The last time I properly played the original Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney trilogy was on the Nintendo DS Lite. It was a visual novel that felt at home on the handheld, an exciting courtroom drama that was never held back by the hardware it was on.
Funnily enough, though those DS versions were the first of the series to make it to the West, they themselves were updated versions of Game Boy Advance titles. The Ace Attorney series (called Gyakuten Saiban in Japan, effectively “Turnabout Trial”) was originally released in Japan on the GBA in 2001 before being ported to the DS in 2006.
The series has since been ported to numerous other platforms — Windows PC, Nintendo Wii, iOS and Android mobiles. The full trilogy was ported to the Nintendo 3DS as a single package, and it is this version of the game that now finds its way to three brand new platforms in the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.
The Ace Attorney series are visual novels that follow fledgling defense attorney Phoenix Wright across a number of high profile cases that come to define his career. Thrust into the legal spotlight after the sudden death of his mentor Mia Fey, Wright (and by extension you, the player) must quickly learn the ropes and start getting those crucial Not Guilty verdicts. That Wright is a defender of the accused has always been one of my favourite aspects of the series. It would have been easy to make him a prosecutor, someone relentlessly pursuing the guilty. But that’s not Wright. All of his clients are wrongly accused and its his job to save them from an unjust sentence. The pursuit of justice remains, but it is more empathetic in its approach.
Each case plays out with much the same two-to-three-day formula. The player is given a glimpse of the crime as it occurs from a third-person perspective. From there, you take control of Wright as he meets his new client, beginning to piece the story together and gather evidence to support his case. This is followed by the first day of the trial. The trial is a test of memory and logic, a back-and-forth between Wright and the prosecutor — Miles Edgeworth in the original, Franziska von Karma in the sequel Justice For All, and Godot in the third entry Trials and Tribulations — that requires a strong attention to detail, and an ability to think each piece of evidence through and connect the dots.
Part of connecting the dots is poring over each witnesses’ testimony looking for contradictions or claims that don’t add up. Sometimes the holes in their stories are obvious. Sometimes they’re not. The leaps of logic the game makes aren’t always a straight line, and you’ll occasionally have to think a bit outside the box or even make a leap of faith. As you pull the witnesses’ testimony apart, the prosecution will work to dispute you or render your evidence moot. It’s a dance, with Wright and Edgeworth going round and round, each repeatedly turning the tables on the other.
Eventually, a recess will be called and it’s likely you will be given another period in which to conduct further witness interviews and evidence collection. Then, it’s back to court with your new info. Repeat until the case is solved and the truly guilty are punished. It allows a picture of what really happened to slowly fall into place, with each new piece causing the culprit to slowly unravel. Every nail in the guilty party’s coffin is punctuated by thrumming music and helped along by great characterisation and some extremely beautiful art design. The mental judo involved is enough to make your heart race. When the words Not Guilty finally appear on screen as judgement is rendered, you feel as though you’ve ascended to the galaxy brain astral plane tier.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy is, I think, the best possible way to play these games. I’ve only ever gotten to enjoy the game on a tiny little DS screen or that of my phone. To have it on my TV, in high resolution, with text I can clearly read is rather wonderful. It lets the game’s manga art direction shine; its characters, their expressions and reactions are so much easier to read, allowing that empathic vibe to bleed through stronger than ever.
It’s also a reminder of the importance of strong localisation. Ace Attorney has long been a north star for companies interested in localising Japanese games for English speaking markets. It makes mistakes — the ramifications of changing the setting to the United States only grow as the Japanese iconography and traditions begin to pile up in later titles — but you let them go through to the keeper. The Western versions (written by Alexander O. Smith) succeed because they are willing to have fun with the script but never lose the spirit of the original. They indulge in similar wordplay to the originals, the script fraught with double entendres, innuendo and misunderstandings.
It’s also often laugh out loud funny, a real rarity where games writing is concerned.
I’m about to charge headfirst into the weeds for a second here, but I liken it to the English translations of the legendary French comic Asterix by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. Numerous jokes and great swaths of dialogue that, while making perfect sense to French audience, would mean nothing to an English speaking audience were adjusted or completely replaced in order to make sense. Often, they were replaced with better jokes than the ones Asterix creators Goscinny and Uderzo had written. The same is true of Ace Attorney. Though some of its scenarios, written by its Japanese creators, may have dated (like witnesses that deliberately bounce their breasts to win over the jury), Smith’s translated script is as funny and whip smart now as it was in 2006.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy is a must play for anyone who’s managed to miss these titles at any point in the last decade. They are charming, clever, creative and a great deal of fun. Please make sure you pick it up. I hope the rest of the series is given similarly reverent treatment.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Beautiful art style; Each case is a great yarn; Laugh out loud funny
Lowlights: Certain sexist jokes have dated rather badly
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC
Review conducted on Nintendo Switch with a pre-release code provided by the publisher.