Shu Takumi is probably best well-known as the creator of Capcom’s hit Ace Attorney franchise, a series of detective-adventure games which casts players in the role of truth-seeking lawyers. Less well-known, perhaps, is his hobby as an stage magician or illusionist – a craft that serves him well in the field of both magic and mysteries.
“I belonged to a magic society when I was a university student, and would often perform on stage,” he told me via email. (Shu has previously said he even performed a magic trick during his job interview at Capcom, though he’s hopeful that wasn’t the only reason he got the job).
“From the moment a magician sets foot on the stage until the moment they step off, every calculated movement and word of a routine is carefully crafted with intention,” he explained. “First, they’ll grab their audience’s attention with something unexpected, and then build on that sense of wonder with feat after surprising feat.”
“Meanwhile, they’re hard at work behind the scenes setting up the main trick, while using misdirection to hide their sleight-of-hand from the audience – all for that applause at the climax of their routine.”
Sound familiar? “Designing a truly spectacular routine from scratch requires magicians to use every psychological trick in the book, which is not unlike how a mystery writer plots out where to place certain clues and when to foreshadow upcoming story beats,” explained Shu. “In fact, this is how I write my outlines for the Ace Attorney games.”
The joy of uncovering such a mystery is a familiar feeling for Ace Attorney fans, but one sorely lacking as of late for the English-speaking portion of its fanbase. The last mainline game in the series, Spirit of Justice, had released all the way back in 2016, with only a trickle of new content in the half-decade since – almost all of it relegated to HD ports, anime retellings or tie-ins with other franchises.
Fans looked enviously upon two Japanese-only 3DS titles, The Great Ace Attorney: Adventures and The Great Great Ace Attorney: Resolve, which cast the series back in time to Meiji-era Japan and Victorian London. More than simple spin-offs, the games’ main claim to legitimacy was that they were helmed by Shu Takumi himself, who had largely stepped back from directing the franchise (with one exception) after heading up the critically-acclaimed first trilogy of games.
It was only in April of this year that a sudden announcement, posted with little fanfare to Capcom’s blog, officially turned the situation around: The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, both games in one package, was to release this July across multiple platforms – and, crucially, it was finally coming out in English. Fans rejoiced, though those in-the-know had already caught wind via leaks and rumours. But what had taken so long?
“We were always hoping to bring The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles to players worldwide, but we knew that localization for these games – in which attention to detail literally is key – is always a challenge and takes a lot of time,” producer Yasuyuki Makino told me, also via email.
Indeed, Ace Attorney has always been a challenging franchise to localize, being a series of interactive mysteries which must, quite carefully, lead players by the nose to its solutions while appearing not to—a real trial in a series that often includes clues based on Japanese wordplay. The game’s unapologetic Japanese-ness has also historically been a headache for the English localization team, who ultimately landed on a setting of an alternate-universe America that was somewhat more inclusive of Japanese immigrants, lovingly dubbed Japanifornia by fans (and the impetus behind one of my personal favourite webcomics).
Some fans, unwilling to wait for news of a then-uncertain official localization, have been working on their own translations now for years. These include subtitled YouTube playthroughs, at least one of which was copyright claimed by Capcom, and a still-in-progress fan patch, which – as of writing – still remains online. “We’re amazed to see how much work and effort fans put into localizing our games themselves,” Makino told me, though he wasn’t drawn when asked if these fan efforts had any effect internally on the decision to finally officially localize The Great Ace Attorney.
One specific hurdle for The Great Ace Attorney that Capcom localization director Janet Hsu recently pointed out is the heavy use of carefully scripted dynamic animations and camera angles—best exemplified by the dramatic Dance of Deduction minigame—that is closely tied to the pacing and delivery of text-based dialogue, and thus something that has to match perfectly in both Japanese and English. The specific presentation in this game might be new, but Ace Attorney has always been well-regarded for its sense of timing and rhythm – “the pleasing pace at which a player can read a line, and then press a button to advance the story,” as Shu told me.
“I write in Japanese, so I can only speak to the Japanese version,” he qualified, “but my dialogue is written so the players can read and take in the window in one go, without having to move their eyes at all.”
“I’ll add sound effects to words I want to draw attention to, change the speed at which the text is displayed on-screen, change a character’s animation midway through a line, and other fine adjustments,” elaborated Shu. “When the situation changes, I’ll also change the background music to bring a player’s feelings in line with what’s going on… these kinds of details are what creates the Ace Attorney feel or ‘rhythm’.”
Another aspect to any game’s ‘feel’ is responsiveness, something that Shu is keenly aware of. “The moment a player presses a button and the music cuts off, while a forceful sound effect and a character’s “Objection” plays… I always pay careful attention to how things feel in that regard,” Shu said. “If there is any lag there at all, you lose the crispness of the cut-off and that sense of smoothness in the presentation.”
“Perhaps my critical eye for things like this comes from the traditions of an action game company like Capcom.”
It was while working with a different company, however, that at least some of the seeds of what would become The Great Ace Attorney were sown. Shu’s sole Ace Attorney game since the first trilogy was a crossover game developed in collaboration with Level-5, Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney: Phoenix Wright. He was in charge of general worldbuilding, as well as scenario design and the court-based witch trial segments.
“The medieval trials I saw in my mind’s eye included a mob of people at the witness stand, scrambling over each other,” explained Shu. “That sort of frantic vision gave birth to [Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney’s] Mass Inquisition system, elements of which I incorporated into the Cross-Examination and the Summation Examination systems in The Great Ace Attorney, where you verbally spar with a number of witnesses or a panel of jurors at the same time.”
Shu kept elements of the setting, too, as he was developing the framework for The Great Ace Attorney’s ‘slightly fantastical’ version of late 19th-century Britain. “This wasn’t going to be Phoenix Wright’s world anymore, but a brand-new Ace Attorney,” he said.
“I was also really pleased that [the setting] allowed me to bring my dear great detective into the mix,” added Shu, referring to a world-famous British investigator of some renown. The character of Sherlock Holmes – here dubbed “Herlock Sholmes”, an allusion to a similar copyright-dodging set of short stories by Maurice Leblanc – indeed makes a center-stage appearance in The Great Ace Attorney, alongside a host of other slightly off-brand names from Sherlockian canon.
(There is rampant speculation that legal issues relating to the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle were part of the reason The Great Ace Attorney took so long to come to the west, but Capcom didn’t answer any queries on that front.)
“My first encounters with the mystery genre were through Sherlock Holmes and Arsène Lupin,” Shu said, “and that’s how I came to love the genre. I’ve read a lot of mystery stories and novels, but my roots are in what’s known as the classic ‘Golden Age of Detective Fiction’.”
“In my youth, I devoured stories by authors such as Ellery Queen and Anthony Berkeley Cox. I especially love GK Chesterton’s Father Brown series and its often humorous and surreal tales, which have influenced my work on the Ace Attorney series.”
“I [also] like the 1970’s American crime drama series Colombo, and Christopher Nolan[‘s] movies, especially Momento,” he added.
But when it comes to Shu’s own mystery writing, he is inexorably drawn towards the interactivity and reactiveness of video games. “Games allow players to become the protagonist, to think their way through the puzzles and solve the mystery through their own deductions,” he explained. “There’s a sense of accomplishment that you simply can’t get through a more one-directional storytelling medium like movies and novels.”
“However, I feel that few mystery games have actually been able to instil that sense of accomplishment successfully. A lot of them simply present players with a story to read and a few options to choose from, and lack the ‘deduce it yourself’ feel,” said Shu. “‘If I’m going to make a game, I want to make one where I’ll be able to use my wits to solve it!’ – [that’s what] I’d thought to myself when I created the game system behind the first Ace Attorney game, 20 years ago.”
Shu noted that he’s also attracted to the lack of a ‘time limit’ in games, compared to the established usual lengths of other pieces of media. “When you read a book… you might realize you have about another 100 pages left, at which point you might say to yourself “Oh, looks like there’ll be maybe two more plot twists…” he mused, “but with games, there are no ‘pages’ or ‘runtime’ to be found, so you never know when or how a game will end. This allows players to stay excited and engaged until the very end.”
“Although I suppose ebooks might have changed things up a little,” he added. “By the way, when I read ebooks, I always read them with the page number display turned off.”
Keeping your audience engaged and excited is, as Shu has noted before, a prerequisite for all entertainers, whether mysterious or magical. But despite the similarities, Shu was also keen to outline one crucial difference between magicians and mystery writers: how they treat the ‘trick’ itself.
“In magic, protecting the secrets behind the trick is paramount to preserving a sense of awe for an audience,” said Shu. “But in mysteries, revealing the secrets behind how a trick was done is paramount to creating a sense of awe in the first place.”
“...Personally, I find this ‘turnabout’ of thought between the two fields fascinating”.