The Weird & Wonderful History of Ace Attorney

Jay Castello

You might not expect a strange, spiky-haired lawyer in a blue suit to command the same kind of memetic energy as the bigger names in video games. Phoenix Wright isn’t Mario, and though he seems to be attempting his best cosplay, he’s not Sonic.

But he is an icon. From humble beginnings on the Game Boy Advance in Japan, Ace Attorney has become recognizable even to people who haven’t played the game. Everyone knows that the lawyers yell at each other across the courtroom, with “Objection!” flying through the air. It’s so ingrained that turning internet arguments into courtroom battles has become a staple of online discourse.

To figure out how we got here, let’s go back to the beginning.

2001 – A new kind of detective

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney launched on the Game Boy Advance as the first entry in the series. Although its legal drama has often been cited as a critique of the Japanese criminal justice system, and does draw attention to problems such as the rushed trials and the overwhelmingly guilty verdicts, director Shu Takami has stated this was unintentional.

His main goal was to create a twist on the detective game genre, and the game was built out from the witness cross examinations and puzzles coming from pointing out contradictions. Investigation sections were also added, where the player must examine crime scenes and speak to witnesses in order to gather evidence ready for trial. All of that talking led to one of Ace Attorney’s most loved features: its colorful crew of misfits. From rival prosecutors to loudmouth journalists (and—just once—a cheeky parrot), there’s always someone new to meet and verbally spar with.

The first game in the series took 10 months to develop, although at the time of its release it only had four cases, instead of five. The final case was added later, when the game was ported to Nintendo DS. It makes use of the unique touchscreen feature in several ways, like having the player search for fingerprints.

Before the DS ports, however, the Ace Attorney series became a trilogy. The second game, Ace Attorney: Justice for All, was released the following year. It has basically the same premise as the original game, changing very little mechanically. Takumi wrote later that he always wanted the series to remain “so simple even [his] mother could play it.”

That same simple gameplay remained through the final part of the series, Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations, which was released for GBA in Japan in 2004 . At this point, the series hadn’t been localized. That is, until…

2007 – Enter Japanifornia

The Ace Attorney trilogy was ported to the Nintendo DS, gaining its additional DLC case for the first game as well as a full localization for North America and Europe. This localization introduced many of the quirks that would become inside jokes among Ace Attorney fans, like how sidekick Maya Fey’s love for ramen was changed to a love for burgers.

Another strange quirk was the introduction of “Japanifornia.” It’s an unofficial title given to the setting by its fandom. In short, the series understandably had many Japanese influences, and many of these were carried over in the localization despite its setting changing to Los Angeles. For example, entertainment like samurai cartoons and rakugo remain popular in this version of the US.

In more recent years, lead translator Janet Hsu has stated that the setting is supposed to be Los Angeles but “in is an alternate universe where anti-Japanese sentiments and anti-immigrant laws were not enacted, and Japanese culture was allowed to flourish and blend into the local culture in the same manner as other immigrant cultures.”

Overall, the localization has been widely praised for keeping the humor, especially the puns, of the original series. This wasn’t an easy feat given the linguistic complexity of maintaining all the references and jokes, but the series has become famous for its names like Frank Sahwit, Will Powers, and Lotta Hart.

Also in 2007, Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney launched in Japan, coming to the West a year later. The game was not originally planned by Takumi, who wanted to cut the series off after the trilogy. However, the series’ popularity meant that it was refreshed with a timeskip and a new protagonist. New mechanics were also introduced, particularly the Perceive mechanic, which tasks players with looking for nervous tells that might give away lying witnesses.

The rapid release of these games in the West led to a growing English-speaking fandom. Fanfiction and fanart proliferated online, introducing people who hadn’t played them to the lawyers’ easily adapted iconography. The color-coded red vs. blue arguments, the absurdity of having a parrot on the witness stand, and easily memed lines like “almost Christmas means it wasn’t Christmas!” allowed for the series to enter the mainstream.

2009 – The first spinoffs

The first Ace Attorney series spinoff featured fan favorite character Miles Edgeworth. There would eventually be two Ace Attorney Investigations games starring Phoenix’s rival prosecutor, although only one of them has ever been localized. The second remains the only game not officially available in the West, although there is a fanmade translation.

Edgeworth’s popularity was a surprise to the Ace Attorney team, and actually reduced his screentime after the first game in the Ace Attorney Trilogy. Writer Shu Takami didn’t want to lessen his impact by having Phoenix repeatedly beat him, so he introduced new prosecutors instead. These, too, became fan favorite characters. Perhaps the back and forth arguments are simply endearing in their own right.

Ace Attorney Investigations wasn’t as popular as the mainline games, potentially contributing to its sequel’s lack of localization. It was stuffed full of recurring characters as nods to loyal fans, and introduced a new Logic mechanic to reflect Edgeworth’s intuitive understanding of crime scenes. However, its lack of courtroom drama upset the pacing and led to less investment in the innocence of falsely accused clients.

Another spinoff came in 2011, this time crossing over the Ace Attorney and Professor Layton games. Phoenix was tasked with defending young women accused of being witches, while Layton worked to uncover the mysterious events they’re blamed for. It was a strange pairing that never returned to either series, but made for an interesting twist on both.

2013 – Back to the mainline

The fifth main game in the series, Dual Destinies, was released first in Japan and once again in the West a year later. It introduced the psychologist lawyer Athena Cykes, and her associated new mechanic. She had the ability to hear when witnesses’ testimonies were discordant with their true feelings. She also joined both Phoenix and Apollo as main characters, creating a crowded cast that would continue into the sixth and final mainline game, Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice which released in 2016.

Dual Destinies has the strange honor of being the only game in the series in which you defend an animal—namely, Orla the orca. Admittedly the case is only an added DLC, but it sticks to the chaotic nature of the games. After all, if you can cross examine a parrot, why not defend a dolphin?

Spirit of Justice primarily takes place in the fictional country of Khura’in, apparently because the developers felt that no one was a match for Phoenix anymore in his home country.

2021 – Blast from the past

After Spirit of Justice’s release, it seemed that things had quieted down for Ace Attorney in the West. Two new spinoff games were released in Japan in 2015 and 2017, taking place in Meiji-era Japan and Victorian London. They follow Phoenix’s ancestor, Ryunosuke Naruhodo, and he meets characters like, um, “Herlock Sholmes.”

Welcoming Sherlock Holmes to the Ace Attorney series would have broken copyright, as the friendlier version of Sherlock was a later creation of Arthur Conan Doyle and therefore remains the property of his estate. Not wanting to make a surly version, Capcom instead settled for swapping a couple of letters and coming up with their own version (and they’re not the first game to have done so). Sholmes is key to the investigation sections of The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, in that his deductions need a little bit of correcting, something Ryunosuke is happy to oblige.

However, for many years there was no indication that the Great Ace Attorney would be localized. In the end it took six years, but in 2021 they were released together as The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles.

It took so long because of the struggles of localizing the more culturally specific game. For one thing, there was no way to create a British version of Japanifornia when much of Chronicles relied specifically on the differences between London and Japan, as well as their specific histories. In an interview with Polygon, Hsu further explained, “The Japanese is written in a sort of ‘faux-Meiji Era’ style, so I felt it was my duty to at least bring an equally “faux-Victorian” flavor to the English localization.” She and the team had to make that kind of speech, as well as both historical Japanese and British culture accessible to a modern American audience.

Despite the difficulties, the localization worked. The duology sold well in the West, leaving hope open for an Ace Attorney Investigations 2 localization as well as the long anticipated Ace Attorney 7. But despite repeated rumors, there’s been no news.

The fandom, however, continues apace. In recent years, it’s garnered even outside attention for its dedication, particularly to Narumitsu, the shipping relationship between Phoenix and Edgeworth. And it’s growing—players who picked up The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles wondered where best to get into the rest of the series (start with the Trilogy!).

After 20 years, it’s hard to know where the series will go next. It’s been a long time since a new entry in the mainline series, and that’s a lot of disappointed hopes every time a new Capcom showcase comes and goes. But the games are kept alive by those core fans, and by their widespread popularity on the internet. And who doesn’t want to add a little bit of courtroom drama to their everyday scrolling?

Jay Castello is a freelance writer with bylines at publications like Polygon, Mic, and The Verge. If they're not down a research rabbit hole you'll probably find them taking bad photographs in the woods.