Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective review: new life for a DS cult classic
Ghost Trick follows Sissel, a recently deceased spirit who can’t remember who he is or how he died. But he can possess objects, setting up the game’s mechanical core: interfering in the Rube Goldberg-like puzzles to save others from their own grisly fates. The game alternates between these puzzle sections and dialogue-heavy story segments, where a twisty plot unfolds in sweet and surprising and surprisingly sweet ways.
Originally released for Nintendo DS in 2010, Ghost Trick didn’t sell especially well. But it did develop a cult following, particularly among those who were already fans of writer-director Shu Takumi’s better-known series, Ace Attorney. Being involved in the latter fandom for almost 20 years, I’ve heard the pleas — “Play Ghost Trick! Don’t look anything up first, just trust us!” — since it first came out.
Having now played it, I’ll hand it to them: They’re right. I might not be as unreserved in my love for Ghost Trick as someone who’s been trying to convince people to play it for a decade or more (there’s one truly awful stealth section, for a start), but it’s a real little joyful gem of a game. Fiddling around with ghostly interactions until the puzzles slot into place is satisfying, the characters are great and include possibly the best dog in video games, and both the music and animations are incredibly characterful and lively.
But even as I spent the 12 or so hours of its run time pleased that I had finally gotten around to it, it was also impossible to ignore that Ghost Trick is now a massive outlier of its generation. When Nintendo closed the 3DS and Wii U eShops in March of this year, access to the game narrowed considerably. Still, it was one of the more fortunate ones, having had an iOS port and a physical release (although those cartridges will eventually stop working). For thousands of digital-only games, the only way to play them was to already own them digitally or to emulate them, something that Nintendo cracks down on with updates to its already defunct consoles as well as imprisonment and massive fines.
The remaster gave Ghost Trick a second shot, but it’s not a sustainable solution for every game in Nintendo’s back catalog that’s now vulnerable to becoming — or already is — lost media. And which games get chosen for the treatment is entirely up to the whims and financial calculations of the corporations involved. Nintendo’s back catalog has been patchily available through its online services, but the Switch and DS versions of said service are not the same, meaning that many vanished once again in March. Meanwhile, Capcom recently celebrated its 40th anniversary by putting playable versions of some of its early big hits, like Mega Man and Street Fighter II, online. But while these and other big hitters like Resident Evil 4 might get preserved through frequent ports and remakes, smaller titles likely won’t.
That Ghost Trick was one of the lucky ones feels like a fluke, like some phantom behind the scenes manipulated things just so. Maybe the persistence of the fandom did contribute to the sense that it would be a financial success to re-release it. But in the current ecosystem, being loved isn’t enough to stop art from being erased. Returning to Takumi’s library (although he wasn’t directly involved in the spinoff), Ace Attorney Investigations 2 was never released in English, but a dedicated team put years into making its own localization. Its English-speaking fan base is probably as large and loud as Ghost Trick’s has ever been, but it’s difficult to see it ever getting its own re-release.
Even that is just one game, and it’s big enough that I’m aware of it. It’s difficult to envision the scale of the games that are now vulnerable. Watching the animations in Ghost Trick, you can see the consistent care and attention that the developers put into this game. Detectives dance, puppies bounce, and romance novelists — well, I can’t at all do justice in words to how this woman winches up a chandelier. The team absolutely went all in on making Ghost Trick as stylish and funny and wonderfully overdramatic as possible. But every game (and other piece of media, like the recent spate of TV shows deleted from streaming) has something similar — something in it that someone has poured their heart into.
I’m thrilled that the remaster has given Ghost Trick a new lease on life. But Sissel spends the whole game making sure that nothing falls through the cracks — and that just doesn’t square with his game’s now lonely survival.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective was released on June 30 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Capcom. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.