Well, if there’s one thing we can all agree on about our friend Nintendo 3DS, it’s that it certainly caters to a collective consciousness. For the past few years video game enthusiasts (“hardcore gamers”) have clamored endlessly for new IPs, claiming that they’re bored of Call of Duty: World War Billion or Super Mario Surfing Deluxe 8, and for the most part, the video game industry has called their bluff. A little stroll through Target or Wal-Mart indicates that people still buy sequels to sequels to sequels, spending lavish amounts of time on them (and, presumably, enjoying them), only to go online and complain some more. Well, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing– each game is a separate entity, after all (unless it’s two versions of a Pokémon game), and gamers seem to be quite susceptible to hypocrisy in any case. Nevertheless, it’s a little silly to say that the video game industry has it out for the “hardcore” crowd, just because the only truly new IP shown at Nintendo’s recent conference was something called Bravely Default: Flying Fairy— and even that game looks a little like Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light.
So we’ll roll with the punches, because no matter what we may say about sequels, it’s a sad soul who doesn’t enjoy Star Fox 64 3D. Even on gaming forums, bastions of fierce debate that they are, people recognize that the game is targeted to audiences that a) have never played Star Fox 64 (and pay attention to who you’ve seen holding a 3DS in public– are they children?– probably) or b) desperately want to play Star Fox 64 again. Nintendo will probably pick up a few of those people who refuse to buy the game presently as well, after the Internet explodes in unfunny barrel roll jokes. They’ll probably buy it in droves.
But I’ve stalled long enough. Let’s talk about Theatrhythm Final Fantasy.
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is interesting in many different ways, most obvious of them being that it’s got an inversed and rather difficult to spell name. Even Fabula Nova Crystallis is easier to remember than Theatrhythm, even if you squint your eyes and work out that it’s a combination of “theatre” and “rhythm.” Not to mention, unlike other Final Fantasy games, it’s the Theatrhythm part that goes first. It definitely smacks of something that Square Enix wants us to pay attention to: “Look, everyone! You wanted a new IP, right? Well, here’s something that’s close enough!”
Of course, it’s not close enough at all. While Theatrhythm (I keep mistyping this as “threatrhythm” or “theatrehythm” or “theatrerhythm”) was initially billed as some kind of Dissidia spin-off, what with the story involving two primal forces facing off against each other, it’s developed into something even crazier. Minoru Yamaizumi over at Nintendo World Report has this translation of the prologue:
Cosmos and chaos– temporal intervals between the two divine pillars are called rhythm. Rhythm gave a birth to crystals ruling music, and the world was full of the glow of sounds. However, the harmony was disturbed by the force of chaos, and the crystals ruling music were losing their glow. To restore glow to the crystals, musical undulation “rhythpo” must be enhanced. Warriors led by crystals are starting their adventure to weave music…
Now, while I’m convinced that Square Enix usually makes its plotlines by scrambling words like “cosmos,” “chaos,” and “crystals” until the result is sufficiently nonsensical, I’m not sure that that’s what happened here. Actually, as Yamaizumi points out, it seems more like a parody than anything– a kind of “we got your back” to the ever-fickle gaming crowd, even as said crowd prepares to be madder than a raccoon stuck in a briefcase. Theatrhythm is thus positively self-aware; it knows that it’s borderline farce, with its animatronic bosses and marionette party members, and it would like you to remember that too.
Ultros and friends join in the nostalgia parade in Theatrhythm Final Fantasy.
But at the same time, considering it’s a music/rhythm game based on Final Fantasy characters and Final Fantasy music, it’s a very serious love letter to halcyon days of old. Heck, the game includes characters like Cecil Harvey and Ultros– you can practically taste the fanservice. And unlike Dissidia, itself a love letter to summers spent playing Final Fantasy VI, Theatrhythm is inextricably bound to the very things that made Final Fantasy memorable in the first place. Old-school party setup? Check. Androgynous warriors and pixelated pixies? Check. An overload of music that makes you wish you were a kid again? Check, please. This is nerd bait in its meanest form, and yet people just won’t stop being angry about it– the game keeps score, for goodness’ sake.
(Then again, you can’t blame them entirely. If gaming forums indicate anything, it’s that people have had it up to here with music/rhythm games. Somehow the proliferation of Guitar Hero and Rock Band has caused people to associate music/rhythm games with overcommercialization and overmilking– the Portal theme song or Stephen Colbert’s “Charlene (I’m Right Behind You)” can’t make up for all the Rihanna or Kelly Clarkson that takes over the show. For all people know, Theatrhythm is a Final Fantasy-themed rhythm game that involves remixes of hip-hop and Final Fantasy VII. Who knows? Maybe that’ll still happen. At this rate, though, it probably won’t. Sorry!)
The major obstacle facing Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, though, is the same one that faced games like Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon— it just isn’t what Final Fantasy fans are used to. It’s too “cute.” Meanwhile, Dragon Quest has none of that kind of baggage– that series has always been lighthearted enough to support fluff like Dragon Quest Monsters or Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime— but I’d be exaggerating like Ken Kutaragi and his fourth dimension if I said Theatrhythm Dragon Quest would sell even half of what a Final Fantasy one would. A rhythm game just happens to be completely different from the Japanese role-playing games that Theatrhythm Final Fantasy‘s aimed demographic is used to, which incidentally boil down to tapping through menus for 80-100 hours. A Theatrhythm game just happens to be what Square Enix thinks people are up for, because heck, if the much-maligned Final Fantasy XIII is getting a whole suite of spin-offs, why not a spin-off that’s closer to what made Final Fantasy special, with quirky environments and gorgeous music, than Dissidia ever was?
Square Enix is releasing Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, quite frankly, to the fans. It could have done fanservice through an anniversary collection of some sort, too, but that would a) bore us to tears and b) likely provoke even more accusations of “milking Final Fantasy.” (They probably could also remake Final Fantasy VII, but eh.) Instead, Square Enix decided to publish what seems like its first music/rhythm game, bringing back 8-bit environments, CG scenes, and even FMVs as if to say: “See, Videogameland? We do care!” I couldn’t tell you what the story is supposed to represent, though. Square Enix could give Theatrhythm to me without it and I’d be just as happy.
If all other argument fails, Indies Zero, who previously developed the Internet darlings Electroplankton and Retro Game Challenge, is developing Theatrhythm Final Fantasy. If that doesn’t awaken the inner child in the “hardcore,” nothing will. And that’s just too bad.