While my parents didn’t get a PC until after the days of text adventure games had passed, I still had some exposure to them at school and have fond memories of wandering around online MUDs after discovering the internet.  And that’s the sort of gameplay I recall when I played Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.  This series originally began as a Game Boy Advance trilogy released only in Japan, but mild success there translated into stellar sales when ported to the DS.  And thankfully, the re-releases are done dual language Japanese/English as well as finally taken outside of Japan.

It’s been a year since I finished the first game, I became thoroughly addicted to it while on holiday in Thailand.  It was a bit of an oddball choice, originally popular amongst the internet crowd when someone created the Objection! generator from an in-game sequence.  It came highly recommended as a solid title so I reluctantly gave it a shot; you wouldn’t think that murder investigation and courtroom drama made for a particularly interesting story.  I’m glad I did, because I loved it.

This is, at the core, a text adventure perfectly ported into something today’s graphic-oriented gamers can connect with.  While investigating you have a list of directions you can move, and at each scene you can either look at objects or talk to people nearby – exactly how we used to only with pretty pictures instead of text commands.  It even features identifiable music that does well to set the tone of each location and congratulate you when you make a breakthrough in the case.

You need to exploit all of the available options to gather evidence, and there’s no rush; the game will not progress until you’ve found every clue (often frustrating, but in a good way).  Once you’re prepared with evidence, the courtroom drama makes for an exciting interlude. It will take some time to get the hang of the court system, but the first case of the game is always a guide case.   You still have to do the hard work to win, but there’s absolutely no penalty for mistakes.

The court battles are semi-realistic; it’s all about using the evidence you’ve collected and connecting the dots to find contradictions in testimony.  The difference is that in this setting the courts are overloaded – your client is guilty until proven innocent and you only have 3 days to do it.  This is where the real murder mysteries are played out, and reminds me of the old cluedo boardgame (another childhood favourite).  Courtroom standoffs get quite difficult towards the end, after the first case you are only allowed 5 incorrect objections before you lose.

In later games they switched from 5 strikes to an easier “life bar” system that refills at certain points, but it’s still annoying enough that you don’t want to lose.  The game does lets you save at any time which reduces the risk – but at many of the “prove your case now” points they disable the save button!  The game is also quite long, towards the end of the game you switch from investigations to the courtroom and back again many times as cases drag out to the full 3 days allowed.

This challenging but forgiving gameplay has made it very popular.  The second game was released in Japan just after my holiday in October 2006, which I immediately imported and was very happy with (even if I was too lazy to finish this blog entry at the time).  It gave a new twist to the series, moving the investigation stages above the sometimes boring “click every button you see and you’re done” mentality.  The third game arrived a couple of weeks ago and I’m midway through the second case, enjoying the fun all over again.

You’ll notice that the more recent games place emphasis on it as the “Ace Attorney” series, and attempt to stop it being called “Phoenix Wright”.  This is because the series has been vastly more popular than originally anticipated.  You see the Japanese title translates to “Turnabout Trial” and doesn’t place any emphasis on the main character; that was added for the English-speaking audience.   That choice poses a problem because the fourth iteration (released in Japan earlier this year) doesn’t feature Phoenix in the game at all.

It was also a Japanese-only release so unfortunately I’m stuck waiting for the eventual English translation; needless to say I cant wait 😀

(For my local readers, the first game was released in Australia earlier this year and the second was released last week).