Once in a while, a company takes a risk and designs something unlike anything seen before. In video gaming's early days, it happened with almost every other game released. By the 8-bit era, originality was something to look for but not expect with any great regularity. Today, unless you deem 3D versions of old games to be "new," it's been some time since an original idea appeared. But even with a monthly average of 30 games being released, it's a testament to unique design that PaRappa the Rapper, an underpromoted release by Sony of Japan, became a top seller in the Japanese market.
PaRappa the Rapper is an interactive cartoon about a shy puppy named (oddly enough) PaRappa, who has a crush on the beautiful Sunny but doesn't know if he has the courage or power to impress her. Armed with the motto "I gotta believe!" and prodigious rapping skills, PaRappa sets about to get the girl in a world of animated characters, 3D backgrounds, and English-language voices. And despite the fact that no one gets decapitated, the game's still fun.
The premise unfolds bizarrely: Level one begins with an onion-headed karate master rapping in a dojo; you respond to the teacher's simple rap by quickly pressing controller buttons to match the onscreen cues and rhythm of the song. To complete the stage, you'll watch for the cued phrases and repeat them with the indicated buttons. In between raps, the teacher "drops knowledge," giving you a quick breather before moving on to more complicated patterns and harder stages.
Each of the game's four teachers specializes in a distinctive rap style, so you'll learn to kick it in reggae, house, pop, and "old school" during the game. (No, there's no "gangsta rap" level, so parents needn't fear little Johnny running up on the one-time with a sawed-off shotgun, killing 40s, or sparking blunts.) The levels that follow have you rap with a female moose driving instructor in a car, learn about the flea market from a Rastafarian frog, and bake a cake with a nasty-voiced chicken. After eating the cake and driving Sunny home, PaRappa goes up against his teachers in a race to see which rap master can use a one-seater gas station bathroom. Post-relief, it's time to drop "phat" rhymes for an audience and flex a little lyrical muscle.
Once you've completed each stage with stringent button-tapping, you can go back and show off. If you really strut your stuff, your teacher goes completely ape and destroys or abandons the screen while you freestyle. If you do that, you earn a crown for completing the stage.
While the gameplay is original, it's not going to win awards from fans of intense fighting and first-person racing games. The graphics and audio, however, just might: All of PaRappa's characters are comically animated paper dolls moving against colorful 3D backdrops, a simplistic and charming visual design that never would have worked but for the game's theme and some brilliant camera motion. While you're playing, you can barely focus on the graphics while watching the top of the screen for appropriate joypad commands, and when watching other people play, you're entirely drawn to the continuous background movement. The music is clear, catchy, and funny, and the voice samples memorable. Prerendered cutscenes provide continuity for the storyline between levels, and the opening is one of the weirdest in recent memory. Also of note, the rapping is surprisingly credible - there isn't a wack MC in the bunch (although even skilled PaRappers will find their delivery occasionally stuttered).
PaRappa is undeniably cute and hip - the ideal PlayStation mascot in that he's so universally acceptable and nonthreatening. Many have purchased PlayStations solely on the basis of seeing PaRappa, justifying their purchases as toys their families could enjoy. For the record, chicks dig PaRappa too, so if having a cute game means you can convince your otherwise game-loathing girlfriend to pick up a controller, "it's all good."