One of gaming’s most beloved icons is a lovestruck rapping dog who’s just gotta believe. PaRappa the Rapper has featured in his own anime series, made a cameo in PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, and he’s about to be remastered for PS4. And there, along with his pals, Chop Chop Master Onion, Prince Fleaswallow, Sunny Funny and everyone, he looks as fresh as ever.
But looking fresh is only the start of PaRappa’s achievements. From when he landed on PlayStation in 1997, he showed what this new machine could do, mixing music, gaming challenge and a captivating art style to produce a whole new genre that many different people could enjoy.
For Ste Curran, who at the time was a lapsed gamer, playing it for the first time was revelatory.
“Suddenly a new world seemed to open to me,” he says. “Games didn’t need to be about football, shooting, or driving, or killing, or space. They could be about anything. That was amazing to me; it was a singular moment in my life.”
He bought a PlayStation the very next day, and three months later was writing for hallowed videogame magazine Edge. A few years after that, he was designing his own music games, Chime and sequel Chime Sharp, which has just released on PS4.
PaRappa was created by two people who’d never made videogames before. Musician Masaya Matsuura and artist Rodney Greenblat came together in a relationship that crossed the Pacific, joining Matsuura’s Tokyo studio with Greenblat’s in New York City.
From pop musician to game developer
“Matsuura had the coolest clothing and sneakers I had ever seen,” says Greenblat of the first time they met. “He was a pop star at the time, and everything about his office and status with Sony was really impressive. His English is excellent, and he is so calm and smooth.”
While Matsuura hadn’t made games before, he’d used computers to make music since the beginning of his career, from the Roland MC-8, which was one of the earliest sequencers, to the Apple II. In 1983 he founded a band, Psy-S, which by the late ’80s started to release major hits, but he was becoming frustrated with the standard music software.
“I decided to make computer software that makes my own music interactively,” Matsuura says. “I dreamed some program can generate it, but my goal was not some experimental math type of music.”
He also started experimenting with new interactive media technologies, such as CD-I and CD-ROM, and in the mid ’90s quit Psy-S to found a studio, NanaOn-Sha, to focus on them.
From cute illustrator to game developer
“I loved his work,” Matsuura says of Rodney Greenblat. They first met at a MacWorld Expo in the early 1990s, but when Matsuura heard from a Sony Computer Entertainment producer that Greenblat wanted to make a PlayStation game, he asked to meet again.
At the time, Rodney Greenblat was a successful illustrator who was writing children’s books, making interactive CD-ROMs for kids, and designing characters for Sony Creative – a division that produced stationery, toys and accessories.
“Sony Creative had to create a constant flow of new products to satisfy the crazy fun Japanese girls who loved buying cute items,” he says.
He made regular long trips to Tokyo, showing off characters he’d created, including Sunny Funny, Katy Kat and PJ Berri.
“I remember they showed me a realtime animated dinosaur generated by a PlayStation prototype. It was unimaginably cool, but now it seems very crude and funny.”
Developing the rhythm action game
Matsuura looked towards rap for his first game because of its immediate appeal.
“As a computer musician in the ’80s, I already knew sampling the human voice was the funniest technique,” he says, though back then he didn’t really like the results of his experiments in voice sampling because they sounded like a joke. But in making a game he realised voice could bring something extra. “It has the ability to make listeners laugh and smile. This was something I’ve never experienced before.”
Making a game out of the music presented a whole new challenge, however. Matsuura began to connect different buttons on the controller to different words, and then started to play with paradiddle, which is the name for a drumming pattern which alternates between the two hands.
He found that breaking the music into eight notes gave lots of different possible permutations between left and right, such as “RLRL RLRL”, “RRLL RRLL” and “RLRR LRLL”, and also found it was fun to play. “This kind of mechanism is an obvious basis for the input method of the game.”
Writing the songs
Being a game about rapping, Matsuura knew that the words in the songs would be important.
“All the things happening in the lyrics or during songs feel like narrative,” he says. So the songs took a strong role in the story of the game, while also introducing to players how to play and offering them a steadily increasing challenge.
Matsuura’s pleased with how the first stage, Chop Chop Master Onion’s dojo rap (“Kick! Punch! It’s all in the mind”), solved this.
“One important idea was to have the game setting as a metaphor for a well-known traditional game, like fighting,” he says. “This helped players to have a ‘I know this’ feeling.”
In a similar way, Instructor Mooselini’s second stage (“Step on the gas! (Step on the gas), Step on the brakes! (Step on the brakes)”) uses a traditional driving game as its metaphor. But for the third stage, Prince Fleaswallow’s rap (“In the rain or in the snow, got the got the funky flow”), they couldn’t think of another familiar metaphor to fit it into. But Matsuura, feeling that the first two songs didn’t sound ‘rap’ enough, saw an opportunity to develop the rap element instead, having players tap out the rhythm of his lyrics.
“After then, tracks go more like rap,” Matsuura says. The fourth stage, Cheap Cheap The Cooking Chicken’s rap (“Crack crack crack the egg into the bowl, M.I.X the flour into the bowl”) adds syncopated rhythm for the first time.
“It’s necessary for hip-hop music, of course,” he says. “Only the last stage is close to the actual rap music, I think. I especially like at the end of the song that the call from the teacher and response from PaRappa is gone, and a new call from PaRappa and response from the audience shows up. Music should be free, naturally.”
How Parappa’s art was created
Meanwhile, Greenblat was producing PaRappa’s art. Greenblat created the designs for all the characters and also named them – except for PaRappa himself, whose name was Matsuura’s idea.
Greenblat sent his artwork to Japan via fax, marking the black and white imagery with Pantone numbers to indicate the exact colours he wanted. The studio would then send back to him test videos on CD-ROMs so he could see what the game looked like.
PaRappa’s graphic style of 2D paper characters in a 3D world was also down to Greenblat.
“Matsuura and his group really loved the flat look of my children’s books and CD-ROM characters,” he says. “They did a test with one of my Dazzeloids characters moving around like a cut-out paper doll. We all loved it, and decided to do Parappa in that style.”
Though he was used to seeing his characters being animated and interactive, seeing PaRappa in motion was something else. “It was amazing to me how much live 3D the little PlayStation could pump out. Even better for the characters was the music. Matsuura’s music was magical. It really made the characters come to life in an amazing way.”
What happened next
If you ask Matsuura if he foresaw how popular PaRappa would be, he’ll say, “Never!” Nor did Greenblat, or even Sony itself, which initially only ordered 30,000 copies. Its success led to him getting back together with Greenblat to make UnJammer Lammy, about a nervy rock guitarist, and a PaRappa sequel on PS2, while Matsuura also created Vib-Ribbon, Mojib-Ribbon and many other music games over a career as a game developer that continues today.
Greenblat didn’t get a sense of its success until his royalty cheques started arriving. They enabled him and his wife to buy a house in upstate New York, where he lives today, and also found himself become something of a minor celebrity in Japan.
“In 1999 my agent and I opened a cafe in the middle of the Omotesando shopping district in Tokyo,” he says. “I met many Japanese celebrities, and worked with the pop duo Puffy on many album covers and the sets for their TV show. I also became friends with super-talented pop stars Tomoe Shinohara and Kaela Kimura.”
And of course, wider than all this, PaRappa paved the way for games like Guitar Hero and SingStar, which have continued to expand the appeal of videogames. Not a bad achievement for a dog with confidence issues.
PaRappa The Rapper Remastered launches on PS4 tomorrow, 4th April 2017. Pre-order it now.
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