Although adventures are now becoming more prominent on handheld machines because of the DS, the number of games before Nintendo's popular console could be counted on one hand, primarily due to the need for a new set of controls in a genre typically designed for a mouse. Nancy Drew: Message in a Haunted Mansion is one of those rare titles, appearing on the Game Boy Advance in 2001, and while it is a port of the PC release of the same name, the conversion by Handheld Games leaves much to be desired.
The game opens up in traditional Nancy Drew fashion, with a letter from Bess asking Nancy to help an old friend, Rose Green, who has recently purchased an old mansion to be converted into a Bed and Breakfast establishment. Ever since Rose's arrival in the mansion, a series of accidents have taken place and unless they are brought to a halt, the new business will never get off the ground. It's Nancy's role to unravel the secrets behind the mysterious events and establish whether a supernatural force is at play or if the culprit is something far closer to home. Upon talking to other characters, Nancy will learn about some of the incidents preventing Rose from opening her business, and the unexplained events continue during your stay at mansion, leaving you never entirely sure whether it really is the work of a malevolant spirit or simply good old fashioned foul play. As a premise it's quite an interesting one, and the story provides a nice sense of intrigue, though it's been scaled back a little too much from its PC counterpart, giving the game a choppy, rushed and sometimes confusing sense of progression.
The cast of characters is small, but there are enough people here to keep you guessing who or what is behind the trouble. There is Abby, the mystic who believes an evil spirit is at work, Charlie the handyman working on the house, and a mysterious antique dealer. Due to the limitations of the handheld, all dialogue is portrayed solely through text, with the exception of a particular scene containing a small amount of speech that adds a little drama to the event. Somewhat bizarrely, there isn't any sound to speak of other than one repetitive piece of music that comes and goes as it sees fit without any discernible pattern.
Played from a first-person slideshow perspective, the gamepad controls the cursor used to direct Nancy around the mansion, and the buttons are for examining items and talking to characters. Objects of interest change the cursor into a magnifying glass, while arrows indicate a direction in which it is possible to move. Yet from the outset there are signs that all is not well, as the cursor moves at a snail-like speed across the screen, making even the basic gameplay mechanics annoying. The still screens look similar to the PC version, so credit must be given to the developers for their work in cramming as much detail as possible into each room, but this in itself causes problems with pixel hunting, since interactive items are so small that you'll probably find many of them by accident rather than design. Frequently my progress was halted because I missed something that was hard to spot due to the downsized scale of the backgrounds.
With such a slow and clumsy interface, there were many occasions when the frustrations began to feel overwhelming, and I would not have bothered persevering were it not for some interesting puzzles to solve. Fortunately, the puzzles make for reasonably enjoyable entertainment, involving such things as reading books about the Chinese zodiac and mythology, combining inventory items with other objects, rotating pegs to spell words to open secret areas and unlocking hidden compartments. Aside from the instances of pixel hunting, all of the puzzles are straightforward and logical to solve. Unfortunately, some puzzles have also been simplified or removed entirely from the PC version, condensing the game even further. At least Nancy's mobile phone is available, which can be used to contact various characters, including George and Bess for further help during certain puzzles, and a PDA to help keep track of Nancy's actions.
One of the biggest pitfalls of the GBA conversion that really lets the game down is the stupidly implemented save system. It is not possible to save wherever you like in the game, or even onto the game cartridge itself despite the technology being available. Instead, the adventure is split into chapters with a password system in place. Although the game isn't that long at around five hours' duration, it's unclear why the developers decided to take such a restrictive approach, as this fails to take into account that it is meant to be portable, where being able to save on a regular basis is far more important than that of a standard computer title. What's worse is the fact that there are a couple of instances where it is possible to die or mess up without warning, and given the game's insistence on only giving passwords at the end of a section, this requires replaying whole sections again from the beginning, which is particularly painful during one of the longer chapters. One of these occasions placed right near the end of the game is a timed event, and given how cumbersome it is to move around quickly anyway, it proved to be far trickier than it had any right to be.
The pacing of the chapters is also badly planned -- one so-called “chapter” involves picking up one item before you progress onto the next one. It doesn't help matters that the password system is broken, either. Aside from using symbols that can be hard to distinguish from each other, the password only records what chapter you are on, not necessarily all the items and events that you have uncovered. If you play the game in one sitting, it's not a problem that will be noticeable, but if you write down the password and switch off the game, not all of the progress will be saved. If you have spoken to certain characters or picked up key items before the game decides they are important, then this information will be wiped from the PDA and you'll have to go through those events again at the designated time; a very frustrating process. It's also just as likely to resume the game at the password point, only for you to discover that you have items you have never seen before, without any clue as to what they are for or what you are supposed to be doing as a result.
Message in a Haunted Mansion may belong to a very exclusive club of adventures on the Game Boy Advance, but it still comes very difficult to recommend to anyone other than completionists and the most obsessive Nancy Drew fan. The game may be short, but such a poor conversion leaves a bitter taste in the mouth rather than the sweet flavour of victory. While an interesting story and decent puzzles form the basis of what could have been an enjoyable game, anyone interested should seek out its PC predecessor, which is simply bigger and better in every way.