Parappa the Rapper was one of the defining titles of the original PlayStation, not to mention one of the games that birthed the whole rhythm genre. With its unforgettable offbeat rap tracks, adorable paper-flat design, and innovative call-and-response gameplay, it’s left quite an impression these 20 years.
Today, Sony releases Parappa the Rapper Remastered for PlayStation 4. It’s a fairly bare-bones reproduction of the original game, with hi-res textures and some small bonus features. Gita Jackson and I have been fans since the original release, and convened to discuss our feelings after playing the PS4 version. We love Parappa. We do. He’s just a little hard to love sometimes.
Chris Kohler: Whatcha gonna do when they come?
Gita Jackson: Oh no.
Chris: Try Again!!
Gita: Parappa the Rapper was one of the first video games I ever played—the PlayStation belonged to my older brother and he was very rightly afraid of me breaking it if I fooled around with it alone, but he thought I’d get a kick out of this rapping dog. And now the rapping dog has returning. It’s amazing to me how fresh this game still feels!
Chris: Thank you for that enthusiastic introduction and for the reminder of my encroaching mortality. Parappa the Rapper came out when I was 18. But I probably reacted to it the same way you did. It was one of the first PlayStation games I bought, since I had bought the console (like so many did) for Final Fantasy VII in late 1997, which is when Parappa hit the U.S.
Parappa was a much better mascot for the PlayStation brand than Polygon Man, that much is for sure. It had that indie-game spark before indie was a thing. It was created by a musician and a graphic designer. It established that PlayStation was a more “adult” platform in its way.
Gita: Yeah, the strength of this game comes from its very strong point of view. What’s so funny to me is that I remember the color scheme of the game, and all the incidental noises. I love how the game honks at you when it starts loading the next stage.
But man, that music. I was worried that it was only good because I was young and was fond of the game, but no, the music in Parappa the Rapper is extremely fucking good.
Chris: Yes. It gets into your head and stays there your whole life. This is probably helped by the fact that there are only six songs, one per stage, and they are so strongly tied to the scenarios, whether driving or pooping. Even in other games in the character-based, stage-based, story-based music game genre, like Gitaroo-Man, the songs and scenarios aren’t so perfectly matched up. Parappa is this one-of-a-kind experience.
But I’ve got to say this: I love Parappa, we have Parappa plushes in our house, I have all the original games signed by Masaya Matsuura, I love listening to the music, watching the movies—I think it’s brilliant. The thing I like least about Parappa the Rapper, sometimes, is the actual act of playing the game.
Gita: Ha! Ain’t that the truth. I could soak in this music all day. I love the designs of the characters. I love the music. I love the voice acting, even! It’s a perfectly curated game. It is also absolute shit at telling you when you’re actually hitting the symbols on beat or not.
I am not extremely good at rhythm games, though I enjoy them. With practice, I can become decently good at particular stages. Parappa seems to do everything in its power to obscure how to get better at playing it.
Chris: You sure as hell can’t just listen to the rap, because I’ll play the stage and Parappa’s lines will sound absolutely perfect to me, and then I’ll fail that line. And then I’ll play the same line and it’ll sound all off the beat and garbled, and I’ll get a “Cool!” for my “improvisation.”
Gita: The “Cool!” system has never made sense to me. I can still recall a deep well of frustration when my next-door neighbor got a freestyle section by accident, on a stage that I had at that point not yet beaten. (It was the flea market stage, which I kicked ass at last night. Take that, Robin.)
Chris: That stage is considered by leading experts in the field (my wife and me) to be the toughest stage to kick into the freestyle mode. But we’re getting a touch ahead of ourselves. Just playing the game in Normal mode is a challenge. It was certainly the game that taught me the placement of the face buttons on the PlayStation controller. If you don’t know without looking where those buttons are, you can’t play this. Which is not something we think about these days, but it was an issue in 1997!
Gita: Fun fact: I freeze up when I’m on the spot. In particular, I cannot instantly recall which direction is left or right. This game has been interesting—all the face buttons are okay, but I really gotta think about L1 and R1.
Chris: That is a fascinating inversion of my initial issue.
Gita: I feel like no matter what, you’re gonna have some kind of hang up when it comes to getting all the buttons mapped out mentally with this game.
Chris: Well, in my case it forced me to learn the PlayStation button layout by heart, because I was definitely going to finish this game. I still remember how crazy it was when you had to do the “Somebody say hoooo” bit at the very end of the game “by yourself” without a rap master first showing you how to do it. Of course, that’s every other music game today.
But the difficulty of it wasn’t having to press the buttons, it was that the game’s timing windows are just incredibly exacting. Which is something else that later music games learned to forgive. Asking a player to press a button exactly on the beat turns out to not be very hospitable towards players who just want to relax and have a good time. Unless you’ve played Parappa so much you can play in your sleep, it’s a stressful experience.
Gita: I was 7 when this game came out, so suffice it to say, the punishing timing was not conducive to me having a good time. I actually never beat it because, again, 7.
Chris: Did you ever go back and beat it?
Gita: The long answer to this question is my entire life story, so I’ll give you the short answer, which is no. After my brother went to college and moved out, all the PlayStation games were put.... somewhere. But what I love about Parappa is that the franchise can live without and beside these games. I did, when I remembered what that weird rapping dog game from my childhood was, grab a copy of the soundtrack and listen to it obsessively.
I feel like I’ve spent an age looking for a decent version of the video for the single De La Soul cut for Parappa the Rapper 2. It’s now a life mission.
Chris: So we’re talking specifically about the new “remastered” Parappa for the PlayStation 4, which is out today. It would have been nice if they’d gone nuts adding new features to the game, but that’s not what this is: It’s a pretty straightforward port with HD graphics and a few little improvements, but no major ones. The alternate versions of the music from the PSP version from 10 years ago are there, and there’s a rumble feature that lets you “feel” the beats of each rap line as they’re given to you. Not much else! What do you think of the new version?
Gita: Well, my initial impression is that it looks simply fantastic. The graphics have been updated just enough—I’ve seen HD remasters that scrub away all the charm, but that doesn’t happen here. But I’m basically with you. It’s the game I played when I was 7, with nicer graphics but all the same flaws.
Chris: It is beautiful, yes. And if you want, you can choose to play it in 4:3 for a more authentic experience. And of course, since there’s tremendous lag when you try to play the PlayStation 1 version on an HDTV, it’s nice to never have to worry about that again when you need your Parappa fix.
So… where are you stuck?
Gita: I never beat the Cheap Cheap Chicken level when I was 7. And I still can’t beat it now. I passed the controller to my brother for that one.
Chris: Oh God. That’s the one. I was screaming at the chicken yesterday. And 10 years ago I was screaming at my PSP, and 20 years ago I was screaming at a CRT.
Gita: That level, in particular, has real wonky timing—the flea market level you can kinda get into, once you feel the groove. But that fucking chicken is always changing things up and putting things on half and quarter notes and I want.... to kill her? This fucking chicken, screaming at me while I bake a cake. how about you let me live, girl?
Chris: And the sad thing is, that’s maybe my favorite song?
Gita: I KNOW!
Chris: But it’s just such a brutal level, and you can fail it so easily on the final lines even if you were perfect the whole rest of the time.
Gita: It’s so funny, and I love the actual rap of it. I’ve had the “ya beefy jerky” line stuck in my head all day. I kept failing on the last two lines. I’d go from Good to Awful, back up to Good and then fail.
Chris: I would have really liked to see a new mode in this game that just lets you chillax and play these songs for funsies. Additionally, they could have done more with the “Improv” mode. As it stands, that thing is a mess, because the best way to clear the stages is just to press the same button combination over and over. If you try to experiment and make something that “sounds good,” you lose.
I’d have liked to see a fail-proof improv mode, maybe with a legend that shows you what buttons produce what sounds, to help people create some unique improv replay videos.
Gita: It seems antithetical for a rhythm game to just let you fuck around, but Parappa seems to get that the spirit of rap and hip hop does lie in a bit of experimentation and exploration. It just punishes you for doing it until you find the exact right way to experiment.
Chris: Yeah. Improvise, but only in this prescribed way.
Gita: What playing this remaster REALLY makes me want... is a new Parappa.
Chris: No shit. Well, first I want a remastered Um Jammer Lammy.
Gita: Yes, I also want that.
Chris: But yeah, I’d love to see Parappa 3, if they can ease off a little bit on the timing windows. But I wonder, is it even possible today? Parappa had pretty high production values for a 1997 game, with all these original songs, but it also sold millions. Today, it’s more of a niche game. I don’t know if the economics of a brand new one work. Also, it would get raked over the coals for being “too short.”
Gita: I was thinking that if they could get a good celebrity tie in, if someone like Gambino or Chance and the Social Experiment got on the team and contributed to it, maybe. But that wouldn’t really be Parappa.
Chris: One of the things I love about Parappa, on reflection, is how in all its avant garde visual style and experimental gameplay, its story felt so much more realistic than the rest of the 1997 video game narratives. That’s another one of its lasting imprints, I think. It was a simple story about a boy with overblown anxiety.
Gita: I was also thinking about the simplicity of the story, and how fond I was of it when I was playing. I love how much characterization they manage to cram into such a short period of time. And Parappa’s growing confidence is so affirming.
Chris: As the player we see that Sunny Funny already wants to smooch Parappa, even at the beginning. He doesn’t need to impress her, he needs to build his own confidence.
Gita: Helping this sad dog succeed just makes me really happy. It’s nice to have a game that’s centered around a core of happiness.
Chris: Again, there’s just so much to like about this game. I would have liked to see a Remastered version that dealt with the fact that game designers have had 20 years’ worth of experience figuring out how to make rhythm games better. But I’ll take this!
Gita: The worst thing I can say about this game is that it’s the same game I loved when I was kid. And that’s still high praise.
Chris: At least kids who are playing it now for the first time can have the exact same frustrating experience we did in 1997. And there’s something beautiful about that.
Thanks, Gita, it was a pleasure!
Gita: No problem, Chris. Now, to listen to the bathroom song on repeat.