“Feelies” occupy a very specific spot in the world of videogame trinketry: Above the usual riff-raff of soundtrack samplers – samplers! Whoever came up with soundtrack samplers has an executive parking spot in Hell with their name on it – and disappointingly pamphelty art “books”, yet not quite committed enough to sit comfortably next to the higher end bloat of those incredibly expensive collector’s edition boxes made to house the consistently off-model sculptures that seem to be all the rage these days. They stand apart in a special category all of their own, designed to offer a unique combination of practical (if sometimes obtuse) in-game assistance to the player as well as a little real taste of the virtual adventure they’ve just signed up for.
It’s almost hard to believe but once upon a time these tantalising extras weren’t even regarded as anything special – in the CRT glow of the distant past, all save discs made from repurposed magazine demo floppies and Tomorrow’s World on BBC1 – you would brazenly expect your new computer game’s enormous box to contain a selection of maps/novellas/grid paper/spell sheets/coins and all sorts of other mood-enhancing wotsits, blissfully unaware of the “improvements” an increasingly all-digital future would soon bring to this particular branch of entertainment. Now things have of course swung to the opposite end of the spectrum and we’ve all become so used to having everything (or at least, everything important) presented as part of the game itself that when we come back to an older title or are blessed with the opportunity to play one for the first time it can feel like a bit of a shock to you realise you really do have to discover the best route to a location by unfolding an actual physical map or that the “unknown” effects of an item or piece of equipment may be plainly written in the manual. It’s easy, especially when so many more advanced alternatives are readily available, to point a finger at these archaisms and label them as poorly designed or deliberately misleading but it’s always worth remembering that these pack-in goodies were there in part to help work around the very real technical limitations of the hardware available at the time.
Of course the difficulty in accessing these materials today can be a real struggle (some, but not all, Project EGG downloads come bundled with PDFs directly scanned from original media, and GOG offer a similar service for a range of older Western games) and well worth highlighting as finding some of these games for sale at all, never mind in good enough condition to include all of their original paraphernalia, can be a daunting and expensive task even for the most fervent online shopper. Downloading is easy, and FAQs can usually direct us through the rough parts, right? Yes… but it’s also important to keep in mind how unfair it would be to seriously judge a game designed around having these physical items to hand if they’re missing, in the same way that a canoe without an oar is only one half of a complete working boat – you’d complain about the lack of paddle, not the canoe’s inability to push itself along. For all the tears and trouble sourcing these objects can bring the reward’s almost always worth the effort: In this modern manual-free hinterland we long for the chance to revel in the musty embrace of a dog-eared technical booklet, the chance to peruse a pencilled-in map with slightly frustrated notes scrawled down the edges, to lose the coloured sheet of film that would reveal a vital hidden code on page thirty-three…
So it’s a good thing that unlike their modern digital counterparts these crumbling relics of a bygone age cannot be snatched from loving arms with little notice short of Konami or whoever’s the internet’s current Evil Publisher of the Month sending some large and highly persuasive gentlemen in extremely well-tailored suits round to physically prise them from our white-knuckled grips; these ancient offline-only storage mediums carelessly allowing flagrant violations of precious corporate feelings to run amok, inconsiderate private owners selling and purchasing personal property for decades after their initial release with wild abandon, changing hand after hand and even crossing continents without any fear of being prosecuted to the full extent of the jam.
Which must be how I have ended up with three very old X68000 mystery adventures – Murder Club DX, Kiss of Murder, and Kohaku Iro no Yuigon – sitting on my shelves, all by a company called Riverhill Soft. They’re probably best known for… well they’re not really all that well known for anything at all really but they did create those excellent Saturn ports of Tactics Ogre and Ogre Battle back in the nineties (Japan only, as you are unlikely to be surprised to learn) so they’ve done some great work even if you may not have necessarily experienced it first hand. They’re also responsible for the string of original murder-mystery adventures mentioned above (and more besides) – the X68000 version of Murder Club DX even allows you to switch between English and Japanese text at will, which has got to be only be a slightly less wasteful use of company money than setting up an ice-cream parlour on the side of a volcano, or agreeing to fund Shenmue‘s development cycle.
The best part about these murder mysteries is their timing. Their shining era was one where a completely typical Ys manual would be a slim hardback book (yes, really! Really! I know) and you would very carefully open up a new computer game (try not to crease the top flap, kids!) and find pre-printed disc labels, t-shirts, postcards, and all sorts of other inventive treasures stuffed inside. Necessary, or at the very least useful, thingies and doodahs are one of the best ways to prevent piracy after all – you can copy that floppy (even if this cursed song insists otherwise), but reproducing the fancy printed materials, postcards, and mini CDs that go alongside them is going to be either prohibitively expensive or not worth the time spent hunched over the library photocopier. Getting to play games is great, and playing games for free after you’ve borrowed a copy off a friend can be even better than that when you’re a poor kid who assumes the next person will pay the developers wages in your stead, but not even having stapled sheets of copy protection lists enabling you to look up with confidence the magic sixth word of Line 3 from Page 27 that will allow unfettered access to a game’s full treasure chest of delights can match the feel of owning a foil-embossed box containing an original and unreproducible iron-on transfer and a nifty prequel comic.
Riverhill Soft may not have been quite reached the dizzying heights of scratch-n-sniff cards or packets of seeds but there’s no denying the effort that went into their printed materials: The perfectly Engrishly titled Murder Club DX doesn’t start at the in-game intro, the true beginning is an official postmortem report and accompanying letter printed at the front of the nearly-A4 manual. Flipping through a few more pages past the usual range of helpful how-to’s reveals blank character profile sheets and evidence logs practically begging you to perform a little practical role-play, personally jotting down any noteworthy clues or suspicious contradictions found in witness statements as you play. And you’ll need to because the game itself doesn’t log this information for you at all – in the pre-screenshot/camera phone/FAQ-less days these game hail from you’d need to keep these notes with you to help untangle the web of potential murderers, living off coffee and your wits like a real detective. The game is clearly keeping track of things – it’d never end otherwise – but it’s not going to helpfully highlight key words hidden in the rest of the text or go out of its way to remind you that someone said they were home alone that evening when someone else swears they saw them drinking on the other side of town all night. I’ll admit I can never quite drum up the courage to sully those pristine pages with my shabby handwriting, taking the coward’s way out with some scribbled notes in a plain journal instead, but when I do come across a game where people have used them as intended it always raises a smile and a good half-hour or more spent happily appreciating their work.
For those who feel this practical side of things is unnecessary or outdated: These extras are just, well…they’re nice. They’re a tangible little leg-up for your imagination – having props and reference materials sitting on your computer desk as you embark on a new mystery bridges that gap between you and the game when cutscenes, voice acting, or even realistic digital reproductions of photographs aren’t able to pick up the slack (not on the small bundle of floppies these games came on, anyway). Heck, you can forget about it helping “back then” – games can’t capture that frizz of direct interaction now. The freedom of being able to doodle in the margin of case files you’ve written by hand, crossing out a mistake or highlighting whatever you believe to be important. To find “your” business card tucked away in the back of a real notebook after looking past the fold-out maps, case notes, and replica broadsheet pages… that’s exciting, isn’t it? Same as physically spreading out all of your clues on a desk and visually trying to piece it all together – it creates that special little spark, that magical place where you and the game meet. It’s got to be worth some brave soul bringing this concept back even if only as handy downloadable (and infinitely reprintable) PDFs, surely? Go on, please – I could use an excuse to swill cold coffee around a mug as I wander around the house and introduce myself surname-first to people.