Rookie Defense Attorney Restores Man's Faith In Game Industry Sep 6, 2006

"I have to say, Mr. Wright, I'm impressed."

I've been playing Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney on the Nintendo DS. This is, without a doubt, my favorite computer or video game I have seen since 1997. Now, if you're a gamer, you're probably thinking, "for the love of God, why?" That's a fair question. After all, between 1997 and now, we've seen Half Life 1 and 2, Halo, The Longest Journey, Dance Dance Revolution, Super Smash Bros., and a whole bunch of other games that were both more popular and arguably better games than either Phoenix Wright or CMI. To explain where I'm going with this, I'll have to explain some of my personal biases in a little more detail.

Still with me? Good.

I am, first off, an old-school adventure gamer. Most of my favorite games come from LucasArts, Sierra, or similar outfits. There are some exceptions (my favorite game of all time, for example, is an RPG - Betrayal at Krondor), but by and large, adventure games are the only computer or video games that keep my interest for long.

In the early-to-mid 90's (the late period of the heyday of graphical adventure games), I was pretty into most of the games that were coming out. LucasArts consistently turned out great releases. Sierra/Dynamix/Coktel Vision were a little bit more hit-and-miss, but they produced new games in enough quantity to have a pretty high hit rate.

So what happened? 2 things.

First off, the genre changed. The big turning point, of course, was Myst from Cyan Productions. You remember Myst. It, along with The 7th Guest, made everybody rush out and buy CD-ROM drives, and for good reason - those games offered a truly new experience for computer gamers. Never before had such realistic-looking and detailed graphics been seen in electronic games. Those games, Myst especially, were so popular that they changed the genre pretty much for good.

Problem is, Myst, at least in my humble opinion, isn't really an adventure game - it's more of a puzzle game wrapped in a fairly thin story. There's hardly any real plot, at least in the first Myst game, although there's plenty of atmosphere. And yeah, there are characters, but you can't really interact with them in any meaningful way.

The other thing that happened is that around the same time, the market for adventure games started to wane. To grossly oversimplify matters, this is basically because of a certain game that came out in 1993 and spawned even more clones than Myst. Since first-person shooters are vastly cheaper to produce than adventure games and were selling like hotcakes at the time, game studios decided, probably correctly, that they'd be nuts not to make their next few projects FPS games instead of whatever other genre they might have otherwise produced.

Combine these two factors and you get the adventure game industry in 1998 - basically dead, with the exception of some studios making plot-light, low-production Myst clones, and a small number of established adventure game studios making niche products for a shrinking market. Then, in 1999, a little-known Norwegian studio published The Longest Journey. Billed as a truly innovative, unique game, TLJ is a quasi-metaphysical ramble that makes The Matrix Reloaded look easy to understand. This is the game that was supposed to save the adventure game. And, to a certain extent, it did. Some smaller outfits, largely publishing through The Adventure Company, have started making new, original adventure games, although the marketing for a lot of them makes them look suspiciously like The Longest Journey.

OK, so against that backdrop, you can probably imagine what a surprise Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney really is. It's a cartoonish, humorous, old-style adventure game taking place largely in courtrooms, with the emphasis on conversation with other characters and unraveling fairly complicated murder-mystery plotlines. The game is well-translated from the original Japanese, and the jokes - which are enough to make even Guybrush Threepwood cringe - even managed to survive the translation process. On top of that, it's a well-designed adventure game: for the most part, the game doesn't make you hunt pixels, and the answers to the puzzles are logical and fair.

I haven't quite finished the game yet, but I'm pretty close now, and I will definitely be buying the sequel when it ships early next year. I never thought I'd be saying this, but I'm so glad the 90s are back.