has pointed to Dragon Quest V and declared it his favorite installment – a sentiment commonly echoed by its fans. It’s clear this game left an indelible impact on those who experienced it. What is it about Dragon Quest V that allows it to enjoy such a following – one which includes the author himself?

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Dragon Quest


The Eidansha Boshu Service Center was a company founded in Japan by Yasuhiro Fukushima in 1975. They mainly published tabloid magazines with real estate advertisements. When the service center failed to establish a retail chain, Mr. Fukushima transformed his business into a software development company dedicated to gaming in 1982, renaming it Enix. To search for talented programmers, they held a contest, styling it after manga competitions. It was advertised in various manga and computer publications, and winners would be awarded one million yen. One of the winning entrants was Yuji Horii, who managed to place with his sports game, Love Match Tennis.

Mr. Horii had purchased his first computer one year earlier, learning to program with it through the process of modifying other games. Around this time, he read a PC magazine and discovered a budding genre from the United States known as adventure games – a movement largely spearheaded by Ken and Roberta Williams, the founders of On-Line Systems. Their 1980 debut title, Mystery House, was groundbreaking in that it was the first such game to feature graphics, depicting objects and actions onscreen as opposed to describing it in text. Mr. Horii then noticed that the Japanese gaming scene lacked such games and decided to create one of his own.  Developed using BASIC programming language, the result of this effort was The Portopia Serial Murder Incident. The goal of this game was to solve a locked-room mystery involving the death of a successful bank’s president, and the story develops through the players’ commands. Owing to its novel concept, Mr. Horii’s game was met with a warm reception, selling nearly 700,000 copies. Its impact was such that it defined a completely new genre of first-person adventure games known as the visual novel and even inspired other people, such as Hideo Kojima, to enter the industry.

While developing Portopia, Mr. Horii, alongside another contest winner, a programming prodigy who gained fame while still in high school named Koichi Nakamura, discovered Wizardry, a series of pioneering computer role-playing games (RPGs), at a Macworld Conference & Expo. As Mr. Horii enjoyed the game’s depth and visuals, elements of the dungeon crawling mechanics present in Wizardry made their way into Portopia, but once he finished that project, he had a new goal in mind: to expose the Japanese gaming scene to what was, at the time, an purely Western genre. To this end, he sought to have his game released on Nintendo’s Famicom console, believing it to be the ideal platform because players could start each session from where they last left off. To ensure that Mr. Horii’s game would reach a large audience, Akira Toriyama, best known as the artist of the highly popular manga, Dragon Ball, was hired to produce concept art. Its name was Dragon Quest, and it would go on spawn sequels, eventually becoming one of the most beloved series of RPGs in its native homeland.

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