The first Phoenix Wright game to hit the US in three years comes out today so I thought it was only fitting to have a quick look back at the original trilogy. I would cover the entire series, but then we would be here all day. In addition, it’s the trilogy of games that I have the most personal relationship with as they kept me entertained throughout high school and college. This is especially fascinating since logically this series should not have become anywhere near as successful as it is. I mean, it’s a visual novel/point and click adventure game series in a courtroom setting with minimal animation and low replay value. What is it about these games that made them so huge? Well for starters one little word.
The first game Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney was originally released in Japan for the Gameboy advanced in 2001. When it first made its way to the US on the DS it came with a snazzy little gimmick. At certain points you could activate the built-in microphone and shout OBJECTION! Which became the go to catch phrase for the series (along with “Hold It!” and “Take That!” but those aren’t as memeworthy.) This is probably one of the first things people heard about the series and probably what got many people to try it out.
When they did they discovered this silly little gimmick was attached to one of the most well written, hilarious, convoluted, soap-operaesque in a good way games this side of an excellent JRPG. A game with great puzzles that required you to pay attention and actually read, filling you with a smug sense of satisfaction as you see sinister criminals squirm, sweat and eventually explode into raving lunacy because of your logical deductions. All the while you deal with some of the most varied and ridiculous side characters out of any videogame.
Across five different cases (we got an extra mission “Rise from the Ashes.” USA!) you are Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney. A rookie attorney constantly in over his head and dealing with a horrid court system that requires all cases be done in 72 hours, prefers prosecutors, and is overseen by a gullible judge of questionable competence. The only thing you have going for you is amazing bluffing skills, a fanatical belief in your client’s innocence, and Maya Fey your plucky sidekick who provides advice and occasionally channels the spirits of the dead.
Though there are many silly elements throughout the first game (you interrogate a parrot at one point) it is balanced by the fact that the cases are well written mysteries with varying layers of intricacy. The best one is undoubtedly the fourth case Turnabout Goodbyes, which requires you to defend Miles Edgeworth, the prosecutor that has tormented you throughout the game. Along the way you combat his corrupt mentor Manfred Von Karma a monster obsessed with perfection willing to do whatever it takes to get a guilty verdict. The innocence of the defendant is irrelevant.
The second game in the series Justice for All released in the US in 2006 is widely considered the lesser of the original trilogy. Though probably true, it still introduced new elements to the series. From a gameplay perspective a magical item called the Magatama is introduced. When a character is telling a particularly big lie the Magatama glows showing you the “psych locks” on a person letting you know how much it will take for that person to break down and tell the truth. As well as Franziska Von Karma, daughter of the first games big bad. Though a tad over the top, her ruthlessness and absurd tendency to whip anything that displeased her while in a court of law quickly made her a fan favorite.
This all leads up to the final case Farewell My Turnabout. This case requires you to defend an actor accused of murder. At the same time, the vicious assassin Shelly de Killer has kidnapped your assistant Maya and will kill her if you don’t get the actor acquitted. . Without spoiling too much the finale of the game involves a complicated moral dilemma about the nature of justice. Should justice prevail even at the cost of innocent lives? Or is it better that the innocent are protected even if a murderer goes free? Though technically the game still has a set story, the amount of tension that goes into making the games final decision compares to the most brutal Telltale game you’ve ever played.
However, by the third game’s US released in 2008, the mix of logic puzzles, evidence gathering and simplistic point and click adventuring come to ahead to be what I consider the apex of the series, Trials and Tribulations. This is the game with the most heinous antagonist in the series as well as the most charismatic of the prosecutors, Godot. A coffee fiend with a sinister mask and sharp wit. And despite his tendencies to go off on rambling philosophical tangents he remains one of the most challenging and tragic enemies in the series. The story itself is intricately brilliant as each case is connected with two of them being cases in the past that let you play as Phoenix’s mentor Mia Fey. If you can only ever play one game in the series this is the one for you.
However, it should be noted that gameplay wise this series is somewhat unimpressive. Each game is roughly twenty to twenty-five hours and there has been little gameplay variation throughout the series even to this day. Aside from a few touch screen gimmicks for gathering evidence and making point and click adventuring easier every game plays essentially the same with the exception of the spin-off games. Though well written, it is not uncommon for you to see the solution two steps ahead of the character and save scum your way to victory as you resort to trying every possible combination of items and witness testimony as you desperately try to follow the roundabout logic that lets you progress through the story. Furthermore, due to the highly linear nature of the games there is little replay value. The only way to obtain it is to wait a few years before playing again, much like reading a favorite book.
That being said, each of the three is still fantastically written, representing the wonders that a passionate localization team is capable of. And despite the limited animation and questionable logic, when your lawyering skills finally cause a suspect to flip out and lose their composure, it’s an over the top sight to behold. Somehow they manage to always find a different way to show a character exploding in fear and anguish making each sequence feel just as exciting as the last. It is because of this talented writing and atmosphere that makes every game in this series worth playing opening day. If you have yet to do so, I implore you to play this series. Not only is the original trilogy available on the 3DS, it can also be played on iOS. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to spend up to thirty hours of my life playing the new one that just came out today.