WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for the Ace Attorney series
I’m just gonna get to the point immediately here – I frigging love the Ace Attorney series. It’s hands down one of my favourite videogame franchises because of its writing, its characters, its mysteries, its style and the fact that it makes the courtroom seem awesome. I’ve watched legal dramas before on TV that make the whole “lawyer” thing seem cooler than it really is but Ace Attorney has the added bonus of making you, the player, feel awesome too.
So, since this month marks the series’ 15th anniversary, I figured now would be the time to see how each game stacks up against each other. Which one do I love the most, which one do I love the least and which ones go in between?
Before I start, some quick notes:
- This ranking is based purely on my own opinions on each game and is not definitive in any way.
- I won’t be including Ace Attorney Investigations 2 or Dai Gyakuten Saiban: Naruhodō Ryūnosuke no Bōken since neither of those games were released in the West and, therefore, I haven’t played them
- I also won’t be including Professor Layton VS Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney since that’s a crossover and is only really half of an Ace Attorney game
Now, onto the actual ranking!
7. Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney
I always feel kind of bad whenever I mention my dislike for Apollo’s debut title, because, at its core, it’s not a poorly made game. It plays almost exactly like the previous entries; you’re in familiar territory when you jump in, even if the main character is different. But if you were to ask me what I liked about it, I struggle to really come up with anything.
OK, that’s a bit of a stretch. I did like the inclusion of the Perceive mechanic, Apollo’s unique ability to spot a person’s “tells” when they’re lying and trying to hide something since it was something new and led to some interesting methods of drawing information out of witnesses (even if those moments could be frustratingly difficult).
But while I didn’t hate my time playing it, I wouldn’t say I had fun with it either. I mean, I must’ve enjoyed it enough to keep playing till completion but whenever friends and I discuss characters and specific scenes and moments we love throughout the series, I’d never mention anything that happened in Apollo Justice.
I think it boils down to the simple fact that I didn’t like the direction this game took. Our new star, Apollo, had nothing interesting about him (aside from the aforementioned Perceive stuff) and just felt like a bog-standard replacement for Phoenix. Speaking of Phoenix, he was no longer a lawyer, having lost his job in between games and was now a jaded individual – he no longer resembled the Phoenix we fell in love with and, at times, almost came across as just being a bad person, particularly with how he sometimes treated Apollo.
The rest of the cast I can barely remember; with other games, I at least formed some level of an emotional connection with the cast, be they good or bad. But here, I don’t really have any solid opinions on any of them, with the exceptions of magician Trucy Wright (Phoenix’s adopted daughter), Detective Ema Skye (who also became somewhat bitter over her new position) and the Gavin brothers, Kristoph and Klavier. Everybody else was just kind of there.
Possibly my biggest gripe, though, is that despite the title, Apollo wasn’t even the main star. He didn’t have much in the way of character development and was arguably not even completely necessary to the main story. The game was all about Phoenix trying to fix the legal system that led to his disbarment and put away the culprit responsible. His story should’ve ended but no. We got an unnecessary addition and Apollo got shafted as a result.
I’m aware, by the way, that Phoenix was never meant to appear in the game in the first place and series creator Shu Takumi was forced to do it by higher-ups in Capcom and I do understand why Takumi would’ve been against the idea, but this was the wrong way to do it. It’s like Takumi’s own bitterness about it leaked into the game itself.
I’m glad future games didn’t just pretend Apollo Justice never happened and I know there are people that really like this game but, for me, it was a gross misstep and it’s one I hope never gets repeated.
6. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice for All
You know, for all the shit I give Apollo Justice, I think I’ve seen more people defend that game than I have this one. Whenever people bring up Justice for All, it’s usually just to talk about the fourth and final case of the game (and maybe sometimes the second one). While I certainly get people’s dislike for this game and I consider it the weakest entry in the original trilogy, I hesitate to call it bad.
Gameplay-wise, it didn’t change much from the previous game (if it’s not broken, don’t fix it, right?), aside from changing the penalty system to a bar that could be refilled in between courtroom sections and giving Phoenix the Magatama and the ability to see Psyche-Locks – mental chains over a person’s heart – which was always one of my favourite additions to the series.
In fact, Justice for All is also the game that introduced two of my favourite characters in the series – the adorable cinnamon bun that is Pearl Fey and whip-happy Franziska von Karma (who seriously deserves her own game – get on it now Capcom!). And while the second and fourth cases are definitely the strongest, I still have fondness for the other two.
The first case wasn’t anything special but I really liked the idea of Phoenix being given amnesia in order to justify having another tutorial. Plus, it was fun to see him even more flustered than usual since, this time, he literally had no clue what to do.
As for the third case, I never quite understood the hate some fans have for it. Sure, some of the characters in that case could be annoying as hell but, by the end of it, you’ve actually got what’s arguably one of the most tragic cases in the series, along with possibly the most sympathetic “villain” in the series. It kind of made it all worth it.
Of course, though, it was the second and fourth cases where the game shone; the former for its introduction of Pearl and a deeper insight into the Fey family and the fourth for how intense it quickly became, with Maya’s kidnapping, Edgeworth’s return and Phoenix having a serious moral dilemma about what’s more important – doing his job and proving his client’s innocence or finding the truth.
That last one is possibly still one of the best cases in the entire franchise, as well as having one of the most satisfying villain breakdowns; it helps make Justice for All feel worth playing just to get to it.
5. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
When it comes to long-running game series, people usually don’t cite the first entry as their favourite or the best one. Not because it’s bad; it’s just that its sequels improved so much. But while the first Ace Attorney game may have not made it to the top half of this ranking, I can’t not still love it for being… well, the first one.
It was this game that started all the trends we’re so familiar with; the one that introduced so many of our beloved characters. The gameplay is slightly archaic now in some areas; specifically the investigation sections, but it’s still a solid game and is arguably worth going back and playing in full even today, even if only for nostalgia’s sake.
Phoenix’s first case, Mia’s murder, meeting Maya, Gumshoe and Edgeworth all for the first time; it’s hard not to grin reliving all these moments again. Not to mention it essentially had two grand finales – the original final case of the game where Edgeworth is on trial and the bonus case Rise of the Ashes. It’s been a long time since I’ve played the latter but I remember it being one of the most dramatic and darkest cases in the series. That, and it was balls-to-the-wall difficult; I’m ashamed to admit I needed a walkthrough for the final stretch.
The only real low-point in the game is the third case but that’s only because it kind of drags a bit due to needing to constantly move between several areas to accomplish a rather mundane task. Otherwise, this isn’t a game that’s aged badly nor is it only enjoyable through rose-tinted glasses.
If you haven’t played an Ace Attorney game yet, well, why are you even here? But more importantly, go play the first game and, hopefully, you’ll fall in love with this crazy series like I did.
4. Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth
I remember when this game got announced, I was pretty damn excited. And so were many others. I mean, a whole game where you played as Edgeworth? There is just something inherently cool about being able to play as the rival character in a videogame, and we had already played as the prosecutor prodigy for a while in Trials and Tribulations so the idea of him having his own game was pretty much a recipe for success.
But it wasn’t just the fact that I was playing as Edgeworth that made me love this game. Granted, it was nice to see him in a starring role, seeing his inner monologue and seeing his own conflicts seperate from Phoenix. But I just loved how radically different the set-up for the game was.
At its most basic, it’s not that different from how the main games worked. But it changed the structure in such a simple way by removing the courtroom sections and blending them together with the investigation sections. Rather than just switching between static screens, you could actually move around an area, checking anything you thought looked suspicious; it’s a simple thing but it somehow made it all the more engaging.
I also liked how Investigations was much more grounded in reality than the previous games. The series has always had elements of the occult thanks to Maya’s ability to channel spirits and there were instances where it became incredibly relevant to solving certain cases. There’s no trace of any mystical stuff here, though, which was not only a nice change of pace but also fit Edgeworth’s character. Given his more skeptical nature, it made sense to keep any “magic” out of his own game.
Even his unique “lawyer superpower” was pretty simple. He didn’t need to peer into peoples’ hearts or anything; he just needed basic logic and it was always satisfying being able to link two bits of information together and figuring out new details of the mystery.
But what was probably my favourite part was how every case was connected. Other games have had story arcs that encompass multiple cases, but Investigations was the first one where literally every case mattered, to the point where you needed to remember info and events from previous cases to help you in later ones. There are questions in the first case that remain unanswered until the final one; stuff like that makes me go kind of giddy.
Just writing about it makes me want to replay this game, and reminds me of a time when it used to be my favourite entry in the series. Now if only Capcom had localised the sequel (no, I will NEVER get over it).
3. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies
The build-up to to Dual Destinies’ release was both exciting and nerve-wracking for me. It had been six years since the last main entry in the series and while Phoenix was finally coming back to the courtroom, I was still anxious about where this game would take the series. The fan-base had lofty expectations for it; could it actually live up to them? After getting my hands on it, I was relieved to know that it did, at least for me.
The jump to 3D graphics and such helped give it a breath of fresh air; characters were now even more expressive which meant chances for more ludicrous animations and returning faces were still as recognisable as ever.
Phoenix was back to his usual self but he had an altered design that reflected that he was more mature and experienced. He was now the boss of his own law firm again and had two subordinates, Apollo (who I was actually relieved to see return rather than swept under the rug) and newcomer Athena, both Pearl and Edgeworth made long awaited returns to the series if only for nostalgia’s sake – all in all, he, and the series, were in a good place again.
The gameplay became slightly more streamlined and much more accessible. While it made Game Overs basically a non-issue and some complained that it was too easy, I felt these were welcome changes and didn’t detract from the new cases and mysteries to solve. Both Phoenix’s Magatama and Apollo’s Perceive ability were put to good use, alongside the brand new Mood Matrix that required you to compare testimony with emotions to find contradictions (an awesome addition, I might add).
And need I mention how great the overarching story was? It dealt with the ramifications of Phoenix’s disbarment and having a convicted murderer, Simon Blackquill, continue to act as a prosecutor (a great idea for a character, by the way). The aforementioned Athena was incredibly likable and a welcome addition but was also given a heart-wrenching backstory and motivation.
Even Apollo got the much needed character development he should’ve had in his own game, dealing with his own personal crisis that led to a dramatic confrontation between all three lawyers. All of this led to one hell of a final case set within a bombed courtroom that saw Phoenix and Edgeworth on opposite sides once again; one that led to one of my favourite plot twists in the series and solidified Phoenix, Apollo and Athena as the new main trio – it felt like they were here to stay and I couldn’t have been happier.
I could gush about this game all day long if I wanted to, because it pretty much did everything I wanted it to. After the slight derailment caused by Apollo Justice, this was the game that got the series back on track. And if I’m being honest, if this was the last game ever made, I’d actually be fine with it. It felt like a perfect resolution to the series. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.
2. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice
Maybe part of me is still riding the high of playing Spirit of Justice since it did only come out a month ago, but I like to believe that it really is good enough to be my second favourite game in the series. Whereas I was nervous about the run-up to Dual Destinies’ release, every bit of info I heard about Spirit of Justice got me excited.
Phoenix would be defending in a foreign country with different laws; one with no defense attorneys and an over-reliance on the power of spirit mediums. Maya was returning to the series after so many years of fan-demand (complete with an awesome new design). Apollo and Athena would be holding down the fort at home, with Apollo apparently getting his own new story arc. Everything about it just seemed like it was going to kick ass and I was so glad that it didn’t let me down.
The change of scenery was more than just an aesthetic difference. The Kingdom of Khura’in’s laws meant Phoenix was literally putting his life on the line by defending people. The stakes were higher than ever, the odds even more stacked against him; there are few things more disturbing than an entire audience of people demanding a small, frightened boy be put to death because they think he’s a criminal. This game is easily the darkest entry in the whole series.
And while the greater focus on the spiritual aspects of the series led to split opinions, I greatly welcomed it. It helped give the game its own identity as well as an interesting new gameplay mechanic in the form of the Divination Seances – the final thoughts and feelings of a murder victim.
It takes something special to have me grinning from ear to ear for almost an entire game. All these moments like Phoenix and Maya’s reunion, Athena’s team-up with Blackquill and, the absolute crowning moment of awesome, Apollo stepping into the limelight and getting a tremendous amount of backstory and growth. To think that the “main character” of my least favourite game would be the prime reason as to why I love this game so much.
If you’re a long-time fan of the series and haven’t picked this game up yet, I implore you to do so, because you are missing out on one amazing adventure.
1. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations
I think when it comes down to it, I feel like I HAVE to put Trials and Tribulations as my favourite Ace Attorney game. Ask any fan what they consider to be the best one and nine times out of ten, they’ll probably pick this one, because it’s not only a fantastic game but a fantastic ending to the original trilogy and Phoenix’s own character arc.
We got to take control of his mentor Mia during her early days as a lawyer, we got to briefly take control of Edgeworth, several characters from the series returned to make an impact, we got an undeniably awesome rival in the form of the mysterious Godot as well as easily one of the most heinous, evil and just all-around detestable main villains I’ve ever seen, Dahlia Hawthorne, who made frequent appearances in multiple cases and served as a fantastic personal adversary for several characters, including Phoenix.
Hell, you could probably make the argument that this game trumps the others on its final case alone – a dramatic, suspenseful and heartbreaking scenario that sees all of Phoenix’s allies band together to not only solve a murder but also foil a dastardly conspiracy and uncover the truth surrounding Godot and his vendetta against Phoenix. Seriously, that whole final trial is awesome from start to finish and possibly has the best resolution to any case in the series.
In the end, though, there’s not a single Ace Attorney that I regret playing, because each game has something that reminds me why I fell in love with this crazy series in the first place. While it’s still early days, I do hope the series continues. I don’t know what direction it may take now but you can bet I’ll probably be there to see it for myself.
And, maybe, this article is the perfect evidence to prove why you should check out the series yourself if you haven’t already.