Making A Case For Phoenix Wright: The Appeal of the Ace Attorney Series
Making a Case for Phoenix Wright: The Appeal of the Ace Attorney Series
Review, Retrospective, Love Letter
July 29, 2013
Personal History With A Pair of Aces
The scene was Christmas 2006. I knew I was going to be getting a Nintendo DS. I knew I had taken the Game Boy Advanced generation off from handheld gaming with the exception of one summer of borrowing my brother’s GBA to play Pokémon Sapphire relentlessly. I did not expect the NDS to be one of the best, and one of my favorite, gaming devices to date. I also had picked out Yoshi’s Island DS (a disappointment) and Metroid Prime: Hunters (as good as an FPS Metroid game is going to get on the DS hardware) and the rest is history.
One of the most diverse system libraries out there.
It turns out that the DS-fat launched on my birthday in 2004. I had shown up late to the party and had a vast library of games to explore. Fast-forward twenty-two days from Christmas 2006 and one arrives at the release of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice for All in North America. This is not a story of love at first sight. I first heard of the Ace Attorney series via the voice of Morgan Webb and her X-Play review of Justice for All. It looked interesting and I needed something to put in my newly acquired double-screened wonder. Within a week of Justice For All’s release was the release of a Nintendo published adventure game in a similar vein as the Ace Attorney series, Hotel Dusk: Room 215. A friend accompanied me to the local Best Buy and we discussed which game I should get with the limited remaining Christmas money burning a hole through my wallet. We concluded that the Nintendo game would be a safer bet than the Capcom property. I purchased Hotel Dusk and that was that for about a month until I broke down and got Justice for All as well. I, Alex Linna, to this day have yet to complete Hotel Dusk: Room 215 and recently completed Justice for All for the second time. Why was Justice for All the “Wright” choice on the fateful day back in January of 2007? That is what the defense (and this piece) will attempt to prove.
Sorry Kyle, you can’t hang with the Phoenix.
I apparently enjoyed Justice for All enough to search out the original game simply titled: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. I have to hand to my past self for getting through Justice for All and still wanting more. I will get to it more in my “The Games” section of this piece, but Justice for All is the subject of all my anger, vitriol, and frustrations with the series. Of the first four games that bear the Ace Attorney label, Justice for All is decidedly the worst. It is where people who play the first game and are pumped for more go to die… or at least their excitement and fervor for Phoenix and company goes to die. Justice for All is salvaged by an outstanding final case, but I will get into that more at a later time. Having completed the original and Justice for All I was, naturally, excited for what came next. Thankfully, I did not have to wait long. Eight days before Halloween, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations hit US shores. This planted the seed for my first cosplay attempt and I was the ace attorney himself for Halloween 2007. After Trials and Tribulations, I had to talk about this game with some people. My mission of evangelism had begun. I got one friend at college hooked and every time he saw me he would offer a friendly, “Objection!” I was finally able to convince some high school friends to try them out, essentially setting up a personal DS rental service sacrificing my personal use considerably. This was okay due to it being the Summer of 2008 and it was what I still regularly consider the “Best Year for Gaming” and I had just finished Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, my favorite in the series and I could not be happier. This led to the three of us cosplaying as three of the characters from the series at Gen Con ‘08 in Indianapolis. We had to wait three days shy of two full years for the next installment to reach the US on February 16, 2010. Unfortunately, this time it was not worth the wait. Ace Attorney: Investigations: Miles Edgeworth had conquered Justice for All for the title of worst game in the series. We did not even get the sequel in the states.
It turns out Edgey could not carry his own game.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies is slated to be released in October of 2013 for the series’ debut on the Nintendo 3DS. Its imminence spurred me to write this as well as play the first four games over again. What follows is my experience taking on the Ace Attorney series for a second time in the form of micro-reviews and retrospectives that will ideally be interesting to both those who have played the games and those who have not. Of course, spoilers will be light to non-existent.
A Dying Genre Reborn
Several of my first gaming experiences were centered, I would even go as far to say monopolized, by adventure games aimed at children. Whether it was Putt-Putt, Freddie the Fish, Spy Fox, or Pajama Sam I unknowingly developed an appreciation for good adventure games at an early age. I can still remember how I felt when I turned eight years old so I could upgrade from Putt-Putt to Spy Fox. Oh, Spy Fox, he was the coolest.
Whether it was saving the zoo or going to the moon, Putt-Putt and I had a lot of good times.
After I outgrew Spy Fox, my PC gaming experience was limited to Real-Time Strategy games like Age of Empires and Command & Conquer. The adventure genre had not been terribly prolific on the consoles and has only seen resurgence in recent years, largely thanks to TellTale’s Sam & Max being the vanguard of the entire genre before they shocked the world with their emotionally powerful interpretation of The Walking Dead. With The Walking Dead’s soaring popularity and critical acclaim, I feel the adventure game genre will be here a while longer. This is good news for Phoenix Wright fans.
The future of the adventure game genre?
Before I get any farther, I suppose I should more fully describe just what the Ace Attorney series is and why you need to experience it. The Ace Attorney series draws nearly all of its gameplay inspiration from the adventure games of old. The game is split into different sections: Investigation sections and evidence gathering & court section and evidence presenting. Investigation chapters are composed of static screens with “find the hidden object” elements in order to gather evidence. Evidence is also acquired through talking to those involved with the case at hand. A secret-busting mechanic is added in Justice for All as an attempt, I repeat: an attempt, to innovate. The court sections are built of a list a statements billed as “Witness Testimony” and it is your job to find the cracks, lies, and contradictions in the faulty section by presenting a piece of evidence (that you just collected!) that is contrary to the witness’ statement. Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney includes the addition of a tell-finding mini-game to catch witnesses in a lie. Wow, that does not exactly sound as fun as I thought it would stripped bare like that… Let’s get some meat on that skeleton.
During my second run through of the series, I have been trying to piece what it is that makes these games so incredibly appealing.
-The Writing and Characters-
The Ace Attorney series’ attractiveness stems from the quality of writing the games have to offer. I have said that when it comes to the best stories in video games there are only the offerings of Metal Gear Solid and Phoenix Wright. That has somewhat changed in the three year hiatus Capcom has taken with their Ace Attorney franchise. Spike Chunsoft and Aksys Games have more than picked up the slack. Their Zero Escape series is nothing short of fantastic. 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (2010) and Virtue’s Last Reward (2012) were among the best games from their respective years.
I cannot praise the storytelling enough. The attachments forged to the characters are only rivaled by perhaps Bioware. This is only further enhanced by the following two “Pros.”
As with writing and storytelling, the Ace Attorney series is nearly unrivaled when it comes to video game music. Occasionally, one gets a Radiant Historia or El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron to explore how music can greatly enhance an interactive experience, but it is in the Ace Attorney games that music is used as a weapon of emotional manipulation (in the best way possible). Characters throughout the series have repeating themes that draw on the emotions experienced when the player sees them again. The music is a constant reminder of how good the story/writing is as well as being excellent in its own right. From hearing Maya’s theme for the first time in Trials and Tribulations and having one’s heart swell unbearably, to the tension raising and pulsating beats of when a witness is on the ropes; the Ace Attorney games delivers an incredibly immersive experience when it comes to its music and sound design.
Radiant Historia also has great music and probably my favorite JRPG battle theme.
Mounting tension is what the Ace Attorney music is about. It feels like it is all on the line. The situation might appear hopeless, but we have to try. We can save this innocent defendant! It is something that is best experienced in-game (this is why I did not post a link to my favorite PW:AA tracks). And is it something that needs to be experienced? Yes, it is.
-Continuity and Being Over-Referential-
The Ace Attorney games reuse characters almost to the point of them being a crutch, but seeing characters from previous games is one of the draws as well. It is always entertaining when Larry (Phoenix’s childhood friend and defendant in his first case) shows up. Many throwaway lines will be missed on those who have not played the games in order. This is something I appreciate more now on my second run because I played the second game (Justice for All) first on my original playthrough of the series.
Continuity is crucial to this series. As I am about to type in “The Games” section, the entire third game builds to the its last case that has added meaning from the second case in the second game, and even more meaning is to be gleaned from the second case of the first game. The fifth and final case in Trials and Tribulations is a payoff that has been building since the second case of the first game! Games do not often have this kind of continuity! Most do not have stories that would make one care in the first place.
Finally, now to the games themselves.
-Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (2005)-
The game that started it all. I could not feel any more indebted to its greatness. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is composed of five cases. The first of which is titled: The First Turnabout, is largely a tutorial and introduction to the series, the characters, and the basic gameplay mechanics. It should be stated that almost every case in the series has the word “Turnabout” in it. The second time through this game proved to be more “anime-y” than the rest although all of the entries have their tropes and nods to their culture of origin. I also noticed how intense and engaging the series gets right from the get-go.
The player begins a case with five exclamation points that serve as the fail-state for the game. If the player makes wrong guesses or presents the wrong evidence at the wrong time the player is penalized one exclamation point. The other systems at work are the evidence gathering and presenting mechanics previously mentioned. It is a super linear adventure that tells an absolutely memorable and fantastic story in each case. I’m going to give each game a hypothetical rating in retrospect and in doing so I would have to give the first game the highest score. It sets the stage so well. It establishes characters, and plot lines that reverberate all the way through to the end of the third game and beyond. Though an incredibly niche title, the first game reviewed fairly well. Reaching an 81 on review congregate site metacritic.com, makes Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney tied for the highest rated game in the series. The only problems I have with the game is that the last two cases run incredibly long (about 4-5+ hours each) and the game will have the player running back and forth between areas over and over again. Of the five cases, three of them remain among the best in series. (3 cases near perfection, 1 is okay, 1 is a tutorial)
Mia Fey: Phoenix’s beloved and trusted mentor.
9.5 out of 10
-Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice For All (2007)-
As previously stated, Justice For All is my least favorite entry in the main series. I suppose it is not just me either, Justice for All sits at the bottom of the Metacritic pile as well at a 76 combined review score out of 100. Under further examination, it is not a surprise that this is the entry in the series that acts as a lightning rod for my problems with the series in general. Three of the cases are among the worst in the series, but the one remaining case is among the best. With only one truly exceptional case, Justice For All falls short of the incredibly high bar that the original sets. It does make one lasting change that has remained throughout all the other games, and that is the abandonment of the exclamation point penalty system. Instead, we get what looks like a health bar. This is a good change though. The writer’s play with it, making some incredilbly tense situations cost its entirety if Phoenix chooses incorrectly. I will stress the strength of the final case. It is exceptional and makes the rest of the game worth playing. To recap: 1 truly exceptional case, 2 below average to poor cases, and 1 tutorial case.
Yep, Phoenix cross-examines a radio.
7.0 out of 10
-Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations (2007)-
It is probably safe to say that Trials and Tribulations is the fan favorite. This is likely due to presence and strong personality of adversary/anti-hero prosecutor Godot and the enormous payoff that the previous two game had been winking and nodding to from time to time. But when I break Trials and Tribulations down like the other games, it cannot be my favorite. Trials goes back to the five case format of the original, but with two big twists. This time the player takes control of Mia Fey for two of the cases: the first tutorial case and a fourth shortened case that is intentionally similar to the first.
In a case by case breakdown of Trials and Tribulations, the first case is a tutorial, the second is solid featuring Luke Atmey and Mask deMasque with Mr. Atmey’s theme song being among the best in the series.
The third case is among the worst in the series. It features a Phoenix doppelganger who we at the BAD Gaming Podcast lovingly/hatefully refer to as “Tiger Phoenix.” This case largely takes place in the Tres Bien! a French restaurant and features a horrible gay stereotype and some of my least favorite music in the series. The fourth case is essentially a repeat of the first, therefore short and largely unsubstantial, but it must be said, much like the entire first two games, the first and fourth cases in Trials all build to the final fifth case. And oh, what a fifth case it is.
Furio Tigre in all his spray-tan glory.
Bridge to a Turnabout could easily be considered an epic conclusion to the first “trilogy” of games. First, referenced in the second case of the first game, case five of Trials & Tribulations is the payoff fans had been waiting for. A long case that goes in many directions, and often does not make sense, a case that is at the same time entirely predictable and uncontrollably spontaneous, a case that concludes in one of the best showdowns, nay, clash between titans ever to be witnessed is how Trials ends an era. I might be over-hyping the case, but it is truly fantastic and could easily be the best case in the series.
Let’s recap. Two incredibly short cases whose sole purpose is to set-up the final case, a really good second case, one of the worst cases in the series, and one of the best cases in the series. Viewing Trials from this angle makes me like two other entries in the series more: the original and Apollo. As a sum of its parts, Trials & Tribulations is held up by its wonderful last case, the amazing theme song of Luke Atmey, and little else.
The Man, The Legend, The Coffee: Prosecutor Godot
8.5 out of 10
-Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney (2008)-
Apollo drops a couple of bombshells. First off, SPOLIERS, Phoenix gets disbarred. END SPOILERS. Secondly, who is this new guy? I get the sense that many were not too fond of having a new protagonist, but Mr. Wright is far from absent in Apollo Justice. He acts as a mentor of sorts. Thirdly, Apollo’s assistant throughout the game is Phoenix’s daughter, Trucy Wright. Apollo Justice creates a lot questions that demand answers and does not answer all of them. Most notably however, Apollo Justice finally innovates on the gameplay formula, much to my liking. Apollo has the ability to “read people” and sense when they are lying. The gameplay application occurs in the form of finding a witness’ tell, much in line with the game’s poker theme.
The first case of Apollo is amazing. Easily the best tutorial case, and I found it to be considerably better the second time through. The first two things players from the United States will notice are that, “Oh Snap!” this is actually a NDS games! The first three games in the Ace Attorney series were GBA ports to the DS. Apollo looks noticeably better than previous entries, and the soundtrack is probably also my favorite of the series, rivaled by only the original for its iconic and catchy melodies. The first case of Apollo is surprisingly complex and throws the player for several loops and sets the stage for the rest of the game.
Trucy is adorable.
The second case is the worst case in Apollo. The defendant is a moron, but the case is at least presented in an interesting and innovative way. Phoenix charges Apollo with solving a number of mysteries and must determine how they are all interrelated while defending his idiot client at the same time. Case #2, Turnabout Corner, also reintroduces Ema Skye from the original game’s final case, who I find to be one of the best characters in the series.
The third case is memorable due to its musical nature where Apollo must eventually determine which part of band is out of tune with the rest of the group. Much of the case lays a foundation for the final case, but there are many twists and turns hidden within the concert that Apollo, Trucy, and Phoenix must unravel.
The fourth and final case is broken into two parts. There is the traditional examine crime scenes and present evidence in court sections, but the game shifts into a time hopping adventure with an absolutely killer conclusion. Turnabout Succession is my favorite case in the series and with addition of great first and third cases makes Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney my favorite game in the series. The introduction of the MASON system and the philosophical debate of evidence trials vs. trial by jury is deep and makes the player contemplate their own justice systems and inevitably ask: “What is Justice?”
My favorite Ace Attorney.
9.0 out of 10
Response to Criticism
“It too often asks for a mere nod in the right direction rather than a considered gambit, filling in the incriminating details itself and leaving the player yearning for more active involvement.” – Edge Magazine (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney) [7/10]
“It’s admittedly hard to ignore the rigid structure as well as the gaping and slightly frustrating plot flaws, but it’s also hard to hate Phoenix Wright because of them.” –IGN (Justice For All) [78/100]
“It’s a 9-flavoured 8, but again the mechanics of the court sequences are often so stupidly frustrating that it would be wrong to mark any higher.” –Eurogamer (Trials & Tribulations) [8/10]
“Melodrama isn’t enough to carry Apollo Justice, a game that feels considerably more weighed down by dialogue and little actual gameplay to speak of than its predecessors.” –Pocket Gamer UK (Apollo Justice) [6/10]
Most of the criticism for the series comes from it hardly being a game. This is becoming quite the tiring battle for adventure games. The same discussion has been raised by Heavy Rain, The Walking Dead, and Beyond: Two Souls. The fact is that they all are at least interactive entertainment, and all are found on video game platforms. Sure, adventure games are not for everyone, due to their traditionally slower pace, but they remain possibly the best avenue or genre to tell excellently written stories. Perhaps it is simply time for new vocabulary when it comes to talking about what makes a game a game, or the word “game” needs to evolve to be more inclusive. Many of the criticisms of the game are fair and reviews are ultimately a matter of personal taste and preference. If someone would like some of the best writing the medium has to offer, then one deserves to treat oneself to Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.
It should be clear by now the passion that these games can inspire. The more than excellent writing, storytelling, and characters plus some of the best music the medium has produced make the series something that cannot be ignored. Even if one is averse to slower-paced adventure games, I plead that you try the first game and complete it. If you do not like it, you probably will not like the others. I feel as though the inherently likeability of the series will triumph however. The Ace Attorney games have a legacy of greatness and here is to hoping that Dual Destinies continues to carry the torch proudly.