Parappa the Rapper (or, how I learned to love Rodney Alan Greenblat and Masaya Matsuura)
by Katherine Isbister
I was living in Kyoto, Japan, doing a one-year postdoc at NTT (at the time Japan’s telecom monopoly, with seemingly bottomless pockets for research). My boyfriend and I had an apartment in company housing in the suburbs, and were the only gaijin within biking distance (maybe even within a short drive). Each day I rode the train into work with lots of company men and office ladies, towering above a field of bobbing heads with neat dark hair, as we swayed along. After work I’d stop by the local grocery/department store, where small children with their moms often gawked at me as I perused the strangely different vegetables and the aisles of rice, pining for whole wheat bread, decent jarred pasta sauce, and cheese that wasn’t a tiny round camembert. I was struggling to learn Japanese but found by the time I got home what I wanted to do was read an English novel and retreat from the sea of difference around me and rest up to get ready for another day adrift in it.
Though I made some great friends by the end of my time there, some of the friendliest faces in the crowd in Japan in my memories now are still the adorable characters I’d see on advertisements in train stations and along the streets, for anything from cleaning products to soda to the latest video game. At the time I’m writing about, I’d been seeing a cute smiling dog with an orange stocking cap on, with a tantalizing wisp of English text — ‘Parappa the Rapper’. Something about him made me really want to try out the videogame. So my boyfriend surprised me on my birthday with a Japanese PlayStation, which we hooked up to the complimentary television that came with our apartment.
It was somewhat challenging to work our way through the Japanese menus of the game, but to our delight the singing and the commentary was all in English. I was nervous about how well I’d do — my videogame prowess at the time was limited to very rusty skills at playing the arcade version of Centipede, and a guilty workplace addiction to Tetris I’d had a few years earlier. But the control scheme was so simple! In fact I heard later that some skeptics when the game was released thought it was just a training game for learning the new controller pad for the PS 1, and thought it hardly seemed a game at all.
But for me, Parappa was not only a fun game, but also a powerful emotional experience. It was the first game I thought of when Drew told me about this book project. So I decided to try to unpack what it was about Parappa that resonated so strongly, by doing my best to relive the experience of playing for the first time.
I Gotta Believe! (Getting into Parappa’s worldview)
Settling in front of our TV on the tatami livingroom floor, I watch the opening scene in the game. It’s a black and white very cartoony movie of a hero saving a little beaver or something from a giant space alien. The movie ends and I realize I’m watching a cast of curiously flat but wildly colorful cartoon characters who were watching the movie themselves. They shuffle out of the movie house off to their local burger joint and order lunch together. Parappa is daydreaming about the daisy-faced girl he has a crush on, while he stands in line. Shortly after they get to their table, some bully starts to harass them, asking her to go outside with him. Suddenly, a square-jawed Dudley-do-Rite type barges in and starts to confront the bullies, but instead buries them in an avalanche of hero-ly prose. Meanwhile Sunny (the daisy girl) and her friends simply walk out while this is going on, leaving Parappa mulling over how he too, should become a hero. But how can he do this, he wonders. He says, “I know… I gotta believe!” This launches the player into the tutorial level with Grand Master Onion. And the game begins.
The game mechanic is comfortingly simple for me — I have to do a rap call and response with my kung fu onion teacher, by pressing on the proper buttons on the game controller pad. He spells out the moves I need to learn — ‘kick punch block’ — and they correspond to the four shape buttons and the top left and right buttons. Parappa says the words as I press the buttons, thus rapping out what I’m doing. I have a clear status indicator ‘U rappin’ Great, Good, Bad Awful. When I start doing badly, the music sounds worse and worse, and the characters watching behind us get unhappy — so does the master. If I finish with not too many errors, he praises me and tells me I can go on to the next level. It’s funny, but his subdued praise makes me feel genuinely pleased. Maybe because I truly feel like he watched my performance in great detail, and has a good feel for whether I did well or not.
The music we’re rapping to is punchy and simple and has a sort of vaguely ‘eastern’ flavor. Master Onion is a colorful cardboard cut-out homage to the classic kung fu mentor. I have to take a moment here to point out the sheer genius of the art style, and how profoundly it has contributed to my deep affection for this game. The characters are floppy flat cut-outs, but they move in a 3D world. So, when they turn sideways they just about disappear. They have a wonderful loopy loose appeal in the way they move to the music. Their faces are overlarge in the classic old style babyface look of early video games, with big eyes and round heads. Parappa looks like a lost little boy in his big orange cap, sneakers, and t-shirt and jeans. He’s actually pretty androgynous in that Japanese anime young hero kind of way. I can’t help thinking about Scott McCloud’s rant in Understanding Comics, about how more abstracted characters don’t get in the way of you projecting yourself deep into identifying with them… I really felt this way when I played the game. I was Parappa — the wide-eyed young optimist in a world full of sassy but ultimately supportive mentors. What a great place to hide out after a day of trying to figure out the complex nonverbal communication and subtle power struggles going on around the conference table at my research lab! If I could just rap perfectly on this one song, life would be good and I’d even be praised by my cute little mentor!
Normally I struggle with twitch games because I get so overhyped with adrenaline that I start messing up and getting really frustrated, but somehow the musical element of things kept me grounded. The beat kept me calm enough to stay in the game, to hang in there and master the nuances of the rhythms.
Each of the songs was simply a pleasure in and of itself. And the dynamics between the bossy mentors and Parappa were really fun as well. I think my favorite song was the one right after the tutorial level. Parappa’s goal was to pass a driving test, and the instructor was a moose in a policewoman uniform whose rapping really reminds me to this day of Queen Latifa. She orders me to ‘step on the brakes, step on the gas, now turn left’ and so forth. There’s a sort of tinny piano riff going on behind the rap, and the whole thing looks a little like those 50s movies where there’s the obviously fake streetscape running behind the actors as they drive and have serious conversations when they really should wreck the car given how much attention they are paying the road. Both her head and my head are bobbing in time as we do our call and response rap. I’m deeply engrossed sitting there cross-legged at the TV, it’s time to go to bed but I just want to try one more time! Such a safe and engaging world. Later on I discover once I’ve played through the game that when I get to ‘Cool’ I can rap freestyle and she ejects herself out of the car and flies around off in the sky while I drive solo. It’s fun, but for me, not as fun as bobbing along together. Driving around with Moosolini I felt like the sidekick to a bossy but definitely mischievous compatriot who would lead me into adventure.
The next level is a lilting Jamaican style rap by a frog who runs a fleamarket booth. He teaches Parappa how to sell stuff. The fourth is a chicken who runs a cooking show teaching Parappa how to bake a cake for Sunny. In the fifth stage, everyone is queued up at a gas station restroom and Parappa has to rap his way to the front of the line before he has an accident, facing off each of the previous characters. He got a tummy ache from eating the seafood cake he made in the prior level. One of my favorite touches during the related cut scene is his imagining a flock of birds flying through the sky as swooping brigades of toilets, during his romantic moment at sunset with Sunny. Sunny thinks his face looks manly as he grimaces with the pain of holding it in. I have to admit at this point that I found Sunny really annoying. She had a high, squeaky voice, and was a sort of caricature of the sugar sweet popular girl that everyone loves… it was the one false note for me in the game experience. Even her face, a big daisy, was a strike against her, as I don’t like daisies that much (so many other more interesting flowers!). In retrospect I wonder if my response wasn’t partly because having to watch her broke my ability to suspend disbelief and become Parappa. I didn’t like her and wasn’t motivated to please her, and couldn’t really empathize with Parappa on that level… you like THAT girl? Please!
The last level of this actually very short game is a rap party at which a dreadlock-and-sunglasses-wearing MC leads the crowd in a call and response with all the rappers on stage, including Parappa, who is now a real pro. I felt so proud of little Parappa, up there on the big stage. I know that sounds so corny but, well, there it is. Also everyone being up there together was such a nice contrast to the assumption I’d had that Parappa would be up there alone, the big solo star. Instead, he was taking his place in the pantheon of great rappers, side-by-side with his mentors. I definitely had the feeling when playing that I was at a big party with all my friends, showing off my new skills and getting their appreciation and admiration, too.
I was genuinely sad when I had played through the game completely. I would’ve forced all my American friends to play it too, if they had been nearby. When Um Jamma Lammy, the sequel, came out, I eagerly bought it, but it just didn’t match the appeal of the original. Mulling over why this was the case (as I prepared this chapter) helped clarify some of the subtleties of the genius of the original game.
Thinking it Through — What Makes this Game so Great?
Pulling apart my retrospective of what it felt like to play Parappa, I would say some of the reasons the game touched me are:
1. It’s such a happy world. The atmosphere is happy, uplifting, positive, and nonviolent. It’s a sunny, pleasant, small-town world Parappa lives in. Sure there’s a bully involved, but no one that he’ll try to murder with a large weapon. Parappa’s life challenges are ones that are easy to relate to, that I felt could be easily mastered (more so than the ones going on in my daily life at that time). He has a sort of Tony Robbins-esque self-help mantra ‘I Gotta Believe!’ which is corny but
2. I get what I need to do (and it’s fun, too). The game mechanic is a mapping of a familiar real-world activity that’s fun in and of itself, with plenty of room for mastery and personal expression. I’ve always liked to sing, and I understood right away what I had to do and how to know if I did it well. The ‘Cool’ mode allowed me to do some freestyling, and the call and response part was a very astute and intuitive way of building in a sense of affection and trust and interdependence between me and the NPCs. It feels like a truly social world for me, because of this. I genuinely bonded with my mentors in the course of rapping with them. And even though the button mashing is a small-scale, pretty mechanical action, I’m projecting myself into the fluid, fabulous dance moves of these spaghetti-like characters, grooving to the music. The designers artfully avoided the ‘uncanny valley’ that Masahiro Mori describes — the creepiness of things that almost look and move as if they are human.
3. I can relate to the situations. They are universal and understandable. Needing to get a driver’s license, cooking for someone, having an embarrassing biological moment on a date, getting to show off your hard work in a performance — these are all situations that I could easily grasp and empathize with.
4. The player character is deeply appealing, with a classic babyface and simple, androgynous clothes. He’s an everyman who wants to become a hero, and succeeds at it. He’s silly but not a total laughingstock. As a player, I was really rooting for Parappa to do well, and somehow he absorbed the embarrassment of me not doing well at first, which gave me the confidence to keep at it. Really great player-characters tie gameplay mechanics and mastery closely and seamlessly to the backstory and fantasy qualities of a character. Parappa’s mastery of the skills he learns in the game, in order to win Sunny, have a nice arc that meshes well with my own mastery of the rap mechanic as I play the game.
5. The non-player characters are brilliantly designed. For me, Parappa’s deep genius as an experience lay in the choices made in crafting the NPCs, and their relationship to the player. The game starts out with a classic kung fu master ordering the player around, and progresses to a driver’s ed teacher, then a flea market salesperson, a cooking show host, and finally an MC who is just directing things along. If you think carefully about these roles, you can see that the player’s relationship to the mentors moves from one in which the player is very low in power, to one in which the player is really a peer being hosted. The feeling that I had as a player in dealing with these mentors moved from feeling childlike and out of my depth, to feeling like a decent apprentice (the frog and chicken raps), to feeling like I was a true journeyman rapper (beating everyone in the toilet line), to feeling like I’d truly arrived (on stage with the MC and the others). This power progression ties really nicely to the actual mastery that a player has as the game progresses.
Each character plays upon the stereotyped qualities of a person in the social role set up in that level. Grand Master Onion has the brusque voice and manner of a kung fu movie mentor. Officer Moosolini, the driving instructor, has the brash absolutist style of instruction one might expect from such a bureaucrat. The flea market salesman’s rolling, mellow style corresponds to the qualities that one (sometimes) sees in real-life flea market sales people. The cooking show hostess has a bit of Julia Child in her manner and voice. And the final MC has a style that echoes what one hears on the airwaves and on TV. In each case, the manner of the mentor has an emotional impact on me as the player — I can’t help reacting to the bossy driving coach as I try to mash the right buttons. I get immersed in the cooking instructions as I struggle to craft the same cake as the cooking teacher. And so forth. The designers tied personality and procedure very tightly, making the most of the personas that they crafted for these NPCs. Of course the actual raps recorded make a huge positive impression. I didn’t mind hearing them over and over again as I tried to master each song.
I want to reiterate here how the core mechanic of rap call and response built a very nice sense of sharing a task and being ‘in it together’ for me, with the mentors in each level. Somehow the praise of each felt real at the end of the level, because they were really teaching me a task that mattered to them, and I could imagine that they’d be pleased when I succeeded. I think also, I felt closer to them because we’d shared the experience of rapping, getting deeply in synch with one another. So their opinions mattered more because I felt closer to them.
Another interesting set of choices was the small scale skills that I was being taught by these folks. I learned how to defend myself, how to drive, how to sell things at a flea market, how to bake a cake. These mentors are not superheroes; they are small scale people living small scale lives, like Parappa himself. And I get to see them all caught with their pants down, so to speak, in the bathroom line. Like seeing your grade school teacher show up with wet hair fresh from the shower or something. The way they are all on stage at the end speaks to the capacity of any person to succeed.
I also love that in this game there are no true enemies. It’s very zen — just challenges to be mastered, people to be turned to for support, based on your own hard work in following along with them to learn how to do what they do.
6.The feedback system is clear and engaging. It was easy to tell how I was doing, not just by the text indicator, but also by shifts in the music and in the appearance of the spectators and the main mentor. Making the feedback be not just numbers or indicator bars, but also sound shifts and visual changes in characters that I could pick up out of the corner of my eye as I played, was very helpful for someone like me without years of training in reading all the elaborate elements of the usual heads up display. I think, also, that these kinds of cues feel more social and natural in a game world that isn’t about fighting off the destruction of the universe by aliens or some other kind of militaristic-style adventure in which you might actually be wearing a HUD. So it felt more immersive and plausible for me.
What’s Not to Like?
I went back and looked at reviews of Parappa from the time. Several complained that it was too short or too easy, something that might not be as much of an issue in today’s game market, if the game was not sold at standard console full price, but was considered part of the burgeoning casual games genre. Otherwise most found it innovative and engaging.
It’s hard to remember exactly how long I played Parappa, but I would guess I spent somewhere around 20 hours over a couple weeks post-birthday, unwinding after work. I didn’t get obsessive about mastering the cool rapping feature — if I had that probably would’ve consumed a few more hours, but not many. So it certainly wasn’t a long-play game for me personally. I didn’t find it too easy or too hard (which probably means it was too easy for most hardcore gamers).
Personally, I found one flaw in Parappa, despite my adoration. I had that classic gamer feeling of impatience with the cut scenes — this may have been exacerbated by the fact that, as I mentioned above, I found Sunny (Parappa’s lady love) cloying and annoying, so I wasn’t really motivated to help him succeed with her. I definitely wanted to pilot him while he learned how to drive or sell flea market wares or bake a cake, I just didn’t care much about why he was doing it. The relationships I was really sold on were between him and these rapping mentors, not between him and Sunny. I suppose this brings up issues I mention in the chapter on gender in my book on game character design — creating appeal among both men and women may mean that love interest plot lines aren’t the best choice for building goal empathy. It could also be that if I had rapped with Sunny — gotten a better feel for her, and seen her take some initiative and action in a fun way — I would’ve bonded with her more.
About the Design Team
The artist responsible for Parappa’s visual design, Rodney Alan Greenblat, is prolific and multi-talented. Before the Parappa project, he completely designed and produced his own cd-rom title called the Dazzeloids, one of the Voyager discs that were a grand artistic experiment in the early 1990s. Greenblat draws inspiration from cartoon artists and loves characters such as Bullwinkle and Bugs Bunny. You can get a feel for his artwork by visiting his website: http://www.whimsyload.com. Greenblat is a real phenomenon in Japan, and when I was living there you could find all kinds of the usual auxiliary products that go along with games or movies there, e.g. alarm clocks, little dolls, and the like. Rodney did a series of children’s books such as Thunder Bunny, a story of ‘three interesting children who find a giant egg which hatches to reveal a large fluffy bunny. The bunny grows huge, and realizes it is a cloud bunny. The children join Thunder Bunny on a wild hopping adventure to cloudland where Thunder is reunited with his cloud family.’ He has a truly whimsical imagination that is somehow both light and also very direct about grappling with deeper issues. I think his skill as both an artist and a storyteller came in very handy in shaping the characters for Parappa. As he describes it in interviews on his website, he would take direction from Matsuura and would come up with character sketches that matched the designer’s vision, sometimes hitting the nail on the head and sometimes having to iterate many times. Matsuura had a copy of Dazzeloids and really loved Greenblat’s artwork, and that’s how the partnership came to be. (An aside — if you happen to live in the NYC area, you can sometimes see Greenblat’s artwork for sale in a Hudson Gallery called BCB. We actually purchased a painting of his titled Buddha Talking Okay — see http://www.whimsyload.com/cgi-bin/shop/detail.cgi?id=071031-BudTalkn&key...).
The game designer, Masaya Matsuura, founder of the game studio NanaOn-Sha, is one of the inventors of the rhythm game genre. In fact Parappa gets credit (at least on Wikipedia) as the first ‘modern’ popular rhythm game. NanaOn-Sha went on to create both Vib-Ribbon and Mojib-Ribbon, two music games that were whimsical and innovative in terms of core game play. Vib-Ribbon could generate unique game levels based upon music that the player chose from her own computer. The art style harkened back to vector graphics, with a stick figure rabbit running along a ribbon filled with obstacles that depended upon the sound track itself. In Mojib-Ribbon, the player uses the Playstation controller’s analog stick to ‘draw’ rap lyrics on clouds using Japanese characters that a creature named Mojibri will then sing through voice synthesis. This game includes tactics such as filling the ink of the pen well, but not too well, just as you would if drawing traditional Japanese characters. Both of these games were well reviewed by critics in the US when they came out.
I mentioned earlier in the chapter that the second collaboration between Matsuura and Greenblat, Um Jammer Lammy, did not have much appeal for me, and said that the reasons why helped me to clarify what really worked about Parappa. In essence, Lammy is just as wacky and fun in terms of the artwork, but the core human issues going on are very different. Lammy seems to be living through a series of surreal bad dream moments, almost as though she stumbled upon a cache of psychadelic drugs in her quest to guitar proficiency. Instead of being mentored while learning a task, she is dealing with crazy pilots, doing performances in hell (at least in the Japanese version), and has that perennial dream fear of arriving late at the big gig, which turns out in the end not to be a problem. So even though at one level she’s playing out the underdog turned hero narrative that Parappa does, she’s not doing it with mentors, but rather despite bizarre life circumstances. Her triumph comes despite the world.
From a game mechanic point of view, Lammy plays a guitar, and this doesn’t privilege the beat in the same way as the rap-based gameplay of Parappa, making the experience of call and response not nearly as interesting and engaging (at least for me).
Despite my not liking living through the unsettling psychedelic-induced dreamscape of Lammy, it is the game in the series that has been updated and included on a variety of platforms subsequent. And of course we all know of a couple of other guitar-based rhythm games that have had phenomenal success. Perhaps this simply underscores my status as an atypical gamer (or maybe just as someone who is too far from teenage days to remember why tripping and playing the guitar might be fun?)
In the last year I’ve been eagerly following bits of news trickling into the games press about a new collaboration between Matsuura and Greenblat, titled Major Minor’s Majestic March. Apparently the goal in the game is to collect members of a marching band, using the wiimote. It sounds like just the kind of wacky game mechanic that these two might turn into a compelling and heart-warming experience.
Tracking back through my experiences with Parappa was a visceral reminder of how each player brings idiosyncratic motivations to picking up and sticking with any given game. Parappa worked for me personally when I first played it, because it gave me an experience I wasn’t getting in my chaotic cultural immersion in Japan.
But there was one ‘big’ idea I took away from all this, as a character designer. Finding ways to imbue game characters with a real sense of camaraderie and human connection to players has the potential to create an emotional experience that resonates all the way out into daily life. Which is why, I suppose, that I am still oddly fond of Rodney Alan Greenblat and Masaya Matsuura.
1 I’ve not tried to gain permissions to display the art and video from the game, as I’ve learned from experience it is extremely difficult to get timely compliance from Sony. However you can utilize Youtube to see the lion’s share of this game online at any time, and I encourage you to take a moment to do so before reading further.
2 The babyface effect is the tendency that we all have to treat someone who has features like a baby’s — round face, big eyes, small brow, etc. — with greater trust and liking, and a desire to nurture. If you are interested in this research there is more detail in Chapter 1 of my book, Better Game Characters by Design: A Psychological Approach.
3 More cartoony, androgenous player characters can have a better chance of appealing to female players by allowing them to project themselves more easily into the persona (see Chapter 4 of Better Game Characters).
4 See Chapter 8 of Better Game Characters for more about player character psychology.
5 In Chapter 2 of Better Game Characters, I talk about how power relationships are something that people try to ‘read’ immediately in social interaction. Making use of these in the progression of the game dynamics was a subtle and engaging tactic.
6 In Chapter 1 of Better Game Characters there is more about the artful use of stereotypes in crafting characters.