You Gotta Believe: How PaRappa the Rapper Took Music Video Games to Another Level

PaRappa the Rapper unlocked everyone's inner rap artist.
PaRappa the Rapper unlocked everyone's inner rap artist. / Amazon

For decades, video game music was largely relegated to whatever simple arrangement could be composed via arcade or 8-bit motherboards. And while the scores to Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda became tinny-sounding classics, the music was largely an afterthought to the real attraction: bonking turtles on the head and collecting coins.

Then, in 1996, a rapping dog changed the game.

PaRappa the Rapper, a modestly rendered title for Sony’s PlayStation console, helped usher in the music gaming genre, paving the way for franchises like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. But the creative talent behind PaRappa wasn’t even sure they were making a game—or whether it should star a rapping shrimp instead.

Rap Sheet

The idea for PaRappa the Rapper stemmed from Sony Japan game programmer Masaya Matsuura, who had enjoyed a career as a musician with the band PSY.S before turning to video game development. In 1994, shortly after Sony’s PlayStation console was announced, Matsuura began pursuing a concept that required players to complete game levels based on their understanding of rhythm. Players pushed controller buttons based on lyrics that appeared at the top of the screen and in time with a bar moving across the screen horizontally. Keeping in “time” with the music allowed players to proceed. It was similar to the old tabletop game Simon, in which patterns had to be memorized and repeated in order to win.

Matsuura created the music, which originally consisted of samples that had to be changed because Sony didn’t have the rights. “There were artists who created DJ-type songs, so I was able to have them assist me with this,” Matsuura said in 2017. “Actually, the demo backtracks that I initially created were all samples of existing songs. However, we could not use these in the game due to licensing, so I rewrote all the songs into originals while maintaining the concept of each tune.”

The lyrics were less about creating a Billboard 100 hit than an earworm that players could try to replicate when the time came. During a driving test, PaRappa learned the following:

Step on the gas! (Step on the gas!) Step on the brakes! (Step on the brakes!) Now step on the gas! (Step on the gas!) When I say boom boom boom! you say bam bam bam! No pause inbetween come on, lets jam! Step on the gas! (Step on the gas!) Step on the brakes! (Step on the brakes!) Step on the brakes! (Step on the brakes!) Now step on the gas! (Step on the gas!) I'm glad to know which way to go But it ain't gonna stop me so here we go!

To create the actual characters, Matsuura turned to Rodney Greenblat, a graphic designer working with Sony on licensing art before moving over to PlayStation titles. Matsuura wasn’t sure he wanted the lead to be a dog. At one point, talk turned to a shrimp that could keep a beat.

That idea was abandoned, though Matsuura had another—and likely better—idea: primarily, that the characters be rendered in a two-dimensional paper cut-out style against a richer, three-dimensional background. That led to PaRappa, an anthropomorphic dog who wants to learn to rap to impress his girlfriend, Sunny Funny. To practice, he looks to mentors like the onion-headed Chop Chop Master Onion and Inspector Mooselini.

"[Matsuura] had the rap idea and the cut-out thing in his head already," Greenblat told Game Developer in 2005. “All they needed from me was to draw the thing, so that's what I did. They told me what kind of teachers would be in each level and what the levels were like. And then I just did tons of sketches of what they might be, so in that way I collaborated on the story because some of my characters were better than what they were thinking, so they changed the story to adapt to what my characters were, which was great.”

They Got the Beat

PaRappa the Rapper was released for the PlayStation in Japan in 1996. At first, sales were modest. A few thousand copies, then a few hundred thousand copies, were sold. It was an impressive number, but not quite comparable to the million-copy success stories the video game industry had already seen. Assuming, of course, it was even a game.

“Upon completing PaRappa and gearing up for promotion, I had a discussion with the staff from Sony Computer Entertainment about how we should go about promoting the game,” Matsuura said. “I remember that many of the staff at that time saying that, ‘This is not a game.’ Even for me, it was not clear to me either if this was a game or not.”

Sony’s American division was also unsure about a 2D character title. The PlayStation, after all, had sophisticated gameplay and graphics. But after PaRappa the Rapper exceeded 1 million copies in Japan, it was ported over to the U.S. in 1997. According to Greenblat, Sony marketed it more to kids than the teens and adults that had snapped it up in Japan. Still, it sold well.

PaRappa not only become a popular title (more than 3 million copies were sold), but a kind of mascot for the PlayStation, which was looking for a signature character in the way Mario had been for Nintendo. Players responded to the charm of the character, resplendent in his very 1990s-era beanie and closing song catchphrase: “I gotta believe!”

A sequel, PaRappa the Rapper 2, followed for the PlayStation 2 in 2001; Matsuura also created 1999’s Um Jammer Lammy, which incorporated guitar playing.

It’s clear PaRappa the Rapper helped set the stage for the rhythmic video games that followed it, including Guitar Hero (2005) and Rock Band (2007), which utilized interactive plastic instruments. It also pre-dated Dance Dance Revolution, the popular 1999 arcade game that had players mashing buttons under their feet instead of their thumbs.

Strangely, PaRappa has largely remained in the periphery. After the 2001 sequel, he was largely absent save for two anime series (the latter told in fleeting 96-second installments) before the original was remastered for the PlayStation 4 for its 20th anniversary in 2017. Will the rhythmic dog ever mount a serious comeback? You just gotta believe.