Gaming Flashback: Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure
As I work my way through Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance in order to bring a review to you, our wonderful Kulture Shocked readers, I find myself reminiscing about my early days with Nippon Ichi Software, the developer behind the Disgaea franchise, and it got me to thinking about the first NIS developed game that I can recall seeing released outside of Japan, Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure. I recall seeing that box art staring at me in the Playstation section of my local EB Games and, for whatever reason, I just never picked it up. Eventually the game disappeared, but I would be introduced to it through a friend a couple of years later. I immedietly fell in love with the idea of the game, but there was something about the game itself that simply rubbed me the wrong way. I would revist the game nearly a decade later, and I found myself regretting passing the game up so many years earlier.
Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure is something wholly unique in that it is a tactical RPG, but it is also a musical. That's right, you read that correctly, Rhapsody is a video game musical. The game caught me entirely by surprise the first time I was it, Rhapsody was something wholly unique and I had never encountered anything like it in prior to the first time I sat down with the game. The story of Rhapsody follows Coronet a young girl with the ability to talk to puppets as she tries to save the man she loves, Prince Ferdinando, from the curse of the witch Marjorly, the self proclaimed "Most Beautiful Witch in the World". Since the game is presented in the style of a musical, many of the game's cutscenes are played out through song, as opposed to traditional voice over. The story may be fairly basic, with the exception of the gender reversal angle, but it remains memorable thanks to its musical roots.
At first glance, the game-play styles seems to invoke a classic JRPG style, but looking past the game's use of all the basics from JRPG 101, we see something unique to this game, and that is the style in which the battles play out. In lieu of the typical turned-based RPG battle system, Rhapsody uses a tactical RPG battle system, meaning each time you encounter an enemy you'll be taken to a grid based system, much like games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Shining Force. While this may sound cumbersome at first, the battles play out fairly quickly, most of them lasting around a minute or so. The battle system was changed to a more traditional battle system in the Nintendo DS port, but the PlayStation original stands out because of its unique battle system. The game also handles its recruitable allies differently than a traditional RPG, instead of recruiting Cornet's friends and family, the game uses Cornet's ability to talk to puppets to recruit allies, in addition to being able to occasionally recruit monsters after battle, giving the game a feeling similar to the Pokemon franchise. It's this unique mix of grid based strategic battles and the puppet raising system that really sets this game apart from its peers and gives it a unique charm all its own, despite the cliche story.
This brings us to the game's graphical presentation, NIS has become know for their beautiful sprite work over the years, and this game is no exception. The sprites for characters like Marjorly would even go on to be reused in the Disgaea series for her cameos in the first three entries in the series. The gorgeous sprite work aside, the game also features well done backgrounds and character are, all of which would pave the way for future NIS titles and solidify the style of game that the company has since become famous for producing. As a later life PSX game, Rhapsody took great advantage of the hardware to produce a beautiful 2D game that still looks good, even by today's standards, despite being nearly twenty years old.
It should go without saying that music is a big deal in Rhapsody, especially with the musical motif being so prominent in the game. The game's soundtrack, written by NIS mainstay Tenpei Sato, and features twenty-six songs, ten of which have full vocals. Looking back on the game, much of the music continues similar instruments and musical styles that would later be used in Sato's Disgaea, Phantom Brave, and Makai Kingdom soundtracks, so long time NIS fans should be right at home with the music in this game. The original Playstation release of the title was bundled with the game's soundtrack, including the vocal songs, all of which had been recorded with an English language track for the North American release, while the later DS port would forego the Enlgish versions of the songs for the original Japanese language tracks. Much like the other aspects of the game, Tenpei Sato's soundtrack stands out and deserves much more attention than I feel is gets. It has a great mix of sounds, and even some of the musical numbers are catchy, leaving you with yet another memorable aspect to the game.
Sadly, Rhapsody failed to garner the mainstream appeal it needed to catch on, despite the RPG boom of the Playstation era, and despite it receiving two sequels in Japan, neither would see any kind of release through out the rest of the world. For all its shortcomings, NIS did give the game another opportunity in the form of a DS port. This port removed the grid based battles in favor of traditional turn based battles, and is much more inexpensive than its PSX counterpart. The port features all of the same music and dialogue from the original release, just with the singing now in Japanese, and is mostly identical, aside from the change in battle system. However, the DS version was once again little more than a failure, thus bringing an end to the series. It's a real shame that the game didn't find its niche outside of Japan, but I can also understand why.
The game is very clearly aimed at young girls, but was released at a time that many young girls simply didn't play video games. I feel that game would have been more widely received today, but thankfully its legacy lives in thanks to character cameos in the other NIS titles. I would love to see Rhapsody return again one day, as I love the concept of a musical setting the backdrop for a video game. Only time will tell if NIS ever wants to give it another try, until then we can also revisit this hidden gem and enjoy the game that laid the groundwork for NIS' most successful franchise.