There are times when you just can’t help it. Your toes involuntarily tap the surface your feet are resting on and your head bobs around like an avid parakeet. Admit it, man. You are a sucker for this killer beat. And you are jonesing wrong. Maybe you should tell someone. No longer content to be just an idle listener, you want to quantify your musical experience. You want to score, not for dollars, but for points. ‘Can you hook me up with something?’ you beg.
Relax. Everything is cold.
We all know that melody is essential to the experience of a game. Music is irrevocably woven deep. But how about when the melody is experience? There are a few big names in the rhythm game scene, but there can only be one founding father: a beanie-wearing, rap-spitting pup named Parappa. Find out about him.
But first, a little background on where music and more specifically hip-hop was in the 90s. We’re not here to talk about Lil’ Naz X, Jay-Z or Limp Bizkit (especially not Limp Bizkit), but to focus on the “golden age” of rap in the 1990s. A few notable early releases were “The Chronic” by Dr. Dre, “Illmatic” by NAS, and “Ready To Die” by Notorious BIG. It is in this last album that we can find an interesting word and reference. In an effort to contrast his humble roots with his current rap wealth, Biggie Smalls (as we’ll call him from now on) says it eloquently in the 1994 song “Juicy”:
“Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, when I was totally broke, man, I couldn’t imagine that.”
This is remarkable on two levels: a) it sheds light on how a rap god uses his recreational free time (from Classes they don’t rap 24/7) and b) it served as the first great example of bridging the gap between games and rap music. During the same decade, a Japanese game studio would add brick, mortar, and galvanized steel to the same bridge that Biggie built. A revolutionary game born from the fertile soil of the 90s.
THE WAY OF THE DOG
By the time Playstation reached its first million units in the Japanese market in 1994, musician Masaya Matsuura was already an established performer in the synthesizer-led band Psy・S (pronounced “size”). In 1993, Matsuura founded NanaOn-Sha Studios after having already experimented a lot with sampling and contacted colleagues at Sony Computer Entertainment for a future related in some way to music. Meanwhile, at an adjacent Sony studio, cartoonist Rodney Greenblat has been contracted to put together a cast of super lovable characters for Sony Creative. According to Greenblat’s involvement with Matsuura, “He was already a fan of my artwork, and when he found out I was already working for Sony, he asked the folks at Sony Creative Products if I would design the characters and the world. of his game. Of course, I said yes.
The end result would be rapping dog, Parappa, and his crew of paper-thin cohorts. Greenblat goes on to describe the process. “Matsuura wanted the main character to be an optimistic, lovable, and slightly naive dog. I made several sketches, and Sony Creative chose a dog with a pointy cap. Matsuura liked him too, and he came up with a name for the game : Parappa The Rapper “Parappa” is a kind of Japanese pun meaning “thin as paper.” So Parappa was born.
Above the hood, Parappa’s main goal is to win the heart of rambunctious (literal) florist Sunny Funny, while learning how to fight, drive, cook, and control her bowels in front of Sunny; for those who don’t know, I’m referring to Level 5, in which a sudden stomach ache prompts Parappa to fight his teachers for gas station restroom priority before it’s too late. A completely relatable scenario.
Under the game’s hood, you’ll find a rumbling engine churning out beginning mechanics that would pave the way for an entire genre. Parappa’s gameplay revolved around a “Simon Says” type of format where players precisely repeated the increasingly difficult raps of his karate, driving, flea market, and cooking instructors (in that order) . Take Parappa’s lesson with Chop Chop Master Onion. As this is the first level, it serves as a tutorial on how the game mechanics work. After Master Onion’s introductory rap, a grid appears at the top of the screen (as in all levels), where his commands, KICK, PUNCH and BLOCK, will appear. Each command corresponds to a particular button on your Playstation controller. In this case, KICK = triangle, PUNCH = circle and CHOP = X. The trick is to press the corresponding button at the right moment when it is Parappa’s turn to “repeat” the commands.
No bloodshed, no major battles, no side quests, just timed button presses. The game’s careful pacing, low stakes, and goal of acquiring rap ratings of “COOL” or “GOOD” while simply avoiding the “BAD” rating seem almost absurdly minimalist compared to what’s currently on offer. rhythm games, but back then all you could think of was how to delay diarrhea and nail killer worms to earn your sweet floral honey.
RHYTHM IN REPETITION
Parappa’s unprecedented success has been embraced and studied by other developers hoping to jump on the rhythm game bandwagon. In 1998, you could see incredibly cool, but sweaty kids jumping and stomping on the neon dance platforms of Dance, Dance Revolution. The platform contained a grid that functioned as an oversized controller that featured a similar “Simon Says” mechanic, but with one significant difference: dancing. It has taken the world by storm and the allure has yet to fade. Currently, there are 27 official iterations of the game that can be played on arcade platforms or home consoles which undoubtedly work as an alternative to a gym membership.
Do you remember Guitar Hero in 2005? Sure. How about Guitar Hero-themed parties, with pure tunes from your favorite bands in the comfort of your mate’s grimy apartment. Developer Harmonix took GH to the next level in 2009 with Rock Band: the first game to feature interactive drums, bass guitar and microphone for an immersive experience that spoiled many Friday nights in the best possible way.
The 2020 indie game feels like an almost direct homage to Parappa, with its flat cartoon graphics and late ’90s stylings that compel you to say every syllable: Friday Night Funkin’. The game is open source (which lends itself to some really questionable mods), the Parappa-like mechanics are taken to a difficulty level that’s comically frustrating, and the tunes are catchy as hell. There’s actually a mix CD full of FNF tracks in my car right now. Nothing weird about it. I drive around small people (my children). No matter.
Interestingly enough, rapping and gaming now seem synonymous, as many artists readily admit to playing, promoting, and occasionally contributing. However, you don’t have to be a rapper, or even a hardcore gamer to appreciate the impact and influence of this little dog. Along with his own PS4 remaster, his own anime, and a recent shortlist in the Global Video Games Hall of Fame, Parappa the Rapper pioneered a whole new gaming genre that continues to grow and thrive.
To that, all current and future rhythm developers owe him a nice, relaxing scratch behind the ears, or at least buy that dog a fresh new beanie.