Recent years have made an interesting real-life adventure game reach the mainstream – the escape room. My first personal experience was in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles after Anime Expo had announced they were doing a collaboration with Attack on Titan. Yes, there is an Attack on Titan themed escape room.
If you haven’t heard of them before or need a refresher, escape rooms are when staff (typically referred to as the “Game Master”) introduces you to a dangerous scenario, after which you are a trapped in a room with no doors and no windows and have to solve different puzzles located within the room to escape before time runs out! A staff member will typically also be in the room with you to give hints if needed, or just to make sure you don’t wreck the place.
But this trend has existed in Japan since well before it hit the states in 2012. One clear evidence of that is the game 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors developed by Chunsoft for the Nintendo DS. It’s the first in a series of escape games developed by the same team, collectively recognized as the Zero Escape series penned by infamously complex writer Kotaro Uchikoshi.
The game begins by throwing you right in–you are playing as Junpei, your average college boy with lots of random passing thoughts and sometimes horny tendencies, who finds himself trapped in a boat cabin and before he can ponder why or how he got there, a porthole bursts open and begins flooding the cabin with water. This is how they introduce the game’s main mechanics: flashbacks and story progression are revealed through a visual novel format, and the escape puzzles are played more like a point and click, moving between rooms and selecting/combining items to solve the riddles and make your way out.
Anyone familiar with Uchikoshi’s writing knows that everything he writes is incredibly.. involved. Once you succeed, you learn that there are indeed nine hours, nine persons, and nine doors. You join up with eight others and learn from a mysteriously masked “Zero” character that you are here to play “The Nonary Game” designed to test humanity’s ability to survive in a life-or-death situation. Every participant has been seemingly randomly selected, forced to wear watches that each bear one number from 1-9. They have nine hours to escape the slowly sinking boat by finding “the door marked with a 9”, and have to use math to even send teams into different rooms, which, of course, are labeled 1-9. It’s about teamwork, survival, and an investigation all in one. But never fear, there’s still splashes of humor spread throughout.
It’s a unique game from start to finish, and this first installment is short compared to others in the series. Although it is a quick game, you do have to meet certain requirements to reach the “true” ending. Like in most visual novels, there are different endings you can achieve based on conversational options that come up throughout the game. You can choose to enter different rooms, team up with other people, or just make some people outright mad at you. Each “route” you take gleans more information about who your companions are, who “Zero” could truly be, and what’s really going on with this game.
All that being said, 999 really throws you for loops and twists and turns at nearly every single angle. As someone who’s constantly trying to guess what the end of the story is going to be, I found myself baffled every time I learned something new. The game keeps you engaged, the writing is silly enough to be lighthearted but can still take itself seriously, and the alternate endings just give you the tiniest taste of what success feels like. I played the original DS version (on the 3DS, where it works just fine), which has fewer graphics, no voices and is generally less up-to-date, but I was still completely satisfied with my run-through. I probably beat the game in less than a month, and I’m not a very big (or very good) gamer. The puzzles are mostly intuitive, and if you click around on the same things enough, the game is nice enough to give you hints. All of the characters have something to love about them, even if you don’t have much interest in them at the start, and the art and sprite animations make them come alive just enough.
And that ending… whew. What an ending.
The Zero Escape trilogy is available as a convenient bundle on Steam for the PC, or as individual games for the Nintendo DS systems. Those interested in Uchikoshi’s writing can also check out his newest title AI: The Somnium Files for the Nintendo Switch.
Have you played any of the Zero Escape games and want to talk for hours on end about how wildly fun they are? Hit me up on Twitter!