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Phoenix Wright & the Case of the Two Input Methods

January 19, 2006 By Glenn Turner

A month or two ago I received a Treo 650. While I've been using Palm OS handhelds for a handful of years now, this was the first I've used that ditches the 'Graffiti Area', a section of the screen reserved for writing characters with a stylus, and replaces it a small keyboard. Consequently, this virtually eliminates the need to use the handheld's stylus for the majority of standard tasks - I can now just use my thumbs to type and not worry about actually having to move my hands like I would with a stylus. See, in addition to the small keyboard, the Treo (and other recent Palm handhelds) utilize a 5-way navigator. A 5-way navigator is essentially a d-pad combined with a L3 (or R3) button press and it allows you to navigate through programs without the need for a stylus, as long as you're not entering in alphanumeric characters. Prior to this Treo I rarely used the 5-way - I often had my stylus out for character input anyways, so why not just use the stylus to navigate the interface? It just made sense. But now that I have the keyboard, I don't need to use the stylus to fiddle with 'Graffiti', and I'm rather loath to migrate back to the stylus whenever it's actually required.

It took me roughly four years to go from being a stylus-wielding Palm lover to embracing the cramped mini-keyboard, like some maligned ex-Blackberry user. Conversely, it took roughly four hours to go through the same process with my Nintendo DS and a copy of Capcom's Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Phoenix Wright, a Japanese GBA game ported to the DS, focuses on the life of an attorney in 'tomorrow's future', where the American judicial system not only mandates that the defendant is guilty until proved innocent, but that they're guilty until someone else is proved to be the guilty party. On top of that, thanks to the clogged courts, the defendant has only three days to plead their case, lest they be found guilty by means of convenience. Luckily for a small number of wrongly accused innocents there is Phoenix Wright, a man not only of action but also a capital attorney, full of pluck and vigor. He takes on his cases with aplomb and the sort of naive self-confidence that only a youngster can bring. The end result is an engaging, occasionally poignant, and exquisitely crafted courtroom melodrama that manages to never be dull, despite the game's heavy reliance on dialogue trees and very limited input gameplay.

Limited input as in, you're constantly plugging away at the same handful of 'action' buttons or guiding the same crosshair over the same standard static graphic. Like any experienced DS user would when confronted with such mechanisms (especially when there's no in-game gameplay control tutorial), I deftly maneuvered the stylus to tap these buttons and sort the crosshair, but that quickly proved to be too tiring as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney has a lot of dialogue. A lot of text dialogue. And where there's text dialogue, there's 'Press ... to continue'. Now, I could hold my hand up, gripping the stylus over the 'Next' button on the touch screen to continue to the next block of dialogue, or I could just clumsily press my thumb against the arrow button to continue. Or I could do what results in the least amount of movement and is the fastest for all involved parties: I could circumvent the touch screen altogether and just press the A button that is already naturally resting under my right thumb.

The moment I that little shortcut dawned on me, I started wondering 'Did they map all of the buttons to the DS's control pad & and shoulder buttons?' A handful of minutes (and a scan of the manual) later I found that yes, I had been wasting far too much of my time reaching for my stylus to tap my inventory button when I could simply hold down the Right shoulder button. I could administer my entire cross-examination without lifting my hand. Finally, the chore of repeatedly taking out and pulling the stylus from its housing could be put to rest! I saw absolutely no use for the touch screen whatsoever, and proceeded to gleefully play through the rest of the core game1 with the stylus firmly abandoned to its housing.

Frankly, it's not a crime. The game is a GBA port, it makes sense that it was designed with the limited GBA control scheme in mind and obviously someone at Capcom, for whatever reason, decided to retain the mapping. However, what I do find odd is that others, including our very own Mr. LeFeuvre, speak so highly of the stylus implementation in the game, a mechanic that I see as little more than routine procedural 'button' mashing. I see no need for the stylus - there's no dexterity or skill required in using it, nor is there even much in the way of pleasing feedback. For a counter example, take Trace Memory (a game whose stylus use Eurogamer branded 'disappointing' when they spoke of Phoenix Wrights): Trace Memory's primary characters, Ashley and her ghostly companion D, follow your stylus movements in an ethereal manner, one that is much more fluid than if they were being controlled via the directional pad. For me, watching the two characters follow the tip of my stylus as I guided them around the mansion was much more tactile than smushing large buttons and targeting crosshairs.

The stylus isn't the only superfluous DS-only gameplay element that Phoenix Wright brings to the table: Capcom has also implemented voice commands to utilize the DS's microphone. All the tapping and pressing can't hold a candle to Phoenix Wright's major joy: yelling OBJECTION!! at your screen and hearing Wright reply in kind. For once in a game the voice commands actually feel involving, my utterance feels justified. Whenever I'd bleat out in recognition of a contradiction I'd snicker slightly - partially because I believed to have the solution to a problem, but also because the whole ordeal is so amusingly satisfying. And paradoxically, in order to enable the DS to accept your outburst, you have to hold down on the Y button - it's not mapped to any sort of stylus input. Again, as with the stylus input, it's completely superfluous, but it's much more delightful than mashing buttons with your thumb or stylus could ever hope to be.

So, in one way, I'm a victim of my own trappings: despite owning a handheld that allows me to maneuver in a progressive, more intuitive manner than esoterically remembering what button corresponds to which action, I choose to hold onto the old way when given a choice, at least concerning these courtroom proceedings. Why? Out of familiarity that's for certain, but also because I find it faster, more precise, less wasteful, and in the case of Phoenix Wright, there is just no incentive to do otherwise. Similarly, it is much easier to type in my memo on my Treo instead of using the cumbersome, and long-in-the-tooth, Graffiti system. And just as some may prefer to not burden their already weary finger joints with repetitive tiny keyboard smashing, there will be people like me that will nonetheless prefer the faster, less strenuous yet less intuitive input methods. Ultimately, what both the the Treo and DS hardware signify is that of divergent input techniques from their predecessors: while both handhelds are utilizing new input types, they're simultaneously trying to retain back-compatibility with prior software (the DS with GBA software, and the Treo with stylus-oriented programs) as well as accommodate users who haven't quite acclimated to the newer techniques.

The end result? A mishmash on all ends - stylus input and keypress handling required by the developers, with techniques favored and loathed by end users equally. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney showcases the changing of the guard, and not just because it's a DS port of a GBA game. Some might consider it a dualistic waste of time to deal with both, but personally I see it as an altruistic coming together, where the end user can have their cake and eat it too. Slowly tap away at what you want to interact with, or memorize a byzantine combination of button presses to speed up the process, the choice is mine and mine alone.

Oh, and I can shout as well, if I feel so inclined. Take that!

1. The original GBA version contains four chapters (or episodes, as the game calls them), which I call here the 'core game'. The DS port has a newly added fifth chapter which starts immediately after the credits roll and deviates from the core game by adding several graphical and gameplay flourishes a bit more unique to the DS hardware. Some of the gameplay devices do not have a button equivalent, including applying fingerprint powder and blowing excessive powder from the fingerprint.

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#1 R. LeFeuvre Jan 23, 2006 06:22am

You know, it's really interesting that we are so diametrically opposed with this. I mean, I can't fathom using the D-Pad and face buttons... it just seems so slow and ... ugh. Stylus for life!

I think the fact that it's set up so easily to take either input is what makes Phoenix Wright special in this regard. I mean, you can't use the buttons to play Ouendan and you can't use the stylus to play Mario Kart.

Of course, I'm right in choosing the stylus. I mean, only suckers would use the old GBA setup.


BUT! I've actually come across this situation again, in Animal Crossing. They have set the entire game up to work with both styles of play. The problem is, I find that neither of the control schemes works for me 100%.

I love using the stylus for typing, using the inventory and menus, choosing options in dialog trees, drawing constellations, but it sucks for navigation around town. I use the D-Pad for that, and the buttons to use any of my tools (to fish, to swing my net, to fire my slingshot) because it's far to hard to be accurate with the stylus.

I find myself constantly switching between using the buttons and using the touch screen... it very annoying, and yet, it's the way I've come accustom to playing the game.

#2 hobbie Jan 23, 2006 06:32am

Ditto. Animal Crossing is a hybrid that you can't love, but you just don't find it in you to hate.

I've actually tried various hand positions and have discovered one or two that allow me to play for hours with little discomfort. But I look retarded, so no one will ever get the secret.

#3 Kamikaze Jan 31, 2006 10:50am

Since there's no Phoenix Wright thread, my questions may as well go here.

How many profiles/saves are there on a single cart? Is it just the one game, or are there multiple saves? My brother and I both want to play the game, but are hestitant to buy two copies.

Approximately how long is each case?

Thanks in advance.

#4 Glenn Turner Jan 31, 2006 10:56am

There's just one save per cart. Trying to have two people playing individual games at once would be nightmarish.

It's kind of hard to average the case length, as there are only four core cases, and the first is quite brief. The time required to solve each kind of exponentially increases with each case, but I'd guess around two and a half hours for each maybe?

The fifth, DS-only, case takes forever - it's about ten hours long I'd reckon. It's a good case, not as good as the core ones, but there's some really neat stuff in it.

#5 Kamikaze Feb 1, 2006 11:11am

Alright, thanks a bunch. Two copies will be ordered! Heh, and I'll make a more constructive post when I actually have the game.

#7 quazz4life Jul 27, 2006 10:40pm

Ah, the new YTMND.