The Ace Attorney games, ranked

Now this is how you get justice.

Phoenix Wright and his Ace Attorney pals have solved thirty cases at this point, if you discount Edgeworth’s investigations, Wright’s dalliance with Professor Layton, and that one old-timey spin-off that never got released in English because the world is a cruel, dark place and justice is a bitter illusion.

What follows is my attempt at and rationale for a series ranking of the Ace Attorney games, partly written to revisit some wonderful memories, but also to establish where the newly released Spirit of Justice sits within the series canon.

6. Ace Attorney 5: Dual Destinies

Dual Destinies might be one of my least favorite 35+ hour games that I’ve actually finished. The cases were overly long and generally dull, the new characters were spotty at best (prosecutor Blackquill is a neat design, but ultimately the character is too gimmicky to have much impact).

The overarching theme of the ‘dark days of law’ never really payed off, and the finale, while initially surprising, was a misfire that did not stand up to scrutiny. The best case was only available as paid DLC, and trials generally felt less logical than before, while the investigations were less involving, often boiling down to simply clicking through reams of dull text.

Dual Destinies felt like a slog, and the new trial mechanic it added, the “mood matrix,” is the worst in the series. The closest thing it has to a bright spot is Athena Sykes, the plucky young lawyer who, truth be told, I’d struggle to really say much about, but whose presence in the series is appreciated anyway.

5. Ace Attorney 2: Justice for All

There’s a lot to love about Justice for All, and the fact that it appears so far down this list is a testament to the overall strength of the franchise. The second game in the series turned its focus onto Maya and her family, introducing her cousin Pearl, who stuck around, and various other characters who didn’t.

Justice for All isn’t quite as memorable as the game that preceded it, and the third trial is a bit of a dud, which is a problem when the game only has four of them. But the final case is unique for the series, for reasons I won’t get into for fear of spoilers, twisting the game’s mechanics in interesting ways and bringing together two games’ worth of character development to delve into the backstories that became more and more important as the series went on.

The whip-fetishising Franziska von Karma wasn’t quite as lovable a prosecutor as Edgeworth, everyone’s favorite arrogant grump, but she’s notable as (to date) the series’ only female legal antagonist.  I like Justice for All a lot, but less about it stands out in my mind than the games higher on this list.

4. Ace Attorney 4: Apollo Justice

There are plenty of people who would disagree with putting Apollo Justice above Justice for All, but for me, the fourth game’s gimmickry and technical superiority elevated it. This was the first game in the series designed for the DS rather than being an upgraded GBA port, and it showed.

The first Ace Attorney game had received an extra case for its DS version, which tested out several of the DS’ functions, years earlier. Apollo Justice was built around these functions, allowing you to spray luminol around with the touch screen, manipulate 3D objects, and explore fully rendered recreations of crime scenes. Apollo’s ability to perceive “tells” during trials, little twitches and nervous actions performed by witnesses, also added a neat little twist on the usual gameplay.

Apollo Justice’s weak point is its storytelling. Shu Takumi couldn’t quite make his mind up about whether this was a game about Apollo Justice or Phoenix Wright, with the latter character ultimately overshadowing the guy on the game’s cover. I’ve also never been a fan of how the last case ended, even if the trial itself is pretty interesting. Despite this, Apollo Justice was definite proof that the Ace Attorney series was worth continuing beyond the original trilogy.

3.  (Provisional) Ace Attorney 6: Spirit of Justice

Disclaimer: I’m currently midway through Spirit of Justice, having just wrapped up the (superb) third case. At this point, I think it’s capable of jumping up a spot -- Ace Attorney games tend to be at their best in the final cases, and Spirit of Justice’s first three are fantastic. There’s a mild hangover left by some of Dual Destinies’ worst design decisions (exploration is less involving than before, as are psyche-locks, and the Mood Matrix still sucks), but in every other way, Spirit of Justice is an improvement.

The plot is wonderful, drawing on the history of the first five games elegantly, and it provides perhaps the best depiction in the series of the importance of Phoenix’s work, his dedication to being a good man, and the impact that has had on the world around him.

The themes touched upon in Dual Destinies are explored here with actual care and nuance, and the courtroom sections are far more interesting, thanks in part to the new séance scenes (which let you pick apart the final moments of the deceased) as well as much improved puzzle design. Spirit of Justice is a wonderful return to form, and the best Phoenix Wright game in a long time…although whether it deserves to be higher on this list may need to be determined years down the track when the glow of a good new game in the series wears off.

2. Ace Attorney 1

Part of me thinks that I’m placing the original game too high here. Every sequel added to the formula, refining rough edges here, giving characters new wrinkles there, pushing the core concepts at the heart of the series further. But I keep coming back to how good Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney worked as an introduction to the series, and how essential the first game’s charms were to the series’ success going forward.

The world of Ace Attorney is an odd one. Everyone is unusually young, considering the high stations they occupy (Phoenix and Edgeworth are in their early 20s in the first game). Courts of law operate very differently from how they do in the real world, with cases lasting a maximum of three days, during which witnesses repeat their testimonies over and over again until the defense attorney, inevitably, finds a contradiction (and a guilty verdict can be announced at seemingly any time). For some reason, some people in this world are capable of channelling the spirits of the dead, which is the only real supernatural or magical element of the series. This is never treated as a particularly big deal.

The first game’s big success is the way sets up all of this wackiness and makes it coherent and compelling. It ties it all into a series of cases that eventually lock in together into a story that is, at its core, about friendship, understanding the people around us, and about what we can learn from one another.

Ace Attorney is a beautiful game about interesting people working to make things better, and it introduced a world, and a set of mechanics, that have become very dear to the series’ fans.

1. Ace Attorney 3: Trials and Tribulations

Trials and Tribulations is the gold standard example of why people love Ace Attorney. Originally intended by series creator Shu Takumi to be the final game in the franchise, Trials and Tribulations takes the mechanics of Justice for All and puts them to work in a game with very clear narrative through-lines, resolving character arcs and pulling on the player’s investment in the characters and the world they inhabit.

Trials and Tribulations deserves this top spot despite being, in some ways, the least ambitious game in the series.

It introduces no new mechanics, but instead pushes the systems introduced and refined in Justice for All in new directions. The flashback structure of some of the cases is an excellent idea, and the final case works as a wrap-up not just for the game, but for the initial Phoenix Wright trilogy.

Depending on who you ask, some argue that the series never quite tapped into the magic of Trials of Tribulations again, with its mysterious coffee loving prosecutor (Godot, an excellent piece of character design), its ear-wormy soundtrack, and its expansion of the Ace Attorney universe. The plot is rich and exciting, and the writers pull off the sort of twists and gambits that are only possible deep into a series that has the player’s attention.

Trials and Tribulations is the work of a team confident in their formula. This is the sort of game a developer can make when they know they’re onto a good thing, when they’ve grown comfortable with what they’re doing.

The Ace Attorney games are unique enough that they have never needed a major shake-up to remain relevant, and at this point, the series conjures up so much nostalgia for a lot of players that it may not be possible for a future game to dethrone the third one. If the first game got players hooked, and the second one assured them that it wasn’t a once-off, then Trials and Tribulations is the game that really cemented the Ace Attorney series as truly great, and important in the annals of gaming history.