Creating a successful sequel is a difficult thing, whether following up a hit album, making a movie (did we really need Basic Instinct 2?), or creating a casual game. Simply putting a new look on the original won’t work, but straying too far from what made the original successful risks alienating your core fanbase.

I’m pleased to report that while the folks at Big Fish Games moved VERY quickly in releasing their sequel to the successful Mystery Case Files: Huntsville, they got nearly everything right in this sequel, Mystery Case Files: Prime Suspects.

MCF: Prime Suspects takes you to Capital City, where the Queen’s Hope, the world’s largest diamond, has vanished. You have been selected to analyze the whereabouts of each of 20 suspects when the crime occurred. Only through this process of deductive elimination will you be able to determine the Prime Suspects, and find the missing 800-carat gem.

The basic gameplay is similar to the original MCF game: Find common objects hidden in a room. For each level of the game, you’ll be assigned a suspect, and visit various locations within Capital City (there are 29 in total), to find items hidden within the location’s picture. The hidden items represent clues to determine the whereabouts of the suspect during the crime. The clues for each suspect are scattered among several locations.

Once you’ve found the requisite number of items for a suspect, it’s time to visit the Crime Computer, a series of mini-games that is one of the great features of MCF: Prime Suspects. These games are simple and fun ways to finish each suspect/level: The game may be a word jumbles, a slider puzzle (swap pieces to reproduce a photo showing the suspect’s location) or a memory game (find matches among different tiles to remove them). Each mini-game, when completed, reveals a photo showing the whereabouts of the suspect at the time of the theft, thereby proving his or her innocence. Or, if the suspect’s location at the time of the theft can’t be verified, they’ll be identified as one of the five “Prime Suspects”. Mind the clock though; you’ve got a limited amount of time to solve each suspect’s mystery!

One of the game’s greatest mysteries is in trying to figure out why it’s so compelling! Finding simple objects in a photograph shouldn’t be this much fun, or this addictive. The folks at Big Fish Games have done a great job of cleverly hiding everyday objects in interesting (and at times confounding) ways. After the first suspect or two, the game actually gets a bit easier as you become accustomed to finding the various objects. Advance, however, and you’ll find the objects hidden more deeply. The fact that the same items appear in multiple locations is actually useful – you might see a ruler in one scene, but you might have to find it again in a different scene.

The mini-games are brilliant and represent a great differentiator from other casual games: Most games present you with a single challenge that just gets harder as you progress. These mini games give you a welcome breath of fresh air from the room searches. Making them relatively easy provides a terrific way to finish a “level” and keep you focused on the next challenge. Another great twist is the locked or dark rooms that require you to find keys, flashlight batteries and other tools to fully explore.

One final cool feature is the randomization of the game upon subsequent plays. Once you’ve finished the game, you can play again and you’ll experience different Prime Suspects and a different thief.

One thing I would have liked to see is an expansion of the game as you progress. While it is rewarding to work through the various characters to identify the Prime Suspects, and there are lots of unique locations to explore, it would be nice to see additional gameplay elements introduced – surprise characters, new mini games, bonuses for quick play, etc…

But that’s a minor complaint. MCF: Prime Suspects retains all of the elements that made the original such a hit: a fun and simple premise, an amusing storyline and characters, and clever level design, while providing much better artwork, more locations to explore and tighter writing. In other words, it’s a perfect recipe for a very successful sequel. We’re looking forward to the next one!