From 2005 to the very end of 2010, rhythm games rose to unparalleled popularity and then dropped out of vogue. The genre definitely lived and died with Guitar Hero and subsequently Rock Band. These weren’t the first music based games by a long shot, but their simulation of actual instrument playing made regular people feel like rockstars. If you were in high school or college during this time, you couldn’t go to a gathering without someone busting out a plastic guitar or drum set. Nowadays, you don’t see this very much, purely because the genre became an oversaturated mess with disappointing spin-offs and unreasonably expensive additions. Only recently has Guitar Hero and Rock Band returned to the masses, but it’s clear certain people are still feeling some residual exhaustion.
While this 15 year period had the genre at its most valuable, music-themed action games actually date back to the NES. Companies saw value in the Power Pad, an NES add on, and used it to create dance based titles where you pound buttons in sync with the screen. This style eventually evolved into Dance Dance Revolution, one of the most successful rhythm games ever made not involving a guitar. Yet no matter how popular DDR was, or how much of the market Rock Band and Guitar Hero took over, neither property can really claim to be the first to make the genre a success. Not even the old Power Pad games of the late 80s can boast this. Amazingly enough, this achievement solely belongs to a skateboarding dog with a love of hip hop.
PaRappa the Rapper was, and still is, a game unlike any other. It followed a dog named Parappa as he rapped his way to the heart of his friend Sunny Funny, a talking female flower. Through the power of music he learned how to fight, drive a car, bake a cake, operate a flea market, cut in line to use a bathroom, and become a club headliner. Each level had a teacher Parappa worked with, like Chop Chop Master Onion and Cheap Cheap the Cooking Chicken, who judged his skills on scale of “Awful” to “Cool.” Cool mode can only be achieved with impressive freestyling, and if Parappa successfully pulls it off, he can become a one-dog rap master.
The game is never not weird. From the very beginning, it embraces the insanity of a dog with the power of rap and just runs with it. Everything is in 2D as well, as if what you were watching was cut out of paper. Yet this is part of PaRappa’s charm. It’s bright, colorful, and can provide a metric-ton worth of fun. There’s also a really complex rhythm game beneath all of this. Your timing with each button press has to be impeccable, and you can easily fail by simply not finding the right groove. There’s no easy or hard mode either like with modern music games. It just starts simple and grows to become brutally challenging. You needed to develop a proper understanding of musical cues to actually bring Parappa to his desired goal.
This is where timed button-pressing was pioneered. Prior to PaRappa’s release in 1996, there wasn’t a successful rhythm game that gave the genre a template to build upon. With PaRappa though, people saw what it took to turn music into electronic entertainment. The true difficulty came with trying to hit the right buttons at the proper time in rapid succession. It’s such a basic idea, and yet it was groundbreaking enough to create an entirely new style of game. Everything that’s come out since has followed the same concept. It doesn’t matter if you’re using a guitar or a drum set either. If you’re hitting a button or pad in-time with a game, you’re doing exactly what it took to help Parappa bake a cake nearly twenty years ago.
What’s especially notable about PaRappa is how it probably introduced a lot of people to rap music. Most modern music games focus on rock and use actual popular songs as a means to attract players. In contrast, hip hop is not usually a focus, and in certain minds, isn’t even socially acceptable. PaRappa fought this by literally being a rap game for kids. The characters are animals, vegetables, and plants, the music and topics are very silly, and the only suggestive content is a rocket ship used a metaphor for when PaRappa fails to reach the bathroom. Even if you’re one of the people who holds rap music to such a low standard, there’s no way that PaRappa isn’t acceptable. This is also an excellent way for youth to expand their musical knowledge as the gameplay and original songs teach one how to keep a beat and maintain a rhythm.
PaRappa the Rapper is a personal favorite of mine. I can’t remember how or why my family got the game, but whatever the circumstances were, I’m glad they happened. The amount of time my siblings and I put into mastering PaRappa is insane, especially since the game is not easy to beat. I’ll never forget the sense of accomplishment I felt when I finally got Parappa to the final level for the first time. My brothers and I just could not beat the infamous bathroom stage for quite a while. Our collective abilities to stay in sync with the music simply weren’t strong enough. Then one fateful day, I somehow became the one who moved forward, and I beat the game soon after. It felt so good, mainly because I won not by changing a strategy or using a cheat. My reflexes became good enough to keep up with the game and the level was suddenly beatable.
A close second is when we learned that repeatedly hitting the same lyric in succession actually gave more points. “Kick, punch, it’s all in the mind” with Master Onion evolved to, “kickkickkickkickkick punchpunchpunchpunchpunch”. This turned our rap ranking into Cool and we just ran with it. Good times.
The motivation behind this post was Friday’s announcement that PaRappa the Rapper 2 is coming to the PS4 on December 15th. I never got a chance to play the sequel, though it’s interesting that Sony chose to bring this one to the current generation and not its insanely more popular predecessor. PaRappa the Rapper was a trendsetter and it ushered in an entirely new genre of gaming. Without it, we couldn’t pretend to be rock gods in front of a fake crowd. There really is no better time to bring this game back into the fold too. With Guitar Hero and Rock Band returning, the rhythm genre could make a comeback. A brand new PaRappa would greatly appeal to longtime Sony fans.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television editor. Every Saturday afternoon you can read his video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.