Why We Love Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

by Jacob Chapman,

This spring, after over a decade of waiting and hoping, Phoenix Wright fans finally got the TV anime adaptation they always wanted. Well, sort of. After the first episode of A-1 Pictures's Ace Attorney finally aired, popular reaction was subdued at best and outraged at worst, in ways usually reserved for radically altered adaptations. But faithfulness wasn't the Ace Attorney anime's problem. Setting aside its bottom-shelf animation, which was constantly off-model and slideshow-minimal but still watchable at least, this show was as exact to the events of the original game as possible, only cutting extraneous gags and details to tighten the runtime. The series is also doing its best to adapt in beneficial ways, foreshadowing Phoenix's backstory in the first episode and giving him extra time to grieve the loss of his mentor in the second episode.

So what is it about this new anime that's leaving Ace Attorney fans so overwhelmingly disappointed? Is it really just shabby visuals holding the show down? Objection! I believe there's way more to Ace Attorney than meets the eye, so if its unassuming anime series left you scratching your head in confusion over the games' popularity, I'll do my best to explain why Phoenix Wright's adventures mean so much to fans all over the world.

If you were to ask the average Ace Attorney fanatic what they like most about the franchise, you'd probably get a lot of bright, uplifting, and downright family-friendly sounding answers. Phoenix lives in a universe where everyone's name is a goofy pun, every interaction is rife with dad jokes, and wacky coincidences turn every trial into an unpredictable game of round robin. Sure, each case he takes on turns into a tangled murder mystery, but no matter how dire things get for his client, the case is always resolved with exoneration of the innocent and an entertaining mental breakdown from the dastardly true culprit who was foolish enough to try and fib on the witness stand. Above all else, Phoenix Wright is usually recommended for being humorous and heartwarming, and the anime definitely tries to retain that core appeal.

But that's just the broadest side of Ace Attorney's story. It's the part you see when you read a plot summary peppered with funny whodunit names and strange pieces of evidence, so it's also the part that's easiest to translate into an animated TV show. The experience of actually playing the games results in much more complicated emotions, because "being Phoenix" has a dramatically different impact on people than just "watching Phoenix," and I think that's the secret to Ace Attorney's surprisingly powerful impact. When people talk about characters like Miles Edgeworth, Maya Fey, or Godot, they're less likely to bring up trademark gags (even though there are plenty to be had) and more likely to talk about the heart-pounding tension or sense of genuine desperation they felt when trying to defend or confront them in court. If these were just campy stand-ins for plot twists in a series of murder mysteries, people wouldn't be assigning them so much emotional depth. They may live in a cartoony world, but Phoenix Wright's characters have gravitas because they all have to fight so hard for every little victory...which means the player has to fight for all of them too.

Yes, that sunshiney Ace Attorney world is deceptively screwed-up on further inspection. In Phoenix's time, both the population and crime rate have expanded so rapidly that all court cases, no matter their severity, must be settled inside of three days, often starting right from the point when an initial arrest is made. Defendants are usually assumed guilty until proven innocent, and if the prosecution isn't manipulating the police to get an inside look at all potential evidence both approved and illegal, the police could be pressuring the prosecution to further their own agenda. Oh, and there's no jury! Everything rests in the hands of the Judge, who may or may not be moderating fairly.

All of this leaves defense attorneys at a depressing disadvantage, which is why the Ace Attorney series often forces you to fight injustice empty-handed. You usually aren't "cracking the case" with all the clues laid out in front of you. You're lucky if you even have half the information you need to make a compelling argument by the first trial session. Most of the time, you're scraping for more evidence, testimony, or just plain old stalling for time because you can't solve the mystery yet. As Phoenix himself puts it, "I don't have everything figured out, I just know I'm good at pointing out contradictions." As a lawyer, your role becomes the complete opposite of a detective in each whodunit. Instead of starting out with all the evidence and narrowing down a list of suspects based on facts, you start out with the hopeful assumption that your client is innocent and must fight to make the clues match that often fragile belief.

So Phoenix Wright's cases tend to play on your heart as much or more than your head when it comes to solving each mystery. Because every step you take must be in pursuit of proving the accused innocent, you have to really care about that most "likely" culprit, so Ace Attorney whips up a rogue's gallery of weirdos worth caring about. Some of them will even try to convince you that they did do it, forcing you to believe in them by not believing their own words! Several cases outright reveal the true culprits and their methods early on, complete with confessions right to Phoenix's face, but he can't do anything about it because the word of a lawyer alone isn't worth much in the face of a tangled system. Knowing whodunit and how isn't good enough; you have to prove it to the right people, in the right ways, with the right timing. Sometimes you'll even have a case-killing piece of evidence in hand at the start of a trial and have to wait hours before presenting it, because even though the crafty killers can break the rule of law, you can't do that without losing your license to protect more innocent lives. You have to resort to extreme pedantry, pursue red herrings, and sometimes even pretend to believe in a lie, all in the vain hope of uncovering the truth you need to maintain your trust in the people you care about.

That might sound way more frustrating than fun, and it definitely could have been! But that's where the real magic of the Ace Attorney series comes into play. All those pedantic diversions, red herrings, and necessary lies the game puts you through may not be the most expedient choices for solving a mystery, but they're great for ramping up the tension in a great story. Through very careful writing, Shu Takumi encourages the player to think about the most narratively interesting choice instead of "the choice that objectively fixes a problem," as some other adventure games might do. This is also why many people consider the Ace Attorney series a "visual novel" of sorts. Although the story is linear rather than branching, with predetermined "right answers" to every problem, these answers are designed to develop characters, set up devastating plot twists, and get players thinking about why things have to happen for thematic or emotional reasons.

You may be pointing out contradictions and solving logic puzzles, but you're doing it to figure out how a witness thinks, what they care about, and where their weaknesses might be. Phoenix Wright games seem to be written from the outside-in, with one big core idea and several character arcs that get boiled down into smaller segments across 3-5 cases, and then diced further into all the little details that turn those cases into episodic puzzleboxes. So even though the player spends hours scraping away at tiny details and contradictions, it will all come together in the end to form a larger story that feels completely unexpected. (And even when you can sense a multi-case twist looming in the background, that just makes the final reveal more exciting!)

The Ace Attorney anime accelerates this process to make it seem like Phoenix Wright is just another Sherlock Holmes or Conan Edogawa figure in a courtroom setting, firing off evidence and breaking down testimony at mach speed, but playing the games puts you squarely in the mind of an optimistic young man just flying by the seat of his pants. Your belief in different kinds of colorful characters won't always be rewarded in the same way, but being forced to think so thoroughly about what makes everyone tick gives you a deeper satisfaction for the story beyond just knowing who committed a murder and how. As Phoenix, you slowly learn how to help Maya believe in herself and her talents, how to help Edgeworth move forward as an honorable prosecutor, and how to prove your own convictions to a rival attorney, Godot, who's become as dark and bitter as his favorite coffee after years of injustice and wounded pride.

To its fans, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is more than a series of open-and-shut murder mysteries. It's a story that challenges players to look at a potentially hopeless world full of wrongful convictions in a warped system and shout "Hold it!" or "Take that!" instead. When you stop to think about the plot of each deadly turnabout, they don't often seem like the kinds of stories that should be cheery and inviting to nearly all ages, but the indomitable optimism, absurdity, and warmth of Ace Attorney always keeps us coming back, and our faith in its characters to grow and change with every new challenge is always rewarded.

So what's your favorite thing about the Ace Attorney series? Favorite cases or characters? Let us know what you think in the forums!


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