32. Ace Attorney

“What? Video games about a lawyer? You’re not serious.”

Such was my first response to Ace Attorney, a series of games for the Nintendo DS, when I heard about it years ago. I could understand the appeal of video games about a warrior, soldier or pilot who saves kingdom, country or world from sorcerers, armies or aliens—but games about a defense attorney who saves defendants from prosecutors?

Then, a year ago, I actually played Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, the first game in the series, and made a most surprising discovery: it was actually kind of awesome.

Ace Attorney Logo

Had the Ace Attorney games tried to replicate every detail of our own justice system, they would undoubtedly have been tedious and boring. Fortunately, the games favor fun over realism. The court system is simplified, making trials much more exciting and easier to follow.

The Ace Attorney games star a goodhearted defense attorney named Phoenix Wright who defends his clients with perseverance, sarcasm, spiky hair and a good deal of luck.

Wright is accompanied by his friend Maya—younger sister of his deceased mentor and voracious consumer of hamburgers—who assists him in his investigations.

The gameplay of the Ace Attorney games consists of two elements. First, Wright visits scenes related to the crime and interacts with the people involved. Although this element requires a little detective work, it’s mostly about gathering information. The second element requires Wright to use the information he’s gathered to prove the innocence of his defendant in court.

Most of Wright’s business in court is cross-examining—a fancy legal term for questioning—witnesses. Cross-examination in the Ace Attorney games is guided by one basic principle: Find the contradiction and expose it with evidence! Almost all witnesses make some mistake in their testimony; Wright’s job is to consider the information he’s gathered, expose the witnesses’ lies and figure out who really committed the crime.

Each case starts slowly, but gets steadily more exciting as more information and evidence is revealed. Finding the contradictions in witnesses’ testimonies is unbelievably satisfying, and it’s exhilarating to unmask the true criminal in each case—especially since it’s sometimes the last person the player suspects.

Two things particularly stand out to me about the Ace Attorney games.

First is that events in the games are exaggerated for dramatic effect: the melodrama of each case is hilarious. When witnesses are exposed as liars, they react as though physically struck. Key witnesses have a habit of barging into court at exactly the right moment to give their testimonies. Perhaps most famously, attorneys in the Ace Attorney games don’t merely say “Objection” when they object to a proceeding in court. They bang their desks and shout—

The second thing that makes the Ace Attorney games so enjoyable is that the characters are wonderful. They remind me of Charles Dickens, whose most delightful characters are more like caricatures: Scrooge and Micawber and Fagin are too ridiculous to be realistic, yet retain just enough truth to be believable. In the same way, the Ace Attorney games are full of exaggerated characters that are too silly to be real—yet they’re believable, likable and memorable. As in Dickens’s novels, major characters are developed carefully and minor characters are never dull or insignificant.

Are the Ace Attorney games worth playing? Odd as it sounds, definitely. It’s ridiculously satisfying to solve cases and save innocent defendants, and the games’ storytelling is excellent.

And really, who can resist shouting “Objection!” into a Nintendo DS microphone and watching guilty witnesses cower in fear?

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