Friday, August 11, 2006

Nurse, I Need 30cc of... Magic Stabilizer? Objection!

One year after launch, the Nintendo DS had a small but select stable of A-list titles. If you had a DS, these were the games that, by all accounts, you should have been playing. Very high on that list were two quirky Japanese titles that were notable for making good use of the hardware and for being very fun: Phoenix Wright and Trauma Center, otherwise known as "the lawyer game" and "the surgery game", respectively. Unfortunately, they were both also released in very limited quantities, and almost impossible to find by the time word got out about their quality. Thankfully, the demand was such that they have since both been given several more large manufacturing runs, and I am now, almost a year later, finally able to see what all of the fuss is about.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a re-make of a popular Japanese GBA game from 2001 that was never released domestically called Gyakuten Saiban, in which you play as the titular rookie defense attorney learning the ropes of his profession. And you're right there learning those ropes with him, because law in the world of Phoenix Wright is definitely a bit out of the ordinary. There's a disclaimer in the instruction manual that states that the game is not necessarily reflective of real court proceedings, and that's dramatically understating matters. From the dry differences like putting the burden of proof on the defense or only allowing the prosecution to choose witnesses to the decidedly wacky differences like having a psychic medium channeling her dead sister as co-defense or allowing a parrot to testify, practicing the law that you see in this game would quickly get you disbarred in real life.

It might be worth it though, because being a defense attorney in Phoenix Wright's world would be every real defense lawyer's dream. Almost every witness called by the prosecution lies, leaving you not to wonder if they are lying, but rather to worry about how you can use the evidence at hand to prove it. And you are guaranteed to be able to do so, since the game will not allow you to proceed to trial (or, at the very least, a specific trial session, as these trials are often comprised of several separate sessions taking place over three full game days) until you collect all of the evidence that you'll need. Also, all of your defendants are wrongfully accused, so rather than worrying about the ethics of possibly helping a guilty person go free, your only problem is proving their innocence. Unfortunately, that can be a little difficult at times, since the investigators are in the prosecutor's pockets more often than not. So, like everything else, it's all up to poor Phoenix.

For any given case, you'll spend at least as much time playing detective as appearing in court, which might seem odd initially for a game about a lawyer. You're given a kind of simplified adventure game interface, allowing your to examine crime scenes for clues and talk to the various people involved in the case, and try and get to the bottom of what really happened. This process of finding out exactly what went down is half of the fun, really, as some of these crimes take some very odd turns as you begin to dig deeper. Even the first couple of cases, where you're shown a cutscene of the real criminal committing the crime, can present some fun in answering the other questions, like "when?" and "why?". These investigation sequences might turn off players looking for a fast-paced game experience, though, as they are generally far less exciting than your time in court, and they can also stretch on artificially if you've missed some specific piece of evidence that you need before proceeding to court, although I rarely ran into this problem.

It's understandable that Phoenix would want to take care not to miss anything, though, as he has a large personal stake in all but one of these trials. From defending his best friend to defending another friend's supposed murderer, and even defending himself once or twice, Phoenix always has a vested interest in doing his job well. And he's so loveably inept at it that you can't help but cheer him on and do your best to help him succeed. Even though the player has no presence in the game, it often feels as if you're working directly with Phoenix. In fact, I had several experiences where it seemed as if we were mutually supporting each other-- I might save Phoenix while he's floundering in court, but he might come right back and save me when I drop the ball and can't make a pivotal mental connection. There were even a couple of times when Phoenix and I both figured out what had really happened at the same time, and it's difficult to describe what a unique feeling that is.

This is all made much more vibrant by how expressive Phoenix is. You can always tell exactly what he's thinking, whether he's smiling sheepishly and rubbing his neck after doing something stupid or slapping at a document with an air of superiority as he pokes a hole in the prosecution's case. In fact, it's become a bit of a pop-culture phenomenon in Japan to copy or parody his various mannerisms. It's not just Phoenix that comes alive in this way though-- there's an entire cast of colourful anime-style characters. The witnesses begin a trial cool and composed, but as Phoenix starts to put the pressure on, they'll begin to sweat or wring their hands, until they finally break down entirely with an over-the-top scream. The attorneys are also always very animated in court, and the excitement is artificially inflated to sometimes humourous effect as they act more like they're physically squaring off than intellectually. A "match" begins with stylized headshots of the two attorneys facing each other, such as you might see in a fighting game, and every action is exaggerated and accompanied by music and sound effects. When Phoenix presents a particularly devastating piece of evidence, he'll thrust him arm forward and yell "Take that!" as the music swells and his opponent recoils as if physically struck by his pointing finger, complete with sound effects further implying the physical blow.

Phoenix isn't the only one who gets to yell, though. Along with several other features added during the game's transition to the DS, limited voice control has been implemented. During specific times, you are able to hold in a button and speak specific phrases into the DS's built-in microphone. Although you can of course play the game without using the voice control at all, there's something very satisfying about yelling "Objection!" during a trial. Because of little touches like this, the game feels very much at home on the DS, despite its roots as a GBA game. It makes very good use of the two screens, and has a few fun extra features that show up late in the game (such as dusting for prints by tapping the screen and then blowing into the microphone). The game can be controlled exclusively by the stylus, and I couldn't imagine playing it without it (although I guess a mouse might suffice, if that were an option).

Then again, it's not as if the controls are incredibly complex. Even at its most frantic, Phoenix Wright never requires much in the way of dexterity, so you could easily blunder your way through with the D-pad and face buttons if you were so inclined. In fact, most of your input will be simply tapping the screen to advance dialogue anyway, as Phoenix Wright is a very text-heavy game. As a result, it is also a game of very satisfying length, and I think that most players will require at least twenty hours to complete the game's five cases. That won't be a surprise to anyone with any adventure game experience, but if you're one of those people who prefer to play their games rather than read them (Corry, I'm looking at you, you KOTOR-hating deviant), you'd be well advised to stay far away.

For the rest of us, though, there's a lot of fun to be had here. Phoenix Wright is as enjoyable as it is unique, and is a great game for someone who doesn't normally play games, which has really been Nintendo's mission in recent years, what with their brain training games, Nintendogs, and the Wii. It starts with a short introductory case against an aging prosecutor, which serves as a kind of extended and more or less seamlessly integrated tutorial, and the game slowly eases you into things, introducing and explaining different aspects of play as you progress. Proceedings will slowly ramp up in difficulty, but they never get overly difficult, so as long as you have a good eye for detail (Yay!) and a good memory (Eep!), you should be an Ace Attorney in no time.

If you're more interested in cutting someone open than you are in legal drama, though, Trauma Center: Under the Knife has your back. It's often mentioned in the same breath as Phoenix Wright (for instance, at the beginning of this post), and for good reason, but for every superficial similarity there's a deeper difference. Like Phoenix Wright, Trauma Center is a quirky Japanese game where you play a rookie professional learning the ropes of his profession-- in this case, surgery. It too features a colourful anime-style cast with exaggerated gestures and sound effects. Every operation begins with a montage of the main character, Derek Stiles, dramatically thrusting on his gloves and gown and then fanning out his arm and yelling "Let's begin the operation!". It also launched on the same day as Phoenix Wright, and even has a similar disclaimer inside the instruction manual that cautions that the game is not a substitute for real medical training.

Just in case any of you were thinking of ignoring that disclaimer and dropping out of medical school, let me confirm for you that surgery in Trauma Center is very different from surgery in real life (although there's still an argument to be made that it could be an effective supplement to medical training). The game takes place in 2018, which is their rationalization for some of the game's more fantastical elements, of which there are several. Along with standard tools like a scalpel and forceps, and even a camera for laparoscopic procedures (which, given that you're playing a game, is what these all functionally are in the first place), you also have access to some more futuristic tools, like an antibiotic gel that heals small wounds, or an injection that stabilizes dying patients. In fact, the main focus of the game's plot is a genetically engineered illness called GUILT (which is a vaguely legitimate-sounding acronym composed of medical terms) used by "medical terrorists", as the game calls them, that involves macroscopic living organisms wreaking varying kinds of havoc in the victims' bodies. These are just small blips on the ultrasound, though, when compared with the game's silliest element: The Healing Touch.

The Healing Touch is a bullet-time-like power possessed by the main character that can be used once per operation (although you receive bonus points if you manage to save the patient without it), activated by drawing a star on the screen. Once activated, everything temporarily turns a muted grey and slows down considerably, simulating super-human reflexes that allow you to perform complicated procedures in a short amount of time, like sewing up a half dozen lacerations in the space of a couple of seconds. Needless to say, it's a little jarring when this element is first introduced, and I think that the game may have been better off without it, but it's pretty integral to the plot, and I'm not above using it when an operation goes south. The patients certainly don't seem to complain.

Not everything is magic powers and medical terrorism, though. In fact, there are several procedures that are at least grounded in reality, like removing glass from a guy's arm or replacing a heart valve, and I find these generally to be the most fun. Part of me wonders if the game could have been made better by taking it in a more grounded direction. That being said, a couple of the craziest scenarios are also counted among my favorites, like excising a laceration-causing strain of GUILT or defusing a bomb using my surgical equipment. Yes, you read that right-- a bomb. This casual disregard for the realities of the profession on which it is based is where the similarities between Phoenix Wright and Trauma Center end, however, so let me get to the differences.

First off, the two games aren't even in the same genre. Phoenix Wright is a leisurely-paced adventure game, while Trauma Center is a fast-paced game that really doesn't fit well into any existing genre, although it feels more like a puzzle game than anything else. It certainly requires the same skill-set of fast decision-making and dexterity. And it is because of this that, unlike Phoenix Wright, I cannot recommend Trauma Center as a good introductory game. You see, Phoenix Wright eases you into its undemanding gameplay, explaining every step as it goes and never getting too hard, while Trauma Center holds your hand through the first couple of operations and then rips off the training wheels, if you'll excuse my mixed metaphors.

The surgical procedures in Trauma Center are frantic and stressful, requiring a good memory, quick decision-making, and a fast stylus hand (in fact, I've read that some people advocate playing it with two styluses, so that you can switch tools with one hand and use them with the other without delay). It's left me floundering on more than one occasion, as I try to decide/remember what to do next while the nurse is yelling at me and the patient is bleeding out in front of me. The game is quite difficult, even for someone of my experience-- if you were to hand it to me at age twelve, before I came to appreciate a good challenge, I suspect I'd play it for an hour or two and then just give up. Which is a shame, because it looks like the kind of game that might catch a kid's eye, and I suspect that there may have been a lot of unhappy children this past Christmas morning.

Another problem that results from this fast pacing is that Trauma Center as a whole is a bit on the short side, which is something that I rarely complain about, what with my huge backlog of games. I'm not actually finished yet, but just basing an estimate upon procedure numbers, I'd say that the main storyline could probably be finished in about eight to twelve hours, and that includes several re-tries on the more difficult operations. It does allow you to replay all of the procedures afterward as many times as you'd like in an attempt to better your score, so that might pad the play time a bit, but I suspect that would get old pretty quick-- once I've finally managed to successfully complete a difficult procedure (which most of them are), I am usually glad to be done with it.

On the other hand, the fast play does give Trauma Center one big advantage over Phoenix Wright: portability. While I liked Phoenix Wright quite a bit (as you may have inferred), its style of play is not really all that well-suited to a portable environment, where a game can ideally be picked up and played in short bursts. While it technically can be quick-saved and shut off at any time, Phoenix Wright can practically be neither picked up quickly nor put down quickly, since success requires you to take the time to re-familiarize yourself with the details of the current case, and those cases can take days of regular play to complete. Trauma Center, however, lends itself much better to short play sessions, with the narrative coming in short bursts and the majority of procedures having a time limit of five minutes, unlike Phoenix Wright's epic multi-hour trials.

What I find most compelling about Trauma Center, though, is that it finally feels like a game that could not exist on any platform other than the Nintendo DS. I don't even think that a mouse would enable me to make the small, quick, precise movements that this game demands of me-- I have speed-suturing down to a science. This being the case, I'm more than a little nervous about the planned Wii sequel-- I've yet to hold a Wii-mote in my hands, so I can't speak as to how accurate or inaccurate it may be, but Nathan assures me that that kind of technology has a current not-so-generous upper limit on precision, and, even if it turns out to be surprisingly accurate, I doubt the precision would approach what the DS allows, and what Trauma Center in turn demands.

However, I'll not worry about the sequel just yet. For the moment, I'm still enjoying the original, which is very fun, rather addictive, and refreshingly challenging in this age of simplified games for the masses. Both Trauma Center and Phoenix Wright serve as great examples of what the DS can do when developers take advantage of all it has to offer, and give me hope for the future of both the DS and the Wii. Above all, though, they're both very fun games, and no DS owner should be without them.


Anonymous Craig said...

I've seen articles on Trauma Center before. It's almost enough to make me splurge on a DS Lite.

Now if they had wi-fi gauntlet for the DS _that_ would make it a 'must have'.....

Friday, August 11, 2006 2:59:00 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

When I first read that comment, I thought you meant a gauntlet accessory that you wear on your hand, like some kind of next-gen Power Glove, not the game Gauntlet, and I find it quite amusing to speculate what a "wi-fi gauntlet" would entail. Could I deflect sword-blows wirelessly?

Friday, August 11, 2006 3:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Craig said...

Gotta love the glove

Friday, August 11, 2006 3:58:00 PM  
Anonymous NOS said...

but Nathan assures me that that kind of technology has a current not-so-generous upper limit on precision

I feel I should qualify this somewhat, as my good name is on the line. When I expressed my concerns on this issue, it was because general pattern recognition is a pretty Hard Problem. However, in the intervening months it has become clearer and clearer that the kind of uses that the Wii controller will be performing are probably going to be relatively simple, and so I'm not so worried about things any more.

On the other hand, it's stuff like the Power Glove that fuel my general suspicion of the Wii. (At least when I hear utopian predictions of revolutionary new gameplay.) Just imagine all the brilliant and innovative new games you could experience with the Power Glove!

Friday, August 11, 2006 11:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous (Vintage) said...

On another note, are you going to "Fredericton Geek Fest '06"? (or as they call it: "Lansomnia" at Fredericton Inn this weekend) - (Don't confuse the weekends or you might end up there on "The Bear" weekend - something you may or may not necessarily want to experience - not that there is anything wrong with that).

To me, Geek Fest actually looks kinda fun,...

Friday, August 18, 2006 9:32:00 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...


I have no idea what you're talking about. In any case, whatever it is, I hate gatherings of people, and I especially hate gatherings of "Geeks", so no.

Friday, August 18, 2006 1:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous (Vintage) said...

Lansomnia: It's an event at the Fredericton Inn where people play XBox games from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. (Over 200 people attend, prizes worth up to $10,000. Registration $25- $50 depending on day. "every type of game - 42 hours". Starts today.

Never been, but sounded neat.

Come on Mr. Gamer, you could bring home some cool prizes! ;-)

Friday, August 18, 2006 2:14:00 PM  

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