When the average gamer thinks of rhythm or music-based games, their mind immediately goes to titles the likes of Rock Band, Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution, all which feature licensed-tracks from a plethora of well-known artists. But a year before DDR got people in arcades across the world slamming their feet on the ground and years before Guitar Hero and Rock Band captivated an entire generation of wannabe musicians, PaRappa the Rapper had a fan base all its own, all of who were eager to get their drivers license with a moose or go to a flea market with a frog. Over 20 years since the release of the adorable rhythm game and it’s still an undoubted cult classic. With a spin-off, a sequel, an anime series, a PlayStation 4 remaster and a rerelease on the PlayStation Portable, PaRappa is the father of the console rhythm genre.
The reason why PaRappa became such a cult success and influence on so many developers was simple. It had heart. A ton of it. Featuring an awesome soundtrack from creator Masaya Matsuura and wonderful art from Rodney Alan Greenblat, it proved, way before music-based games were a thing, that you didn’t need Metallica or The Beatles attached to your game in order for it to be successful. You just needed killer gameplay and you needed to make the player feel like they were a part of the world. PaRappa does this absolutely immediately. While its gameplay is of the Simon Says variety with players being rewarded for correct button presses in the same time as the music being played, it’s the adventure that players go on that made the game an amazing one.
That creative synergy between Matsuura and Greenblat is obvious from the start. From the game’s first cinematic, where you see PaRappa at the movies with his friends, you understand his goal. He wants the girl. Sunny Funny is his entire world. He’ll do anything to earn her love, trust and affection. But he wants to be cool while he does it, too. Everyone can relate to that. Almost like an anime form of popular TV shows the likes of Boy Meets World or The Wonder Years, PaRappa did something that two decades later that no other rhythm game series has done since. It made you care about the story and provided a legitimate adventure. Although still very much a rhythm game, there’s no other series in the genre with this fleshed out a world. No other one that makes you feel so unique. In Rock Band or Guitar Hero, you’re playing basically as an up and coming musician in the story mode or just like in DDR, you’re replaying levels again and again for higher scores. While your score in PaRappa the Rapper is important as well as getting into “cool” mode, finishing the level and advancing the story was the most important goal of the player. For that reason alone, PaRappa is one of the most iconic and influential games of the original PlayStation era. It’s also one that is all about the adventure behind the gameplay.
The way it all got started was far from chance. You could even say Matsuura, a successful Japanese pop star with over a dozen albums as a part of Psy-S and a solo artist, had his sights set on something special from the start. “The game was born by fortuitous circumstances,” Perry Rodgers, the game’s North American Producer said. “As I understand it, Matsaya Matsuura was developing an innovative rhythm game for the PlayStation. He was a fan of Rodney Greenblat’s art and came to find out that Rodney was already working for another division of Sony on character art for other products. Matsaya asked that Rodney create characters for the game, to which he agreed.”
It’s been over 20 years since the game’s original development, but for Matsuura, the working relationship he had with Greenblat was an enjoyable one. “It was fun. We’ve used fax to exchange the rough sketches. Can you believe that? We kept most of the original sketches, but the ink is fading gradually,” Matsuura said. “Now it almost looks just like a stack of white paper.”
Greenblat was far from a novice at this point in his career, but this just as special an opportunity for him as well. “I was a successful artist when I joined the game team,” Greenblat said. “I had 10 years of work behind me as part of the East Village 1980s art scene, children’s books, and multimedia CD-ROMS that I wrote and produced. Before I met the Parappa team I was already working for Sony Japan as a character and product designer.”
Despite being Matsuura’s first opportunity to create a video game, his experience as a musician came in handy, not only for the game’s original tunes, but for the gameplay elements at play as well. According to Matsuura, his intention was far different from what rhythm games are today. “I’m sorry to say this to the ancestors (so-called rhythm games created before PTR)- they were not rhythm games, but just timing match games on the BGM,” Matsuura said. “My aim for PTR was not like that and I wanted to provide the players the fun of the music interaction that is different from the music that is just for listening to.”
Behind Matsuura’s musical ability and creativity and Greenblat’s art, Parappa the Rapper was off to an excellent start in development. If nothing else, it was going to be original and unique. Sony definitely saw the potential of the Matsuura/Greenblat collaboration. “Sony was keen on innovating and willing to take some chances with products,” Rodgers said. “We trusted our professional experience and instinct for fun.”
However, the idea of a rhythm game isn’t what it is today. While the genre has lost some steam over the years, at one time, it was absolutely huge. It’s a safe assumption to make that the genre truly began to blossom after the release of PaRappa The Rapper. One of the first examples of a rhythm video game, PaRappa was a risk, even if the idea had existed for ages.“The inherently fun Simon-says game has been around a long time though, including Ralph Baer’s popular electronic game, Simon,” Perry Rodgers, the game’s North American Producer said. “Matsaya’s genius was in adapting and evolving the mechanic for a video game and having the vision to make the game story-driven with inviting 2D characters in a 3D world. It’s one of those games that are simply captivating the first time you play it. We trusted that gamers, like ourselves, would be just as enthralled.”
Of course players would be enthralled. If the colorful visuals weren’t enough, each level of PaRappa is a slice of life. At times, it feels like an episodic TV show. From taking karate classes to getting your driver’s license and going to a flea market, or even being stuck on a line to go to the bathroom, the game’s levels are whimsical but real. Add in Matsuura’s music, which is beyond charismatic with its simple and fun rhymes throughout and Greenblat’s adorable paper-thin character designs and PaRappa had the makings of a hit early on. That’s exactly what it became. “The game had a very strong reception, achieving critical acclaim and sales of nearly 1.5M units,” Rodgers said. “I think there was a good sense it would do well, especially given the buzz it had internally during development, and that it was a first-party title and had Sony’s full marketing support behind it. It was creatively inspirational, and had me looking forward to other developers’ innovations utilizing the power of PlayStation technology.”
Greenblat, however, didn’t share Sony or Rodgers’ confidence prior to release. “We had no idea the game would be a hit,” Greenblat said.
That’s because again, Matsuura and Greenblat were in uncharted territory. They indeed had no clue how gamers would respond to something that had never been truly done before in a video game. While the attention to detail was there with excellent art and a soundtrack that never quit, the question of if it was enough to translate into a successful game definitely lingered before release. To Sony’s benefit, however, they had a few unsung heroes working behind the scenes to ensure the game was a hit. “I’d say for the North American release, it was Sony’s marketing team, Ami Blaire and Susan Nourai, in particular,” Rodgers said. “While the game was great, it was certainly a challenge to in effect define a new game genre and convey what’s fun about a rhythm game and to not have players dismiss it as some quirky game.”
The commercials that aired in the United States for the game, which involved traffic cops, the elderly and even white-collar businessmen rapping Matsuura’s tunes did a great job of selling the game’s earworm tunes and fun factor. Those alone were enough to help get the game in the hands of the people that needed to play it. But to be fair, finding the game’s core audience was a challenge as well. This was no kids game. There was skill needed to play the game, which made it perfect for young teens and college students. Just like Baer’s Simon, PaRappa can get frustratingly difficult if you’re a button-masher and don’t have an interest in remembering button combinations. This didn’t go unnoticed at Sony. “The game is inviting, but it is relatively difficult,” Rodgers said. “Albeit, had it been easier, it would have been too short. In hindsight, I may have recommended more stages and more lenient difficulty.”
In spite of those small qualms, PaRappa The Rapper was an undoubted success for Sony. PaRappa even earned a spin-off Um Jammer Lammy in 1999, which follows the exploits of guitarist Lammy and her band, Milkcan. PaRappa even makes an appearance in the game. Regardless of the game’s polish though, it was obvious that PaRappa was the real star. “Um Jammer Lammy was a very good game in its own right, but it was a tall order to top the novelty and magic of PaRappa the Rapper,” Rodgers said. “The game had some nice added features, such as two-player, and had the same proven play mechanic, but it was still rather difficult. And by comparison, the story and visuals, with Lammy as the headliner, simply weren’t as charming as the original.”
Although PaRappa earned a sequel in 2002, as well as an anime series that ran for 30 episodes from April 2001 to January 2002, it was never able to regain the level of success it had after the release of the original game. Greenblat has his own reasons for that. “My regrets have to do with how the later management of Parappa properties went,” Greenblat said. “I still to this day do not know why Sony make the decisions that it made, causing a successful franchise to end. I wanted very much to be on the writing team of the Parappa Anime,” Greenblat said. “I think if I had that chance, I would have been able to guide a hit show that would have had international distribution. Unfortunately, as much as I begged, the anime team was a closed group. Parappa should have been the Super Mario of Sony. It would have been an image that would have benefited Sony in huge ways.”
In spite of Sony’s missteps with the franchise after its release according to Greenblat, PaRappa’s legacy continues to this day thanks to ports of the original on the PlayStation Portable in 2007 and a remastered version on the PlayStation 4 in 2017. An appearance in PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale continued to get him more exposure, but sadly he’s still more a cult character in the PlayStation universe than the star he could have been. The reason that the game was snubbed in the lineup for the PlayStation Classic remains a mystery as well. Nevertheless, the effect the character and the series had on the future of the industry is obvious. If you’ve ever played Guitar Hero or Rock Band, you can thank the team behind PaRappa the Rapper for proving rhythm games could be successful worldwide.
“I think there is affection for PaRappa, but that he may not get as much credit as he deserves with today’s generation of gamers,” Rodgers said. “I think most gamers may not really know how innovative the game was at the time, and may also not associate PaRappa with rhythm game successors such as Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Dance, Dance, Revolution. And the characters, especially PaRappa, are so likable and memorable. Then there is the unique paper-thin art style in a 3D world, the catchy tunes and the fun, yet challenging, gameplay that has you saying ‘Just one more game.’ To this day, ‘I Gotta Believe’ still makes me smile.”
For Matsuura, the creativity expressed during his time with the game shaped not only what he thought the industry should be, but what the world could be. “I was not in the game industry before PTR. However, I think game industry has grown externally. I have learned how important it is to keep creativity free from any kind of borders. It is important not only for the game industry, but maybe so for many other industries.”