Eighteen Years in, Ace Attorney Is Stuck in Its Past

Does Phoenix Wright have a future?

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy hit digital storefronts early this month. If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s a great jumping-on point: as legal eagle Phoenix Wright, you’ll crack 14 cases while butting heads with rival prosecutor Miles Edgeworth, investigating crime scenes with your partner Maya Fey, and generally doing nothing with any basis in actual legal proceedings.

But if you are familiar with the series — if you’ve been following it since those games first came west on the DS in the mid-2000s — you’ve heard all this before, many, many times. You’ve played Phoenix’s first adventures on half a dozen platforms, and you’ve seen them on film, on TV, on stage, on the page, and of course in song.

Ace Attorney made its name as one of the most original new IPs in years back when it was released. But for fans of the series, it’s hard not to feel like it’s been stuck in place for much, much longer than it was ever fresh.

A Beloved Trilogy, and a Sudden Swerve

Ace Attorney began in 2000 as the brainchild of Capcom’s Shu Takumi. A long-time mystery fan, Takumi came up with the concept of a detective game told through the lens of the legal system: players would take on the role of a defense attorney, collect evidence and clues, and uncover contradictions and lies by matching evidence to testimony. Over the course of a year, he and his team assembled Gyakuten Saiban (“Turnabout Court”) and released it for the Game Boy Advance in late 2001. The game was a surprise hit, and a pair of sequels quickly followed, turning what was meant to be a one-off into an impromptu trilogy. In 2005, the game came to the west as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney as part of a series of DS re-releases. The game was a sleeper hit, and translations of the second and third games were also greenlit. In the process, the games spawned a devoted fanbase and hefty amounts of fanart, fanfic, and memes — you couldn’t go two feet in 2006 without tripping over an “Objection!” bubble.

Capcom recognized the franchise potential in Ace Attorney, and with good reason. Each game consisted of four or five self-contained mysteries to solve, mixing a consistent core cast with characters unique to each. Put another way, Ace Attorney was the gaming equivalent of a police procedural or a long-running mystery series. As long as a little creativity went into the storytelling, there was no reason its format couldn’t be used to give players new crimes to crack indefinitely.

There was a problem, though: Phoenix’s story was over. The third game, Trials and Tribulations, brought together just about every plot thread and character in the series up to that point and tied a bow on it in spectacular fashion. So when development started on the fourth entry in the series, Takumi quickly decided to focus it on a new cast led by a new protagonist, hot-blooded rookie Apollo Justice. But the rest of Takumi’s team made him a request: put Phoenix Wright in the game.

So Takumi did. But not as fans knew him.

Phoenix as he appeared in Trials and Tribulations, and Phoenix as he appeared in Apollo Justice. The fans instantly dubbed him “Hobo Nick.”

Apollo Justice turned out to be anything but a straightforward new entry in the series. A seven-year timeskip revealed that Phoenix had been disbarred just two months after his triumph in Trials and Tribulations and was now eking out a living as a scruffy, law-bending pianist. The game focused on examining and subverting the series’ storytelling tropes, and most of Phoenix’s pals were nowhere to be seen.

In theory, Apollo Justice was a fascinating attempt at shaking up a series that had already had a satisfying conclusion. In practice, Takumi had dropped a megaton in fans’ laps and run for the hills. Even as fans debated the game and demanded to know where on earth their favorites had gone, Takumi stated it was his personal endpoint for the series and went to work on a new IP, 2010’s critical darling and commercial bomb, Ghost Trick. Capcom was left with a series that clearly had more gas in the tank, but which was suddenly at risk of alienating its passionate fanbase.

Trapped in 2004

Barely a year after Apollo Justice hit shelves in Japan, Capcom announced a new team would be developing a new sub-series: Ace Attorney Investigations. Starring fan-favorite prosecutor Miles Edgeworth, the game would be carefully set in the two-month gap between Trials and Tribulations and Phoenix losing his badge. Joining Edgeworth was a parade of familiar characters, major and minor, and more references to Ace Attorney apocrypha than one could shake a stick at.

As the series approached its 10th anniversary in 2011, Capcom started a full-court press of the original trilogy. Takumi was brought back in to develop a crossover with Professor Layton that featured Phoenix and Maya circa Trials and Tribulations, while the new team put out Ace Attorney Investigations 2 and with it another stream of returning faces. The Takarazuka Revue, an all-female Japanese theater troupe, put on three separate musicals based on the original trilogy and Investigations. Takashi Miike directed a big-screen adaptation. Phoenix even put up his dukes in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. And the original trilogy was ported twice more with great fanfare: to WiiWare in 2010, and to phones in 2012.

A promotional image featuring only Edgeworth and Phoenix that Capcom used as the header for its 10th anniversary page for the series. It replaced an earlier image that featured a wider cast, including characters from Apollo Justice.

Fans were beginning to get antsy. The Investigations games were enjoyable enough, but sooner or later Capcom would have to address the fact that the series was running in circles. And in 2013, they finally did. The Investigations team headed up a fifth main game, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies. Phoenix was the star again, with Edgeworth serving as the prosecutor in a dramatic final episode. Apollo was still there, but in a secondary role and now with most of his supporting cast mysteriously missing.

Dual Destinies was well-received by fans and critics, at least at first. As the excitement of pushing the series’ story forward wore off, fan opinion began to sour. The game was pulled in too many different directions, and Phoenix’s personality shift back to “panicked lawyer who needs to bluff his way to victory” felt unnatural after his maturity in Apollo Justice. And instead of tying up the loose threads from the last game, it re-focused on Phoenix and new assistant Athena Cykes.

In 2016 Capcom released a sequel: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice. Much of the marketing push this time focused on Maya’s return as Phoenix’s assistant. At the same time, Capcom announced an anime series adapting the first three games of the series. 15 years on, it was clear just how badly Capcom wanted to keep those three Game Boy Advance games in the spotlight. Phoenix Wright had made the series’ name, and having strayed from it once, Capcom was determined not to get too far again. Spirit of Justice wound up putting the spotlight on Apollo in its main plot, but it was still Phoenix’s name in the title.

A few years later, at Tokyo Game Show 2018, fans waited with bated breath to see what was coming next for the series. Capcom’s major announcement of their 40-minute panel was Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy.

An Uncertain Future

It’s not hard to understand Capcom’s handling of Ace Attorney. In the wake of Apollo Justice, it made sense for them to regroup and try to find stories that wouldn’t run the risk of fan backlash. But that was also a conscious choice to opt for giving fans “what they want” over expanding the kinds of stories the series could tell. When the focus of a game is primarily the gameplay, playing to the crowd with a “safe” story reduces the risk that a game otherwise buoyed by its mechanics will upset fans with its narrative. But for narrative-heavy games like Ace Attorney, the story is the appeal, and the risk of stagnation is that much greater.

The great irony is that the backlash to Apollo Justice was never really about Apollo Justice. The game’s script was wobbly, with one case that forced players to watch a long, pre-rendered video over and over and another that inadvertently suggested Phoenix could time travel. Phoenix himself drove too much of the plot, despite the fact that fans wanted to see Apollo and co. get a chance to blossom on their own. (A Japanese popularity poll of the characters in 2017 saw Apollo take second place, ahead of the other protagonists and behind only meme character Bobby Fulbright.)

And then there’s the matter of 2015’s Dai Gyakuten Saiban and its 2017 sequel. After that crossover with Professor Layton, Takumi went to work on a new spinoff duology set in the 1800s. In many ways, it feels like a do-over of Apollo Justice: it plays with series format (one episode forgoes a trial entirely), tries out a heavier focus on character development, tells a serialized story across multiple games, and throws out the series’ more gimmicky elements in favor of down-to-earth gameplay additions like a jury system. If anything is proof the series can still evolve, it’s these games.

Dai Gyakuten Saiban was also a commercial disappointment; DGS2 posted the lowest first-week sales for the series since the GBA days. It’s impossible to look at these numbers and not wonder if Capcom might walk away thinking this second creative experiment with the series was a failure.

Capcom’s 15th anniversary page for the series featured Apollo and DGS’ Ryuunosuke as well as Phoenix and Edgeworth, but Phoenix remained the focal point of the logo.

Now, two years on from DGS2 and three from Spirit of Justice, Ace Attorney fans are left without any idea of what comes next. The release of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy is a great place for new fans to get on board, but for those who have been following the story for years, it’s hard to want to revisit these games yet again. (Early sales numbers seem to bear this out: the trilogy barely charted in its first week on sale in Japan.)  As for the next new game, who can say? The Spirit of Justice developers wrote its ending “so it would open up possibilities for the [Ace Attorney] series, not to close them up.” That’s promising, but if the next chapter proves to be yet another round of Phoenix and Maya cracking cases, maybe Capcom should save everyone the time and just start working on the inevitable 4K remaster of the Phoenix trilogy.