Late to the Party: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

Spoiler Warning: This article quite obviously contains spoilers for Ace Attorney.

This article will only cover the first game and not the other two in the trilogy. I have finished Justice for All and I’m working on Trials and Tribulations, but I ran out of time.

Late to the Turnabout

Do you have a piece of media that you absolutely know you’re going to love, but you simply haven’t gotten around to it yet?

I love video games, but a lot of the games I love best are notorious timesinks, and I don’t have anywhere close to the amount of time I would need to play them all. As a result, I only ever end up playing a small fraction of the games I’m interested in, and I end up passing on a lot of games I’m sure I’d enjoy if I had the time.

For a very long time, the Ace Attorney series was on that ever-growing list, even though it seemed tailor made for me. I enjoy visual novels and puzzle games, I love wacky anime madness, and courtroom antics with goofy lawyers is one of my favorite tropes. I’d absorbed a bunch of knowledge of the series due to a lot of crossover fandom with games I have played — unsurprisingly, a fair amount of the fans of this series are also into the Persona games, for example. However, it was one of those things I just never really made the time for.

It so happened that, at the same time I was thinking of what I might like to write for this batch of Late to the Party articles, I got into a conversation about the Ace Attorney games and how I really should play them. It turned out that there’s a decently faithful port for the Switch that came out just last year. It was the perfect opportunity.

I’m pleased to say that the first Ace Attorney game turned out to be one of the finest games I have ever played.

How to Be the World’s Okayest Defense Attorney

The gameplay of the Ace Attorney games is pretty straightforward, particularly in comparison to the madness that is actually contained within.

Ace Attorney is a visual novel. This is a fairly loose term for a genre of video games that consist primarily of text with static pictures, like a graphic novel. The interactivity usually takes the form of dialogue choices, puzzles, or light simulation elements.

You play as Phoenix Wright, a defense attorney working on his very first cases. In almost every case in the Ace Attorney series, you end up defending someone who has been wrongfully accused of murder. Your goal is to gather evidence, collect witness statements, and cross-examine witnesses on the stand in order to get your client acquitted.

The games are broken up into separate cases. The first game had four cases in its original release, but the DS remake added a fifth case that is also present in the recent Switch port. The gameplay has two main portions, the investigation phase and the trial phase, which are generally alternated.

In the investigation phases, Wright travels to various locations — generally including the crime scene, the detention center, Wright’s law office, and the police station. The main activity in each of these locations is to talk to a witness or other character to gain information for the trial portion of the game. You can also click on objects in the scene. Phoenix and his assistant Maya will comment on them, and it’s sometimes necessary to gain evidence.

In order to progress the investigation phase, you generally need to show the right person the right piece of evidence to get them to tell you some piece of crucial information. There is no penalty whatsover for showing everybody in the world everything in your inventory, and you often get funny dialogue by doing this, so this is obviously the optimal strategy. There’s even running gags involving Wright showing everybody his attorney’s badge, an item that appears in his inventory in every game but is only actually necessary a small number of times. Later games introduce more complex elements to the investigation phase, such as a minigame where you have to catch witnesses in lies before they’ll give up their secrets, but in the first game, you can complete most of the investigation segments simply by brute forcing every possible conversation topic.

In the trial phase, the prosecution will call witnesses to the stand, and it’s Wright’s job to cross-examine them to try to tear down their testimony and save your client. In general, a witness’ testimony will be displayed at the bottom of the screen line-by-line, and you must figure out which of their statements contains a potential lie or contradiction.

You have two main options available to you: Press and Present. Press allows Wright to ask a question about something a witness said. Occasionally, pressing results in a witness altering their testimony — which is often necessary to get the statement you actually need. When presenting, you must choose a piece of evidence from your inventory and match it to one of the witness’ statements, to prove there is a discrepancy between the evidence and something a witness said.

The investigation phase — at least in the first game — has no failure states, and you can pick every available option without penalty. The trial phase, on the other hand, has a kind of health bar. Picking the wrong piece of evidence to present results in a penalty, and when the bar depletes to nothing, your client is declared guilty and you must start from your last save point. Occasionally, there are also dialogue choices where you must pick the right option or present the right piece of evidence, and failing these usually results in a penalty as well. Therefore, you have to be a lot more careful about what you present in the trial. Pressing is almost always “free”, and even when it’s not actually helpful, it can unlock amusing conversations, so it’s usually in your best interest to always press.

All of this makes Ace Attorney sound like a fairly straightforward, sensible game.

It is not.

Rules of the Certifiably Insane Ace Attorney Legal System

Ace Attorney is actually a satire of the Japanese legal system, where the conviction rate is extremely high and the defense rarely wins cases. As such, the odds are stacked against our hapless protagonist. It’s important to understand how the legal system actually works in Ace Attorney…

  1. Your client is guilty until someone else is proven guilty. In the American legal system, the defendant is presumed innocent until their guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Ace Attorney does not work that way. You might instead assume that the defendant is presumed guilty until their innocence is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. This is also incorrect. The way Ace Attorney works is even worse than that: your client is presumed guilty until you prove that someone else is guilty. This is why nearly every case in Ace Attorney ends in Wright figuring out that one of the witnesses is the actual murderer, and breaking them on the stand until they are forced to confess their crimes. In the game’s best case, you actually end up proving that the prosecutor you are facing did it. To make a long story short, even if you prove that it was physically impossible for the defendant to have committed the murder, they’re still going to jail unless you can trick a witness into confessing.
  2. There are no bar exams. Phoenix Wright is allowed to be a lawyer and to defend murder cases even when he very obviously has no clue what he’s doing. In way of a tutorial, the first case begins with the judge asking you if you know your client’s name and what evidence is. Why is Wright allowed to have an attorney’s badge in the first place?
  3. Everyone attends lawyer high school. That’s really the only explanation for why nearly everyone in the game is much younger than is reasonable. Miles Edgeworth is an obvious example, having become one of the city’s most notable prosecutors in his mid-20s, when most lawyers would still be in school. Later, you get to Lana Skye, who has somehow had a legendary career as a police detective, followed by a promotion to chief prosecutor (and how does that work, those are definitely different skill sets), while still in her 30s. And here I am, older than all of these people, and I’m sitting in my pajamas writing about video games.
  4. Prosecutors can do whatever the fuck they want. I’m not just talking about things like forging and withholding evidence and instructing witnesses to lie. Those are at least things you might expect real-world corrupt prosecutors to do. I’m talking about things like when Manfred von Karma tazes Wright and Maya inside the police station’s evidence room and nothing is done about this. Early in the second game, they introduce a new prosecutor, Franziska von Karma, who carries a whip and beats people with it during the trial.
  5. Screaming matches are the road to victory. In an actual courtroom, a lawyer would probably get thrown out if they got into constant screaming matches with the prosecution. Not so in Ace Attorney, where Wright and Edgeworth are allowed to work out their sexual tension in public by bellowing “Objection!” at the top of their lungs, complete with dramatic anime cut-ins.
  6. Even though the defense is treated lower than dirt, the judge still allows them to ramble on about whatever baseless conjecture pops into their head. Is a passport saying the victim was in France enough to prove that she forgot to turn her clock back? Is Wright’s loser friend remembering that a radio DJ said it was “almost Christmas” enough to prove that he couldn’t have heard the murder take place? Sure, why not!
  7. Just throw anyone up there on the witness stand. In Ace Attorney world, you can put literally anyone or anything on the witness stand. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

An Extremely Partial List of Some of the More Interesting Events

I started out playing the game by taking detailed notes. At some point very early on — I think by the reveal of the talking statue clock — my notes devolved into incoherent madness. It’s kind of like those logs you pick up in video games that document an NPC going crazy, except it was just me writing “what the fuck, nothing actually works this way” over and over again. At some point, I gave up, which is why I only have a partial list of the bugfuck nuts things that happen in this game.

  • A custom-made, talking alarm clock shaped like The Thinker gets used as a murder weapon twice. See, this is what happens when you don’t allow people to have guns, Japan. They have to resort to smashing each other over the head with clocks that conveniently announce the time of death.
  • Phoenix Wright gets put on trial for murder and has to defend himself almost immediately. See, in a lot of media they would have saved this big dramatic twist for the end. Not so here. They have to blow past the mundane “protagonist is on trial” plot so they can get to the truly amazing content.
  • Your assistant, Maya Fey, is a spirit medium, and she’s constantly channeling the spirit of her sister, Mia Fey, a lawyer who actually read books and probably passed the bar exam. Before playing this game, I had seen artwork of Mia and assumed she was one of the main characters. She is, but I didn’t realize she gets killed in the first thirty minutes and has to be spirit channeled for the rest of the game series.
  • Police can be as insufferably quirky as they want to be to get results, which is why there were multiple police detectives that dress as cowboys, drink on the job, and talk entirely in fake Old West speak.
  • In the third case, Wright obtains a decisive piece of evidence he needs to pin the murder on Dee Vasquez, who has ties to organized crime. He then decides to go to her trailer, alone except for his young assistant, and wave this evidence around in her face. He is then surprised to get jumped by goons and is only saved because the police show up. This action is required to complete the game.
  • In the fourth case, he obtains decisive evidence proving that well-respected prosecutor Manfred von Karma committed a murder. Because Wright is incapable of pattern recognition, he decides to taunt von Karma with this evidence with only his assistant for backup. He ends up getting tazed and the evidence stolen in a moment that had me screaming at my TV. In Wright’s defense, you would think that tazing an attorney inside of a police station’s evidence room would have some consequences, but he clearly forgot one of the rules of the world: prosecutors can do whatever the fuck they want.
  • PHOENIX WRIGHT INTERROGATES A PARROT. This is important so I’m going to say it twice. PHOENIX WRIGHT PUTS A PARROT ON THE WITNESS STAND AND PROCEEDS TO CROSS-EXAMINE THAT PARROT. The judge allows this. The testimony turns out to be a key part of a murder trial. This is an event that is allowed to happen inside of a courtroom.
  • At some point in the second-to-last case, Wright picks up a metal detector to try to locate some evidence by a lake. The metal detector stays in his inventory, uselessly, through multiple phases of the game, until finally you learn that the piece of proof needed to pin the murderer on the prosecutor is a bullet lodged in his shoulder decades ago, that he never received surgery for. You then proceed to win the case by using a metal detector on the rival prosecutor in the middle of the courtroom.
  • The Blue Badger also exists.

The Most Lovable Pack of Idiots to Ever Grace a Courthouse

All of these crazy happenings are entertaining in their own right, but what I honestly wasn’t expecting was for Ace Attorney to give me such intense feelings as well. It’s all over-the-top melodrama, of course, but the entire main cast is all so sympathetic and fun that it’s impossible not to get caught up in their personal struggles.

Phoenix Wright, of course, has pitch-perfect characterization, effortlessly walking the line between being a goofy wash-up and being frighteningly competent when it really matters. His downtrodden, nervous demeanor make him instantly relatable. If you’ve ever been in a job where you’ve suffered from imposter syndrome, Wright’s constant self-doubt is going to seem extremely familiar. It makes it all the more sweet when he finally solves the case and is able to turn the tables on the real murderer, as triumphant music blares. While he has many, many moments of idiocy, he never quite crosses the line into actually being stupid. You can tell that he’s actually quite intelligent, just… not always thinking quite straight.

One core, endearing aspect of Wright’s character that really makes him work is that he has an incredibly pure heart. He’s truly devoted to justice and believes in his clients, even when evidence is stacked against them. It makes you root for him to succeed even when he does things that are objectively idiotic. It makes you want to protect him from himself.

Speaking of people who need to be protected from themselves…

Maya Fey is Phoenix Wright’s assistant. She is Mia Fey’s little sister, who Wright ends up defending from murder charges (again and again…). Going in, I honestly expected this character to be annoying. She has all the ingredients of irritation: she’s a perky, enthusiastic anime girl who has absolutely zero business being anywhere near a crime scene. I was surprised to find that Maya almost immediately endearing. While she is overly enthusiastic and has her moments of dumbassery, she’s also a thoughtful and empathetic character who is every bit as pure-hearted as Wright. The moment when she gets herself thrown in jail on contempt of court in order to save Edgeworth’s life was a perfect demonstration of how Maya is the kind of friend you want on your side.

Dick Gumshoe is the bumbling police detective who is initially a bit of a foil to Wright, preventing him from accessing crime scenes and evidence. It isn’t long before you learn that Gumshoe is himself every bit as devoted to justice as Wright is. Despite his frequent mistakes (resulting in him getting his pay docked until he can only afford instant noodles to eat), he’s always striving to do what’s right, even if it means putting his career on the line to help Wright. Gumshoe is the kind of cop that we wish all real-life cops were like. He has one of the biggest hearts in a series full of big-hearted people.

Because the events of the fourth case result in Maya Fey returning to her home village for further medium training, the fifth case gives you replacement goldfish Ema Skye as your assistant. Maya is a tough act to follow, and Ema isn’t quite up to it, but she’s a lot of fun in her own right: childlishly obsessed with forensics, crushing on Miles Edgeworth and fingerprinting everything in sight. Like everyone else in these games, she has a soul-crushing backstory that makes you want to protect her, even as you’re questioning the wisdom of bringing a high schooler along to a crime scene.

There are also a number of recurring witness characters, such as Wright’s childhood friend Larry Butz, rambling security guard Wendy Oldbag, and backwoods aspiring photographer Lotta Hart. These characters tend to be a bit more on the irritating side, but they rarely overstay their welcome.

Hm, am I missing any of the core cast? Oh, yes…

Let’s Talk About Miles Edgeworth

I have a mental shortlist of my favorite video game characters. Miles Edgeworth showed up and pretty much immediately stole a spot on that list.

Miles Edgeworth is Phoenix Wright’s rival prosecutor who is introduced in the second case. He’s an arrogant, egotistic prodigy who immediately pulls a dirty trick on Wright by revealing that Wright is working off an older version of the victim’s autopsy report to build his case. He’s so hilariously smarmy about it that I can’t even be mad.

One thing that’s interesting about these games is that to make them work as a game, Wright has to win his cases, and Edgeworth therefore has to lose. But if Edgeworth loses too many cases, he’ll start to look like a bumbling idiot and not the smart, focused prosecutor he’s meant to be. The first game handles this fairly cleverly. In the second case, where you first square off with Edgeworth, you more or less defeat him normally. In the third case, Edgeworth himself realizes partway through the trial that your client actually is innocent, and deliberately throws you a bone in order to get the correct murderer convicted — one of the first hints that he has more depth than he lets on. This leads up to the fourth case, where Edgeworth himself is accused of murder, and the one that gives him most of his character development in the first game.

Because of his reputation as a “demon prosecutor,” no defense attorney will take his case, apart from Wright, and at first he refuses Wright as well. When you finally do convince his stubborn ass to take you as counsel, you learn how impossible the case really is: there’s a murder weapon with his fingerprints on it, the victim was alone in a boat with Edgeworth, and there are witnesses. Despite all of this, and despite how Edgeworth has treated them in the past, Wright and Fey are 100% convinced of his innocence.

In the game’s most brilliant case, it turns out all of this was a setup so that respected prosecutor Manfred von Karma, Edgeworth’s mentor who took him in after his father’s death, could frame his former ward for murder. You see, fifteen years ago, von Karma received his only penalty in court at the hands of Gregory Edgeworth, Miles’ defense attorney father. Shortly afterwards, a devastating earthquake caused Gregory and his son to be trapped in an elevator in the courtroom, and von Karma took this opportunity to shoot Gregory and frame a courtroom employee for the murder.

von Karma then proceeds to adopt Miles, abusing him and molding him into a ruthless prosecutor as a form of revenge against Gregory. You read that right: because he suffered a penalty in court, Manfred von Karma decided to kill his rival defense attorney, adopt his son, abuse him mercilessly, turn him into a copy of himself, and finally, after all of that, frame Miles Edgeworth for murder and have him executed.

Holy fuck, Manfred von Karma!

Before this case, you have a lot of hints that Edgeworth is actually just a roiling mass of neuroses in the shape of a man, but this is where you learn a lot more of the details of his problems. Because of the unresolved trauma from the incident in the elevator, he has nightmares about his father’s death every night and has panic attacks whenever there are earthquakes. His smug, egotistic exterior is a thin veneer of competence over someone who is just barely holding it together.

This is, perhaps, a little too relatable, and the point at which I decided that Edgeworth must be protected at all costs.

Thankfully, Wright himself agrees with that assessment. It turns out that he knew Edgeworth as a child, and that brings us to…

The Courtroom Cannot Hold This Much Gay

I knew that Wright/Edgeworth (often called Wrightworth) was a popular ship before I started these games. But I also know the tendency of the internet to ship any two attractive men who happen to be standing near each other, regardless of whether they have any chemistry or not.

Needless to say, I was not prepared for the sheer force of sexual tension contained within this game.

Wright and Edgeworth constantly snark at each other in court, but that’s what you would expect given that the game is all about courtroom antics. You can easily read attraction into it if you feel like it, but it’s pretty spurious up until the end of the third case, where Edgeworth realizes that your client is, in fact, innocent, and ends up helping you and hurting his own case in court. That’s when he confronts Wright outside of the courtroom and confesses that Wright’s presence is causing him to have “unnecessary feelings.” These writers knew exactly what they were doing.

When Edgeworth is accused of murder, Wright’s absolute insistence on helping him seems maybe a little intense given that Edgeworth hasn’t exactly been the nicest guy so far. That’s when you learn a critical piece of their backstory: Edgeworth was Wright’s childhood friend. They became friends after an incident where Wright was accused of stealing Edgeworth’s lunch money, and Wright was subjected to a class trial in which everyone believed him to be guilty. Edgeworth, emulating his defense attorney father, defended Wright, pointing out that they had no solid evidence for accusing him. Wright and Edgeworth became friends, but less than a year after this, Edgeworth was adopted by von Karma and Wright never saw him again.

That is, until Wright saw a newspaper article about the legendary “demon prosecutor” that defense attorneys fear. This caused Wright to change his major from art to law and become a lawyer purely so he could see Edgeworth again. Yes, Phoenix Wright changed the entire trajectory of his life because he had been pining for Edgeworth for fifteen years.

Honestly, I can’t blame him. I’m also pining for Edgeworth and he’s just a pixel guy on my TV screen. I get you, Wright.

It turns out, unsurprisingly, that Edgeworth has some fairly intense memories of Wright as well. Seeing Wright act so righteously as a defense prosecutor causes him to also rethink his life and what kind of a man he has become. The final case features Wright and Edgeworth teaming up at the end of the trial to throw everything they have at the real murderer, “untouchable” police chief Damon Gant. By reconnecting with Wright, Edgeworth has restored his previous convictions and become the sort of man who will risk his precious career to do the right thing.

Once you learn all of this, it’s impossible not to see their courtroom bickering as flirting, especially when (in the second game) Edgeworth says things like “they should strip you naked and run you out of the courtroom.” It’s no wonder there are reams of fanfiction written about these two finally getting together. Obviously, I had to read some. As research. For this article. And that’s how I became spoiled on most of the events of the subsequent games. For research!

Anyway.

Awesome Things in the Game That Aren’t Miles Edgeworth

Let’s just quickly cover some of the other things that make this game a fantastic one.

First, the writing. If it wasn’t clear from my descriptions above, it’s incredibly sharp and even funnier than I expected. I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard from a video game since Portal 2.

Secondly, the music was surprisingly good. I listen to video game OSTs a lot but had somehow missed the Ace Attorney OSTs. They’ve now made in into my regular rotation. The “Pursuit” theme that plays at suspenseful moments, the calm and collected “Trial” theme, and the “Turnabout Sisters” theme that accompanies Mia and Maya’s appearances are some of my favorite tracks from the first game.

The graphics are almost entirely animated character portraits placed over backdrops, but it works because the portraits are so exaggerated and fun. The same stock portraits are reused a lot, but I found they became familiar, not stale. Some particularly fun poses: Edgeworth melting down and pounding the stand, the various lawyers’ dramatic pointing as they yell “Objection!”, Wright’s anxious flop-sweat, Edgeworth’s cocky finger wagging.

Every trial ends with the actual murderer having a complete meltdown on the witness stand, and each of these meltdowns is accompanied by a ridiculous, over-the-top character animation. Finally getting to see this hilarious moment is one of your rewards for winning the trial, and they never disappointed.

One thing I haven’t talked about very much is the puzzles themselves, and that’s because that’s one aspect of the game I found to be a little more of a mixed bag. They’re mostly reasonable, and it’s incredibly satisfying to solve some of the key pieces of the trial yourself, but some of them take a bit of a swerve into insane troll logic. This isn’t so bad in the investigation phase, but the trial phase punishes experimentation with the health meter. I quickly learned to save right before I presented literally anything. My most frequent complaint with the game was that sometimes I would know what the contradiction in the witness’ testimony is, but I would not know exactly which piece of evidence I need to present on which statement in order to progress. Sometimes, there were multiple pieces of evidence that made sense to me, and figuring out which one the game expected was trial and error.

Acquittals are accompanied by confetti raining from the ceiling in real life, right?

In conclusion, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a masterpiece of genius and madness, and everyone should play it.

Unfortunately, I did not have time to finish the entire trilogy before my due date. I didn’t have that much to say about Justice for All, which I enjoyed but found to be an overall weaker game than the first. There is a possibility that I’ll do a non-Late to the Party article covering my thoughts on Trials and Tribulations, particularly if I can get a couple more thousand words about Miles Edgeworth out of it.

Remember: Almost Christmas means it wasn’t Christmas. This fact could save your life.