Welcome to Franchise Festival, where we discuss and explore the history of popular video game series. Previous entries in this ongoing series can be found here.
This week we’ll be taking a look at one of the most endearing portable puzzle game franchise’s around: Professor Layton. Note that dates of release are presented as Japan, followed by all other regions (except Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy, in which case the first date pertains to all regions aside from North America).
Level-5 began developing the Professor Layton series for the Nintendo DS in the 2000s. Its origin is rooted in some rather unlikely places, as its producer (and founder of Level-5), Akihiro Hino, was primarily inspired to develop a video game adaptation of a popular series of Japanese brain teaser books; these books, translated into English as Head Gymnastics, were written by Akira Tago beginning in 1966. Akihiro Hino took much of his inspiration for the character, on the other hand, from Capcom’s Phoenix Wright. Apparently Hino was interested in the possibility of working up a character that lacked Phoenix Wright’s character flaws while maintaining his highly effective puzzle-solving ability – the result was the humorously reserved English gentleman, Hershel Layton.
Professor Layton and the Curious Village (2007/2008)*
Level-5 hired Akira Tago, the author of Head Gymnastics, to write and direct its first foray into the puzzle genre. Level-5’s founder, Akihiro Hino, produced the game. Many of the puzzles are taken directly from the Head Gymnastics series of books, adapted to the Nintendo DS touch interface and dual screens, but thirty puzzles are exclusive to the game. In addition to the standard puzzles, numerous minigames are present and change up the gameplay in unique ways – a room planning minigame in which the player arranges furniture to bring joy to the rooms’ inhabitants, a jigsaw-arranging minigame to form new pieces of art, and a robotics minigame in which the player slowly assembles a mechanical dog that aids in the discovery of secrets throughout the game’s world.
The plot concerns Professor Layton and his young assistant Luke visiting a country village, St. Mystere, and seeking to solve a central mystery. Along the way, the two of them meet a cast of eccentric characters who often request that the protagonist solve a brain teaser or puzzle before proceeding with the narrative. The writing and visuals are exceedingly charming, as the characters all have a humorous way with words and the art design is hued with earth tones and drawn in a European animation style. The music echoes this European aesthetic, as it consists of laid back French-influenced songs featuring accordions, pianos and the like.
One major feature that set the game apart from its contemporaries were the fully animated cutscenes that played at key points in the narrative. Prerendered cutscenes had become standard on home console games a decade earlier, but remained a relative rarity on portable systems. Additionally, the cutscenes in Professor Layton and the Curious Village were created by an established Japanese animation studio, P.A. Works; while the studio’s background was in anime, its artists effectively imitated a European style in keeping with the game’s visual and audio design.
Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (2007/2009)
Surprisingly, the next Professor Layton title was published within the same year as its predecessor! That said, it wouldn’t be released outside of Japan until 2009, a year after Professor Layton and the Curious Village had already become a hit. The creative team was largely the same, as Akira Tago again imported puzzles from his books (alongside new ones designed only for the game) and Akihiro Hino took on the role of producer.
Audio/visual design and gameplay were functionally identical to the game’s predecessor: players navigate and click on static images featuring a European animation and music style to activate puzzles, progress a narrative, discover new humorous dialogue and initiate brain teaser puzzles. The primary gameplay development was making puzzles more relevant to what was occurring in the setting and narrative. Audiences had complained that the preceding game featured puzzles too disjointed from the narrative, so the developers sought to integrate the puzzle and narrative elements more closely.
The plot was also more ambitious in Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box. While the original game took place in a single village, much of its successor occurs on a moving train, the Molentary Express, and a series of towns. Layton and Luke are joined by a new character, Flora, and are tasked with finding the Elysian Box, a container that is said to cause the death of those who open it. Interestingly, the game was called Professor Layton and Pandora’s Box in Europe and Australia!
Developers working on the game had originally intended to strand Layton on a desert island and call the adventure Professor Layton and the Secret of Ghost Island, but abandoned the idea early in development as the setting didn’t suit the character. It also began a trend of utilizing more English language in puzzles’ visual design, which would come to shorten localization time in future iterations (though there was a lengthier delay in localization for this particular title because the first game hadn’t yet been localized outside of Japan at the time of its release). Despite the game’s apparent niche appeal, it would become the best-selling Nintendo DS title at the time of its release.
Professor Layton and the Unwound Future (2008/2010)
The third game in the series is the first to feature direct continuity from its predecessor; Flora joins Layton and Luke as a third protagonist after being introduced in Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box. Behind the scenes, little changed in the team’s makeup – Akihiro Hino and Akira Tago remained the key personnel. It represented the second game in the series to feature alternative titles outside of Japan, as it was known as Professor Layton and the Lost Future in Europe.
The plot this time is a bit more ambitious, focusing on an apparent time machine and dystopian future which Layton, Luke and Flora can transport themselves to and from during the narrative; Layton’s lost love, killed in a laboratory accident, features prominently. Over thirty minutes of animated sequences permit the typically static scenes to rise to impressively dramatic heights. The ending, in particular, features a series of twists and tragedies that would rival any stage drama. This story actually concludes the original trilogy of games, and is the last in the series chronological sequence.
Professor Layton and the Last Specter (2009/2011)
In some ways, Professor Layton and the Last Specter represents the most inventive release since the franchise’s debut; in other ways, it represents a return to Curious Village. Like all preceding games, it was published on the Nintendo DS; it would be the last Professor Layton game to appear on that platform.
The narrative returns to three years earlier than the earliest entry in the series, beginning a trilogy of prequel games. It concerns Layton’s experience meeting Luke and becoming a mystery-solving duo. It also introduces a prominent new third member of the team – Emmy Altava – who would go on to play a role in the following games. While these represent intriguing breaks with past entries, the setting is actually confined to a single English village much like Professor Layton and the Curious Village.
In the most significant development, Professor Layton and the Last Specter features an extended minigame titled “Professor Layton’s London Life.” It is a role-playing game based on another Level-5 property, Fantasy Life, in which the player gets to navigate a character of their own design around Little London, an area consisting of characters from throughout the Professor Layton series. The RPG minigame was developed in cooperation with Brownie Brown, a studio that had worked on Mother 3 and Sword of Mana and would go on to play a role in developing Super Mario 3D Land and Super Mario 3D World. While “Professor Layton’s London Life” is only accessible after completing the main storyline in the Japanese version of the game, and is accessible from the beginning of the North American and Australian version, it was excluded entirely from the European version; the time required to translate the text into multiple languages was believed to be too long to meet a 2011 release date.
Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask (2011/2012)
While Akihiro Hino and Akira Tago continued to be the key creative voices behind the Professor Layton series, the series moved from the Nintendo DS to the Nintendo 3DS beginning with this iteration. This could have been a simple upgrade of resolution, but actually resulted in a fairly dramatic alteration of the game’s core interface for the first time.
Players navigated around preceding entries by tapping on static images displayed on their Nintendo DS touchscreens, but the 3DS’ superior processing power permits animated environments. These environments are now displayed on the top screen; the bottom screen alternates through player choice between (1) a generic block that allows the player to move his or her cursor around the top screen and tap on areas of interest and (2) an overhead map view that lets the player select between adjacent regions to visit. It could have been a disaster, but the new interface actually represents a significant improvement in the player’s ability to interact with the game world. At the same time, characters were changed from static 2D sprites to animated 3D polygonal figures.
The plot proceeds from Professor Layton and the Last Specter, but is now set in a glimmering Las Vegas-esque desert metropolis called Monte D’or. The narrative shifts between the currently unfolding events, as Layton, Luke and Emma investigate a magician terrorist disrupting the carnival atmosphere, and Layton’s past as a student eighteen years earlier. Like Unwound Future, some tragic elements are present in addition to the typically humorous storytelling and puzzle-solving.
Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy (2013/2014)
This title represents the last in the game’s prequel trilogy, and follows up on some of the narrative elements of its direct predecessor; the ancient Azran civilization played a role in developing the core artifact of Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask, but is the central focus of this game. It is the last game (as of 2018) in which Professor Layton plays the title role, and the last game in which Akihiro Hino produces while Akira Tago writes and develops puzzles. Like Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, but expanded to a significant degree, the player travels on a global adventure rather than being tethered to a specific locale.
Layton’s Mystery Journal: Katrielle and the Millionaires’ Conspiracy (2017)
Layton’s Mystery Journal represents a much more significant evolution in the Professor Layton series than the last major development, which occurred when the series moved from its original trilogy to a prequel trilogy. In this instance, Hershel Layton is replaced by his daughter, Katrielle Layton; luckily, she also possesses extraordinary puzzle-solving capabilities. The plot concerns her search for Hershel.
More importantly, this entry represents the first title in the series after the death of Akira Tago. He had previously written the games and either adapted from or developed the puzzles in the style of his earlier works, the Head Gymnastics series of brain teaser books. The new puzzle designer was Kuniaki Iwanami, though the game was written by former producer, Akihiro Hino. The animation studio producing cutscenes also moved from P.A. Works to A-1 Pictures, which had previously worked on noteworthy anime series like Sword Art Online.
At the same time, the platform shifted from a dedicated 3DS series (following its entries on the DS) to being multiplatform. It released simultaneously on Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, including microtransactions, but was published later in the year on the Nintendo 3DS in a complete edition. The dramatic shift was due not only to a desire to attract a wider audience, particular among users who didn’t own dedicated game consoles, but also due to an interest in moving from the Layton series’ recent epic plots towards a more contained, low-key narrative.
With regard to that narrative, there was a marked evolution away from large-scale mysteries. The large scale was replaced with twelve small-scale chapters, to be completed in a linear fashion. Some found this more prosaic, while others appreciated the tighter focus. Interestingly, some review outlets found Katrielle to be a more compelling protagonist than her father, which bodes well for future entries in Level-5’s popular puzzle series.
The Professor Layton series has had numerous spin-offs despite its apparently niche appeal. An animated film, Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva. was produced by P.A. Works in 2009 and is set between the events of Professor Layton and the Last Specter and Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask; I’m not sure anything could testify to the puzzle game series’ endearing art and writing more than the fact that a non-interactive entry could be a compelling addition.
A major crossover was also developed in collaboration between Level-5 and Capcom in 2012. This combination between Professor Layton and one of its core inspirations, Phoenix Wright, resulted in the 3DS game Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wrigth: Ace Attorney. It introduced animated cutscenes to the Phoenix Wright series for the first time, while debuting the trial mechanics of that franchise in a Professor Layton game. It represents an impressive level of cooperation, since neither studio was solely responsible for development through the licensing of the other’s characters.
What are your favorite Professor Layton games and where do you see the series going in the future?