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Retrospective – Phoenix Wright

posted on October 21st, 2008 by christian

I rented Phoenix Wright from Gamefly sometime last month. After burning through the game, I added a few brand spanking new games to the queue for the purpose of review. Instead of sending these low availability titles, they saw fit to send me the next two PW games in a row. After a constant stream of Ace Attorney over the last month, I feel it is time to take a look the series – its strengths and weaknesses – and how Capcom should handle it in the future.

The Good
Character art: The typical explanation here is that the Ace Attorney games have wonderful anime art, but that is a deceptive thing to say. The fact is is that the character sprites are “anime” in so much as they were made in Japan. In general however they defy most expectations of what anime art is supposed to look like. There isn’t an abundance of saucer eyes or overly proportioned underage females. Characters come in all shapes and sizes, some completely normal, others decked out with exaggerated clothing or facial features.

The one area in which the anime art does benefit would be the character animations, which convey a lot of emotion in just a few frames. It is striking to see just how much you can understand a character simply by how they move in different situations (for example, Ema Skye’s design and movements perfectly convey the idea that she wants to be an adult, but still looks and acts like a kid). Despite coming from the Gameboy Advance era, the PW games are far from a failure graphically.

Setting: None of the Phoenix Wright games are strong examples of the real world Between soul channeling mystics, strange technology, and complete disregard for court rules, there is no mistaking that this is fiction. Yet the trilogy has an incredible sense of reality. As Jay puts it, these aren’t games where love and friendship conquer all. Good people are hurt and killed, trust is earned rather than given, and losses are permanent. Justice often comes at a price, and sometimes there are no clear answers to the big picture questions that are presented. Combined with what little I know of Apollo Justice, it is clear that the creators are not afraid to address the grey areas of life and the effects that time can have on a person.

At the same time, the stories are not overrun with pessimism either. When dealing with games and anime, such a healthy, human portrayal of the world seems rare, and I will admit that this is one of the last series I expected to find it in.

Writing: I don’t get a kick out of all the nerd jokes referenced in the games, but I must say these are some of the better localizations I have seen. The characters and settings are such that it is only sometimes obvious that it was originally set in Japan, meaning the localizers were able to transfer the story to a Western setting almost seamlessly.

The Bad
Characters: If there is one more area where the anime influence is apparent in PW, it is the series’ infatuation with lovely ladies. Aside from the very creepy idea of underage spirit mediums channeling full grown women, there are still plenty of non-mystical babes. As I said, most of the women are somewhat realistic, and none of the kids are really sexualized. However, that doesn’t stop many of the men in the game from hitting on them and falling into pieces over how cute they are. It isn’t the worst thing in the world, and the games are tame compared to the rest of the game/anime community, but if they found a way to leave Maya and Pearl alone, it would have made my day.

Don’t love them ho’s: On the same token I once said to my brother that the PW games seem like a harem anime minus the romance. To put it another way, Phoenix is an often goofy and bumbling protagonist constantly getting saved and sometimes beaten by all sorts of damsels. Of course, it is eventually revealed how much everyone believed in and appreciated our pal Nick, so I suppose it was just tough love. Still, I would have liked to have seen him portrayed with a little more competence, which he clearly demonstrates in Apollo Justice (right?).

Adventure game style: After the first Ace Attorney, the next two games get harder and a bit meatier. This is a blessing and a curse. Too many of the investigation sections dive off the wrong end of the adventure game pool. You may find yourself with no new leads or dialogue until you use brute force, showing each character each piece of evidence until you find the one someone responds to. Then you have to move to the right location to trigger an event. It can get tedious and causes these sections to drag longer than they should.

Meanwhile, in the courtroom there are instances where you won’t get the extra testimony you need until you press a statement multiple times, and the judge is very finicky about whether or not he gives you a penalty when you are forced to provide evidence. Some of the puzzles involve throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks, and these do a disservice to those where you have to pay close attention to the evidence at hand and the testimony that was given.

The Future
When you factor in price, length, and the structure of the games themselves, I cannot think of a better series than this to follow in the footsteps of Sam and Max and go episodic. Especially with the release of the DSi, I think it would be viable to deliver a case every month for a five or six episode “season.” The only way this could become a problem is the localization process, but hey, if Capcom wants to contract off a spinoff to Telltale Games, you won’t see me complain.

In regards to sequels, we certainly know they are coming, and Capcom is clearly willing to mix things up. Thus I can’t really say I’m worried about the games getting tired and stale. I can only hope that the Western fanbase stays strong. If there is one thing they have proven in recent years, the louder gamers vote with our mouths and wallets, the more Capcom listens.


  1. pat said on October 23, 2008:

    im a little surprised (happy, but surprised) you like this series as much as you do christian. and if you dont think the series sexualizes kids too much, id be interested to hear how comfortable you are with certain events in apollo justice.

  2. christian said on October 23, 2008:

    Yeah, I know what you are talking about. It starts out quite risque, before turning into something rather comedic. Still, at first you couldn’t tell where the game was going to go with it.

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