Reel Life #15: BlacKkKlansman, Red Cliff, and Breathless

This week, I’ve decided to do something a little different. Up until now, I have been hesitant use my usual rating system on films because, to be frank, I have less sure footing in this medium. With games, I could end up changing my mind somewhere down the line, but because I’ve reviewed over 130 by this point, I know what each number is used for in relation to that medium specifically. Having said that, while I thought my less specific verdict system was serviceable, I realized films of varying quality existed on the same tiers as each other. It didn’t matter if I thought the film was good or great – they both got the “recommended” verdict. I considered using a rating system similar to Roger Ebert’s in which I ranked each film from 1-4 stars, but in the end, I’ve decided to use my own. Because of this, most of my additional scoring rules apply to how I parse films as well. This does mean, among other things, that films with weak endings can’t achieve a score higher than a 5/10 and sequel hooks must be resolved in an expedient manner for me to avoid invoking the former rule. On that note, should I come across a work that’s divided into multiple parts, I will not award any score at all until all of them have seen their release.

With that out of the way, I have to admit I didn’t see that many films this past week. This is because one in particular ended up being quite long, though I can safely say ahead of time it was worth seeing. The other two? I’ll get to those shortly.

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Introduction

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks was originally slated for a 2010 release. When the staff desired to move on and work on a new console installment, the release date was rescheduled to the end of 2009. Once Spirit Tracks saw its release, a majority of its development team were immediately assigned to work on the game that would become Skyward Sword. Three members of the Spirit Tracks team, including Hiromasa Shikata and Shiro Mouri, opted to begin work on a completely different project that would bear the Zelda banner. They originally intended to build a game around the theme of “communication”. Six months into the project, they presented their idea to Shigeru Miyamoto. Unfortunately, Mr. Miyamoto felt it “[sounded] like an idea [that was] twenty years old”. Realizing they couldn’t proceed with this concept, they decided to rethink the concept of the game from the ground up.

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Shikata proposed an interesting question: what if Link could enter walls? A day later, Mr. Mouri created a prototype to demonstrate the mechanic.

It was through seeing it in action that they truly grasped the idea’s potential for both puzzles and exploration. As they considered the new game to be an extension of the DS installments, the prototype used the same viewpoint and art style as Spirit Tracks. It was around October of 2010 that the trio presented the prototype to Mr. Miyamoto. To their delight, he approved of the new concept and was more than happy to see the project through. However, another major setback two weeks later prevented this from happening. Nintendo was preparing to launch the Wii U in 2012. As a result, core members of the development team were quickly reassigned to work on launch titles for this new console. The trio disbanded, and any further development of this game ceased.

Meanwhile, after Skyward Sword was released in November of 2011, series producer Eiji Aonuma began thinking about the future of the franchise. Nintendo’s newest handheld console, the 3DS, was launched earlier that year. Among its own launch titles was a remake of Ocarina of Time. Fans were highly enthusiastic about the remake, and as a result, the demand for a new, original Zelda installment for the console grew. Having heard of the prototype created by three former members of the Spirit Tracks team, Mr. Aonuma elected to revisit the idea of Link entering walls. With Mr. Shikata and Mr. Mouri still in the middle of developing Wii U games, Mr. Aonuma decided to personally revive the project without its core members – thirteen months after it had been shelved.

Kentaro Tominaga continued where Mr. Shikata left off, refining the system for entering walls and designing small dungeons – all of which were presented to Mr. Miyamoto in May of 2012. Mr. Tominaga then planned to create fifty more small dungeons to further utilize the wall-entering mechanic, but Mr. Miyamoto criticized the approach. Mr. Miyamoto then proposed basing the game off of A Link to the Past – known domestically as Triforce of the Gods. From this, Mr. Aonuma proposed combining the mechanic with the top-down perspective and landforms of A Link to the Past. The shift in perspective would be complemented by the stereoscopic capabilities of the 3DS. Converting the two-dimensional landforms into a three-dimensional space, they began testing the feature extensively. Many more presentations to Mr. Miyamoto ensued, and the project was allowed to proceed in earnest in July of 2012. Even better, two of those core members made a return with Mr. Skikata helming the project and Mr. Mouri serving as the lead programmer.

It was in April of 2013 during a Nintendo Direct presentation that the company made known the existence of this new Zelda installment. The release date was scheduled for late 2013. Having taken several cues from A Link to the Past, there was only one logical thing to do with this installment: make it a sequel to the 1991 classic. As if to erase any doubt, the game was to be titled The Legend of Zelda: Triforce of the Gods 2 in Japan. Even its English title, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds made its connection to A Link to the Past quite clear, following a similar naming convention. The game was released in Europe, North America, and Australia in November of 2013 before seeing its domestic launch the following December. As opposed to Spirit Tracks, A Link Between Worlds received nearly universal acclaim with many critics believing it to be one 2013’s strongest titles. Given that the game was advertised as a sequel to A Link to the Past, skeptical members of the circle felt its positive reception could be chalked up to Nintendo cashing in on nostalgia. Time and again was progress on this game stopped only for it to subsequently rise from the ashes every time. Was A Link Between Worlds able to escape its tumultuous development cycle and emerge as one of the 3DS’s best games? Could it even begin to do justice to a game that had over twenty years to establish its legacy?

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Reel Life #14: The Last King of Scotland, Throne of Blood, Blackmail, and The Philadelphia Story

This was the week Eighth Grade got a larger release. However, I’d already seen it, and there were no other films that seemed interesting, so no trips to the theater this week. I instead decided to take it easy after pushing myself to get the reviews of Spirit Tracks and BioShock Infinite done and get acquainted with several classics at home.

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Reel Life #13: Mission: Impossible – Fallout, City of God, Blindspotting, and Monty Python’s The Life of Brian

Sorry I’m late with this one. As I said in the last monthly update, July got pretty hectic with me having to somehow write two reviews at the same time. The good news is that the worst of it is over. Either way, this feature will include the four films I saw in July’s final weekend while the next one will include the ones I saw this past week.

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The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Introduction

Twilight Princess was a critical and commercial success upon its 2006 release. Particularly praised was the Wii version, which showcased the capabilities of the console’s motion controls. When you swung the remote, Link would attack with his sword in response. As he drew his bow, you had him shoot arrows by pointing the remote at the screen like a light gun. However, because Twilight Princess was not intended to be a launch title for the Wii, certain critics accused the developers of tacking on the motion controls at the last minute in an attempt to generate interest for the new console. Eiji Aonuma later admitted he and his team didn’t fully realize their goals when they created Twilight Princess. Therefore, they sought to create a sequel, using their previous work as a base.

Development for this proposed sequel started in 2006 shortly after the release of Twilight Princess. Mr. Aonuma served as its producer while Hidemaro Fujibayashi, whose first experience working on the series involved directing Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages on the Game Boy Color, found himself helming the project. To put this in perspective, the Zelda franchise was no stranger to critical acclaim. Every single one of its 3D installments by this point had been considered among the greatest games ever made. The follow-up to this already impressive legacy was to be Mr. Fujibayashi’s first project for a home console game. He started work on this game upon completing Phantom Hourglass, concurrently contributing to the latter’s own sequel, Spirit Tracks. Wishing to focus entirely on this new project as soon as possible, the release date of Spirit Tracks was shifted to the end of 2009 from its initial projected launch in early 2010. Once Spirit Tracks was released, he and the rest of the team were transferred back to this project, dedicating their full attention to its completion.

The public received their first glimpses of this project in April of 2008. These rumors were later confirmed during the Electronic Entertainment Expo of 2008 and the game itself was formally unveiled the following year. Its title was not yet known, leading it to be dubbed “Zelda Wii” by fans, and Shigeru Miyamoto couldn’t demonstrate the gameplay as he hoped. He instead showed promotional art featuring Link and an unidentified character with an otherworldly design. He also announced that the game would utilize an accessory dubbed the Wii MotionPlus. Once attached to the Wii Remote, this device would be able to register and subsequently translate movements more precisely. With the numerous enhancements, Mr. Miyamoto stated that Twilight Princess was “without a doubt, the last Zelda game as you know it in its present form.”

A vocal minority considered Twilight Princess the game The Wind Waker should have been from the beginning with its grittier tone and darker themes. It was therefore quite a shock to those same fans when Nintendo showed gameplay footage the following year in 2010. Upon being unveiled in 2009, it was implied the game would feature a dark art style similar to that of Twilight Princess. The footage of this new game implied otherwise; it was a window into a bright, colorful, cel-shaded world. It could be described as a fusion of the cartoonish look that defined The Wind Waker and the more realistic character models Twilight Princess boasted. As it would turn out, there was a practical reason for brightening things up. How enemies held their weapons was to play an integral role in gameplay – having dark graphics would make it nearly impossible to properly gauge one’s situation.

The gaming community at large waited with baited breath for this new title. Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, better known as the artists behind the webcomic, Penny Arcade, created a five-part online comic. Robin Williams, a famous actor and comedian who was known for his love for the series, starred in various television commercials promoting the game. The advertisements even featured his daughter Zelda, whom he did indeed name after the title character.

The game, ultimately named The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, was released worldwide for the Nintendo Wii in November of 2011 in celebration of the franchise’s twenty-fifth anniversary. True to form, the game proceeded to amass critical acclaim from nearly every major gaming publication. The 2000s saw Nintendo’s venerable franchise at its most prolific with eight releases in the span of the decade – nine if one were to include the multiplayer-only Four Swords. On top of that, the gaming scene looked quite a bit different than it did even just five years ago. AAA developers were adapting wildly different sensibilities from the ones Nintendo continued to use, churning out experiences that came across as lesser Hollywood productions. Because of this, a big-name company refusing to go along with that trend only to continue winning over critics is no mean feat. Was Skyward Sword truly able to demonstrate the franchise’s continued relevance going into the 2010s?

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July 2018 in Summary: At the End of an Arduous Month

Summer is usually my favorite time of the year, but for a litany of reasons, July ended up being quite a hassle. The long and short of it is that after finishing my BioShock 2 review at the end of June, I sought to get a head start on Wario Land. Through a set of very bizarre circumstances, I ended up taking longer than expected with the latter review. When I started on Spirit of Justice directly afterwards, similar to the situation with Prosecutor’s Path, I realized by Wednesday that I wouldn’t be able to finish by the weekend. I therefore spontaneously wrote a review of VVVVVV, as I knew it wouldn’t take too long to write about. Amazingly, even with the extra three days, my Spirit of Justice review ended up taking longer than expected. I was able to finish it by Sunday, but at that point, I had another problem: I only had only a week and a half to finish two reviews. I usually write these reviews during my break periods at work, attempting to get 1,000 words written per day. I knew I couldn’t finish both reviews if I stuck to my usual pattern, so I had to write my Spirit Tracks and BioShock Infinite reviews at the same time (meaning I wrote 1,000 words at home and 1,000 at work). Both reviews ended up being over 6,000 words long.  And this was all on top of seeing fourteen films and writing about them. Ironically, despite being a difficult month, a majority of the reviews I wrote were positive.

It wasn’t easy, but despite of all these setbacks, I was able to pull through and get every single review I promised in the last update finished. Even better – my Ace Attorney retrospective is at last complete! The only downside is that I had to momentarily sacrifice a Reel Life feature. I saw quite a few films at the end of the month, and I intend to post the feature for that week this coming Wednesday. The feature after that shall include whichever films I end up seeing this weekend.

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BioShock Infinite

Introduction

BioShock was released to a universally positive reception in 2007. Those who had been extolling the medium’s storytelling potential for years were particularly enthralled to see it move millions of units. It sold a many people on the idea that a game could have a cerebral plot rather than something akin to a mindless action film. There was only one logical thing for Irrational Games to do in the face of this commercial and critical success: keep the momentum going. However, director Ken Levine and the rest of Irrational Games opted against the idea of working on a direct sequel, leaving the development of BioShock 2 in the hands of Jordan Thomas, one of the original’s primary level designers, and 2K Marin. Mr. Levine, on the other hand wanted to set his sights higher by creating a BioShock game with a different setting. Thankfully for them, Take-Two Interactive allowed them complete freedom in this project.

The development of BioShock 2 was made known in 2008 before seeing its release in 2010. Unbeknownst to the public, Mr. Levine and many of the people behind the original began working on a sequel of their own, dubbed “Project Icarus”, starting in February of 2008. Only six months after the release of BioShock was the concept for this new game formed. In the cycle’s earliest stages, the team considered many different settings. Some wanted to reuse Rapture while others suggested setting it during the Renaissance period. In the end, they decided on a city named Columbia. In a stark contrast to Rapture, which rested on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, Columbia was to float in the skies above. The primary inspiration behind this setting came from The Devil in the White City, a non-fiction book written by Erik Larson in 2003. The book prominently featured the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was set in Chicago in 1893. The staff became interested in setting their game around the turn of the twentieth century and the historical events surrounding the exposition helped inspire the idea of a city in the sky.

With a setting and time period in mind, all Mr. Levine and his team now needed a theme. Rapture, the setting of BioShock and its sequel, sought to deconstruct the ideals of objectivism. They wanted to demonstrate why a society based on those principles would burn itself out quickly. Meanwhile, the World’s Columbian Exposition was considered to symbolize the concept of American exceptionalism – that is to say, the belief the United States is qualitatively different from other nations. Additionally inspired by classic films such as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the team now had a goal and would stop at nothing to see it through.

The development of this game proved to be something of an arduous process. The original game utilized a modified Unreal Engine 2.x, which was quickly deemed inadequate to support the ideas for Project Icarus. The team decided to work with Unreal Engine 3, and as a result, every single asset had to be made from scratch. As a likely consequence of this, the game ended up taking roughly five years to complete. Its official announcement in March of 2012 finally gave this project a name: BioShock Infinite. It was also given a slated release date of October 16 of that year. However, in May, the release date was pushed back to February 26, 2013. Nearing the end of the year, it was delayed again – this time to the following March – to allow the team to polish the mechanics further. After much speculation from the press and varied reactions to the promotional material, Mr. Levine proudly announced the game had gone Gold in February of 2013. It had been approved by Sony, Microsoft, and PC makers, allowing it to exist on all three platforms simultaneously. As promised, BioShock Infinite was released on March 26, 2013.

As highly regarded as BioShock was, the critical reception to BioShock Infinite achieved the impossible by surpassing it in some circles. The publications that gave it less than nine points on a ten-point scale could likely have been counted on one hand – and this hypothetical person would likely still have fingers remaining. BioShock Infinite proceeded to win the highly desired “Game of the Year” award from forty-two separate publications, including the Associated Press, CNN, and Forbes. Much like the original, critics praised its scenario, paying special attention to its striking visual design. It wasn’t just critics who were singing praises of this game, for it sold 3.7 million retail copies within two months of its release, eventually moving 11 million units overall.

With the success of BioShock Infinite, one would expect the sky to be the limit for Irrational Games. System Shock 2 flopped and was one of the causes of Looking Glass Studios’ bankruptcy only for Irrational Games to rise from the ashes and became a juggernaut among critics and fans alike. Unfortunately, such was not their fate. As a coda to this game’s success, Mr. Levine announced the dissolution of Irrational Games in February of 2014. The average AAA title of the 2010s had a budget that necessitated the company selling tens of millions of units just to break even. As a consequence, games from that era and scene rarely had a powerful, auteur voice, for any kind of experimental title could bankrupt a company instantaneously if it didn’t sell. Not only that, but because they had been working on the game for five years, the cycle took its toll on the staff. Mr. Levine himself would state in a 2016 interview that the stress of managing the development of BioShock Infinite adversely affected both his health and his personal relationships, causing him to opt out of directing an even larger sequel.  In its seventeen-year life, Irrational Games was only responsible for the development of a handful of projects. Was BioShock Infinite a particularly triumphant swansong for Irrational Games?

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The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

Introduction

The Nintendo DS was released worldwide in 2004. Much like the Game Boy product line it succeeded, it became a best-selling console, selling millions upon millions of units worldwide. One of its launch titles was a remake of the pioneering Super Mario 64 and the first side-scrolling entry in the Mario franchise since Super Mario World, New Super Mario Bros., debuted the following year. With Nintendo’s big-name franchises making an appearance on the new console, fans began speculating on a new Zelda installment. All doubt was eliminated during the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2005 when Nintendo unveiled Phantom Hourglass. Following a series of delays as a result of diverting resources to finish Twilight Princess and Shigeru Miyamoto’s desire to become involved with the development cycle, it was released in 2007. Though some were skeptical over the game’s reliance on the touch screen, Phantom Hourglass was a success, amassing a lot of critical acclaim across the board. In the face of this success, there was only one logical thing to do: make a sequel.

Phantom Hourglass was created by many of the same people behind Four Swords Adventures. Half of the Phantom Hourglass staff in turn remained for the development of its sequel. Helming the project once again was Daiki Iwamoto while Eiji Aonuma served as its producer. As they already had an engine right out of the box, Mr. Aonuma speculated that this new game wouldn’t take long to complete. After all, while the idea for Ocarina of Time had been pitched since 1995 before seeing its release in 1998, Majora’s Mask only took a single year to complete. Though it wasn’t delayed at any point and the development progressed smoothly enough, this new game wound up taking two years to complete.

Mr. Iwamoto and his team used the same art style as Phantom Hourglass. Mr. Aonuma later commented that realistic graphics would make the characters scale poorly with their surroundings. He relented it was theoretically possible, though not ideal. Despite being confirmed as a sequel to Phantom Hourglass, Link was not going to travel by boat this time around. Mr. Aonuma wanted to retain the sense of seeing land becoming clearer as Link approaches it, but decided to approach the idea from a different angle. That is to say, Link would conduct a train instead. Mr. Aonuma cited a children’s book named The Tracks Go On and On as an inspiration for this game’s basic premise. In it, children construct railroad tracks, creating tunnels and bridges whenever they find mountains or rivers. He thought this book would fit with the series, though he didn’t tell his fellow developers about it at the time.

Surprisingly, one of the biggest difficulties the development team had was coming up a subtitle for this installment. Among the first proposed was Pan Flute of the [Something]. This was quickly shot down when they decided the title would be too long and inappropriate considering the Pan Flute obtained in the game isn’t a main item. They then decided to change Pan Flute to Train Whistle, reflecting Link’s ability to conduct a train in this new installment. The next step was to determine what the [Something] should be. In an ironic twist, the English subtitle had been decided before the domestic one: Spirit Tracks. Examining the English title, the development team decided that, because spirit means soul, they should name the game Train Whistle of the Soul. This too was rejected when the team felt it sounded too creepy – Mr. Aonuma in particular felt it made it sound “haunted”, which ran counter to the premise. Said premise was the idea of “running a train across wide-open spaces”. After asking for suggestions from the staff, they at last settled on The Legend of Zelda: Train Whistle of the Earth.

Around that time, the Nintendo DSi was unveiled. It was to be a newer model for the Nintendo DS capable of downloading digital titles in addition to utilizing physical cards. To Nintendo’s surprise, fans reacted much more strongly to the reveal of Spirit Tracks. Writing for IGN, Craig Harris found the storyline “compelling” with an “interesting premise”. He was consequently quite excited to play it for himself. He wasn’t the only one, for when Spirit Tracks saw its worldwide release in December of 2009, Nintendo had another hit on their hands. By the end of the financial year ending in March of 2010, Spirit Tracks sold over 2.5 million copies. Despite being a success, the figures were roughly half as much as those for Phantom Hourglass. The reception, though mostly positive, seemed a little less universal this time around with critics having a number of issues with the game. Taking the numbers at face value, it’s easy to get the impression that Spirit Tracks is a step down from Phantom Hourglass. Does Spirit Tracks hold up? Was the less enthusiastic reception a result of the touch-screen novelty having run its course?

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Reel Life #12: Three Identical Strangers and Eighth Grade

As film distributors in 2018 clearly haven’t learned their lesson, both of the ones I saw this past week had the following three things in common:

  1. They were universally acclaimed
  2. They were promoted extensively in trailers I got in front of other films
  3. They got a limited release.

Unlike most instances where that ends up being the case, these ones happened to be in theaters close to where I live. With the quality of works becoming more difficult to separate from the critical hype surrounding them and an opportunity to see them before a fair chunk of my readers, I thought a reconnaissance mission was in order.

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Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice

Introduction

Apollo Justice, and by extension, the core Ace Attorney series, had gone five years without a sequel. When a follow-up was at last announced in 2012, it had a potential to alienate longtime fans. After all, this was going to be a sequel to what most fans considered the franchise’s nadir. Not only that, but an entirely new development team had taken over its production with no involvement from series creator Shu Takumi and they saw fit to introduce a new assistant as a replacement for a fan favorite. Director Takeshi Yamazaki, producer Motohide Eshiro, and their team had more than proven themselves capable with Prosecutor’s Path, but because it wasn’t localized, Western fans remained unaware of their talent. The sole entry they were exposed to was the original Ace Attorney Investigations. While enjoyed, fans didn’t have nearly as much reverence for it as they did the original trilogy. Thankfully, despite similar factors spelling the downfall of many venerable franchises, a majority of the risks taken by the duo paid off, and Dual Destinies was, by and large, embraced by the fandom.

With plenty of unresolved plot threads floating around, there was potential for a sequel. Unfortunately, shortly after finishing Dual Destinies, Mr. Yamazaki felt a crippling sense of exhaustion, expressing the desire to resign from developing any more Ace Attorney installments. Thinking quickly, Mr. Eshiro decided a trip to events attended by fans was in order. Together, they appeared at the San Diego Comic-Con International and held a press conference in Taiwan. Feeling the enthusiasm of his fans firsthand – both Western and Asian alike – Mr. Yamazaki decided to direct the series’ next installment, to be called Turnabout Trial 6 in its native homeland.

Believing that the cause behind Mr. Yamazaki’s exhaustion stemmed from being the sole director of Dual Destinies, he decided his coworker wasn’t going tackle this new project alone – enter Takuro Fuse. Mr. Fuse had cut his teeth with the Ace Attorney franchise when he replaced Tatsuro Iwamoto as the series’ primary art director. He was the one responsible for a majority of the character designs. He now found himself sharing the director’s along with Mr. Yamazaki.

The project now had two directors and a producer determined to see it through to the end. All they needed now was a theme. Dual Destinies had carried out the impressive task of simultaneously being a return to form while also taking the canon in intriguing, new directions. The only way they could possibly top such a feat was through brainstorming sessions. With nobody being allowed to veto anyone else’s ideas, they eventually settled on the theme of “courtroom revolution”. It was to be an Ace Attorney spin on a classic tale: “the oppressed and weak defeating the strong” in the words of Mr. Yamazaki.

During the development phase, the team agreed that with Phoenix Wright making his triumphant return to the courtroom, nobody could prove a match for him anymore in his normal setting. It is from this line of thinking that they decided to move him to a foreign country with a different court system. Not only that, but promotional materials made it clear supernatural elements, which had been absent from the series for the past three installments, were to return as well. This was alluded to in its English subtitle: Spirit of Justice. Responding to fan feedback, they also decided it would be appropriate to give Apollo Justice a larger role. Therefore, while Phoenix handled cases abroad, his apprentice was to resolve problems back home. How they went about conceiving episodes was a little different this time around. Each episode had a primary writer, and they were assigned based on their strengths. Some proved apt with dialogue while others had a penchant for lending their stories a sense of intrigue. The staff often stayed in the meeting room until nightfall.

After the usual fan and media speculation, Turnabout Trial 6 was released domestically in June of 2016. Four months later in September, the game saw its worldwide release under the name Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice. Though Dual Destinies was well-liked itself, several fans felt Spirit of Justice to be an improvement. In fact, shortly after its release, a particularly vocal group insisted that Spirit of Justice was the best game in the entire series. The original three games are seen as something of a sacred cow in certain subsets of the Ace Attorney fandom, yet even they found themselves admitting Spirit of Justice was a quality product. Were Mr. Yamazaki, Mr. Fuse, and Mr. Eshiro able to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that Dual Destinies was not a mere happy accident?

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