When I try to talk to my friends and family members about Zero Escape: The Nonary Games and its creator, I run into the same problem. Unlike the film industry, where directors, producers, actors, and other industry personnel are household names and fodder for water cooler conversation, important creatives in the video game industry often go ignored. While the creators of blockbuster games and series have become more famous over the years, the industry does a poor job of showcasing the creative talent that keep the wheels turning. While names such as Miyamoto and Kojima have become more well known over the years, we are blissfully unaware of the vast majority of creators putting out the best content.
I could go on and on about important industry figures that you might want to pay attention to, but I’d feel remiss if I didn’t at least mention Kotaro Uchikoshi. Aside from his work on the Infinity series of visual novels, Uchikoshi has become more well known over the years from the Zero Escape series, which he has written and directed. If you’re anything like my family and friends, you probably tuned out after I mentioned the phrase “visual novels”, but if you’ve written off the Zero Escape series because of its genre, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice.
For those who have had the opportunity to check out the series for themselves, you won’t be surprised when I say that each game has completely blown me away, and I often find myself thinking about the complex web that Uchikoshi weaves. While I won’t go into plot specifics (the series is very plot heavy), all three titles revolve around nine apparent strangers, who are kidnapped and forced to play a deadly game in order to ensure their own survival. With an emphasis on science fiction elements and puzzle-solving, you can think of Zero Escape as a mix of the Saw film series, as well as Steins;Gate and Danganronpa.
While the series is comprised of three separate titles, Zero Escape: The Nonary Games combines remastered versions of the first two entries in the series: 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward. It’s worth mentioning that the final entry in the series, Zero Time Dilemma, is absent from this collection, having been released less than a year ago.
Although each game has received its fair share of improvements, 999 has undergone the biggest changes. Released on the Nintendo DS back in 2010, the original version was a product of the hardware it originally ran on. A text-only affair, the game shines on Nintendo’s handheld thanks to some stellar artwork, and an end-game twist that was built around the system’s dual screens. In bringing it to the big(ger) screen, Aksys Games and Spike Chunsoft have gone above and beyond the call of duty. First and foremost, 999 now sports voice acting, complete with dual audio (English and Japanese). For the most part, the voice work on display is quite good, with some of the voice actors from Zero Time Dilemma returning to voice their original characters. Having spent many a night with my eyes peeled on my DS’ tiny screens, the voice acting is a welcome addition, turning endless hours of text reading into a more digestible experience.
Aside from the newly included voice acting and redrawn graphics (which are now much more suitable for play on consoles and PC), 999 also features a handful of quality of life improvements, some of which are lifted directly from its sequel. While purists may cry foul, the game now features a handy flowchart, allowing players to jump around to different points in the game. With multiple endings (some of which must be seen in order to unlock the game’s true ending), the need to replay large swathes of the game has been eliminated, as it's now possible to jump to specific points of the game, in order to make different choices and unlock different endings. While I do hold a soft spot for the original Nintendo DS version (mostly due to the way Uchikoshi tied the game’s narrative into the system’s dual screens), I have nothing but praise for this remastered vision, which is without a doubt the best way to experience the story.
When looking at Virtue’s Last Reward, there are fewer changes and improvements to be found, though that doesn’t come as a shock. The follow-up to 999, which originally released on the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita, already featured voice acting and 3D graphics. The new version is more of a re-tweak than a remaster, adding in the ability to run the game in higher resolutions along with a few graphical tweaks and effects. That being said, this isn’t the mark of a shoddy port, but rather the fact that there wasn’t much to improve upon in the first place.
As I mentioned earlier, I’d be doing you a disservice if I were to divulge any specific plot details. However, I can safely say that both the individual plots of each game and the series’ overarching narrative delivers some of the best storytelling that gaming has to offer. While I was originally skeptical of the direction Uchikoshi decided to take the series in, he miraculously manages to cover a wide variety of subjects without losing the player’s interest, all while advancing the game’s story forwards. There’s plenty of mysteries and plot twists to discover, and Uchikoshi is a master of keeping all of these plot elements in check and achieving the video game equivalent of plate spinning. For those who don’t think you’ll be satisfied with reading (or rather, listening) for hours on end, each game features multiple puzzles which take heavy inspiration from “escape-the-room” style Flash games which were popular in the early 2000s.
In many ways, I’m envious of those who have yet to experience Uchikoshi’s masterpieces, as I would love to relive my first playthroughs of both 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward for the first time. The characters, puzzles and plot twists encompass some of my favorite moments in gaming, and those who decide to try these games out for themselves are in for a real treat. While there isn’t an overly compelling reason for series veterans to return to the well, newcomers are in for the emotional roller coaster of their life.
Zero Escape: The Nonary Games was reviewed on PC via Steam using a copy provided by the publisher. It is also available on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita.
Zero Escape: The Nonary Games stands as the definitive way to experience two of the best (and criminally underrated) visual novels to date. If you have yet to check out Uchikoshi's brilliant series, now is the time to do so.
- Well Written and Unique Stories
- Improved Graphics and Voice Acting
- Enjoyable and Challenging Puzzles
- VLR Remains Largely Untouched