'PaRappa' and 'Gitaroo Man' Creators Talk Reinventing Music Games with 'Project Rap Rabbit'

Masaya Matsuura and Keiichi Yano on why music games need stories, and rap's connection to rabbits

Credit: Project Rap Rabbit

It's been 20 years since PaRappa the Rapper debuted on the original PlayStation, injecting developer NanaOn-Sha and artist Rodney Greenblat's cartoon rapping dog, his signature catchphrases ("You gotta believe!"), and his eclectic band of friends into the public consciousness. It was a watershed moment in gaming, spawning the music-rhythm genre, which saw numerous similarly-themed, character-driven games release over the next few years, like Enix's Bust A Groove in 1998, Sega’s Samba De Amigo and NanaOn-Sha's own Vib-Ribbon the following year, and later Space Channel 5 and Rez before INIS' Gitaroo Man in 2001 and Elite Beat Agents in 2006.

Interestingly, it was Beatmania, Guitar Freaks, and Dance Dance Revolution publisher Konami that would play perhaps the biggest role in the explosive growth of the music-rhythm genre when it enlisted emerging music game developer Harmonix to create its Karaoke Revolution series in 2003. This established the template for later franchises like Guitar Hero and then Rock Band, setting player expectations for the entire sub-genre of music games that dominated the charts every year for nearly a decade. Each new release was accompanied by increasingly complex plastic instrument controllers and ever-expanding song-lists, but by 2015 what was once novel and engaging had become pedestrian and commonplace.

With the music-rhythm genre currently enduring what could be generously described as a "lull," it was something of a surprise that NanaOn-Sha founder and PaRappa co-creator Masaya Matsuura, and INIS co-founder Keiichi Yano announced a new collaboration on Kickstarter, tentatively titled Project Rap Rabbit. While their timing is perhaps less than ideal and their goal of a little over $1 million extremely ambitious, their pedigree couldn’t be better. Glixel caught up with Matsuura and Yano at the recent BitSummit indie festival in Kyoto, where we discussed the origins, inspirations, and challenges involved with bringing Project Rap Rabbit to life.

How did you guys, who are both known for your own music games, like PaRappa and Vib Ribbon and Gitaroo Man and Elite Beat Agents, meet and decide to work together to make Rap Rabbit? This seems like a very natural meeting, but at the same time it’s also a surprise announcement.
Masaya Matsuura: We have actually been friends for more than ten years. And, we’ve both had a chance to attend game events like BitSummit, all over the world. We’ve had many chances to talk to each other, drinking after the events. I really feel Yano-san and I have many similarities in making something musical. For this project Yano-san called me, and he had an idea to make a game through crowdfunding. At first, I was afraid to do that because I had never done it and lacked the experience, but I realized that maybe now is the time. So, we started discussing the project last November. We talked about the rough idea of the game for a couple weeks and about what kind of game would appeal to the mass market and what kind of game might stimulate the gaming industry, in general. Yano-san and I had an idea to use a Japanese historical episode for the game. That's how we started.

Keiichi Yano: Both of us, at some level, had become very – I don’t want to say tired – but we wanted to see something different from 'hitting buttons to a beat' type of thing. So, when I first approached him about this crowdfunding effort, we talked about all these ideas. I proposed that we could put a lot of these ideas together and make it into a game. We didn’t know if we were going to collaborate yet but initially it was 'let’s try.' And, so, through a series of conversations we had we realized that a lot of the themes that we were trying were very similar. Themes about the protectionist environment that the world faces today, the environment… we're not trying to make a political game or anything like that, but just to address a lot of those things that people are feeling and put it into a story-based game. This made a lot of sense to us. Because, I remember the initial inspiration to even get into the industry and start making games to begin with was PaRappa the Rapper so, for me, it was like working with my hero. I thought – this is great! But, yeah, I think both of us felt it was important to try to not push those themes in a political way, but insert those themes in a way that it would make it relevant for a lot of people.

So, why rap specifically? I know it probably ties into Matsuura's legacy with PaRappa, but why rap and why rabbits? Why not cats, for example?
Yano: Well, "Rap Cats" does really...well, I guess it works. I thought "Rap Rabbit" rolls off the tongue… no, just kidding.

So, were you the one who suggested using a rabbit?
Yano: Actually, I was not. There's an interesting story there, but I want to talk about why we chose rap. So, obviously as you mentioned, there’s PaRappa...we wanted to make a game that – not celebrated, but had some elements of our Japanese heritage, and put it in a game that we thought our fans would appreciate. But we really wanted to get away from the button-mashing, time mechanic. We thought about what things we could do that would stay away from that. At some point we were talking about a message that we wanted to send out, and rap seemed like a very natural thing to do. We said, well, let’s see if there was something we could come up with using rap.

Rabbits are interesting because, you know, Eminem used to be called the "Rabbit." So, we thought this must be fate

Because it’s like street gospel or tribal storytelling?
Yano: That's right.

Matsuura: And, also, we started to design the character as a human. We spent a lot of time designing a human character, but as mentioned, we wanted to design the game based on a Japanese historical episode. As you know, sometimes Japanese historical episodes can be very ugly. Killing somebody or...

Yano: "We're going to chop your head off!" Yeah, there’s a lot of unpleasant history.

Matsuura: I really didn't want to make a game like that. So we decided to give up on the human character and use something else. We thought that maybe if we do that, the barking and biting each other would be more lovable. So, I thought we should come up with some animal which would be easier to depict in a fighting episode. That's when we started thinking about what kind of animal would be good, and someone came up with the rabbit character.

Yano: Yeah, one of our designers came up with the rabbit. Rabbits are interesting because, you know, Eminem used to be called the "Rabbit." So, we thought this must be fate, and we had to make it a rabbit. And, there's also the perception of speed, right. Rap being fast and rabbits have a speed perception so we thought it all made sense.

So, all the music is going to be original? Have you announced who you’re working with to create the music?
Yano: Not yet. Matsuura-san is spearheading all the creative on the music.

But, it’s going to be more like a PaRappa kind of game with original acting? You’re not going to recruit 50 Cent to play one of the roles, right?
Yano: We might. Lol.

Matsuura: We need to do some tests to select the tracks. For example, in Disney's animated releases the singer in the film is different from the voice actor. That works for the audience, sometimes. We still don’t know if we'll do it like that.

What would you say are your influences are in terms of rap music? West Coast G-Funk? East Coast Brooklyn party rap?
Yano: Probably all of it. Even the newer style, like Mumble. I know a lot of people don't like Mumble but there’s a lot of stuff we want to put in here. And, again, we're trying to tell a story. The theme of the story is that history repeats itself. So, a lot of the things that we relate to and is happening right now we want to call upon Japanese history to tell that story. If you listen to the teaser that we put out, it has a mixture of funk beats and there's obviously a DJ but there's also a lot of Japanese instruments in there as well. We're just trying to mix the two just like we've mixed the world in terms of feudal Japan and modern technology. It's going to be sonically original, but the rap has to go on top of that. We want to try to get a whole bunch of styles of rap in place, and essentially create an album of rap songs for our game that tells the story.

On a more technical level, PaRappa was a new kind of game, in a new era, when the PlayStation first emerged. 3D visuals were still finding their feet and audio tech was now CD-quality, but still fairly basic. PaRappa was made before rhythm synchronizing quantization was put into games. So, if you're bad at PaRappa, you sound bad, because it exposes the fact that you don't have rhythm. Later games, like Ouendan on DS are a little more forgiving. Will Rap Rabbit be more forgiving than PaRappa?
Yano: The rhythm portion of the play is that you can hit any button and there will be certain notes where you will have to hit specific buttons. But, those are special ones. That's part of what we call the "Revenge Mode" where you’re listening to the guy that’s rapping and you pick up certain words from him and you’ll use that in a revenge response.

So, it’s a call and response thing, like a Kid N' Play rap battle?
Yano: Exactly! That's exactly what it is. In terms of what’s unique about the system, to just answer your question about the quantization thing, yes, Matsuura's got some brilliant ideas in terms of that. This is what we talk a lot about a lot. How do you create a music game that is still a game but allows the player some freedom of expression? I know for Matsuura-san that’s a super important theme that he’s driving for the entire project. So, we’re using a lot of techniques like time stretching and whatnot. Obviously, we're using quantization to ensure that whatever the player does still sounds good, but you know that it's a little long. But, it's not super free. It'll still sound natural like someone is rapping into a flow.

The other innovation is that we have this emotion wheel. Just like if you played Mass Effect or any of those kinds of games. Just like that but imagine it for music games. So, it's a rap dialog, it's a branching dialog tree. Depending on the status of your opponent and what you choose determines how the battle unfolds. So it changes the branched storyline a little bit within the song. So, that's one exciting thing that we’re doing.

This isn’t your first game with a rabbit because you had a rabbit in Vib-Ribbon. What’s your deal with rabbits
Matsuura: That’s actually a misunderstanding. The character in Vib-Ribbon is not actually a rabbit. It's a rabbit-shaped something. It’'s not a rabbit.

Well, I guess that’s true since you can devolve into a frog, among other things.
Matsuura: But, everyone recognizes that she's a rabbit so we don'’t deny this recognition but she's actually not.

So, what’s the working relationship between the two of you? How do you split up the roles, since you’ve both acted as game designer in the past?
Matsuura: Actually, we're still mixing all the things together. But basically I've joined Yano-san's team and we're having discussions together and proceeding together.

Yano: I would say a lot of the creative genesis is Matsuura-san's. So we are currently billing him as the creative director/producer. But as he mentioned, we're all collaborating on ideas and the system and whatnot. There's not any one person, but at the end of the day, I think we're deriving a lot of inspiration from Matsuura-san in terms of what direction we want to go.

But, when the credits roll it’s going to be NanaOn-Sha and INIS, right? Both companies are headlining?
Yano: Yes.

Since it’s a Kickstarter, what happens if you don't meet your goals? It seems like such a fun idea, but as you know crowdfunded games are having a hard time because of fan backlash, and music-rhythm games in particular are going through a rough phase. What happens if the campaign isn't successful?
Yano: I cry in my bed.

We're thinking about when a rapper raps, in a freestyle battle, for example, what is going through his mind? We're trying to emulate that process and bring it into the game.

Kickstarter is at BitSummit and they have a booth right here. They’ve announced that they are officially launching in Japan [Editor’s note: Until now, Kickstarter did not have a Japanese presence, requiring previously successful campaigns for games like La Mulana 2, Bloodstained, Shenmue 3 to establish a company on North America or Europe before fans could back these projects]. Could you launch separate campaigns in the West and East to help meet your goal?
Yano: It's a good question and I think we have a couple options. I know that Matsuura-san and I would love to see this game come to fruition through one way or another. We're not thinking of it in terms of failure yet.

Right. You're working with the understanding that you'll succeed.
Yano: Yeah. But, we're hoping to keep our options open.

Music games have gone through a tough period, which has a lot to do with the oversaturation of them. Too many sequels, too many peripherals, too many things to buy and I guess people stopped being interested in playing music games. "Genre fatigue," right? Have you also felt that, and how do you feel Rap Rabbit is ready to spark the music-rhythm comeback?
Yano: This project, we’re positioning it as a rhythm-action 2.0. Obviously, we have the 'hitting the buttons to the rhythm' mechanic. But, we're introducing other types of mechanic. They're musical but in a different way. We're thinking about when a rapper raps, in a freestyle battle, for example, what is going through his mind? We're trying to emulate that process and bring it into the game. I think fresh ideas always spark a restart for fatigued genres. We're not relying on any peripherals to create a solid game. So, our hope is that our ideas can do that. We certainly think that they are good enough to do that. And, that's part of the reason why we went story based. A lot of the initial fans of the genre were fans of games like PaRappa and Gitaroo Man. These games were all story-based. But, it costs a lot of money to make story-based music games. And, over the years, people didn’t make stories because it was too costly. That’s when you got all the Rock Bands and Guitar Heroes.

Service-based, right?
Yano: Exactly. Which is great, too. I love those games to death but at the same time, I think those original fans lost something in between. And, part of the reason we wanted to build a story was for that reason. Because, we like stories. We like telling stories. I mean music is inherently a storytelling medium.

I'm certainly not suggesting this by any means, but by the way you were talking about the story, I started to think of episodic games. Because the character looks almost like a character in a Japanese Western, to me. He seems like he's on a journey. I was wondering it it was possible for this game to take an episodic approach?
Yano: I know that Matsuura-san is thinking about a much larger universe than what we can do as part of the Kickstarter. But, our plan is to have additional DLC that tells the story at length.

Matsuura: We're very good friends with Alex Rigopulos from Harmonix, of course. And we really respect Harmonix' activities. On the other hand, my personal vision is that the music for music game has heavy responsibilities. The music has to carry the gameplay, the visual style, and the DLC. Too many things in modern music games rely heavily on the music.

If we remove the music, maybe there’s nothing left in the game. On the other hand, music is not created specifically for the needs of video games. These kind of relations are very hard to understand...it looks almost impossible to control.

So, do you mean that if it's a service-type game, the music has to shoulder all the visual, narrative, and game mechanic expectations of the player?
Yano: Well, you're not inherently saying anything new when it’s just the music. You have the music and the fondness for the music and then you're putting mechanics on top of that.

...in which you’re just pushing buttons to tap along with the music.
Yano: Which is fun, and I get a blast out of that, but Matsuura-san and I both believe that if we also have stories and great characters in a universe, these could also support a lot of the mechanics and art that we're trying to bring to the game. There's just a lot more breadth that you can take from and create a lot more content. So, it just made a lot more sense for us from a breadth perspective.