Nobody really knows what to call it; according to the New York Times, imperfect approximations include the "chunk-chunk" and the "dun-dun." Regardless of its name, the thumping audio flourish that accompanies scene transitions in Law & Order has proven to be one of the most iconic sounds in television, its popularity outlasting even the famously resilient show that birthed it.
It could certainly be argued that games have a clip of equivalent stature; perhaps the "ting" of Mario collecting a coin, or the rhythmic "cock-click-cock-blam" of Doom II's monstrous super shotgun. But while perhaps the longest-running video game procedural's signature sound can't quite match L&O's in style, it at least earns points for consistency. For 15 years now, pressing the New Game option in most every Ace Attorney game produces a slight, pixelated knock of a gavel hitting home, including the series's tenth and latest entry, Spirit of Justice, now available worldwide following its June Japanese release.
Casual observers might balk at this number—surely there aren't ten of these things clogging store shelves all over North America. (Indeed, there aren't, as only eight of the games have managed to make it to Western territories, despite the series's considerable sales.) And one could certainly forgive some confusion regarding the particulars of the individual games, since each features four or five discrete "episodes" that only occasionally depend on or add to the series's already convoluted continuity. But while there's no denying that 15 years of existence is a remarkable achievement for any franchise, the facts of this particular case reach even beyond that, bordering on utter impossibility.
Considering the enduring popularity of police procedurals and legal dramas in popular culture, the formula behind Capcom's Ace Attorney might read like a sure-fire money-maker—a game where you play as a rookie defense attorney named Phoenix Wright who shields his obviously innocent clients from the wrath of increasingly aggressive prosecutors by pointing out the holes in the state's case, inevitably producing the real culprit just in the nick of time. Or, in other words: You might not have played these games, but you've definitely flipped past this show in one of your 2 AM post-bar hazes.
Despite this, few expected the series to make inroads worldwide, least of all Capcom. Because while the game's concept might read as American as apple pie and clogged arteries, the titles themselves are essentially a novel meld of point-and-click adventure games and Japanese visual novels. And while both of those modes have enjoyed a considerable resurgence since the rise of the indie game, they were considered niche at best, and commercial anathema at worst, which is part of why the first installments of the series didn't make it to other territories until 2005, nearly four years after their original release.
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Once the games arrived stateside, however, they moved units, and have continued to grow in popularity ever since. It turns out that the very traits that made the series's appeal seem limited on paper have allowed it to thrive, even as the mobile-phone market has cannibalized the handheld consoles that have historically hosted them. (Previous games have slowly made their way to iOS, though Spirit of Justice is currently a 3DS-only title).
Perhaps the most indispensable aspect of the series's success is its trademark sense of goofy humor. Sure, plenty of video game heroes crack wise, but it usually takes the form of Joss Whedon–like gallows quippery that customarily follows a headshot, or perhaps a good knuckle-cracking. They're the kind of jokes that rely on a tacit assumption that the situation is very serious, that the world is totally fucked, and all our intrepid hero can do in the face of such unfathomable adversity is try to draw a funny face on it. While this humor is ostensibly included to give these works a temporary air of breezy amusement, such as the films of Steven Spielberg, the effect is generally the opposite—it highlights the ponderous, self-serious worldview that most video games above a certain budget (for example, Gears of War or Call of Duty) are required to exhibit.
Unlike those games, the fun in Ace Attorney isn't relegated to a single source—it emanates from every pore. Protagonist Phoenix isn't the jokester here, though he certainly isn't above the occasional jibe—instead, he plays the straight man to nearly every other character in the series. No matter their role—prosecutor, killer, or even judge—they all exhibit a wide array of flamboyant, erratic, and/or just plain bizarre personalities that reflect the wild imagination of series creator Shu Takumi.
'Ace Attorney—Spirit of Justice,'
At first, the series's signature strangeness can come off as a bit garish. For example, the opening case of Spirit of Justice has you facing off against a mellow musician monk named "Pees'lubn Andistan'dhin" who speaks in rhyming couplets and allegedly witnessed the crime. When accused of being the real killer, he—in a long-standing series tradition—drops his chill façade and shifts his personality completely. In this case, it turns out to be a Gene Simmons pastiche—he hooks up his guitar to a massive sound system that literally comes out of nowhere and starts shredding and belting out lyrics that describe Phoenix's untimely death. Soon enough, the gallery is screaming for blood.
While at first it may grate, over time one begins to realize that the weirdness that defines Ace Attorney is no mere affectation. From stem to stern, the entire game is designed around it. Where so many other games are gray and stolid, the world of Phoenix Wright is all color and movement—a baroque counterpoint to the gritty naturalism displayed by the larger medium. And once you're acclimated to it, it can be hard to go back. The characters that Phoenix meets might be exaggerated, but they're unapologetically human at their core, with real desires and real problems. One need only look at fan-favorite plotlines like the fate of Godot and that of the Fey family to see that, especially in the series's original trilogy, which ends up having an emotional heft that one might not expect.
Of course, no matter how good the recipe, the chef might get tired of making the same thing every night, and such is the problem facing Ace Attorney. The series has faced accusations of staleness since at least the third entry, 2004's Trials and Tribulations, and the cries have only grown louder as the series has gone on, and justifiably so. While it's true that the games have evolved their mechanics very little as the franchise has continued, such complaints largely miss the point; the simple logic games that make up the bulk of the courtroom action have never risen above mere competency, and frequently fall below it, even in the better entries.
Instead, the main issue facing Spirit of Justice is the virus that infects almost every large media franchise—the series's own weighty continuity, which occasionally threatens to pull the viewer into an exposition vortex that only a lengthy visit to the Ace Attorney Wiki can allow you to escape from. To be fair, Takumi saw this problem coming and tried to give the franchise a fresh face by retiring Phoenix and introducing newcomer Apollo Justice, but fan backlash prompted his return shortly after. (It's worth noting here that the one non-Ace Attorney game that Takumi has directed in the past decade, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, which flopped in the United States, remains arguably his best work.) With three different player characters and a bevy of returning sidekicks, it's fair to say that the Spirit of Justice expects you to do your homework. Worse still, it can sometimes neglect to develop these characters, assuming that your preexisting experience with them can be enough to make you care about their various fates.
Still, when you return to that courtroom and hear the sound of Phoenix bashing that table as he screams "OBJECTION," it's hard not to be taken in all over again. Traditional procedurals like Law & Order are basically just justice porn: The police investigate, find damning evidence, and arrest the bad guy; the bad guy hires a slimy, charismatic attorney to throw the proof out of court; Jack McCoy growls at the defendant until he gives it up on the stand; and the jury dutifully throws the book at him. Case closed, see you next week.
Ace Attorney offers an alternative—it's a game series where the bumbling police always arrest the patsy, and you have to prove that the obviously guilty mustache-twirling witness, is, in fact, the true culprit. Maybe it says something about the world we live in—or me—but that struggle seems a lot more relevant to all of our lives than whether or not Captain Shooty and the Boys manage to save the world from the latest alien invasion. I don't know what it's like to exhibit that kind of superhuman competence, but I think all of us know what it's like to try to shield someone from the incompetence of others—ourselves included.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney—Spirit of Justice is out now for the Nintendo 3DS.
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