Capcom’s long-running Ace Attorney series is a staple of the visual novel genre. Known in Japan as Gyakuten Saiban, or “Turnabout Trial,” it combines engaging story elements with puzzling court cases, and a variety of colorful characters. Behind every mysterious murder or bizarre series of circumstances, you’ll find an equally confounding motive and the few weirdos who decided to go ahead and commit a heinous crime—murder being the worst of it, usually.
From the gung-ho attorney Phoenix Wright himself to plucky rival Miles Edgeworth and the up-and-comer Apollo Justice, the Ace Attorney series relies on unique storytelling through bold personalities to avoid being another boring, humdrum series of crime sagas. And it works fantastically.
With 13 game releases since 2001’s Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, the series continues to grow upward, with a live-action movie, manga spin-offs, and an anime adaptation under its belt. It’s clear people can’t get enough of the courtroom, a locale traditionally looked upon as somewhere folks want to stay away from, natch. There’s just something incredibly satisfying about collecting clues, solving tantalizing whodunnits, and seeing the guilty parties come to justice.
But what is the Ace Attorney series actually about? Despite its popularity, it can be a bit obtuse for newcomers to understand, especially those unfamiliar with its origins and history. For those individuals, there are plenty of questions: Where do you start, what does the series entail, and what kind of gameplay can you expect?
With The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles on its way later this month on July 27, it’s a great time to take a look back at one of the greatest courtroom experiences you’ll ever have in a video game series.
Hold It! The Saga Begins
The Ace Attorney series sprang forth from humble beginnings in Japan on the Game Boy Advance, not the Nintendo DS (contrary to popular belief). The first entry was relegated to the handheld console, though it has since been ported to a variety of systems, including the 2005 Nintendo DS version, which marked the series’ very first North American release. This was Western gamers’ first brush with the game franchise, and for many, it marked the beginning of a love song that’s still playing on to this day.
This first entry introduces the intrepid Phoenix Wright, a rookie defense attorney. A beginner in every sense of the word, Wright works under boss Mia Fey, whose sister Maya Fey is his assistant. Phoenix is altruistic and honest with his intentions and just wants to seek a “not guilty” verdict for his clients, whom he tends to believe in.
Players jump into the sprightly Phoenix’s shiny shoes and control him throughout a series of different types of gameplay sections: investigations, conversations, clue-gathering, and the all-important trials. All of the entries throughout the Ace Attorney series share these same kinds of gameplay mechanics, but Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney featured the most streamlined and simplistic version of them all. Investigation segments find players speaking to witnesses and suspects, gathering clues from key words and statements they make, and searching a variety of crime scenes and environments for potential clues.
Phoenix will take specific items into his inventory for investigation and potential courtroom use later, so it’s best to look around and gather as much evidence as possible should you want to emerge victorious at trial. Once there’s enough evidence that’s been gathered from multiple sources, players take what they’ve learned and head to trial, where everything begins to heat up. Just like in the real world, having your day in court can be nerve-wracking, but it’s also exhilarating when you know what’s going on.
Ace Attorney shines most in the courtroom, and for good reason. There, players must speak to witnesses, cross-examine their statements, introduce items, affidavits, and other inventory assets as evidence, and ultimately decide who will come out on top. The hilariously out-of-touch judge is a bit of a mainstay for the series, while cruel prosecutor Miles Edgeworth is the perfect foil for kind and trusting Phoenix, who just wants the best for everyone in his care, even though he knows very well that he’s still a newbie.
The Nintendo DS port of the game even added some fun mechanics that weren’t originally present due to the Game Boy Advance’s limitations: the ability to shout “Hold it!” or “Objection!” into the microphone on the DS when interjecting or objecting to another’s statement or actions. The touch screen also had its time to shine on the handheld, which proved the perfect home for Phoenix and crew.
However, since the Ace Attorney series was still developing at the time of its Japanese debut in 2001, its next entries, Justice for All and Trials and Tribulations, were both released on the Game Boy Advance as well. For North American players, these games wouldn’t come westward until they followed Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney’s Nintendo DS debut in 2005, with Justice for All hitting the DS in 2006 and Trials and Tribulations releasing in 2007.
With this in mind, it’s important to offer credit where due: to the Game Boy Advance for “birthing” the saga, so to speak, and to the Nintendo DS for introducing it to Western audiences, thanks to the dual-screen handheld’s popularity and accessibility during those years.
When it came time for the fourth title in the Ace Attorney series, Capcom decided it was time to pass the baton from Phoenix to an entirely new character, much to fans’ surprise. In 2007, the series finally caught up to its North American DS releases as Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney hit the dual-screen instead of Game Boy Advance this time around. It wouldn’t reach the West until 2008, giving fans a bit of a buffer between the previous game before introducing them to Apollo Justice, a major change for players so used to playing a role as Phoenix.
Apollo Justice marked an interesting departure from the norm, as it took place seven years after the previous game, Trials and Tribulations. Phoenix has been stripped of his attorney’s badge, which is a pretty heavy blow to deal to faithful players looking to play as Phoenix again, much like Metal Gear Solid 2 introducing Raiden over Snake. Since Phoenix can’t practice law for the time being, which is explained throughout the game’s narrative, you must take on the role of his apprentice Apollo Justice. Further, Apollo enlists the help of Phoenix’s adopted daughter Trucy for her expertise throughout each case.
The game does play similarly to the previous entries in the series, but it does introduce the new “perceive” system that changes up things significantly. Using the Perceive ability, players can look through witnesses’ nervous tics or motions as they give their testimonies. They might give some sort of tell, or sign, that they’re either lying or telling the truth. It dramatically changes some scenes and adds a satisfying new layer to gameplay that could have gotten stale over time—and, just like that, Ace Attorney introduced changes players could get accustomed to quickly, and refused to go stale.
Apollo Justice’s debut marked a change in the Ace Attorney narrative, as it would cement Apollo’s appearances in the games to come. The fifth entry, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies, arrived on the Nintendo 3DS in 2013, the first title to debut on the new version of Nintendo’s popular handheld, with 3D capabilities. This time, it’s more than just Phoenix that people have lost confidence in. It’s the entire court system. It’s been fraught with darkness, with fabricated evidence, innocent individuals being charged with crimes they didn’t commit, and corruption that even connects to Phoenix’s disbarment in the first place.
This entry allows players to take on the roles of three different characters for the first time: Phoenix Wright, Apollo Justice, and Athena Cykes, who each get their own unique cases to work out. However, like with Apollo Justice, Dual Destinies introduced another different mechanic to keep things fresh: “psyche-locks” that Phoenix can see over witnesses who aren’t quite being honest and hiding something, visual cues for Apollo that can indicate they’re being dishonest, and Athena’s voice cue-detecting powers via her Mood Matrix, which made copious use of the 3DS’s touchscreen.
This entry further diversified the cast of characters and mechanics players would utilize throughout their normal evidence collection and investigations as well as courtroom procedures, and would be the penultimate game to release in the series for the 3DS until the next title in 2016.
The most recent Ace Attorney series, Spirit of Justice, brought the “band” back together, so to speak, as it followed Phoenix once more as its main character. On a journey to the fictitious Kingdom of Khura’in to see Maya Fey, he ends up dealing with the company’s vision of how the court system works—instead, it’s being replaced with a type of vision known as the Divination Seance. While Phoenix takes on the monumental task of learning how to handle these (as do players), previously introduced characters Apollo Justice, now a mainstay in the games, and Athena Cykes, take on cases at Phoenix’s Wright Anything Agency while he’s gone.
The same elements from Dual Destinies, including 3D navigation, return in Spirit of Justice, but the main difference is the Divination Seance ritual. They show the final moments of a victim before their death, which seems to paint the guilty in a pretty damning light. Players must pay attention to the seances and find contradictions in those moments to help determine a verdict—and protect the innocent.
Spirit of Justice is the final mainline game to feature Phoenix as the main character thus far. However, you can’t keep a good attorney down, as he also appeared in the crossover Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, which debuted in 2014 for Western players. However, though Phoenix is arguably the character that started it all, popularizing the genre and universe, Apollo Justice and friends carried on his legacy and helped establish additional stories and world building fantastically when they appeared.
There are a couple of other titles as well that don’t actually prominently feature Phoenix: Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth and Ace Attorney Investigations 2. While the Miles Edgeworth spinoff debuted in 2010 in the West, the sequel has yet to receive an official translation. However, there’s another set of visual novels in the Ace Attorney universe that round out the series, and they’re about to see their first Western release this month: the Great Ace Attorney games.
Herlock Sholmes and Friends
The Great Ace Attorney series was established in 2015 in Japan on the 3DS with The Great Ace Attorney: Adventures. It still includes the same types of mechanics, but it introduces a completely new character and time period: Ryunosuke Naruhodo, the ancestor of Phoenix Wright. It takes place near the dawn of the 20th century, or the Victorian era, and with that it changes much of what players know about the judicial system.
Ryunosuke works alongside friend and law student Kazuma Asogi. At their beck and call is Susato Mikotoba. Ryunosuke eventually meets and becomes friends with Sherlock Holmes himself. It’s a bit of a wacky premise, but it does just enough change to the Ace Attorney series to make it feel brand new once more.
The sequel, The Great Ace Attorney 2: Resolve, is a follow-up that wasn’t released for Western players either, but it also features Sherlock Holmes. Now, both games are finally seeing their day in court, so to speak, as Western players on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC will get to play The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles this month. It marks the first time either game has ever officially been made available outside of Japan, and as such completes the Ace Attorney series (save for one Ace Attorney Investigations game). Though there will be one major difference: due to old-timey copyright shenanigans, Sherlock will be known as the somewhat hilariously-named Herlock Sholmes. Go figure, right?
Ace in the Hole
The Ace Attorney series is a hallowed one for a reason. It’s a go-to game for those interested in mystery and detective stories, always a great choice for anyone who loves visual novels, and an all-around fantastic set of games. If you’ve often felt like you couldn’t just jump in at any time and enjoy one, let this explanation serve as a way for you to evaluate the best moment for you to see what it’s all about. And now that most of the series is complete and translated, you can enjoy every bit of what Japanese fans have been able to experience for years. And that’s nothing to object about.