‘Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney’ gave me an enduring love for character design

They’re aces, all of them

Before Ace Attorney came along, the top spot in my list of favourite video games stayed unchanged for 20 years. I don’t bestow the title of favourite video game to just anything – I have to like something, really like it, not with the passion of a crush but the warm familiarity of having returned to it over and over and over again without ever tiring of it – so you can imagine my surprise when I played lawyer adventure Ace Attorney for the first time and just knew that this game would be it. I even said it out loud – “this is it” – after a scene had me laughing so hard I had to stop playing.

In the scene in question, prosecutor Miles Edgeworth calls a witness – a bell boy – to the stand, and the judge says “my, he sure looks like a bell boy!” – cut to the bell boy, who is waiting in the stands in his work clothes, complete with a tea towel slung over one arm and a tea tray balanced in the other. It’s a terrible joke, born from the fact that the development team at Capcom couldn’t afford to change character sprites depending on their location and reused the bell boy from a previous scene at the hotel. Now you know how terrible my sense of humour really is.

The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles. Credit: Capcom

Until then, my favourite game had been The Curse of Monkey Island, the only other game to make me laugh like that. I don’t laugh a lot – I giggle, or I scrunch my eyes shut and open my mouth in a completely silent expression of mirth that can generously be called laughter, but I don’t often find things funny enough to laugh out loud.

I don’t think Ace Attorney’s humour is revolutionary (or even particularly quotable, with a “you had to be there” quality that you can see from my example above), but creator Shu Takumi’s humour is fantastically dry, in a way I haven’t seen from anyone else. It’s very recognisable.

Ace Attorney was originally released in 2005 for the Nintendo DS in the West, where it helped popularise a certain type of adventure game – it isn’t actually a visual novel, but that’s a topic for another time. Since then, the game has had 5 main series sequels, a remaster collection of games one to three and several spinoffs, the latest of which are the Great Ace Attorney Chronicles.

It’s fair to say Ace Attorney has stayed consistently popular, but its caricatured villains with localised names such as Frank Sahwit (“more like Frank Didit!”) and Shelly De Killer and the series’ overall goofy court proceedings are just a small part of its charm. What really sealed the deal for me, and I suspect most people, are the characters. By now, the series boasts a huge cast of defence lawyers, prosecutors, villains and innocent bystanders, and somehow, they all leave a unique impression. You wouldn’t get them mixed up, and many of them have absolutely iconic lines that are regularly quoted throughout the fandom. Playing these games for the first time, it was a genuine joy to discover the next villain, or witness a previous character’s dramatic reintroduction.

The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles. Credit: Capcom

I love Ace Attorney because it taught me that a good character needs relatively little, just like how a joke I enjoy needs seemingly little – Maya is sassy, loud and always wants to eat, Edgeworth’s past childhood trauma made him aloof. These characters are made from relatively simple traits, you can describe them in a sentence. But throughout the game and its supplemental materials, you learn these small details about them, and they begin to feel more fleshed out. Takumi has also always embraced fan theories, allowing his characters “to be played with” as he put it, in the way he and his team had done. Famously, details like Edgeworth’s love for the Steel Samurai series aren’t traits Takumi came up with himself.

Most often, the characters you’d expect a crime drama to be occupied with would be the perpetrators and victims, as the relationship between the two often reveals the motive for the crime, and Ace Attorney does invest in characters in that regard, too. But behind all the courtroom drama, Ace Attorney is also interested in the character growth of its lawyers, it’s real protagonists. If you follow the games, you’ll see each of them has an arc that runs through the games and usually culminates in cases becoming quite personal. The games are structured like episodes of an anime TV show, but the character development is designed with anime tropes in mind, too – enemies don’t need to stay enemies forever, for example, and protagonist Phoenix Wright carries a near-unshakable belief in his friends.

Visual character design is also a very important part of Ace Attorney’s appeal to me. Characters that can’t grow in personality across several games still leave a striking impression, thanks to the detailed character design by the different designers who worked on the series over the years. Current art director Kazuya Nuri’s style is particularly recognisable.

The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles. Credit: Capcom

Together with sparse but effective animations, the character design in Ace Attorney can convey so much. Just look at a character like Redd White, CEO of Bluecorp, with his smarmy toothpaste smile and rings on every finger from the first Ace Attorney, or the Garridebs from Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, two characters shaped like the sun and moon. Their visual design immediately tells you what each character is about. I can highly recommend the art books for the Great Ace Attorney Chronicles especially even if you can’t read Japanese – they’re full of sketches and the process from first design to final character is astounding.

As long and convoluted as its cases can be, to me Ace Attorney was never about whodunnit. Many games in the series make that painfully obvious, even. It’s more about how its characters act – what inspired a crime, how the protagonists react to new information, and how it shapes them moving forward – all that fascinated me enough to pick up a series of rather long games.

Through the bonds the characters form, that you form with them, things seem more achievable, both within the game’s narrative and for you as a player. You learn that there are people on your side, friends who help you get away with even the most outlandish idea if it’ll help crack the case. At the same time, you know enough about Ace Attorney’s protagonists to imagine what they’ll get up to once court adjourns for the day, and that’s what makes them feel so alive. That’s what makes you laugh yourself to tears, fall in love with the world, and then concede that, yes, “this is it.“

Malindy Hetfield is a freelance journalist and occasional contributor to NME. Read the rest of the Remastered series here.

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