Ace Attorney: How To Wright A Story

Here is an excerpt from the February 2004 issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly:

“In real life, Japanese courts are so slow that it can take several years to complete a typical lawsuit. In the world of Gyakuten Saiban (available now in Japan for GBA), which translates to ‘Courtroom Reversal,’ it’s a different story—there’s no jury, no insanity pleas, and only three days to convince the judge that your client’s innocent. How do you, defense attorney Ryuichi Naruhodo, manage this? Simple: Visit the crime scene, gather evidence, and use it to rip the prosecutor’s case to shreds during cross-examination. It sounds boring, but the high-energy anime sequences and nutty characters have made Gyakuten Saiban one of Japan’s most popular adventure series—this third installment is coming to Japan in January 2004.”

Haha! What a weird game that has no chance of ever making it to America, right?

As (hopefully) most of you know, those games did make it to America, and they have been smash hits, selling over five million copies in their lifetime. They were localized as Phoenix Wright and later Ace Attorney. 1)The link there will take you to a long but very well-written article on the localization process and its relation to AA games. The fifth game in the main series was released as a digital-only title late last year. A crossover with the Professor Layton series came out earlier this year, and a 3DS port of the first three games (the Phoenix Wright trilogy) is coming out as, again, a digital-only title in just a few weeks. 2)Important note: the Layton crossover originally came out in 2012 in Japan, earlier than AA5.

What makes these games so appealing? After all, to an outsider, there’s no real skill involved in any of them. That’s not to say you don’t have to flex your brain if you want to solve a case on your own. What I mean is that, aided by a walkthrough, anyone can complete any Ace Attorney game. No part of any game is possible to be failed as long as you are told what to do. There are no motor skills involved whatsoever. Nothing is “hard” to do, just hard to figure out.

Because of that, it’s not your standard video game by any stretch of the imagination. It is, in essence, a visual novel with adventure-game elements. The bulk of the game is in the reading and determining what step to take next, with occasional trips to crime scenes and other locations to gather evidence, clues, and talk with witnesses. Occasionally you will have an argument about a stepladder or analysis of a plant.

Of course, the style of the game does not mean it is any less worth your time. On the contrary, the ease of play and accessibility make AA games great for anyone. And they’re just about everywhere by this point, too—the PW trilogy and AA5 have been ported to iOS and, as stated earlier, the PW trilogy is coming out on the Nintendo eShop very soon. It’s always a good time to get into the Ace Attorney series.

Why is that? A lot of the reason for that is due to Shu Takumi, the creative mind behind the universe of Ace Attorney. 3)Takumi is also the mind between the excellent standalone title Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective. To give Takumi all of the credit for games very obviously built by a team would be a mistake, but the heart of the AA games is where Takumi’s talent shines: the stories and the characters.

It kills me that I am unable to discuss the intricacies and twists present in various AA games for fear of spoiling potential new entrants to the series. It’s notable that I care about not spoiling the AA series more than any other work of media because of the necessity of being in the dark about what is going to happen next during your first time playing through the game. Takumi has an incredible skill to reveal one small fact that turns the entire game on its head. 4)This is also true for Ghost Trick. Play that game too. The fourth case of the first game is one I often talk about—people who have experienced it will know exactly what I mean. The reveal in that case is one of many that leave your jaw dropped; you never saw it coming but now everything makes sense.

Takumi’s importance to the AA series is particularly illustrated due to his absence in the staff of AA5, as he was focusing his efforts on Layton vs. Wright. 5)Hereafter referred to as LVW. Having played both of these games I can confidently say that the differences are astounding. Though AA5 makes some important improvements to the actual gameplay of AA games by adding a to-do list, making investigations easier to undergo, and including anime cutscenes and more voice acting, it falls really really flat when it comes to story and characters.

This is a bit harsh, to be fair. There are memorable characters from AA5, such as the new assistant—actually, never mind. I stopped and almost went to look her name up and then realized, wait, that means she wasn’t actually memorable at all. 6)Her name was Athena Cykes. I still do maintain that she is one of the better characters from the game. Ah, but then there’s the ridiculous death row inmate/prosecutor Simon Blackquill, who is somehow simultaneously a samurai and old-school Englishman.

I also have personal reasons for disliking the story. I’ll forego my usual no-spoilers policy for the next few sentences, but they’re important to my larger point. Just a heads up if you ever want to slog through AA5. Anyway, in the third case, one of the suspects, Robin Newman, is ostensibly a boy. Eventually you find out that (shocker!!) she is actually a girl! Much is made of this reveal, as both a gag and for the shock value. This isn’t a twist Takumi would come up with. 7)More on that in a bit, actually. It was unnecessary, underhanded, and just plain weird. One of Robin’s post-reveal animations has her admiring a high-heel shoe because that’s definitely the girly thing to do, right? The whole ordeal ends up not being significant to the longer story arc at all, anyway.

Is the game’s treatment of Robin intentionally transmisogynistic? I would wager not—a lot of things get lost and changed in localization and it’s a very tricky subject to dance around. Robin’s male identity is forced upon her by her parents; it’s not a choice of her own. What bugged me was how “stereotypically female” she became after the reveal. Admiring shoes, fainting during conflict, teasingly spelling out words…the works. My point is that it was an event that never should have happened. It soured the rest of the game for me, as I expect better from AA than underhanded shock narrative tactics such as this.

Something similar does happen in LVW, though. I won’t be as forthcoming about this one since my editor is about to play the game for the first time, but I don’t have to be as forthcoming. A reveal happens, and all of the characters accept it and move on. It’s never played for laughs, the reasons for the initial subterfuge make sense instead of being hamfisted, and though the reveal is portrayed as a shock, all of the characters quickly move on, realizing that there are more important things to worry about.

It’s a trope as old as time itself, yes, but how you play it is important. Taking the time to construct a narrative where the trope makes sense matters. Shoving it in haphazardly because part of the allure of the universe you’re working with is shocking reveals doesn’t. It reeks of laziness. In fact, the climactic reveal at the very end of AA5 is ridiculously lazy. I felt nothing upon encountering it because what had just taken place meant little to nothing in the grand scheme of things. 8)Yes, I know it’s a video game.

Meanwhile, even as an ostensibly non-canon game, LVW keeps the narrative stakes high at every turn. Again, I’m loath to spoil anything about it at all, but it’s painfully obvious which game Takumi worked on. I’ll freely admit that there is a good deal of recency bias in play here, but I feel a deeper and sincerer attachment to characters from LVW then I do AA5. 9)Part of this is strongly because Maya Fey was prominently involved in LVW and not AA5, but that’s neither here nor there. When keeping it strictly to characters specific to LVW, there’s a lot more to love.

Part of this is because the vastly different styles of Professor Layton and Ace Attorney games offer a lot of opportunities for creativity. 10)Full disclosure: I have actually never played a Professor Layton game. The technical capabilities of the Nintendo 3DS also allow for a rider range of expression and reaction, and LVW smartly reserves voice acting for specific, important scenes instead of recording dialogue for the entire game. New characters like Espella Cantabella, Prosecutor Darklaw, and Zacharias Barnham with rich backstories and neat designs make the choice to make the main duos of both PL and AA the only characters to bring in from those universes a good one. 11)Not counting the judge from Ace Attorney and a couple of characters from Professor Layton, who make brief appearances early on.

If the last several paragraphs read like a takedown of Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies and praise for Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright, that’s because they pretty much are! Having played both games, I know which one I prefer, and it’s definitely not only because Maya Fey is in one but not the other. There are good reasons to like one and good reasons to dislike the other. Importantly, LVW requires no prior knowledge of any universe in order to have a good time. Of course, experience with the characters and previous games is rewarded with a few winks at the player, but at no point will you be lost if you don’t know the first thing about either Professor Layton or Ace Attorney.

If you’re looking for an intro to the AA series, LVW is a good idea. It’s available on the eShop and in stores if you look hard enough. With the Phoenix Wright Trilogy coming out soon, that’s also a good idea for first-timers to the series, though three games at once appears daunting. No word yet on what the price will be, but I’d wager something like $19.99 would be a fair deal. 12)I have just cursed the game to go on sale for, like, fifty bucks.

The long and short of it is: Shu Takumi is a great game creator. Play Ghost Trick. Play Ace Attorney. Experience the worlds and stories he builds and give him the credit he duly deserves.

Notes   [ + ]

1. The link there will take you to a long but very well-written article on the localization process and its relation to AA games.
2. Important note: the Layton crossover originally came out in 2012 in Japan, earlier than AA5.
3. Takumi is also the mind between the excellent standalone title Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective.
4. This is also true for Ghost Trick. Play that game too.
5. Hereafter referred to as LVW.
6. Her name was Athena Cykes. I still do maintain that she is one of the better characters from the game.
7. More on that in a bit, actually.
8. Yes, I know it’s a video game.
9. Part of this is strongly because Maya Fey was prominently involved in LVW and not AA5, but that’s neither here nor there.
10. Full disclosure: I have actually never played a Professor Layton game.
11. Not counting the judge from Ace Attorney and a couple of characters from Professor Layton, who make brief appearances early on.
12. I have just cursed the game to go on sale for, like, fifty bucks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*