For over 20 years, Capcom’s Ace Attorney series has allowed players to step into the manicured shoes of a lawyer, busting criminals and absolving clients with reckless abandon. Granted, it probably bears little to no similarity to the work of a real-life attorney – but it’s tough to care when the stories are this good.
Phoenix Wright, Apollo Justice, Athena Cykes; these primary-coloured faces are just a few of the budding desk-slammers you’ll be controlling in this iconic franchise. But with several games to choose from, where does one start? Here they all are, ranked (albeit not by legal accuracy.)
Updated October 19, 2023, by Bobby Mills: The Ace Attorney universe continues to grow, and indeed has done a fair bit of growing since we first published this list. For one, the unthinkable happened: the Great Ace Attorney prequel duology received an English localisation, quelling the doubts of fans the world over.
Additionally, the long-awaited remasters of Apollo Justice, Dual Destinies, and Spirit of Justice are bound for current-gen systems in 2024 – so what better time to rejig our ranking? No objections from us!
10 Ace Attorney Investigations
Ace Attorney Investigations is the first full game to feature fan-favourite Miles Edgeworth as a protagonist; a complex and intriguing figure. Having been playable for a short period in Trials & Tribulations, it seemed that Shu Takumi was testing the waters, making it almost inevitable that Edgeworth would receive his own series of games. The prosecutor’s inner thought process is a delight to watch, after all.
Sadly, so bogged down in creating a whole new third-person engine were the team that the story and writing fell a bit by the wayside. The game attempts to organically connect an important backstory to present-day cases, though some confrontations feel more technical than exciting. Trust us: it’s no fun spending upwards of three hours arguing the finer points of diplomatic immunity. For all of Edgeworth’s intelligence, the Logic mechanic can also be obtuse and confusing.
9 Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies
Despite many fans expecting a direct sequel to Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, Capcom took a very different route for this fifth mainline installment. Sure, Apollo’s here, and even has an edgy backstory to uncover, but Phoenix gets top billing once more.
The first entry on the 3DS, Dual Destinies makes adequate use of its hardware. For one, it arguably has one of the most fantastic soundtracks in the series, with renowned composer Noriyuki Iwadare in fine fettle. Unfortunately, from a graphical standpoint, the game suffers from uncomfortable 3D models; with some characters looking unexpressive and stiff.
The introduction of Athena Cykes, the first playable female lawyer (discounting a brief stint as Mia in flashback), held a lot of potential – but ultimately her storyline rehashed the original Ace Attorney’s ‘defence attorney has a troubled history with the prosecution’ schtick. Athena’s application of psychology throughout the game is exciting, though sometimes lacking in substance. Wow, someone reacted with fear when a roof caved in over them? Stop the presses!
8 Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Justice For All
Justice For All is a classic case of ‘so close, yet so far.’ On a surface level, it’s a worthy sequel to the original title. The intrigue of Edgeworth’s disappearance, combined with the introduction of a new Von Karma (Phoenix having sent her pops to the slammer) instills a curiosity that can only be sated by poring over every word of the dialogue.
Akemi Kimura does a phenomenal job conjuring music for every mood and scenario, and some of the characters we meet here – like Maya’s adorable cousin Pearl – would become mainstays.
However, it’s scuppered by a truly atrocious bad-case-to-good-case ratio. The tutorial chapter? Laughable, especially that ‘villain.’ The one with the irritating Ini Miney? No thanks. And Turnabout Big Top, populated entirely with the most intolerable secondary characters ever conceived? Well, the less said about that, the better.
It’s worth pushing through to experience the phenomenal final kidnapping case – but a game where 70 percent of the runtime is mediocre can’t reach the heights of our list.
7 Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Talk about your dream crossovers, eh? Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a prime example of how to combine two disparate series to create something bigger than the sum of their parts.
Both protagonists rely on puzzles and strategic thinking, but in different ways. Layton is a logical deducer, whereas Phoenix has the gift of the gab, which complement each other perfectly. The two series also utilise comedy in unique and memorable ways; so it seemed only natural when Level-5 and Capcom got together and said “Hey, let’s make some magic.”
Quite literally. The game’s set in Labyrinthia, a medieval fantasy town where witches exist and spells being cast is just part of the daily furniture. It’s up to Layton to unravel the – typically bonkers – truth behind the town, while Phoenix defends would-be executees in court.
Despite its brilliance, the game ranks lower on our list due to its being a crossover: there’s less actual Ace Attorney gameplay than there is Layton puzzle-solving. Nevertheless, it’s a worthy tribute to both universes that’s more than worth your time.
6 Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney
In this game, you assume the role of a new lawyer, Apollo Justice. This was meant to represent a passing of the torch from Phoenix to his “apprentice” figure, signalling that Phoenix’s saga had come to a close (or so it seemed). Fans were able to see how beloved characters had grown and evolved during the seven in-universe years that had passed since the last game.
Unfortunately, Capcom got cold feet at the eleventh hour, concerned that an Ace Attorney title wouldn’t sell without Phoenix’s spiky mug slapped on the cover. And so Apollo’s debut occupies a strange middle ground: it’s technically his game, but Phoenix keeps popping up, and ultimately is instrumental to the main case’s resolution.
It’s a shame since Apollo’s character was engaging and lovable. Think of him as the Luigi to Phoenix’s Mario; insecure, but confident when necessary, and fiercely defensive of his family and friends. We were also introduced to Trucy Wright, a bubbly new assistant who’s Phoenix’s adoptive daughter, along with Apollo’s new gameplay ability to ‘Perceive’.
The stellar music bangs like nobody’s business, and supplements a cast of personalities that exemplify the concept of ‘found family’ wonderfully.
5 Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
The game that started it all, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney remains a beloved classic. But is it just nostalgia goggles? No, Your Honour. This title more than holds up in a court of law.
Made in only ten months by a team of seven people, the game allowed us to first clap eyes on such iconic faces as Phoenix, Maya, and Edgeworth, all with wonderful arcs and resolutions.
The unforgettable music, and poignant ideals and messages, emanate throughout its whole being. It’s impossible to boot this thing up and not smile, so liberally dispensed is the charm and humour. Whether it’s exploring a crummy knockoff TV studio, helping Larry Butz photograph ‘the Lake Gourd Monster’, or nailing a guy literally named ‘Frank Sahwit’ on a lie, it’s all top-class.
Re-released multiple times since with its bonus case, Rise From The Ashes, the game quickly became a hit with Western audiences and paved the way for all the other games seen on this list. An all-timer, you say? Guilty as charged.
4 Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney − Spirit Of Justice
The latest game in the main series (still! Where’s number seven, Capcom?!) was hotly anticipated by fans still awaiting a proper tie-up of Apollo’s character. Spirit of Justice largely delivered, treating us to a tightly-woven, 30-plus hour plot that digs its hooks in you from the word ‘go.’
The action shifts to the kingdom of Khura’in, where a corrupt autocracy has assumed control and made a butcher’ of the legal system. It’s up to Phoenix, Apollo, and Athena, who just so happen to be visiting an in-training Maya, to set things right.
It isn’t all perfect, of course. A few plot points from previous Ace Attorney games continue to go unaddressed – one word: Thalassa – and appearances from the likes of Maya and Edgeworth come off as fan service rather than actual contributions to the story. Apollo finishes the adventure with more backstories than any poor soul should have to burden, which leaves little time for exploring his relationships with already existing characters.
All the same, this is a fab entry. The new testimony mechanic, séances that let you see the final moments of the victim, is ambitious and unique. Khura’in’s hatred of defence lawyers creates an enthralling atmosphere of tension; and really, how many games can you name that end with a greenhorn attorney toppling a government?
3 The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles
Few people expected that The Great Ace Attorney would ever see a Western release. The series had spent the better part of two decades attempting to convince Anglophonic players that the games were, in fact, set in Los Angeles as opposed to Japan. Never mind that Maya claims she loves burgers while patronising a noodle stand, or all the cherry blossoms everywhere, or the extremely obvious kanji on the billboards. Los. Angeles. Got it?
So, a prequel set in Meiji-era Japan would seem like a total no-go. And for a while, that held true. Initially launched on the 3DS in Japan, this was meant to be a trilogy, but it was shrunk down to two after budgets got out of control. Those two then finally became one when, against all odds, The Great Ace Attorney made it to Western shores in 2021. Arguably, a single gigantic package is the optimum way to experience it.
You play Ryunosuke Naruhodo, a Japanese ancestor of Phoenix Wright, as he navigates the pitfalls of immigrating to London in a time of great racial tension. He and his assistant, Susato ‘Susie’ Mikotoba, are subject to prejudice from the second they step off the boat, and it’s refreshing to see such a lighthearted, bouncy franchise tackle such mature themes.
Top that off with a satisfyingly complex narrative, the inclusion of a legally distinct Sherlock Holmes, and more puns about ladders than you could ever comprehend, and this was well worth the wait.
2 Ace Attorney Investigations 2
The definitive hidden gem of the Ace Attorney series, Investigations 2 is available only in English through an outstanding fan translation. An otherwise Japanese-exclusive title, it’s worthy of all the attention it can get, standing out as that rare beast: a sequel better than the original. Not that the original Investigations set too high of a bar to clear, but you get the point.
The design philosophy for Investigations 2 seems to have been: ‘take literally everything that didn’t work about the first one and chuck it in a meat grinder.’ The game features improved puzzle mechanics, such as Logic Chess, and all its cases are, thank goodness, connected to the plot in a meaningful way.
Relationships formed in the first game are furthered, deepened, and tested in some genuinely heartwrenching ways, and the third-act plot twist is one of the most sublime in the entire series – if not the visual novel medium in general. Second time’s the charm for ol’ Edgey-poo.
1 Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Trials And Tribulations
The widely agreed-upon crown jewel of the Ace Attorney series, Trials and Tribulations allows you to act as three different attorneys throughout the game, which jumps between time periods with breakneck frequency. If being able to play as the franchise’s walking ‘get out of jail free’ card Mia Fey wasn’t enough to earn first place on this list, then Phoenix Wright’s college backstory most certainly is. That sweater is to die for, Feenie.
The game wrapped up every loose thread and mystery in the original Phoenix Wright trilogy with panache, while feeling effortless and heartfelt as it did so. The enigmatic new prosecutor Godot lends suave charm and intrigue to the overarching mystery, and ties back to the prior titles seamlessly.
Simply put, it’s the perfect conclusion to everything the series had been building towards; so of course, it’s only the third game of ten. Ah, franchising!
Next: The Best Ace Attorney Cases