Last week, the newest game in the Ace Attorney series, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies: Too Many Colons launched as a downloadable title on the Nintendo 3DS. In my particular household, this literally caused my wife and I to drop everything. If we had kids, I would have hired a babysitter. Amongst a certain subset of gaming fandom, the Ace Attorney series, once described to me as "the best book I ever played", inspires a sort of crazy-eyed excitement normally only reserved for the drop of a new Bioshock or Halo. But why? What are these games, and should you be playing them? Right now? Yes. Seriously, go download this game immediately.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney came to North America on the Nintendo DS in 2005. It was actually a remake of a Gameboy Advance game that had never been released to the US called Gyakuten Saiban, or Turnabout Trial. The games follow the adventures of a heroic defense attorney who defends his clients against murder charges in a series of increasingly complicated cases and with a cast of increasingly weird people. Your opponent is always a devilishly clever and charming Prosecutor - sometimes the very popular Miles Edgeworth, but most of the time the Prosecutor's position changes as much as the teaching post of Defense Against the Dark Arts.
|I don't know if we can say "perfect." Payne is in this picture.|
The games all follow a similar pattern. You watch a brief, animated cutscene showing the murder in question, and sometimes even telling you who did it. (Moreso in the opening tutorial cases.) Then Phoenix or Apollo finds out about the case, takes on their new client, and begins their investigation. You'll scour the crime scene for clues, talk to witnesses for information, and finally, take the battle to the courtroom.
The courtroom is where these games really shine. You have to use the evidence you've collected to pick apart the arguments and statements made by the witnesses and the prosecution. Sometimes they're just misguided, other times they're openly corrupt, but there's always contradictions to be torn apart with a stunning "TAKE THAT!" The feelings you get when you have your opponent on the ropes can only be summed up by the music that plays in the first game when that happens (an acapella version for your listening pleaure):
So - why am I telling you to buy these games right this minute?
First of all, the series is genuinely funny and heartfelt. While the games are written for a Japanese audience, the localization team goes out of their way to replace the Japanese puns and references for an English speaking crowd, leaving you chuckling out loud more than you'd expect. And while the witnesses all tend to be caricatures, the prosecutors and defense team are all always fully realized, three dimensional characters that make you genuinely care about them. In one particularly harrowing case from the third game, you find out just much you, the player, care for one of your sidekicks - the hard way.
Secondly, the game is smart, with a difficulty curve that hits just right. In the first few cases, you'll be screaming at your DS for Phoenix or Apollo to solve the simplest clue ever and crack this case. By the final case, you'll be beating your head against a wall trying to untangle the web and save your client. But every time, the joy you feel at finally hitting the right contradiction and proving your client innocent is like nothing else. This is a game that excels in teaching you the right tools, and then making you feel smart for figuring out how to use them. In a world of hand-holding tutorials, it balances just the right amount of newbie-helping before throwing you to the wolves and saying, "You figure it out."
While each game in the series can be played on its own, there's a continuing story through all five main series games that makes having played all of them worth your while. "But Mike," I hear you say, "How will I do that? I don't even own a DS!" Hear me, oh listeners, and be happy - the first three Phoenix Wright games are on the ios app store right now. That's right, you could be playing the games as we speak.
So why aren't you?