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999

I just finished Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors (999), a Nintendo DS game by CHUNSOFT. It’s an intriguing little gem, one which probably isn’t quite like anything you’ve played before. I don’t really feel like writing a tome about it, but it deserves a few words at least.

999 uses restarting after a game over and replaying with the experiences of previous failures as part of its plot.

Lots of games, especially older action and text/graphical adventure ones, use this as an essential part of gameplay. When you lose all your lives in Castlevania, you restart with the knowledge of what not to do in the places you died. Modern games tend to be a bit more forgiving in this regard by making it harder to reach a full game over, so instead of restarting the whole game, you just replay shorter segments instead.

But that’s not quite what I meant. While 999 does do that too, it incorporates restarting with past experience into the plot itself. It’s pseudoscientific, and I can’t really say any more without spoiling too much, but trust me when I say it’s fascinating when everything finally (sort of) clicks. The way it fits together with the big reveal, dual-screen conceit, and final puzzle is really something.

The game’s major flaw is a direct consequence of that same mechanic: you have to play the game more than once. The game requires at least two playthroughs to reach the true ending, three to reach all of the puzzle content and major backstories for each character, and six to view all of the endings. The game helps you out a bit by letting you fast forward through text you’ve read before, but there’s so much text that it still takes a while. Plus, there’s no way to skip through puzzles, so you have to replay them every single time. You will get sick of the intro puzzle room exceedingly quickly.

Did I mention the game has a lot of text? Because 999 has a whoooooole lotta text. CHUNSOFT mainly makes two types of games: Mystery Dungeon games, which are roguelike games best known overseas for the Pok√©mon Mystery Dungeon installments, and “sound novels” like 999, which is what they call their visual novels. In 999, there’s a lot of conversation between characters, as well as a bunch of “cutscenes” with dialog and narration (accompanied with pictures and music). And, honestly, the text is pretty good. There are a few rare typos and some scientific and historical silliness, but there are some interesting ideas in the story and the characters work well together and by themselves.

CHUNSOFT’s sound novels are critically acclaimed in Japan, but 999 is the first one to make the hop to Americaland. The initial print run was pretty small, but after it sold out, Aksys published a new batch. You should pick up a copy if you can find one.

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