Titanic Mystery: A strange and soggy search

One of the first things I noticed when I finally got my hands on a copy of Titanic Mystery: Aoi no Senritsu was the Activision copyright notice printed on the disc label (you can see it on the start screen too). Activision? Here, on the Famicom Disk System? Apparently so. A mild amount of digging around the internet reveals this 1987 game isn’t quite as unique as I assumed it was, as it appears to be a major overhaul of the Commodore 64 game RMS Titanic, AKA Titanic: The Recovery Mission, released the year before and half the world away on a very different kind of family computer.

The general framework (and even the basic screen layout) remains the same as it was on the popular home computer: your goal is to raise the Titanic from the seabed, although to do so you need to balance underwater exploration with a little surface-side business too. An effort must be made to keep the international media on your side during (optional) daily press conferences, and your investors need you to bring valuable items back from the wreckage if they’re going to keep funding your deep dives into the unknown.

These Famicom-based descents into the unknown swap the original’s deep sea submersible for a nameable young woman (one of three, although they all look the same once you start playing) wearing a thin red bathing suit, a scuba mask, flippers, and… that’s about it.  I’ll admit I’ve never been on a dive and I don’t know what the temperature or atmospheric pressure would be if I was investigating a historical wreck lying… [checks] 12,500ft below the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean, but I have a funny feeling this cleavage-showing workwear may not be enough for that kind of job. Silly and entirely expected? Yes, of course. But it also takes the edge off the exploration too. Swimming through the broken remains of a tragic historical spectacle like this should at least look like dangerous work, and a little something’s lost when the only full-body character you ever see looks like they’re auditioning for Baywatch.

The “good” news is this issue pales in comparison to Titanic Mystery’s other tonal missteps. The ship’s haunted by a few spirits—fair enough, all things considered—including one that’s been drawn with a little more detail than all the others, just so you can “investigate” her ethereal boobs (and be called a pervert for doing so). There are also warp buttons, talkative teddy bears, and secret alien areas to contend with too: this game manages to make the doomed ship’s appearance in the skies above Tokyo look normal. At best these “twists” make it hard to know what sort of game Titanic Mystery’s trying to be, and at their worst they turn a game where you really might drown in the dark into a farce.

The interior of the Titanic is laid out as a grid-like map across five decks, with each room containing four sides (as rooms do) for you to swim around. A compass in the bottom-left of the screen lets you know which way you’re currently facing, although its actual usefulness in a maze of nigh-identical rooms is somewhat limited. Switching direction is as easy as swimming to either edge of the screen, causing the view jerkily scrolling to show the next wall, or by holding a direction and then pressing the B button to instantly flip from one point of view to another; although the time saved by using this method is “balanced” out by how incredibly disorientating this sudden shift is, especially as it’s so easy to accidentally move through a door and into another unmarked room just as you were in danger of getting your bearings.

The thick manual (the first ten pages are dedicated to an entertaining scene-setting manga) does include an empty template map deck for you to copy out onto graph paper, although as you don’t know where you start and have no way of bringing up your current coordinates I’d recommend putting the paper and pencils aside and taking a peek at this helpful FAQ instead if you want to get around.

As you swim around you’ll find a wide variety of items, ranging from vital door-opening tools to simple trinkets to items that’ll appease the dead, although as you can only carry three things around at a time (with an emergency fourth in your hands), you’re often forced to make hard decisions as to what to take now and what to leave behind for later. Do you stay on task and try to raise the Titanic as quickly as possible, or do you fill your pockets with treasure to sell to your sponsors when you’re back on dry land?

Assuming you’ve still got enough oxygen in the tank to make it back to the surface alive, that is.

Your diver’s oxygen tank holds a large quantity of life-giving air, although the supply is definitely finite and seeing it tick slowly down does add some much needed tension to the game. Push too far on too little and your diver will turn to face the player and point out that she’s running low on oxygen, her pleas getting more panicked each time until she outright begs for you to help her.

And you do feel guilty when this happens because there’s a remarkable amount of personality crammed into that huge three colour sprite. Her arms and hair animate independently of her flippered feet, and her head will turn to face the direction you move her in just before her body does, helping her movements feel that little bit more fluid than they would otherwise. When you send her through a door in the wall she will turn to face away from you and then swim, the game showing her actually passing through these portals rather than another side-on sprite fading next to a black rectangle. It’s seriously impressive stuff.

This level of thought and skill sadly didn’t extend to the music, which has got to be some of the very worst I’ve ever heard coming out of a Famicom. The decks closer to the surface play a simple tune that repeats within seconds and wasn’t fun to listen to the first time around, its upbeat attitude at odds with your poke around a waterlogged tomb. Plunge further down the ship’s haunted husk and the music does make a token effort to drum up some tension, although in an ear-grating “kid let loose on a Casio keyboard for the first time” kind of way. Titanic Mystery is the sort of game you play on mute without any regrets (although if you’re like me, you’ll turn the volume up every now and then because you think “Oh it couldn’t have been that ba-oh yes it was TURNITOFFTURNITOFF“), spoiling an experience that was already on shaky ground.

It’s not a great game for a variety of reasons—making your way from A to B is incredibly difficult even with somebody else’s completed map to hand and the tone is all over the place even if you’re eager to embrace the “aliens on the Titanic” parts—but in spite of its issues, it is an interesting one. If they’d have dialled up the horror, or had you making tough decisions between soothing the dead or selling their precious belongings to keep the research going, or just given you a basic blueprint to refer to while playing… argh. It’s a strange and memorable game (not necessarily for all the right reasons), and so very nearly something special.

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