It's the 20th anniversary of the Playstation classic, Parappa the Rapper! Though, I'm from the US, so I wouldn't play the game until November of '97, but work with me here.
So, Sony just released an HD demo of Parappa the Rapper for the Playstation 4. Just like I was clamoring for in a recent episode of SUBCON. That's nice, but I haven't played it yet, and If this demo isn't leading up to an HD remake collection of Parappa 1 and 2, and Um Jammer Lammy, then it's a crock! Don't cheap out on me now Sony. I can beat all three games without even going to the bathroom, unlike Parappa himself. If you don't drop some HD Um Jammer on me, then I'm still not buying a PS4! No matter how badly I want to be a skateboarding grim reaper of Mexican descent.
If you want a quality, in depth look at the origins and history of Parappa the Rapper, than look no further… than Chris Kohler's fantastic book about the history of Japanese video games, Power-Up! I'm here to talk about my very specific experience with the Parappa the Rapper series.
If you're unfamiliar with my blog, well I love hip hop and brightly colored Japanese video games with novel game mechanics. That is a pretty good description of Parappa the Rapper. This must be the game of my dreams! You'd think this is the moment that I've been waiting for. It's the 20th anniversary of THE original rhythm game. Hit the road Beatmania, Dance right the fuck on out of here DDR. Don't even look at me Rock Band you pile of overcooked garbage. Parappa the Rapper predates all that. I'll always be more partial to Um Jammer though. Too bad her 20th anniversary is still a few years away.
As far as I can see, the only predecessor to Parappa was the electronic toy Simon. It's honestly the same game. I think Matsuura understood that, which is why he, alongside artist Rodney Greenblat, added such a large amount of insane things that I'm still noticing oddities in the background to this day. From sentient milk cartons, to vomit spewing caterpillar nurses and onion shaped karate masters, it seemed like nothing was too strange for the team behind Parappa the Rapper.
Behind the unique world and addictive game play hides a story unlike anything in video games at the time. In this current and exciting world of indie games, finding a video game with an engaging story line is but a few clicks away, if that's your thing. Well, back in 1996, and mostly today too, playing a video game is SERIOUS SHIT. Most commercial games have you saving the entire world. You are one man, or perhaps anthropomorphic animal man, and you have to defeat the source of all evil in the world, save the princess / king / best friend, and find a way to end the destruction of the planet.
Then this game came out that had a two dimensional puppy rapping about getting a driver's license. The protagonist of the series, Parappa, a rapper, is rapping his way through the everyday life of a young adult. He's going to class, baking a cake, or just trying to get to the damn restroom. There are no bad guys to destroy, no doomsday weapon to dismantle. Just Parappa trying to get through his day without embarrassing himself in front of Sunny Funny. It's a simple story, told through the lyrics of each stage, as well as cut scenes that are as funny as they are disorienting.
Instead of being a rampaging power fantasy, Matsuura decided to create a relatable story about unique characters. Crazy! There weren't even guns in this game, and this is a rap game that came out the same year Tupac died. This is also the year that the RIAA began slapping "Explicit Content" stickers on all my favorite rap albums. Amazingly, as far as I could research, there were no pearl clutching watchdog groups upset over a video game about rap music. I guess it's hard to get upset over the implied violence of rap lyrics when every other video game had explicit head exploding gun shooting violence.
Parappa debuted in the US in the wake of such controversies, and it's modest success brought a lighter side of hip hop a new audience. I grew up in early 90's Los Angeles, so I have a heavy history with the gangsta rap that topped the hip hop charts of the era. This game was a sharp turn from the thug life rap I had grown up with up to that point, so the music itself didn't stick so well beyond a few catchy hooks. It was more the aesthetic of the game that really spoke to me.
That aesthetic was the paper cutout animation that was like nothing else at the time, and probably since. There are a handful of games that stand out to me, especially in this artistically dry era of 3D gaming. The Parappa series is certainly chief among them. The idea that a 3D game didn't automatically imply a realistically designed game, nor some anthropomorphous version of that same reality, was mind boggling. Yes, during this era of gaming, there were games like Super Mario 64, Final Fantasy VII, and Silent Hill, that could transcend the limitations of their hardware and convey the breadth of a large and intricate world. Parappa is different though, because it doesn't aim for anything resembling a feasible reality.
To understand what made the art of Parappa so unique, I have to explain how bad all the other games looked. I can sum it up in one word.
Polygons were big business in 1996. If your game didn't have a polygon, in all it's jagged glory, then your game was garbage. No one would buy anything without a game character that couldn't stab you to death with a hardy bear hug.
Polygons were the pinnacle of video game achievement in 1996, and I guess now too, but it isn't so obvious these days. It's hard to go from the beautiful sprites of Yoshi's Island and Street Fighter II, right on into the sad sad world of 3D platforming games like Bubsy 3D and Pitfall 3D. Things really took a turn for the ugly. This was pretty much video games for a good chunk of the 90's. Each year was more jagged than the last. When the Sega Dreamcast finally arrived, showing off a 3D game that had smooth surfaces, I pretty much cried.
Of course, there were still quite a few 2D, sprite based games… on the PSX! If you had a Nintendo 64 like me, this polygon problem was just overwhelming. The N64 just could not do sprites, sending many developers running for the Playstation to release games like Castlevania Symphony of the Night, Silhouette Mirage, and every good fighting game. With sprites banned from the N64, a variety of genres were but a gaping void in the Nintendo 64 library, and millions of nerds suffered, all due to Nintendo's petty war over raw gaming power.
I believe Nintendo's break up with Sony over the cancelled "Nintendo PlayStation" project, along with the subsequent release of Sony's actual Playstation had Nintendo really questioning it's self worth. Essentially, Sony and Nintendo breaking up led to the N64, Nintendo's midlife crisis.
Younger gamers might be shocked that Nintendo decided to slam so much raw horsepower into the N64, with no idea how to make use of it. Nintendo wanted the most powerful console on the market at the time, and they got it. Unfortunately this meant that developing a game for the N64 meant being forced into putting a lot of time and resources into a single game. Companies and projects with small budgets quickly gravitated to the much cheaper development costs of the Sony Playstation.
Then in walks Parappa, a game that looks far more like the cartoonish sprites of a previous console era, but with a style that could only be created with the 3D processing power of a 32 bit console. So a melding of the two could occur! A 3D based game doesn't have to lose all artistic integrity for the sake of more polygons. Always more polygons.
So many polygons…
So maybe Parappa isn't the greatest game I've ever played, and if looking for a trip of music based nostalgia, I prefer to pop in Um Jammer Lammy or Gitaroo Man, despite my heavy roots in hip hop. The game has a few shortcomings, mostly surrounding the gameplay, but the effort made in developing every aspect of the game made the Parappa the Rapper experience greater than the sum of it's baffling, hilarious, and brightly colored parts.