The news this morning that Konami will publish Def Jam Rapstar raises hope among the hip-hop-minded among us that maybe, finally, the world will get its first — or second, you may argue — great rap game.
For all the hip-hop crossover with video games — the rappers playing video games, the rappers rapping about video games, the games promoted by rappers, the games starring rappers — there remains a curious lack of good rap video games. And, arguably, no great one.
Rock music fans have Guitar Hero and Rock Band series to play and argue about.
Heavy metal fans just got a love letter to their genre in the form of Brutal Legend.
Chopin fanatics got theirs with Eternal Sonata.
If you grew up listening to A Tribe Called Quest, KRS-One, NWA, or even Jay-Z, what do you have? No great game to rap to... no game, sorry 50 Cent, that both is great and steeped in hip-hop culture.
Rap-gaming collaborations have been less than thrilling. Rap fans have had these games to try to be excited about, past, present and near-future:
-A vaguely-described massively multiplayer game about being a rapper inspired by T.I.
Can you blame a rap fan for being underwhelmed by his or her gaming options?
Those who would cite Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which begins and ends in a simulation of 90s-era South Central Los Angeles, as a game defined by rap culture can do so only by overlooking the middle half of the game that is more inspired by everything from Easy Rider to Ocean's 11, with some Area 51 Men In Black thrown in as well. Great game. Not something that could be easily called a great rap game.
A few years ago, in an article for MTV News about the dearth of rap games, I asked Harmonix chief Alex Rigopulos, one of the main people behind Guitar Hero and Rock Band, what the problem was.
Having prototyped some rap games, he shared at least two of the troubles with making one that works:
"There are some inherent attributes to hip-hop music that pose some unique challenges to game design," he said. "For example, in rock music, there is a lot of structural variation (verses, choruses, bridges, solos, etc.) that keeps things interesting for the players. By contrast, a lot of hip-hop instrumental elements tend to be extremely repetitive - sometimes a single groove in the rhythm section that repeats with little variation for the duration of the tune. If you were simply to cut and paste 'Rock Band'-style gameplay onto hip-hop grooves, it wouldn't work well. The drummer and bassist would get bored playing the same riff 100 times in a row. That's not to say that it's an unsolvable problem, however."
Rigopulos said that figuring out how to get the lyrical part of a hip-hop game experience is the key task to get things right. "I think a successful hip-hop game would have to focus on what makes hip-hop special: the rapping," said Rigopulos. "Perhaps this could be done well as a rhythm-action game on a regular game controller. But in rap, the lyrics are just as important as the rhythmic vocal performance, so I'd personally prefer to see gameplay that's not simple rhythm-action; I'd like to see a game that integrates the lyrical content as well. You could possibly approach this on the game controller in some abstract way, but I also think the most authentic rapping game would be on the mic, a real rapping-simulation game."
The problem could be that it all just might not work. Maybe Rigopulos is right and that the music is a barrier. Many people don't like doing vocals in Rock Band, after all, and what's a great rapper but someone who wants nothing less than to dominate the vocals? Even as a rap fan myself I can't say I would play a rap music game — though a hip-hop Brutal Legend would suit me fine.
And, no, making a game steeped in rap culture wouldn't mean it would have to be about shooting and being a gangster. Marc Ecko's Getting Up, which was a graffiti rebellion story, a love letter to activist hip-hop culture in New York City mixed with typically hyperbolic video game action — one mission: spay-painting a revolutionary message on the side of a bridge while under fire from a police helicopter as Pharoahe Monch raps through the soundtrack — came closest to getting it right, clumsy controls not withstanding.
No disrespect to Parappa. He came first and did it well. But he did video game rap more than a decade ago. Since then?
The record for hip-hop games has been a sorry one. Lots of scratches: the kind that blemish, not the kind that sound good.