“You gotta believe!”
PaRappa the Rapper is almost certainly the only game in which you’ll spend your time spittin’ bars and droppin’ phat beats with a martial-arts onion, a driving instructor cow, a salesman flea and a cooking chicken. It’s a weird fever-dream of anthropomorphic characters and personified plants. NanaOn-Sha’s classic sparked an entire genre of rhythm-action games and now, 20 years on from its arrival on western shores, Sony has seen fit to revive this forgotten gem – providing us with a window into a time when more avant-garde game projects existed and almost nothing was off limits for a major console release.
For those who have never chanced upon the delight that is PaRappa the Rapper, this isn’t a rapping game full of skeng, draw or PaRappa’s endz – this is full-fat, baggy jeans-wearing ’90s rap. It’s inoffensive, nonsensical, and as colourful as a Saturday morning cartoon. You’re also likely to wonder what’s going on in PaRappa the Rapper’s world, as absolutely nothing is explained.
You’ll wonder why PaRappa can’t find the courage to tell the sunflower-headed girl of his dreams – Sunny Funny – how he feels about her. You’ll wonder why PaRappa’s nemesis – Joe Chin – has an absurdly long car, loves to bake unfeasibly tall cakes and has a chin that makes Jimmy Hill’s look relatively normal. Ultimately, though, you’ll spend your time wondering why PaRappa is rapping his way through life in the first place, making you question PaRappa’s sanity. Perhaps this is just one long LSD trip?
The first battle, against Chop Chop Master Onion, isn’t just helping you learn the ropes of playing PaRappa, it’s Master Onion helping PaRappa stand up for what he believes in. It’s the reason why whenever PaRappa is faced with seemingly insurmountable odds – including having to wait in line for the bathroom when he’s fit to burst – he shouts the mantra “I gotta believe!” before breaking into a new rap battle.
That doesn’t explain the more peculiar aspects of PaRappa the Rapper, but it does go some way to helping you understand NanaOn-Sha’s strange method of storytelling. Twenty years on, the strangeness of this Japanese cult classic hasn’t dulled; if anything, it cuts through the humdrum of big-budget releases to show us a time when fun, creativity and risk were part and parcel of making a game. If this were to be made today for the first time, it would have come out of a left-field indie studio and would probably only be talked about in self-interested circles rather than on the front pages of games magazines.
PaRappa the Rapper’s odd style can be attributed to Masaya Matsuura’s eclectic musical style and Rodney Greenblat’s graphic art designs. The unlikely duo not only managed to create a colourful experience that stood out from the flashy 3D games of the ’90s, but with polished HD visuals and high-quality audio, it still stands out today. To the untrained eye it may look like a game trying painfully hard to be different from the norm but, in reality, PaRappa the Rapper just oozes effortless cool.
While I could certainly wax lyrical about the wonderful strangeness at the heart of PaRappa the Rapper – nothing beats hearing a giant chicken spit out the line “The other day, I was called a little turkey. But I'm a chicken, got it? Ya beef jerky!” – it isn’t without its issues. As a remake, it feels somewhat lazy. The main gameplay sections have been cleaned up and ironed out, but all the cutscenes have been lifted from the 2007 PSP release, meaning everything plays out in a sub-HD window..
Still, Sony is rather lucky that there’s a ’90s revival happening at the moment. Ghost in the Shell, Beauty and the Beast and Power Rangers are all back in the cinema, and the gaming world is salivating at the chance of playing Crash Bandicoot again in shiny HD. Team17’s Yooka-Laylee may have been a nostalgic misstep, but it was born of the urge for a return to a time when games knew how to have fun. It’s unlikely that the 20th anniversary release of PaRappa the Rapper will see the attention it deserves, but I sincerely hope many people get to discover the glory that is a rapping dog and his tale of love for a walking garden plant.