Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is the kind of game that’s always mystified me. Despite owning a Nintendo DS and being pretty tuned into the industry when it launched in North America in 2011, the game entirely slipped under my radar. I wouldn’t learn about Ghost Trick until many years later when I found it ranked surprisingly high on a “top 250” games of all time list determined by user scores. How in the world had something like that completely slipped under my radar, and more importantly, what the heck is it?
I wouldn’t actually learn that answer until earlier this month when I received a copy of its HD remaster, which launches on June 30. Within 30 minutes of playing, everything about the oddball detective game made perfect sense. From its creative spectral puzzling to its strong writing, I immediately fell in love with a weird and wonderful Nintendo DS classic that still feels as creative as ever in 2023.
It’s that last fact that really stands out, as I can’t say I’ve played anything like Ghost Trick, even over a decade after its initial release. The newly remastered version stands as a lasting testament to Nintendo’s now waning era of hardware gimmickry, a time that pushed developers to produce a wealth of innovative and out-there titles that we rarely see from major publishers anymore.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is an unusual cross between a visual novel and a tactile puzzle game. It was very clear that I was in for something eccentric right from the start as I met the story’s hero: a corpse. Yes, I was stepping into the shoes of a dead detective trying to solve his own murder by the end of the night. While I no longer had a body to control, I could move around as a spirit capable of jumping from object to object, interacting with them from beyond, and communing with other spirits. It’s a wild premise that goes in hilarious, dark, and genuinely gripping directions that I never saw coming.
The original release was directed by Shu Takumi, a creative mind best known for his work on the Ace Attorney series. To this day, Ghost Trick may be his magnum opus, threading the needle between a slapstick comedy and a dark murder mystery that’s incredibly cohesive. In an interview with the development team, Takumi broke down what makes the multi-tiered story work as well as it does.
“I hope new players will get the opportunity to fully experience the two mystery concepts that make up Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective,” Takumi tells Digital Trends. “The first is that of the main character Sissel losing his memories and trying to solve the mystery of his own death within a single night. The second is the mystery behind the characters you meet as you attempt to find out the truth about your death. At first glance, none of them seem to have any connection to what is happening, but things slowly start to intertwine as you search for the truth.”
That’s still an incredibly impressive feat in 2023, as the story ties together several leads in a surprising way that works. It all makes for a moving story about the complex ways that different lives can connect with one another, creating a chain reaction that can sometimes link unsuspecting strangers together whether they know it or not. And that narrative is even reflected in its creative gameplay hook that reminds us how what you do in a game can still communicate something.
The original game was built with the Nintendo DS in mind, using both its touchscreen and unique two-screen setup. That led its original designers to create an entirely unique gameplay style that makes it feel like a modern spin on classic point-and-click adventure games. Players drag their spirit between possessable objects and interact with them to impact the environment. Turn on a fan, for instance, and then quickly hop over to a nearby flag on a pole to ride up it like an elevator. Every location is a bit of a Rube Goldberg machine that needs to be solved, leading to some incredibly clever puzzling that never overstays its welcome.
Bringing that experience to modern consoles would present some challenges considering the odd nature of the Nintendo DS. After all, how do you compress two screens’ worth of information into one? In an email interview with members of the game’s development team, remaster director Atsushi Maruyama told Digital Trends that the transition to modern consoles created some unique problems that most rereleases don’t have to deal with.
“The biggest challenge was adjusting the user interface of the game,” Maruyama tells Digital Trends. “In the game, where and how information is displayed has a large impact on the gameplay. Within that, a particularly difficult element was displaying information relating to the ‘trick’ action. It’s very important to understand whether you can trick an item after possessing it, and what you can do. We approached the design with the player’s point of view in mind to create the UI that you see in the game.”
The transition works as seamlessly as one would hope, as it’s always very clear what objects I can interact with and what’ll happen when I use my “trick” power. Though I would have loved to play it with a DS stylus when it first came out, the control system still preserves the tactile, reactive nature of the game design even when not using the Switch’s touchscreen. It’s a DS port done right, giving me hope that more of the best games from Nintendo’s weirdest consoles have a chance for preservation.
What still stands out over a decade later is how that gameplay hook ties into its narrative. That story about disconnected lives impacting one another in unexpected ways is supported by a puzzle system where players create fate-changing chain reactions themselves. It’s a tangible way to represent a heady theme, one that sprung from the unique nature of Nintendo’s handheld. Perhaps there’s a good reason I haven’t played anything like it in the modern era: The hardware we play games on today simply isn’t as creative.
Handhelds like the Nintendo DS came with strange features that had developers rewriting the rulebooks about how to make a game. I miss that era of innovation dearly, and for 10 hours, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective brought me back to a blissful time that I wished I appreciated more in the moment.
- Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective’s demo proves this cult classic holds up
- Capcom Showcase 2023: how to watch and what to expect