Long before I knew anything about personal jurisdiction or mens rea, I played video games. It has always been, as they say, “my thing.” We did not have much in the trailer I grew up in, but the Sega Genesis that sat on our entertainment center the day I was brought home from the hospital ensured I would at least be exposed to the world of gaming.
Flash forward fifteen years and you would find me in my acne-saturated awkward phase, complete with thin-rimmed Wal-Mart reading glasses and more than your average dose of teenage angst. To complete my nerdy stereotype, I was spending practically every free waking moment searching for and thinking about new games to play, and at one point, I stumbled upon the Ace Attorney franchise. The first game put me in the role of Phoenix Wright, a criminal defense lawyer, and had me arguing in court to prove my clients’ innocence in a series of mind-bending cases. This franchise and I go way back, and while this review primarily covers the 2017 remake of the game Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, it is impossible for me to talk about that game without explaining the impact that the series had on my life before its release.
When it comes to dreaming big, I have always been a victim of self-doubt. There are a good number of reasons for this: neither of my parents finished high school, as a teenager, I shared a one-bedroom apartment with my mom, I always thought the fact that I was gay would make me unlikeable, et cetera, et cetera. We can save the rest for my therapist. The point is, at the time that I came across Ace Attorney, my idea of what was possible for my life was much different than it is now. I wanted to be a high school teacher, a perfectly respectable profession, for a not so respectable reason—it was one of the few jobs I considered myself capable of doing. This might sound funny, but right hand to God, something changed in me after I played Ace Attorney. It was a strange thought to have after playing a video game, but I found myself imagining my life as a defense lawyer. The protagonist in the games, Phoenix Wright, was anxious and neurotic like me—he would sweat profusely when a trial was going South, such as when the prosecution called a surprise witness to the stand (I now realize this is not how real trials work), but he always seemed to turn things around in the end and win the case. The game made me curious about the law. More importantly, it made learning about it seem possible. For that reason, Ace Attorney will always hold a special place in my heart.
So what kind of game is it anyways, and to what extent does the newest title differ from those that came before it? All of the games, including Apollo Justice, belong to a video game genre referred to as “digital novels.” Each hones numerous skills that law school demands proficiency in, but perhaps the most obvious is prolonged reading. Although characters and backgrounds appear on the screen, the meat of the games is in their twenty-something hour scripts, none of which involve the voice acting of other games. These facts alone serve to isolate some gamers who prefer the flashiness of a Mario title or the constant action in Call of Duty, so the fact that the Ace Attorney franchise has gone on to spawn ten games in all (several are exclusive to Japan) says something about the quality of the writing.
The first three games tell the story of Phoenix Wright’s career trajectory from his first case out of law school to his days as a prominent lawyer whose name is internationally recognized. Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney is the fourth game in the franchise and follows the new titular protagonist as he defends Phoenix Wright in a criminal case after the series’ original mascot has been disbarred, but in terms of game mechanics and structure, the new game is almost exactly the same.
The gameplay of each title, including that of Apollo Justice, is divided into two phases: investigation and trials. Unlike real lawyers, the main characters in these games play the role not just of litigators, but of pseudo-detectives investigating crimes before they go to court. While it does not imitate real life in this respect, there are plot reasons why it makes sense to meet the characters who will later testify in the courtroom and gather evidence to help form the main arguments. The trial phase is where the games really shine, though, as it gives players the opportunity to use all of the information they have uncovered so far to form logical claims and cross-examine witnesses. Perhaps the most famous moment from the games occurs when one of the protagonists dramatically yells, “Objection!” to point out a contradiction in a witness’s testimony. It happens often, and it is always satisfying so long as you chose to present the right evidence.
Each of the four trials makes for a tense and theatrical battle between the anime-inspired characters, and the stakes feel higher because the defense always has their back to the wall. The reasonable doubt standard does not seem to apply at all: the comically aloof judge is always looking for an excuse to give a guilty verdict (this may have something to do with the fact that this is a Japanese game, and the conviction rate in Japan exceeds 99%). Also, every trial has a maximum duration of three days, and if innocence has not proven by then, the defendant is usually declared guilty. This would surely violate the Fifth Amendment in the United States. Here, trials take much, much longer, but the three-day limit in the game does help add to the suspense.
The 2017 version of Apollo Justice is technically a remake of a game that came out ten years ago, and not much has changed between the old and new versions beyond the developers giving it a fresh coat of paint. The visuals have been updated to suit the higher resolution of the Nintendo 3DS’s screen, with the previously jagged backgrounds and character models being smoothed out to resemble a modern cartoon. As mentioned, it is the fourth game in the series, and with it’s re-release, all six of the mainline Ace Attorney games are now available on the 3DS. The games have all been well-received by critics, and I definitely recommend them to anyone with even a casual interest. If you are anything like me, they just might change your life…