Rhythm Thief and the art of appropriation

With the recent talk of game cloning, it's easy to forget that taking an idea from another game and running with it can be not only inoffensive, but beneficial.

When done the wrong way, cloning lets one company divert revenue and attention away from the original, nearly identical source. But when done well -- when it's "inspiration" and not outright copying -- everyone's happy. People who liked the original game get to play something that takes what worked about that game, and builds on it in interesting ways. The developer of the new game gets a proven framework upon which to apply its own ideas, and a built-in fanbase to sell to. And the originator gains the prestige of having its game become a genre-defining work.

That's the case with Sega's Rhythm Thief: The Emperor's Treasure for 3DS. Sega's musical adventure wears its influences on its sleeve, and is better for it.

The first time I played Rhythm Thief, at TGS, I only experienced some of the minigames, which reminded me of Elite Beat Agents in style and of Rhythm Heaven in their simple construction and beat-matching play. That demo left out an important part of the game. What happens between minigames reveals this to be, like so many DS and 3DS games, from the Layton school of game design.

Just like Level-5's Layton series, you move from static screen to static screen, tapping randomly to find hidden coins, collecting items for use in minigames, and interacting with the citizens in order to solve a mystery (and trigger minigames). You'll also pick up extra items for use in longterm collectible-based games. The structure is almost identical.

Sega took that framework -- it's unmistakably descended from Layton -- and put its own spin on that. Whereas Layton's world is obsessed with puzzles, Rhythm Thief's is all music and sound. The minigames are all musical: you open locks by matching tones or rhythms, and you collect sounds with a recorder to replay later in order to solve puzzles (a police siren to make a scalper run away and leave his wares, for example).

Rhythm Thief substitutes a young, dashing thief ("Phantom R") for the elegant professor (still on a hunt for magical artifacts, of course); an overtly anime-styled look for the European animation style; and Paris for London and/or whatever mysterious village. Rhythm Thief's Paris is a beautiful place, too, filled with color and life. Within a few minutes of starting, I started planning a vacation to France.

Perhaps my favorite tweak on the Layton formula is Phantom R's sidekick: instead of a schoolboy, he's assisted by his dog Fondue, who barks in French ("Woeuf!") How charming!

The main alteration, of course, is the use of musical minigames, which have you tapping, swiping, pressing buttons, or tilting in time to music in order to complete tasks. For example, "Le Getaway" is a side-scrolling rooftop chase scenein which you press A to jump and B to slide. "Battle Diabolique" is a fight between Phantom R and a horde of identical, armored enemies, who rush in from one side. You press anywhere on the D-pad to deliver an open-palm strike to an enemy on your left, and the A button to strike to the right.

There's even a nod to rhythm games from Sega history -- talking to a man in a loud poncho and sombrero will bring up a no-fooling Samba de Amigo minigame, controlled by the D-pad and buttons.

As for the story, I'll tell you only the beginning of the premise, which I think we can all agree is a rock-solid setting for any rhythm game: Napoleon has been reanimated. What?

This article was originally published on Joystiq.