999 is a masterpiece whose simple premise belies extraordinary depth. If I had guessed that a game about solving puzzles to escape a boat could blend horror, humor, pseudoscience, romance and mystery into one perfect package, I would be gambling in Vegas instead of writing this article. Perhaps this is how it was meant to be experienced; without any knowledge of the plot and the way that the game would unfold. Each revelation pulled me further into its story until the conclusion’s masterstroke made everything pay off, cementing 999 as one of my favorite video games of all time. Keeping that in mind, if these few dramatic sentences have managed to invoke any interest in the game at all, I would highly recommend that you stop reading this article and find some way to play it as soon as possible; this is the sort of game that you need to go into blind to fully appreciate.
Still here? Okay, here are 9 reasons why you have to play 999.
- The game made me lose sleep. Not in the way that media with horror elements tends to make one lose sleep through unsettling images or descriptions (although there are plenty of the latter), but instead by simply making me interested. From the day I started playing to the day I finished, each time I tried to go to sleep at 3:00 AM, I would find myself thinking about the details, analyzing the dialogue, seeking clues in the intricacies, taking guesses at how the seemingly unrelated stories other characters were telling me fit into the big picture. Some games tried to force my interest in their plots and characters where I had none; 999 actively grabbed my attention and held it the whole way through.
- The characters are easy to sympathize with. It’s hard to know exactly how to react when you wake up trapped in a mysterious boat, find out you have a bomb in your chest, and are told to escape by solving enough puzzles in nine hours or die trying. Thankfully, all nine characters react with appropriate amounts of grief, confusion, horror, anger, and, surprisingly, humor. Humor seems like an element that would be particularly out of place in this game’s dialogue, and yet it works flawlessly at endearing you to the characters, who can’t help but make puns from time to time in spite of the grim nature of their situation. As 21 year-old college student Junpei, you find yourself also rekindling an old flame with childhood friend Akane, coincidentally (?) trapped on the same boat. In sharp contrast to today’s angst-ridden, wise-cracking, jerk-face hero protagonists, Junpei comes off as an honest, kind person who genuinely cares about Akane’s well-being and the survival of everyone on board the ship. You had better make room in your heart for nine people, because by the end each and every one of the game’s characters will have worked their way into a special warm fuzzy place. Yes, even the annoying bubbly pink-haired girl Clover.
- The game doesn’t assume any prior scientific knowledge. One of the main problems I’ve had with some mystery novels arises when working out their solutions requires the reader to be aware of certain medical conditions or scientific know-how that wasn’t previously mentioned in the book. Smartly, 999 takes cues from science-fiction novels such as Cat’s Cradle, inventing its own stories of pseudoscience that are explained clearly to the player. This makes sure that all players are on a level ground, each capable of devising their own theories and potential solutions.
- The music rocks. This track. This track this track this track this track. It kicks in at the most crucial moments of the game, right when the tension is at its highest, and accompanies some of the greatest revelations. In a video game where most of your time is spent reading pages upon pages of text, music like this makes all the difference for maintaining atmosphere.
- Oh, and the sound design’s pretty good too. From the groans of the ship to the rocking boom of an explosion to the shrill screech that accompanies sudden terror, the sounds that accompany the text are top-notch, heightening the tension.
- The puzzles are neither too easy nor too difficult. Part visual novel, part puzzle game, 999 separates its story segments with rooms filled with puzzles that you must solve before you can proceed with the game’s narrative. What with so much intrigue and tension in the game’s narrative, I was afraid that the puzzles would serve as an annoying distraction from the story, crammed in so that the game could be advertised as having actual gameplay. To my relief, the puzzles are the right difficulty to make sure that they don’t bog down the narrative while still providing a mental workout, and the dialogue remains constantly witty and interesting throughout. Furthermore, the puzzles are filled with interesting details that observant players might use to further their understanding of the game’s plot.
- You can choose your own path through the story, with multiple endings. Part of the problem with visual novels is that they don’t offer much replay value. 999 works around this issue by offering you several paths to take through the story, dramatically affecting the characters’ fates and the ultimate resolution of the story. I guarantee that you’ll end up getting someone killed the first time you play, but the ability to replay the game with knowledge from your previous playthroughs allows you to try again for a (hopefully) better resolution.
- The game’s longer than most other visual novels. There are 16 puzzles in the game and each one takes about half an hour to beat on your first try: 8 hours of gameplay combined with some very long story segments and multiple endings makes for a game that can take up to 20 hours to complete. Compared to other visual novels, which can be read in an evening, this one’s long-lasting.
- The localization is amazing. Some obscure games that have been translated from Japanese to English have been given very poor localization jobs, riddled with grammar mistakes and jokes lost in translation. Aksys Games did an amazing job bringing this game over to North America, keeping the dialogue modern and fresh, and the descriptions visceral and astonishingly well-detailed, with very few mistakes.
So why does any of this matter? Localization, music, likable characters? In a visual novel, it’s all about the experience, about the mood that the game lays down for you. A good novel evokes emotion. 999 is nothing short of a breathtaking experience. My knees were shaking during the more tense moments. I had to stand up and walk around in order to calm down so I could progress through the most intense parts. Few games understand atmosphere like this game does, and so I definitely recommend that you find a way to play it. Here’s the game trailer if you’re interested: