GeekDad Retro Gaming: Electronic Detective

Geek Culture

Wrapping up my visit down retro-gaming memory lane (first with Stop Thief, then with Dark Tower), I’m going to share with you what is probably my most favorite electronic game of all from my youth — Electronic Detective (Ideal, 1979).

A murder is committed. Nineteen suspects scatter across the city, and the murder weapon is dropped along the way. It’s your job to grill the suspects, gathering information such as their alibis, location at the time of the murder, and more. You record the answers on a Case Fact Sheet and, when you think you’ve got the murderer’s ID pegged, you make an accusation. If you’re correct, you’ll hear police sirens. Make a false accusation, and the last sound you’ll hear are gunshots.

Electronic Detective is pure 80s — from the color of the plastic case (called the Electronic Detective Console) to the red LED readout to the big blue buttons (including ENTER) to the digital font used for the logo. Oh, and let’s not forget Don Adams, Agent 86 (Maxwell Smart) himself, promoting the game on the box.

Press the ON button and you hear gunshots, followed by the location and number ID of the body. The Electronic Detective Console is old school — information is provided using only numerals and letters on the display. So all suspects have a number (none are named Patrick, by the way) and answer questions such as Were you at place A, B, or C?, with the responses appearing on the screen as a, b, or c and corresponding to the Art Show, Theatre, and Card Party, respectively. (Other locations include the Docs, Embassy, and Factory.)

To further complicate things, suspects could be Uptown (3), Midtown (4), or Downtown (5) and then either on the West Side (1), or East Side (2). Are you now beginning to see how this early electronic game used numbers rather than text? But no worries — other than the suspect information provided to you via numerals and letters, the rest of the game was handled with some great graphics.

Take, for example, the suspect cards. Twenty suspects, each with a mug shot, are kept in a Rolodex-like tray at the top of the console. Players take turns pulling out a card and entering that suspect’s ID number into the console. After the suspect provides his/her alibi (and this information is shared aloud with all players), a player can then ask up to 3 private questions (1 for Master Detective level, 2 for Sleuth, and 3 for Gumshoe, the least difficult level of the game). These questions are printed on each suspect’s card. Suspects cannot lie with one exception — suspects at the location of a possible murder weapon (the .38 or the .45) may or may not lie… this is where a bit of logic and selective questioning becomes important.

One thing about the cards now that I look over them — this game was obviously pre-PC… as in Politically Correct. The single black male suspect, Buster Bailey, is a basketball player. Mickey O’Malley is an Irish cop, the John Lennon look-alike is a musician, and Ling Tong is a restaurant owner (along with his wife, Sing Wong, a waitress). The names, occupations, and mug shots are such stereotypes!

I mentioned earlier the Case Fact Sheet. The game came with a stack of double-sided sheets that were very eye-catching (see one of my images here for a closeup). You mainly worked in the #2 and #3 sections, gathering info and filling in the details of the crime in section #1 as you began to narrow down the suspect’s gender, location, weapon used, and whether an odd or even numbered suspect’s fingerprints were found on the weapon.

Similar to the logic puzzles that use a grid system, you use the sheets to organize suspect answers and uncover the suspect’s identity before making an accusation. You can play the game solo, but the fun is really trying to beat other players. If a player makes a false accusation, gunshots ring out and that player is out of the game… so you had to be careful not to make too hasty an accusation as well as pick the right suspects to question.

The instruction manual states there are over 130,000 possible suspect/location/weapon combinations — I’m certain I never came close to even playing this game 500 times, but I do know that I ran out of sheets at one point and had to order more. (I got another pad of 100 for $2.00 — that included shipping and handling! That wouldn’t even cover shipping costs today…)

I cranked up the game earlier and played a round — it all came flooding back to me, and I know I asked too many questions and had enough answers to make an accusation earlier in the game. But it’s still super-fun to play, and I can’t wait to show my boys this one when they get older.

This is a game that could so easily be converted to an iPhone or iPad app, but I’m not sure who owns the rights at this point. Maybe a geek dad or two out there with the right programming skills could do some digging and maybe put out an app version or a knock-off? Just a thought…

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