In this brand new recurring feature, guest blogger Matt Morris takes us through the lost, the forgotten, and the overlooked video games of yore. Consider him your guide through all the best and most secret Hidden Levels.
Game: Rhythm Thief & the Emperor’s Treasure (2012)
Platform: Nintendo 3DS (physical & eShop)
Developers: Sega, Xeen
I recently found myself in the unusual position of writing to a video game company. Not a fancy handwritten letter on locally-sourced artisanal stationery, or anything like that. It was an internet letter–the same kind of dumb thing I usually laugh about, like when my father writes an email to Dreyer’s asking them to keep their peppermint ice cream available year-round. That kind of thing. Let me go ahead and give you the Reader’s Digest version:
“Hey, Sega! Remember that game you released on the 3DS four years ago, Rhythm Thief & the Emperor’s Treasure? That thing was amazing. For the love of all that’s holy, make more of that thing, please.”
There might have also been some emojis and witty banter in there to make me sound like a “super-cool dude”™ whose opinion should be trusted. But you get the idea. I sent it off to Sega’s email line, and I waited for a response.
I’ll get back to that in a minute, but first, let’s talk Rhythm Thief.
What is this game?
In 2012, Sega and a small Japanese studio called Xeen developed a rhythm game on the 3DS called Rhythm Thief & the Emperor’s Treasure. Helmed by Shun Nakamura from Sonic Team (though more importantly of Samba De Amigo fame), the game features the exploits of a quiet young Parisian man named Raphael, who moonlights as an art thief named Phantom R. To the great befuddlement of the Parisian police, he steals many of the city’s finest works of art… only to return them in perfect condition days later. How strange.
The truth is that he’s on the hunt for clues about his lost father. See, in the opening scene, we learn that his father vanished three years ago, leaving behind only a coin with a strange symbol on its face. A symbol which also appears on many of Paris’ most valuable treasures. Convenient!
To make matters more interesting, the casket of Napoleon Bonaparte was stolen on the very same day that Raphael’s father disappeared. And as it turns out, now Napoleon himself is no longer quite as… well… dead as he used to be.
From there, the game relates the story of how Raphael meets and befriends an orphan girl named Marie. Together they interact with the many eccentric townsfolk of Paris, and face off against the local constabulary as well as Napoleon’s evil chevaliers. And ultimately, they unravel the truth behind their parentage and Paris’ deepest secrets.
In terms of mechanics and structure, the game doles out rhythm minigames and small puzzles in roughly equal measure, spacing them with exploration and story segments in much the same vein as a Professor Layton title. And as you’d expect, the various features of the 3DS hardware (touch screen, gyro, 3D) are used liberally throughout.
So what makes it so special?
I’ll be blunt and get to the point: the game is incredible. Incroyable, even.
In terms of narrative and aesthetics, the game leans heavily on a tone of cartoon fantasy– think “Saturday morning cartoon meets Studio Ghibli“–while simultaneously evoking the suave sophistication of jazz culture through a visual commitment to clean lines and vibrant colors. The Ghibli-esque character designs bolster the game’s spirit of whimsy and adventure, and the end result is a deliciously creative cocktail in a cartridge.
This is to say nothing of the excellent character writing (and localization) that Sega did throughout the story. From Raphael himself, to the hardheaded Inspector Vergier of the Paris constabulary, to the enigmatic Napoleon, each character brings a unique personality and set of motivations to the table. Even Raphael’s dog Fondue gets in on the action, with his own charming bonus rhythm games to complete and an adorable vocabulary made up of variations on the word “woeuf.” The result was that my ten hours of playtime felt “woeuf”ully short in the face of so much cuteness.
(Okay, that one was just awful. I won’t do it again. Probably.)
But let’s talk about raw mechanics for a moment. Nintendo has been criticized recently for packing their hardware with lots of miscellaneous functionality, whether that’s the 3DS with its stereoscopic display or the Wii U with its tablet-esque GamePad. “It’s a good game, but is it a good Wii U game?” these kinds of reviews will ask–the implication being that the game must “justify” the existence of these features.
While I may not agree with that review approach myself, rest assured that Rhythm Thief & the Emperor’s Treasure does not have this problem. Every function of the 3DS hardware, every single input method, is represented in the game’s rhythm sections. Swipe left and right on the stylus here to pull off some tricky dance moves. Press the face buttons there to strike poses and hide behind statues as you creep through the Louvre at night. Tilt your system to avoid oncoming missiles as you hang-glide away from danger. The result of this amalgam of input concepts is a thoroughly satisfying experience that runs the full gamut of the hardware’s capabilities. Even the stereoscopic effect looks lovely, breathing life into playful NPC portraits and the Paris streets themselves. The game conveniently disables the 3D during trials that utilize gyro, so your eyes will never strain. It’s incredibly well planned and thoughtfully executed.
And lest we forget, a rhythm game lives or dies by the quality of its music. On that note, I was thrilled to discover that the game’s jazzy soundtrack practically bursts with creativity and joy. Each of the challenges is accompanied by a catchy tune, which is absolutely crucial when you find yourself replaying them “just one more time” to see if you can score a little bit better. There are multiple genres and styles represented throughout, and barring a few exceptions, they’re all worthy of listening to on their own.
Lastly–and this is maybe just a personal thing–when it comes to video games, I’m a sucker for a great User Interface. It would therefore be remiss of me not to mention the outstanding work Sega and Xeen have done here on that front. Every dialog box, menu, and button prompt in the game pops with the kind of slick visual flair you so rarely encounter outside of series like Persona. I personally like to call it “UI porn,” but whatever you want to say about it, it really wraps the whole experience up in a velvety blanket of style and confidence.
I know I’ve been gushing about the game, but it bears mentioning that the experience is not without its weaknesses. The puzzle segments, when they appear, are almost painfully easy to complete. Surely this is a symptom of the game’s attempt to be friendly for all age groups, but I would’ve loved to see them push the puzzle elements into more difficult territory. It’s possible the designers wanted to set themselves apart from the Layton series by an extra inch, but if that’s the case, I wonder if they’d have been better served eschewing the puzzles entirely.
And yes, the game is a very upbeat and optimistic experience throughout. Our heroes get attacked and shot at, sure, but somehow they never seem to bleed or die. Other characters may appear mean-spirited or cruel, but they are merely trying to protect themselves and the people they care about. It’s the kind of story that believes in the goodness of everyone, save for its few true villains. Some might criticize that as overly sweet or simplistic, but honestly, if you come into this game expecting a dark narrative full of deep explorations of the relationship between rhythm and mortality, of course you’ll be disappointed. Also, what’s wrong with you? Put away your book of brooding poetry and step out into the sunlight for a bit. Games are fun!
Why was it overlooked?
The game regrettably did not get the sales numbers it should have when it was first released, and it did not survive long past its initial print run on shelves. As a result, not many players got around to playing it. I am included in this group, as my copy actually came from a Humble eShop Bundle that I picked up recently.
This could be for a variety of reasons, but I suspect its similarity to the previous generation’s Professor Layton games did it no favors (even if their gameplay is quite different in reality.) Also, keep in mind that the 3DS was still only a year old in 2012, and the platform hadn’t quite found its footing yet.
Compounding the sadness of the situation is the fact that there was, for a brief time, a mobile port of the game called Rhythm Thief & the Paris Caper. I use the past tense because Sega decided to pull support for the game last year, and it’s no longer available. Merde.
How can I get a hold of it?
These days, given the game’s limited print run, it’s not exactly dirt cheap to pick up a used cartridge. Complete-in-box copies of the game average around 50 dollars, while brand new copies sell for even more.
The good news is that the game is still available digitally on the 3DS eShop for only $20, and there is a demo available to boot.
If the idea of a quirky rhythm game with personality strikes your fancy, pick up the recently released Rhythm Heaven Megamix in the 3DS eShop. If you’re just looking for a fun adventure game in a similar style, try out one of the various Professor Layton titles. They might be up your alley.
Rhythm Thief and the Emperor’s Treasure is a special experience. It’s the kind of work that feels so comfortable in its own shoes that you can’t help but find yourself swept up in the enthusiasm. If even one reader tries the demo after reading this, I will consider my job complete.
As for the letter I wrote to Sega, which you hopefully understand a little better now, I got a reply a day or two later. I had hoped against hope that somehow, my email would reach the one employee in their office who had actually played the game and who understood my pain. “I totally agree, I’m so glad to hear from a fan of the game!” they would proclaim. “I know it sold like shit and we stopped printing it, but we haven’t given up on making it a series! Stay tuned!”
Instead I got a canned response. “Thank you for your interest in our products. We have nothing to announce at this time,” the robo-human informed me. Well, it was worth a shot. We may never see the conclusion of Phantom R’s adventures in Paris–and believe me, they left the game open for potential sequels–but this game at least stands forever as a testament to the passion of everyone who worked on it.