i’ve played playstation games off and on since college, but in general i’m fairly bored by them. i really don’t remember how i first heard about parappa the rapper for the PS1, but it’s no wonder it caught my eye, with its bright, offbeat, very nintendo-like quirkiness. if you haven’t heard of it, it’s a rhythm game in a “simon says” type of format in which the “teacher” raps out a lyric that you then repeat by pushing the same buttons in time. a source cited on wikipedia says parappa, released in japan in december 1996, is “generally considered to be the first modern rhythm game”. i found this surprising at first, but i guess i’d never really stopped to think about the origins of rhythm games, which seem so ubiqitous nowadays.
parappa is structured similarly to the fantastic elite beat agents which i played last year, in that each song is bookended by a part of the story (although in parappa there’s only one continuous story). the story and characters, including the eponymous rapping dog parappa, are wonderfully quirky. parappa apparently means “paper-thin” in japanese, and the colorful visuals feature a similar gimmick to the paper mario series (although the first paper mario came out a few years later, in 2000). the songs, which range from a driving lesson (“check and turn the signal to the right”) to waiting in line to use the bathroom (“i need to go just as bad as you / what i had this morning i don’t even want to say to you”) are uniformly excellent with some purposely nonsensical lyrics thrown in for the heck of it, such as “my style is rich, dope, phat in which / we’ll make a cake that looks rich” from the cake baking song.
as for the gameplay, from a modern perspective the interface seemed notably awkward to me at first. nowadays we’re used to being scored on each note and on how many notes are hit in a row, which parappa doesn’t highlight at all. instead parappa has a simple interface in which your performance on a phrase (usually four beats) determines if you move up or down on a 4-point scale, ranging from “COOL” to “AWFUL”. i’m guessing that dance dance revolution, which debuted in 1998, was the origin of what has become the standard rhythm gameplay.
after i settled down to play through parappa i couldn’t believe how short the game was, which includes only 6 stages. there are some cheap moments, such as when the game changes meter without any warning (e.g. in the first song there’s a sudden shift from 3 beats per measure to 4 without any way to know it would change unless you’re already familiar with the song), and in the last song there’s a sudden section near the end where there’s no call and response and no way to predict what the first notes of the next phrase are going to be. despite these setbacks the main part of the game can be beaten fairly easily and so quickly that afterwards i couldn’t believe there wasn’t a harder difficulty mode. after looking in vain in the settings for one i checked online, and it turned out there is an additional mode where you have to beat each stage a second time, this time with a COOL rating.
and therein lies the game’s truly unique twist; calling it a “challenge” wouldn’t be quite accurate, though. to explain: in the game you can only go from GOOD to COOL in a song by improvising around the required button presses, and finding an improvisation that is acceptable is a really strange case of fairly blind trial and error. i’m quite curious about what the instruction manual says, although this FAQ at gamefaqs includes a section on suggestions on how to improvise that may have been taken from the manual. once you do find a pattern that lifts you to COOL the game takes an even more surreal twist and your rapping teacher suddenly leaves you center stage to rap by yourself. freestyling is a sudden shift in modes, and you can freely experiment with mixing the various samples together and using the left or right directional buttons to repeat a sample. your freestyling also has to be varied enough to maintain your COOL rating, which can also take a certain amount of blind trial and error.
this radically different mode was a great surprise, and although it was often more frustrating than not since it relies so much on trial and error, achieving the COOL ratings and freestyling really made the game much more interesting to me. in freestyling mode the game suddenly becomes much more of a “toy” than a “game”, which is particularly interesting to me given a somewhat recent comment from miyamoto in which he says wii music is a toy instead of a game (leading to a backlash from hardcore gamers who were already feeling abandoned after nintendo’s casual-game-centric showing at this year’s E3) and the general response to will wright’s new game spore, typified by such reviews as schiesel’s review for the new york times. i actually would have enjoyed a separate mode in parappa in which you could just freestyle as much as you wanted without the pressure of having to maintain your COOL rating, which makes me think that video games as toys might not be quite as unsavory an idea as i first thought. in any case, i’ll def. be checking out um jammer lammy (although with its focus on guitar sounds i’m sure i’ll miss parappa’s rapping) and the PS2 sequel parappa the rapper 2.
phew! that was a long post. kick! punch! time for some parappin’ links. hatatatacha!
– entry at wikipedia
– soundtrack on youtube
– this guy has some nice videos of getting COOL mode on all the levels
– the complete lyrics
– review of the soundtrack
– random page with a few parappa 2 wallpapers
– review at IGN
– FAQ at gamefaqs with patterns that will get you a COOL rating
– RMC from gonintendo posted his disappointed impressions of nana on-sha’s upcoming wii game, major minor’s majestic march, a marching band game. ripten.com and IGN have also posted information about it (IGN’s includes a short video).