Why Theatrhythm is a celebration of not only Final Fantasy, but an entire genre

This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.

When I put together my Mt. Rushmore of Japanese RPG developers a few months ago, one of the more controversial picks was Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu. The general argument was that Hironobu Sakaguchi, the guy who actually created Final Fantasy, should be up there instead. I don't think that argument is wrong exactly – Sakaguchi has certainly done a lot for RPGs in his time – but it felt wrong to have a JRPG Rushmore without a top composer.

At the time, it was hard to really put my finger on why that was, other than that I've always found good music to be an especially important quality in RPGs. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, however, has crystallized things for me. How many established franchises can you think of that can support a rhythm game of this magnitude? I can think of only a handful, most of which are RPGs: Dragon Quest and The Legend of Zelda could manage the same feat (though the latter isn't a traditional RPG, it's close).

Of them, Final Fantasy is the series best suited for its own rhythm game. The genre jump makes sense with a franchise packed with such a dense library of memorable tunes, but it's also Final Fantasy's longevity as a series that makes it a prime candidate for the rhythm genre.
%Gallery-151254% Many great role-playing games can be defined in part by their soundtracks. Think of these moments, and tell me if the accompanying tune doesn't immediately jump into your head.
  • A Slime appears for the first time in Dragon Quest
  • Rival Blue shows up for a challenge in Pokémon
  • Lenneth Valkyrie strides in to challenge a demon in Valkyrie Profile
Those riffs are present in many different types of games, but they are especially important in RPGs because they help to establish the characters that help drive both the narrative and non-narrative elements (customization, battles) of the game. Hear Blue's tune, and you know you're in for a tougher battle than usual (and afterward, the trademark "Smell ya later!"). Hear Lenneth's song, and you know she means business. With one song, the all-important connection has been established. From character riffs come battle themes, overworld themes and songs that are meant to convey deep feelings. Soon, the outlines of the game's tone begin to become apparent, in turn helping to establish the mood of the setting, which is so important in the role-playing game genre.

That RPG music is so powerful and memorable is really a matter of necessity. To stick with a single-player game for a sixty hours or more, there has to be some kind of emotional connection. Strong customization and strategy is definitely important, and naked party building can help as well. But music is essential because it helps to fuse memories deep within our mind. Playing "Aerith's Theme" on Theathrythm Final Fantasy, I was surprised to find myself getting emotional about Final Fantasy VII for the first time since playing through the game.

Some of it has to do with the number of hours that I've put into Final Fantasy VII over the years (hundreds at least), and some of it has to do with the fact that I thought Aerith's death was a genuine tragedy when I was a teenager. Regardless, hearing her theme again is enough to bring out those feeling unbidden, even as an adult. Unsurprisingly, it makes me want to pick up and play Final Fantasy VII again, though it's been many years since I've last played it to completion.

I've had one other such moment, though this one was outside Theatrhythm. A couple years back, I went home to visit family, where I spent a day working on the campus of my alma mater. While I wrote, someone started playing Final Fantasy X's "To Zanarkand" on the piano. At that moment, I stopped working and lay back, content to let the memories wash over me. Of all the Final Fantasy themes through the years, I feel like it does the best job of capturing the weariness of a long journey, with plenty of sadness ahead.

I don't think it's a coincidence that a lot of the most popular game songs over the past 30 years have either been RPG tunes or songs from platformers. In many other games, it's simply background, or perhaps something to get the player hyped for a big action scene. Platformers, by contrast, have their own distinct beat, and tend to fall flat without great music. RPGs rely on music to effectively flesh out their world, create memories and keep us engaged over the course of a 60-hour (or 100-hour!) adventure.

In that sense, I feel like Uematsu might have done as much or more as anyone to bring the genre forward. Sakaguchi built Final Fantasy, as it were, but Uematsu gave it life; and from the fourth entry on, his increasingly ambitious efforts helped to crystallize (har!) many of the series' most memorable moments. As Theathrythm reminds us, great music is the heart and soul of a great RPG. In my mind, that makes it not just the most appropriate celebration of a 25-year-old franchise, but of an entire genre.


Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.