Anything you've ever liked in an Ace Attorney game is a result of its localization. Every clever joke, cute pun, and witty line of dialogue was a product of the localization team taking the original script and reworking it to fit an American audience. Sure, the localization team has no control over the mysteries they're handed, or any particularly offensive character designs, but other than those things, Phoenix Wright is pretty much all text. Which made it sort of a revelation to me which it came out. I'd played adventure games before, but never anything as visual novel-styled as Ace Attorney. My computer wasn't really up to snuff, and from my perspective, most of them were R-rated hentai games, which I was terrified of my parents catching me playing. But Ace Attorney was something different- it was well written. In fact, so well written that nothing about it really screamed "Japan" at me. I'd watched a bunch of anime at that point, so I was catching the art style, and the various seinen tropes it drops, but other than that, the first Ace Attorney doesn't seem really seem out of place in its Los Angeles setting. It’s a game about lawyers with wacky clients, a plot that could have easily been transposed onto a TV series, or movie, or book. But outside of that, every character had been renamed with a usually goofy, but never grating, pun, cultural references to Japan had been totally relocated, and characters cracked jokes based on American idioms and pop culture, but never in a way that felt like someone just checked a Wikipedia page and based their goofs off of that.
There’s a saying that the best localizations are the ones no one notices. That a light touch is best when it comes to bringing something over from another country. It makes sense, if you beat someone over the head with any Americanisms it’s going to seem pretty obvious that it wasn’t American in the first place. Ace Attorney 1 hits that sweet spot perfectly. It might as well have been an American-developed game from my perspective playing through it for the first time. There are some weird Japanese things left over, like the string of flags on one character’s souvenir stand, or a popular Tokusatsu show being filmed in an LA studio, but those just sort of make sense in the inherent weirdness of a world where magical spirit channelling exists and is totally admissible as evidence in court.
Just as an example, there’s a bit in the Japanese version of Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations where one character spills curry on a picture of the spirit channelling master. In Japanese, her orders are to put a “splendid end to the head of the house.” Being a kid, she misreads some of the Kanji involved, getting karei, or splendid, confused with kare, which means curry. She also gets indoh, which is the word for giving someone their funeral rites, as indo, which means India. So she spills Indian curry on the picture. Of course, that pun doesn’t make a lick of sense in English, but the localizers were stuck with the picture being covered in a brown foodstuff. Her orders in English are to “gravely roast the master,” so she dumps some gravy from the night’s roast on the picture instead. The event doesn’t change, but her misunderstanding makes sense to an English speaking audience. It’s a perfect crossover, and until someone pointed out that the gravely/gravy and roast/roast connection doesn’t exist in Japanese, I never noticed it. It’s the deft, light touch or a good localization. Sure, the fact that she mixed up those words is a little goofy, but it’s equally goofy in both languages, and makes perfect sense in the moment. There isn't really anything lost by changing the food items, other than a bunch of Americans not getting the joke, because curry isn't particularly popular here.
Of course, for a series that lives by its localization, it also dies by it too. So sometimes, when an Ace Attorney game falls flat, it’s probably the localization’s fault. Ace Attorney Investigations is a pretty boring game. It has hysterically simple cases that last forever because of dozens of filler interrogations you have to sit through before you can actually get your hands on the culprit, but that’s the fault of the game’s developers. The localizers instead have to shoulder the blame of the bottom of the barrel puns (the sports-loving Jacques Portsman, the victim known as Died Mann) and the monotony of Edgeworth, Gumshoe and sidekick Kay having exactly one joke each. Some of that might be attributed to the fact that because of the game’s core conceit, you aren’t really ever doing anything of purpose, just wandering around trying to find someone who will be arrested and eventually dragged to real court, but there’s certainly space for a localization to have spiced things up. It’s too light a touch for localization.
Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies, on the other hand, actually suffers from a very noticeable and problematic localization- it’s full of typos. There’s actually a tumblr dedicated to cataloguing some of the incredible spelling mistakes. Most of them are small ones, “any” instead of “an”, “statute” instead of “stature”, nothing that seems totally crazy. But then they spell one of the game’s primary locations three different ways and you realize they didn’t hire an editor. It makes the whole thing look amateurish for a high-profile release from a major publisher. It also totally destroys a lot of your immersion when you have to stop every few textboxes to gawk and marvel at the latest unbelievable error.
And while Ace Attorney 1 benefited from the westernised script, Dual Destinies stumbles over it. Where the Los Angeles setting made for a more welcoming atmosphere for a new player than Tokyo would have, Dual Destinies leaves players looking for semblances of American culture cold. The game features two Japanese villages that somehow relocated their entire populations from Japan to Southern California, brought over their ancient sealed demons, and somehow used their images to sell a popular wrestling show. All of that is crazy, especially the wrestling bit.
Now, that isn't necessarily Dual Destinies' fault, considering they were stuck in LA to begin with, but they really could have done something about the incredibly problematic third case, which features a very Anime-styled legal academy, a prep-high school for law school, which is presumably what allows people in the Ace Attorney universe to pass the bar at 13. At the school, you run into a young man who was born female and lives life as a man. Of course, once you reveal this in court (which is kind of gross in and of itself), the character admits the truth by pulling out a pink high heel and staring at it longingly. You need to make them admit this because you need a reason for them to have stolen and worn a dress. Even though the proof is there, there is somehow no way they could have done it unless they were secretly actually a girl. Also, after the big reveal, the character becomes very stereotypically girly, teasing characters, doing over-dramatic fake faints, and putting their hands on their hips. It’s sort of crazy offensive, and the kind of thing that probably could have been worked around a little bit by the localizers. To be fair, I don’t know if it was worse in the Japanese version. This was, after all, the series that had an enormous, flamboyant French chef talk about how he was a “woman on the inside” and leave it treated as a hilaaaaarious joke.
Dual Destinies takes a pretty light approach to the whole localization thing outside of a handful of cultural references here and there. Prosecutor Simon Blackquill is a walking ball of Japanese cultural references that don't track unless you're familiar with a whole host of Japanese tropes. He's a samurai, but dresses more like court nobility, he calls everyone -dono at times, an antiquated Japanese honorific used to denote respect, the list goes on. To be fair, the localizers did a decent job of making him speak British English to reflect the more archaic Japanese he used, but there's no halfway here. he came off as strange, and sort of jarring. No one is going to argue that Dual Destinies is a well localized game. Part of that is partially because being stuck in LA renders a few of the cases and characters impossible to localize, but the rest of that burden sits on characters like Blackquill mixing Japanese and English tropes, along with the complete lack of editing in the game's script.
Dual Destinies manages to have a localization that isn’t just offensive and confusing, but also completely unreadable at times. It sort of ruins the game, in the same way that Ace Attorney 1’s spectacular localization saved it from being “too Japanese” for a wider audience. It was a visual novel that didn’t really feel like one, and opened the floodgates for me personally. I really fell in love with the visual novel concept, all because Ace Attorney was so well written, and so well localized. I’m pretty sure Dual Destinies won’t accomplish the same for anyone. It might even scare them off of the genre as a whole, considering how little it tries to make things palatable to a western audience. Someone yells YOLO once, and I’m pretty sure that’s the sum total of the cultural references I caught. A good localization is very important, and in Ace Attorney’s case, it’s literally the difference between a good game and a bad one. In my case, and I’m pretty sure for many others as well, it’s the difference between being introduced to a new fantastic genre, or being chased even further away by typos and uncomfortable Japanese attitudes to sexuality.
Some might argue that Ace Attorney goes too far in its localization, that it erases the original Japanese intent by retrofitting the script to work in America. But the problem is that if it was left as a Japan-centric game it would have never found the popularity it did in the West. A good localization change things around to better suit the culture its being brought to, and in Ace Attorney’s case, that meant playing down the Japanese element to it, which was honestly not terribly important to its core plot. As the series went on, it got out of hand, sure, but there’s no denying that it was the best decision that localization team made at the time. Of course, some games need different localization choices. The Persona games wouldn't make any sense at all if they were westenrized to the same degree as Ace Attorney. In fact, that's often one of the major complaints people have with Persona 1. A good localization is one that takes both the needs of the game as well as the audience into account, and a bad localization is one that fails them.
A good localization also won’t put in a “this is Sparta” reference, but we’ll let Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations slide. It was 2007, we were all making mistakes.