After 6 years of waiting, the Great Ace Attorney games finally get a release outside of Japan, to the delight of fans and many narrative designers who don’t speak Japanese (and are also fans). The release will mark the 20th anniversary of the Ace Attorney series, which has spanned 13 games, a bunch of novelizations and manga adaptations, an animated TV show, a movie version directed by Takashi Miike, and three musicals by the Takarazuka Revue. The popularity and longevity of the series around the globe is undeniable, and the release of the Great Ace Attorney games, set in 19th century japan, was long overdue.
The formula of the Ace Attorney series is the following: the player plays the role of the attorney, who has to defend someone who appears to be guilty of a crime. At first glance, the circumstances and evidence all seem to demonstrate that we’re defending a lost cause, although our defendant says they’re innocent. Our goal is to turn around the story–the “turnabout” is the core motif of all the Ace Attorney games. It’s up to the player to find the evidence that will exonerate our client–and here’s where the game proves to be a really a detective game. Our lawyer, alongside their assistants, visits the crime scene, finds pieces of evidence that go into the case report, cross-questions people, and when they have found all the information they need, then they go to court. The game will not let players progress until they have found all the materials that will help them make the case in the courtroom.
The courtroom is where the player must fight for justice, though this courtroom is very peculiar–we only have three days to solve our case, while all the arguments that our lawyer can make are based on depositions from witnesses rather than appealing to specific laws. Apparently, one doesn’t really need to go to law school to be a lawyer in these games. Witnesses tell their stories, and we have to find the contradictions and the lies by pressing them on specific statements, or offering evidence that proves that their statement is not correct. The courtroom scenes are a fight for truth and justice, almost literally. When the interrogations get heated, the music speeds up and pumps up, just as it does in the fighting games by the same publisher, Capcom. The sound effect whenever the player raises an objection or marks a contradiction, with a loud “Hold it!” or “Objection!”, has become as iconic of “hadouken!” in the Street Fighter series, also developed and published by Capcom. (It’s no surprise that Phoenix Wright appears in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 (2011) as a playable character.)
The Ace Attorney games are not really about being a lawyer, but being a good detective. None of the lawyers who are protagonists or the prosecutors that they face doesn’t need to know the code of law, but has to be able to rewrite the story by finding the lies or inaccuracies and provide the evidence that will set it right. This is what a detective does – a detective gathers evidence and information in order to solve a mystery, figure out how a crime has happened, which is what the attorneys in these games do to begin with. The goal of the detective is to be able to reconstruct the story of the crime by looking for fingerprints, broken glass, traces of blood, and a variety of depositions. In mystery novels, how the crime has happened is often baffling – for example, there is a whole subgenre of detective stories where a murder happens within a locked room. The Ace Attorney series starts with a crime where the explanation seems evident, and so the story that the lawyer-detective has to tell has explain the crime in a way that will exonerate their client.
The model that the Ace Attorney games are followed actually comes from a long tradition of detective stories, particularly the Perry Mason series. The character was originated in a series of novels, which are the third best-selling book series in the world, but he rose to worldwide popularity thanks to the 1950s-60s TV show with Raymond Burr. The formula for each episode may sound familiar to the Ace Attorney fans: at the beginning, the audience is introduced to a potential victim, and the people who surround them, including someone who has very clear motivations to kill them. Then the potential victim becomes the actual victim of a murder, and all points to the most obvious subject, who immediately becomes the client of Perry Mason. The second half of the episode consist of courtroom scenes, where things look really bad for the client as the district attorney presents evidence that first allows the judge to send the case to trial. With the help of his trustworthy assistants, PI Paul Drake and secretary Della Street, Mason gathers evidence that demonstrates unethical and even criminal behaviors on the part of other characters and at times even law enforcers. In the end, it’s one of these pieces of evidence that makes the actual culprit break down at the stand, and confess the crime. Thus the client is found not guilty, something that is celebrated by the client and the team, who do a short debriefing after the trial.
If you’ve played any of the Ace Attorney games, this formula will feel terribly familiar, because it’s exactly the same as the structure of a typical case in the games. Continuing with the parallelisms, in the original TV adaptation (there have been others) there is only one instance in which the client is actually guilty, as is the case (to my knowledge) with Ace Attorney, which also gave way to one of my favorite moments in the whole series.
There have been previous game adaptations of Perry Mason, all inspired on the Raymond Burr adaptations. The first one was a board game tie-in with the original TV show from 1957, where players are driving around to gather evidence, interrogate suspects and be the first to bring the evidence to court. A second board game from 1987, probably a tie-in with the TV movies that Burr starred in at the time, focuses on the court case, where players have to cross question witnesses and obtain the answers that will allow players to find the culprit. Both games come with a variety of cases that can be replayed, and use detection as one of their core mechanics, a common feature in many detective board games.
There is also a videogame also directly inspired by the 1950s TV show, Perry Mason: The Case of the Mandarin Murder, which reproduces beat by beat the structure of one of the TV episodes. It is a graphical text adventure where the player controls Mason, who meets the victim and the prime suspect, then examines the crime scene, and then sends his assistants for different information while the court case is going on. Again, a formula that will be very familiar to the players of the Ace Attorney games. You can play the DOS version here, although if you speak Spanish and have access to an MSX emulator, the MSX2 version of the game used scanned photos from the original show.
This is all to point out that, even though the game series has “attorney” in the title, the Ace Attorney games are really detective games, not only because the player does a lot of detective work to gather evidence for the case file, including fingerprinting and examining objects in detail, but also because the texts that inspired the games were also detective fiction to begin with.