Ace Attorney is a visual novel series about legal disputes and the judicial system, and over the past 20 years it’s carved a space for itself by transforming historically dull, monotonous court processes into some of the most dramatic reveals in games. It’s a series full of endless spectacle, and the personality infused in its characters and their clothing is a huge reason why it’s so successful. I got the chance to talk with Art Director and Character Designer Kazuya Nuri about his design process, inspirations, and why The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is a shimmering example of that meticulous attention to fashion.
Great Ace Attorney is an offshoot of the main games and takes place in the late 1800s during a period known in Japan as the Meiji era, and in Britain as the Victorian era. Ryunosuke Naruhodo is the protagonist, as well as Phoenix Wright’s ancestor. The two characters share a love for justice, but Nuri makes it clear through his designs that they definitely do not have the same taste in clothing.
“What we have to keep in mind is that the range of what was considered acceptable and what was fashionable during the Meiji era is vastly different from our modern values,” explains Nuri. “Back then, traditional Japanese clothing was still the norm, so I imagine that Ryunosuke would dress himself in more traditional hakama-style clothing when he wasn’t wearing his school uniform. In fact, even for elite students like him, wearing a suit would’ve still been exceedingly rare, and he would’ve stood out quite a bit from the crowd. Between Ryunosuke and Phoenix, I think we can see and feel that difference in the values and fashion sense of the times they live in.”
To properly capture the Meiji era’s aesthetic, Nuri watched dramas and movies from the time period to get a sense of its style and trends over the years. He tells me that his baseline of research helped him craft unique designs that stay faithful to the times.
“My biggest inspirations were antique goods and fashion catalogues that were actually in circulation during that era,” says Nuri. “From there, I applied what I’d learned by establishing base rules for my designs and then incorporated the fictional and fantastical elements unique to The Great Ace Attorney. I also wanted to create a more vibrant version of the Victorian era, so I used various colors in my clothing designs to accentuate my visual world building.”
Nuri’s main ambition was to enhance the world and story with accurate dress, so “players could immerse and indulge themselves in the rich, unique world.” That combination of late 18th century fashion, mystery, and cases make for memorable moments that North America and Europe had been missing out on before The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles released in July.
When Nuri starts sketching out a character’s concept, he first needs to understand their place in the story. He likes to make their outfits eye-catching, in addition to having realistic depth. Even though he applies humor to costumes, he never wants them to feel too comical.
“Satoru Hosonaga has a more realistic design than other witness characters so that he could ‘play’ a variety of roles, as it were, because I could tell he had great potential to appear in the story again later on,” says Nuri. “His design is built around the theme of a young man with fragile good looks. The chick mascot of La Carneval on his napkin was originally meant to represent the game fowl that was to be the specialty dish of the restaurant, and also served as foreshadowing to Jezaille’s little chicks. In The Great Ace Attorney 2: Resolve, I aimed to give him an outfit that’s a bit more outrageous but still befitting of the Victorian era, which I hope players enjoy.”
Detective Hosonaga is one of The Great Ace Attorney‘s tamer designs, but he shares a trial with Jezaille Brett, a pompous and peculiar British woman who leads the world in poultry-core fashion.
“Jezaille Brett is the first Westerner players meet in Japan, so I placed a lot of emphasis on making her stand out from the moment she makes her appearance,” says Nuri. “I built her look around a ‘fantastically bizarre lady.’ Through her design, I intended to fuel players’ imaginations as to what might await them (both good and bad) in Great Britain. The design of her mask matches the eyes of the swan on her head.”
Nuri had a fun time developing all the costumes, but his favourites were Madame Tusspells, Maria Gorey, and Enoch Drebber. In The Great Ace Attorney 2: Resolve he bent some of his period design procedures so he could put more charisma into characters, and make their clothing more expressive. By the end of production he felt the best about Barok van Zieks and Mael Stronghart because he captured their motifs and social standings very clearly.
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is an amalgamation of two Great Ace Attorney games that were released in Japan for the Nintendo 3DS in the mid 2010s. It’s the first official port that brings additional costumes, musical arrangements, and concept art to an international audience on PC, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch.
“The additional costumes were designed to bring out a fresh and new sense of charm,” states Nuri. “I wanted the costumes to be different from each character’s regular outfits, with an emphasis on the time period. I also took care not to fall into the trap of only relying on the visual impact of the costumes to carry the design. My aim was to create a legitimate connection between the outfits and the main story, and to further expand the world of The Great Ace Attorney. By giving the characters different outfits, I added many elements to their designs that would spark the imagination and give players something new to find not only for their first playthrough, but on subsequent ones as well.”
Nuri also explained that he designed Susato’s modest kimono and Ryunosuke’s suit with the idea that child prodigy Iris Wilson made them by hand. They’re basically the duo’s unofficial uniforms for the Sholmes Consulting Detective Agency, a riffraff group headed by the wild and well-meaning Herlock Sholmes.
“When Mr. Takumi and I first discussed the design of Herlock Sholmes, we knew we wanted him to look a bit strange,” Nuri illustrates. “However, as I developed some early designs, Takumi eventually suggested we should focus on making the character cool-looking. Ultimately, I made the decision to showcase Sholmes’s unique quirks through his expressions and actions rather than through his visual design.”
Sholmes is one of the first British characters that you meet, so Nuri decided to give him steampunk gizmos and platinum blonde hair to make him stand out from Japanese characters. Sholmes’s bonus outfit features a mask based on the cat Wagahai, and Nuri points out that the great detective made this costume all by himself.
“Sholmes’s design also features his goggles and pouch of colorful test tubes, which complement the percussion revolver that Sholmes wields during his deduction,” explains Nuri. “His gun serves as a counterpart to Ryunosuke’s katana, providing a visual contrast between the differing cultures of Europe and Japan. The gear motif in Sholmes’s personal crest represents the Industrial Revolution that was occurring in Britain. It also symbolizes Sholmes and Iris’s relationship.”
To close out our conversation, I ask Nuri why fashion is so important in Ace Attorney, and he tells me that the series wouldn’t have the same emotional impact without a keen focus on form, design, and patterns.
“The mainline Ace Attorney series is set in a world that’s not so different from our own,” says Nuri. “It’s not a fantasy world but a modern, familiar world that acts as a stage for our mysteries. So, while the characters are presented as manga-style game characters, it’s important that their clothes and fashion sense stay relatively realistic.”
He tells me characters’ outfits need to “convey and impart specific qualities” that paint a picture of the individual wearing them, highlighting things like their personality, background, and occupation.
“Therefore, how I decide what clothes a character should wear is different from how we would normally approach the decision of what to wear in our daily lives,” says Nuri. “More than anything, I focus on selecting clothes that really make each character stand out through their silhouette. I also like to add little gimmicks and contraptions related to a character’s unique movements where I can. In other words, I try to fully utilize and justify why a particular item is necessary in their design through their animations as well.”
Nuri concludes by telling me that a character’s “full charm and potential” is only unlocked by organically connecting them with their unique quirks, and conveying their context in a natural way that meshes with the game world. I’m incredibly impressed with how The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles uses fashion as a vehicle to move stories in compelling directions, and it’s wonderful to see these games finally get the worldwide attention they deserve.