The remastered edition of the Sony PlayStation classic will have you rapping along, and throwing your controller, all over again.
Unlike Nintendo or Sega—whose mascots are so widely recognized I’m not even going to bother to name them here—Sony never quite established an adorable cartoon character of its own for the PlayStation. Today, you can make a case for Crash Bandicoot, or LittleBigPlanet’s Sackboy, or (if you’re in a particularly bloodthirsty mood) God of War’s Kratos.
But if you’d asked me back in 1997, I wouldn’t have hesitated before naming PaRappa the Rapper—an insecure dog who hones his rapping skills so he can impress his crush, an anthropomorphic flower named Sunny Funny. This week, Sony released a remastered version of the original PaRappa the Rapper on the PlayStation Network, so you can play (or replay) PaRappa all over again.
The Return of the Great Japanese Video Game
How did a game as singular as PaRappa come together in the first place? In a 2005 interview, Rodney Greenblat—the artist responsible for PaRappa’s distinctive art style—shed some light on the game’s development, which was pioneered by designer and musician Masaya Matsuura. “Sony just wanted games; the PlayStation was new and they wanted a variety,” Greenblat explained. “And they already had tons of people working on [FPSes], racing games, flying games, role-playing games. They already had that going, tons of them. So they had another division, we were called Division Zero, where we just did whatever.”
As it turns out, “doing whatever” led to a game as bizarre and distinctive as PaRappa. The gameplay itself is simple: PaRappa evaluates the player’s rhythmic prowess by tasking you with pressing buttons that correspond with various rap lyrics, taught by rap masters that include a kung-fu master with an onion for a head, a cranky moose who administers driver’s tests, and a very stoned frog. Along the way, the game evaluates each of PaRappa’s raps as AWFUL, BAD, GOOD, or COOL, which is how I’d like all my real-life performance reviews to be delivered in the future.
This bare-bones gameplay is strung together with a wonderfully loopy plot. Over the course of the game, PaRappa takes kung-fu lessons, gets his driver’s license, bakes a seafood birthday cake for Sunny, gets diarrhea from the seafood birthday cake, and takes over a concert headlined by some kind of Rastafarian flea. How do you market a game this bizarre? With some of the most obnoxious, inscrutable commercials I’ve ever seen:
“Once you’ve played it, you can’t get it out of your head,” mumbles the bored voiceover. Is that an endorsement or a threat?
By any rational estimate, PaRappa should have been an oddball one-off with a passionate cult following, like No One Can Stop Mr Domino! or Incredible Crisis. And yet, somehow, PaRappa was a huge hit. The original PaRappa sold more than three million copies, spawning a sequel and a rock-based spinoff called UmJammer Lammy. Its success paved the way for a brief boomlet of rhythm games in the years that followed—most notably, Guitar Hero and Rock Band, which used plastic peripherals shaped like actual instruments to approximate the experience of being in a band.
PaRappa the Rapper came out 20 years ago. Ahhhhhhhhhh! You’re old. So am I. Sorry. So when I sat down to play the remastered PaRappa this week, I had two big questions:
Would the muscle memory from all that time I spent playing PaRappa 20 years ago kick right back in?
Would I discover that PaRappa the Rapper had actually sucked all along?
As it turns out, the answers to those questions are:
Here are all the things that suck about PaRappa. The gameplay is kind of broken, because the buttons you’re supposed to hit don’t quite match up with the prompts on-screen. It’s up to the player to figure out they should ignore the screen in favor of playing along to the beat of the music. This unforgiving (and arguably unfair) difficulty might have been by design, in an effort to artificially extend the length of the game, since PaRappa is insanely short—just six songs, unless you get stuck failing and replaying the same level over and over again (like, to be purely hypothetical, this goddamn cooking chicken):
And then there are the songs themselves, which are as nonsensical as they are catchy. A few sample lyrics:
I’m working in the flea market so early / I’ve been working here ever since my mama was a baby
Whatever you like’s in the middle, fiddle / Seafood cake comes just like the riddle
I am a chicken from the kitchen / And I ain’t kiddin’ / Although nothing is written
Sunny’s my life / She’s like a dice / I cannot tell which way she’ll turn ’til I spice
In the middle of the game, you might be too focused to realize that most of PaRappa’s lyrics barely even make sense—but once they’ve been stuck in your head for days and days, trying to make sense of them might actually drive you insane.
It’s hard to overstate how annoying it is to watch the crowd glumly wander out when you fuck up PaRappa’s big solo for the eighth consecutive time—but if you’ve ever played this game, you know what I mean.
And then there’s the ending song, “I Gotta Believe!!,” which exacerbates every problem by breaking the “rap teacher” format and making you go solo. In theory, this is the ideal climax for PaRappa: Having learned a different style of rap from each of his teachers (and bested them in a rap battle while in line for the toilet), PaRappa cuts loose and does his own thing. But the lack of guidance means you get no warning about which button-presses are going to appear on the next line, so you’re forced to play the stage over and over again until you have the last verse memorized. That also means replaying from the beginning, so you’re stuck repeating the first three minutes, which are weirdly easy, before you get a crack at those final 30 seconds again. It’s hard to overstate how annoying it is to watch the crowd glumly wander out of the theater when you fuck up PaRappa’s big solo for the eighth consecutive time—but if you’ve ever played this game, you know exactly what I mean.
For better or worse, this PaRappa the Rapper remaster fixes none of those problems, opting instead to replicate the same experience you remember from 20 years ago. PaRappa the Rapper looks way better, but it’s essentially the same controller-throwing experience you remember from your middle school days.
I can’t imagine any of that sounded like a ringing endorsement. And yet… I still love PaRappa. I know! I can’t explain it either. Call it Stockholm syndrome after so much time in the PaRappa-verse, but it’s just a blast to kick around with this game, warts and all. Maybe the music and the gameplay are just good enough to overcome the baked-in flaws. Or maybe PaRappa is just so irrepressibly charming—in visual design, in the goofy-ass story, and in the low-key cheeriness of the whole thing—that its shortcomings are ultimately forgivable.
Which is why it’s sad that PaRappa has fallen on such hard times. Following the two PaRappa games and UmJammer Lammy, Greenblat and Matsuura collaborated on just one more video game: The 2009 Nintendo Wii exclusive Major Minor’s Majestic March, which put the player in charge of a marching band. (The reception was, uh, not as positive.)
So my main takeaway from the PaRappa remaster is that we’re long overdue for a new PaRappa. The formula is airtight enough that it doesn’t really need any modifying. Clean up the gameplay, throw a dozen new songs together, and come up with some weird new ways for PaRappa to try to woo Sunny Funny. You might not sell three million copies, but these games have always found an audience before. And if PaRappa 3 sounds a pipe dream… well, what would PaRappa say?