Capcom’s Ace Attorney Series Does So Much With So Little

Capcom’s Ace Attorney Series Does So Much With So Little

Richard Walker

First released for the GameBoy Advance back in 2001 (then ported to the Nintendo DS in 2005), Capcom's Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney swiftly became something of a minor phenomenon, gaining a cult following before spawning two sequels in quick succession, as well as a slew of spin-offs and crossovers. Following the exploits of its eponymous legal eagle, (who is named after a more mythical bird), the original Ace Attorney trilogy takes you on a series of wonderfully weird cases, involving circus performers, old seed-throwing curmudgeons, and smarmy CEOs draped in jewellery. There are few games quite as unusual as the Ace Attorney games - stranger still is that despite a heady soup of weirdness, the games really only comprise reams of dialogue. And yet, they do so much with very little.

They passed me by upon their original release; I discovered the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy when it launched, in 2019, and, in turn, gained my first experience of a so-called 'visual novel'. I was immediately taken with the artwork, typically characterful, like so much of Capcom's memorable designs - whether it's the slew of brawlers produced for the Street Fighter games, or the likes of Rival Schools, Power Stone, or Darkstalkers, Capcom's artwork has always been a uniquely pleasing thing to behold.

The same goes for the Ace Attorney games. It may seem odd, but I enjoy periodically leafing through an Udon 'The Art of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney' book, kept on a shelf in the living room, simply to pore over and enjoy the expressive character designs. In-game, they're lavished with minimal detail and little animation, but it doesn't matter. There's a crackling life and energy to every single member of the cast, from Phoenix himself to his mentor, Mia Fey, the downtrodden detective Gumshoe and Wright's prosecutor rivals: Miles Edgeworth, with his outrageous Austin Powers attire; Godot, with his strange mask and excessive coffee consumption; and Franziska Von Karma, who wields a whip in court, as you do.

Unnecessary embellishments such as character voiceovers would only serve to dilute the unparalleled qualities that Capcom has achieved with the Ace Attorney games, although, in The Great Ace Attorney spin-offs (set to release for PlayStation as The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, but, annoyingly, not for Xbox), fully animated 3D characters successfully retained the vim and individuality of the mainline series. But perhaps the best thing about the Ace Attorney series is the way that unexpected each case can take sharp, unexpected turns, and how a serious crime like a grisly murder can be punctuated by slapstick and levity without feeling cheap. It all works brilliantly, the music, too, helping to move events along at brisk pace, jaunty tunes worming their way into your brain until you catch yourself humming them or looping them in your head for days.

Meanwhile, the courtroom back and forth – unpicking contradictions and presenting evidence during witness cross examinations – forms only half of the story; Wright and his various relatives and colleagues, whom you also play as during the series, engage in their own investigations. Ace Attorney's protagonists take it upon themselves to collect their own evidence to bring to court (normally the job of police detectives), which unfolds during simplistic point-and-click sections that mildly test your powers of observation, and task you with putting witnesses and suspects alike under the microscope. Unraveling the true nature of a crime is never anything less than a thoroughly involving affair, hilariously unrealistic though it may be.

But perhaps the greatest crime of all is knowing that we may never see a genuinely new Ace Attorney game ever again, and almost definitely not one featuring legendary lawyer Phoenix Wright as protagonist. “I felt that Phoenix's story had been told, and that the series should not continue,” series writer and director Shu Takumi told Official Nintendo Magazine back in 2014. “Knowing when to end a story is very important and I wanted to avoid dragging it out and having it become a shadow of its former self.” You can't fault Takumi's logic – innumerable game franchises have fallen foul of overexposure, ultimately being marred by a severe case of diminishing returns. Yet, Phoenix Wright's adventures feel like they'll forever be beautifully preserved in amber, as the wonderful, one-of-a-kind curios that they are – a little bit of lightning in a bottle.

I've completed Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and sequels 'Justice For All' and 'Trials & Tribulations', and look forward with relish to really busting The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles wide open (consider this a plea to get it released on Xbox). But with no sign of a new entry in the series, or any further remasters of the old games on the cards, there remain two available options to play the remaining chapters I've yet to experience. Either to play the versions ported to mobile devices, or, and this is what I think needs to happen, I'm going to have to get hold of a Nintendo DS to satiate my unending thirst for justice. A certain popular auction site awaits... Any objections?

  • I played the first 3 on the DS and loved them. I played the first Miles Edgeworth game too, but stops after that. I havent played Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright, Apollo Justice, or the new Phoenix Wright game that was digital only.

    I will be picking up the Great Ace Attorney games on the switch.
  • I'm not sure that 2014 Shu Takumi quote means a whole lot when Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice came out in 2016.

    Also, OBJECTION! DO NOT buy a DS - you want to get yourself a 3DS instead. Both Dual Destinies and Spirit of Justice came out on that system, and with it being back compatible you can play Apollo Justice and Ace Attorney Investigations on it too. The 3DS will also let you play Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright as mentioned above.
  • @2 - Excellent advice! I'll be sure to pick up a 3DS.
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