During a recent interview, Ichiro Hazama, producer and main mind behind Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, was asked by Nintendo president Satoru Iwata to sum up his game in a few words.
"Hmm, that's a difficult one," Hazama said. "I suppose I'd say it's basically a Final Fantasy music game."
Can't put it much better than that.
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, which Square Enix releases today for 3DS, is indeed a Final Fantasy music game. To play, you tap along to the beat on the system's bottom touchscreen, doing your best to keep up with the frenetic pulse of horizontally-scrolling buttons. Some you hold; some you swipe; some you just tap. It's not unlike Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution, or, for the more hardened gamers out there, Elite Beat Agents.
The big difference here is that the songs are all from Final Fantasy games, which means Theatrhythm will reach into the back of your mind and tickle the part that fondly dreams about traveling to the moon to kill Golbez or scouring the Planet for clues in a futile attempt to bring Aeris back to life. Theatrhythm's tagline is "Play Your Memories," and indeed, it makes no bones about wanting only to appeal to your old-school sensibilities. The intro screen tells you to "see the nostalgic worlds of Final Fantasy revived." This is a game that assumes you've played at least two or three installments in Square's seminal role-playing game series. If you haven't, Theatrhythm doesn't care about you.
And hey, if you've never so much as touched a Final Fantasy, you probably shouldn't care about this one either.
Theatrhythm is divided into three main sections. There's the Series mode, which lets you pick one of the first 13 (!) main Final Fantasy titles and play through a few of its tracks. There's the Challenge mode, which gives you access to tougher versions of each of these tracks, including a hair-raising Ultimate difficulty that came very close to giving me carpal tunnel. And there's the Chaos Shrine, the closest Theatrhythm comes to a dungeon, which hands you 99 levels of rhythmic battling and exploring through random series of tracks.
There are also three types of musical gameplay: Battle mode, which pits you against cartoony enemies as your four party members stand in a line, Final Fantasy-style, each waiting for his or her turn to attack. Field mode, in which you walk across the gurgling volcanos and disaster-ravaged plains from various Final Fantasy games, sliding your stylus up and down to the infectious beat.
And then there's Event mode, an attempt to make you feel even more wistful by setting Theatrhythm's tracks to background montages from old Final Fantasy games. And while some hardcore fans might appreciate the fact that these scenes are presented in Japanese, I did not. I'm not going to feel wistful for times past by reminiscing about those times in a different language.
Sadly, there's no real single-player campaign or storyline in the game, something that feels very apparent once you've played through the same song twenty or thirty times.
Note that not all of your favorite Final Fantasy tracks are in this game. Each title's selection is rather limited, and they range from the intensely memorable (Final Fantasy VII's "Aerith's Theme") to the thoroughly dull (Final Fantasy XII's "Giza Plains"). Some of my favorite songs are actually reserved for the menus, like a banging remix of Final Fantasy VII's "Highwind Takes to the Skies." Others will be available later as downloadable content.
What's really special about Theatrhythm, and what makes playing it really worthwhile, is that it challenges you to beat yourself rather than some arbitrary set of designer-instituted difficulties. When you fail, you know you failed because you couldn't master the timing. And to get better, you won't have to grind for levels or get better pixels: you'll have to practice over and over again until your timing is right. It's this type of challenge that kept me saying things like "just one more try" until suddenly it was 2am and my 3DS was out of batteries and I'd just played Theatrhythm for half of the night.
In many ways Theatrhythm feels like a mini-game collection, the type of accessory that might have been fully included as a sidequest one of Square's old Final Fantasy games. It's best played in short sessions, due to the lack of unifying campaign or story mode. But it's frenetic and addictive, designed as the perfect diversion for a certain type of person: the nostalgia-embracing, rhythm-loving Final Fantasy superfan.
P.S. If you're trying to ask for this game at a store, you should know that it's pronounced "THEATER-RHYTHM." I think.