Monday, May 10, 2010

The Mystery of the Japanese Mystery House

I've been playing Sierra's Laura Bow games to cover for the site, and I figured I should probably cover Mystery House, Sierra's very first game, and the first text adventure game to implement graphics. During my searches, I found a "Mystery House" for the well as a "Mystery House II". WHOA. Was there a secret sequel or something only in Japan?

Well, not quite...and I'm still a bit sketchy on the story, but I've been trying to interpret this based off the Japanese Wikipedia entry, as well as this fan site.

So, Sierra OnLine published Mystery House in 1980 for the Apple II. Two years later, a Japanese company called Microcabin released their own game inspired by Sierra's title, also called Mystery House, for several Japanese computer platforms. I haven't been able to get any versions I have properly working, but according to this site, it's pretty simplistic - you're just a dude in a house trying to find a diamond, so it's completely missing the whole "Ten Little Indians" thing that Sierra's game had going on for it. It also had a very simplistic parser - it couldn't understand even simple sentences, so you had to enter verb, hit Enter, then enter the noun, all entirely in English. This game was also ported to some Japanese cell phones more recently.

A year later, another Japanese company called Starcraft (no relation to the Korean national sport) ported Sierra's Mystery House to Japanese computers...also calling it Mystery House. This version is fantastically faithful to the Apple II version, except that all of the graphics have actually been improved and redrawn. It still uses the simplistic black and white line drawings, but all of the characters how have vaguely realistic proportions, despite not having any faces, and overall the visuals look far less rough. Part of this may have had to do with better technology, but the Japanese PCs also ran at a higher resolution than the Apple II, allowing for more screen real estate. See some of the below pictures, with the Apple II version on top and the PC6001 version on bottom.

Outside the house

Nothing terribly different here, other than the different angle of the house.

Inside the foyer

Here's where the obvious difference comes in. Look how much better the characters look! They look much more stylized and less like the notebook doodles of a first grader. The fact that they have no faces looks really creepy, which was for the better. The facial expressions in the original version just look silly.


One of the dead people. Note the blood by their head in the Japanese version, rather than the Looney Tunes-style lump in the English one.

The graveyard

This scene is a bit disturbing in both versions. The gravedigger in the Japanese version has his arms at his side, like, yeah, so, these graves are for you and your pals, what of it? In the English version, he seems awkwardly misplaced. Note how much less sketchy some of the items like the shovel look.

The seamstress' death

Look how much more dramatically she's posed in the Japanese version. There's also a strange little detail that's found in a few other rooms - note how the window in the Japanese version is boarded up, further establishing the fact that you can't leave. There's also a small change in events in the room next door. In the English version, someone offscreen throws a knife at you, and it lands on the bed, allowing you to pick it up. In the Japanese version, the knife is there for the taking, with no one having thrown it. It doesn't really matter, it's just a small detail.

The fireplace

Note just how much more detail everything has in the Japanese version, although they missed the cobweb in the left corner.

You can actually check out this site for a walkthrough. Note that the very second set of instructions lies to you - it says to "naka hairu" ("enter inside", literally) when the game only understands "doa iku" ("go door"), like the English version. Note that if you're playing in M88 like I am, you need to set the keyboard to kana mode by hitting the Scroll Lock key. You will also need to know the Japanese keyboard layout.

The Mystery House II is actually a sequel to Microcabin's Mystery House, so the premise is more or less the same, just with new layouts. I couldn't get this working either, sadly enough. I'm packing up the images together so other people can try them - this includes the cassette image files for the MSX version of the Microcabin Mystery House I and II, as well as the PC88 versions of the Sierra/Starcraft Mystery House and Microcabin Mystery House. You can download it here


  1. Starcraft was a good company in the Japanese PC scene during '80s. They ported and localized many English games (such as the Might and Magic series, SSI's Phantasie series, and Dragon Wars), and generally did a pretty solid job. They also developed some original games, too, like Starfire for the PC98.

  2. The PC88 version of Mystery House (Micro Cabin) seems to work fine in X88000. The graphics have been improved, and there's a color option.

  3. Interesting read. Never heard about Mystery House before, even though I'm familiar with Sierra and Microcabin and many of their games. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    As for why you can't get MSX Mystery House games working, you're not having enough BASIC memory to run them (yup, they're BASIC games). To free more BASIC memory, just boot the MSX with the CTRL or SHIFT key. It's that simple. :) What those keys do exactly, you ask? They disable disk drives (diskROM). The CTRL key disables only the second drive and the SHIFT key disables both. Usually booting with the CTRL key is enough for most programs that won't run due to insufficient memory, but Mystery House II is one of those rare exceptions that requires to have both drives disabled.

  4. Fascinating entry...

    Anyway, Microcabin. Now there's a company that wants a detailed feature written on it. They did the 3DO RPGs Lucienne's Quest (excellent game) and Guardian War, along with cyberpunk RPG Illusion City for the MSX and Sega CD. The MSX one was fan-translated, but it's a pain to get running correctly in Turbo mode. They also did the Xak RPGs (pretty awesome, Xak 3 is quite disturbing and had a good fan-translation), plus the Princess Maker games, which I've not played.

  5. Thanks for the tips, guys. I'll have to give that a go. The part I got stuck in the PC Microcabin Mystery House was on the title screen where it asks if I want color (y/n) and it doesn't seem to respond to what I press, regardless of whether the keyboard is in English or Japanese mode.

  6. Just checked. It's one of those text adventure games that's strict about whether or not you've CAPS LOCK enabled/disabled. Just enable the CAPS LOCK and you're good to go. :-)

  7. man that Illusion City. That had some great music. Not to mention Xak on the x68k. Is there anything written online in english about Xak 3?

  8. Looks like the Japanese version had an actual artist working on the graphics, instead of using programmer art. The most obvious difference is that the house, interiors and other elements are drawn in correct perspective, with parallel lines converging to vanishing points. In the U.S. version there is an attempt to render in perspective, but obviously without any understanding of its rules. They just winged it.

  9. Lucienne's Quest was an excellent game, I just wrote a review for it. Microcabin did a few other nice titles.