October 12, 2001, twenty years ago now, the world was introduced to a soon-to-be iconic video game, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. No hyperbole, no clickbait, one of the best series of all time. Since then, Phoenix has had several more games, a live-action adaptation (by renowned director Takashi Miike, no less!), and crossovers with Marvel VS. Capcom, Tekken, Yakuza and more, but nothing will top that first immaculately laid-out trilogy, and that’s what we wanna reminisce about today. Hopefully, we can convince some of you to play this amazing game if you haven’t already! Minor spoilers ahead.
In the realm of crime, courtroom and police dramas, Phoenix Wright’s story is unparalleled. It manages to take all the high concepts of the justice system, things that are studied in actual law classes (yeah, I’ve got friends doing Law, I fact-checked this), and present them in such a way that anyone can understand them. It takes all the technicalities and legal jargon that you actually need to understand to be a lawyer out of the equation, so you can just focus on the real meat, the ethical conundrums, and those are where these games excel.
Shu Takumi is just a great writer, and they use Phoenix as a perfect player surrogate; the first case is pretty black and white, they intentionally show you who the killer is before the case even starts, which means you’re just left with poking holes in their testimonies and nailing them with the evidence, the big dopamine hit of this whole series, which never gets old. It’s a fun case that also respects your intelligence, with the different time zones being a big part of the case, which takes a bit of fat-braining. PLUS, you need to remember a lot of stuff that happens in every case, because you never what will come back around and be important later.
Courtroom banter is exciting, and you get to know some of the core characters, such as Larry Butz, and Payne, the series’ tutorial Prosecutor, who’s juuuuuuust a bit worse than you are at the start. But that’s before you meet the real rival prosecutor… Rival characters are so important in making a good story, and they don’t come much better than Edgeworth, but we won’t spoil it. You and Phoenix are both pretty clueless at the start, but you both grow in real time into a competent (video game) Defense Attorney, and by the last case, Phoenix is no longer the bumbling but kindhearted guy he was at the beginning, you’re actually kind of a badass. Yeah, you too!
Ace Attorney is set in an exaggerated fictional world where the court system has become so backed up with crime that every trial needs to be concluded in three days, but it has a lot to say about the morality of our world’s legal system too, as well as the roles of defenders and prosecutors. It’s especially poignant in Japan, which has a 99% conviction rate. Every case in these games is memorable for being really camp and really serious in equal parts, an extremely difficult thing to balance, but these games handle the mixture deftly. If you’re into fiction (which you obviously are), you’ve probably heard that often-repeated writing cliché that camp and seriousness can’t coexist, but Phoenix Wright is a perfect example of how goofiness and camp elevates serious moments. Nothing is as heartbreaking or gruelling as watching characters you’ve laughed with go through the most difficult times in their life, but it makes their triumph at the end that much more glorious.
Phoenix Wright’s gameplay might be a simple point and click, but it’s elevated by every other aspect, that makes every point and click feel extremely meaningful. Despite how simplistic it looks, Ace Attorney’s sprite animation is actually really impressive and detailed. Characters in AA have way more frames of animation than in most other visual novels, which really makes them feel alive, and that is really important, because, similar to a game like L.A Noire, character reactions are what this series is built on. There is nothing like that feeling of facing down a smug, slippery opponent in the courtroom; you’re at the end of your rope and all hope seems lost, when you suddenly nail them on one tiny contradiction and BOOM! They start panicking, they’re sweating, their smarmy grin starts to disappear… They might be trying to hold their composure but like your mentor Mia says, “unravel one lie, and the others fall apart”. Now you can push your assault, and the music amps up, carrying you to the finish line!
The “Pursuit – Cornered” theme is one of the most iconic themes in gaming, it’s literally impossible not to be incredibly psyched out of your mind whenever it plays (I’m writing this article with the song in my ear right now)! It’s no wonder they use the “Cornered” theme for Phoenix’s ‘I win’ mode in Marvel VS. Capcom 3, because by the time you hear it, you’ve already won. The pure catharsis and satisfaction of getting to that theme is incredible, but you really have to work for it.
This game is an absolute slugfest; you and Phoenix are going through the mud together, and even though you know there has to be a way to win, there are times when this game really convinces you that things are hopeless. There are times when neither you nor Phoenix knows what’s happening, and the only option is to bluff or dumb luck your way out, or sometimes Phoenix will have put something together and you need to catch up to him, or sometimes, the best moments, you and Phoenix will both reach the same conclusion at the same time, and in those moments, there’s no stopping you. The game paces its cases in such a way that, the difficult part is all in the build-up. 99% of the case is challenging as hell, and that last one percent, the very end, is really easy to solve, and the only thing left to do is figure out whether or not you’re emotionally prepared to press the last few buttons. It’s harder than it seems sometimes. Wow, do those last buttons feel empowering though – you might even find yourself jumping up and screaming “OBJECTION!” yourself! I’m not ashamed to admit that I did.
Phoenix has been and continues to be a gaming legend, and not just for being the guy from the “OBJECTION!” meme. Phoenix resonates with people, in the game and in real life, for several reasons; his unyielding belief in his ability to turnabout any case, his belief in the innocence of his clients, and his unwavering sense of justice. Defending the innocent is hard, this game beats you over the head with that, and it’s especially hard in the world of Ace Attorney, with its colourful cast of criminals, but it’s always worth it, and this game shows you that too. This is a really beautiful, sincere series, and we’ve been going on about how hard it is for a while now, but it’s also really, really fun too! It’s hard not to enjoy yourself playing it, because, “a lawyer is someone who smiles no matter how hard it gets”.