Retro gaming as a hobby is an inherently nostalgic one. The text of the games we played in childhood is often not as important as the personal meaning we place on those narratives in memory, and how they came to help us see the world. Last year, Boss Fight Books released PaRappa the Rapper by Mike Sholars, which very much takes this kind attitude toward arguing that PaRappa the Rapper is a significant game, not just because the rapping cartoon dog himself is iconic, but because Mike Sholars as a kid could see himself in PaRappa the Rapper. Which is to say, that PaRappa the Rapper is Black.

For fairly light reading at under two hundred small pages including notes, Mike Sholar’s PaRappa the Rapper provides a surprisingly compelling argument for representation theory. As he argues, we can’t look at PaRappa the Rapper in a vacuum. Rap was huge in the nineties, yet it also had something of an identity problem because so much of the genre came to be defined by violence, sex, and bling.

But PaRappa the Rapper, as a rhythm game, is very literally about rap music as music- not its stereotypes. Think of PaRappa the Rapper from the perspective of a kid, who’s not into violence except as childish fantasy at best and only has the most basic understanding of sex. Bling is important, yes, but mainly practical. Sholar makes a point of the level where PaRappa is quite literally just trying to earn money from a flea market. All of the six levels in PaRappa the Rapper have fairly mundane, relatable goals on the literal level, none of which involve violence or fighting. But on the more philosophical level the message and catchphrase “I gotta believe!” is intended to be something the player can take and relate to their everyday lives.

PaRappa the Rapper is, in Sholar’s description, principally a game about self-expression. This thesis starts out strong but straight up becomes indisputable in the final chapters, where Sholar explains, among other things, how Cool Mode works. Without getting too specific, let’s just say that despite PaRappa the Rapper’s reputation being that of a relatively short, linear game without much in the way of replay value, it turns out that Master Onion was more literal than anyone realized when he said Kick! Punch! It’s all in the mind.

The mechanical explanations of how PaRappa the Rapper works are also quite detailed. Sholar gives a good overview of the technical issues with PaRappa the Rapper remasters, which can be problematic enough a person could actually be justified in wanting to play them on original hardware. Then there are the stories of the people who actually made the game, particularly the American voice actors who were, unsurprisingly, badly exploited by the intermediaries who contracted their talent out to Sony.

You don’t really need to know anything about PaRappa the Rapper to get anything out of this book. If anything, ignorance might help- I certainly didn’t know much about this game aside from the name and appearance of the title character before I got started. But it’s an engrossing story nevertheless. I’ve yet to play the game myself, but I did watch a YouTube longplay to better understand the vibes Sholar discusses, and I can see why it made such strong impact on him.

PaRappa the Rapper by Mike Sholars – Boss Fight Books


William Schwartz William Schwartz (9 Posts)

William Schwartz is a media writer who specializes in South Korean media, but also writes about a wide variety of popular culture subjects- including retro video games.