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PaRappa the Rapper isn’t perfect, but his 20th anniversary still marks something special

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The game’s not as fun as you remember, but it’s exactly what we need right now

NanaOn-Sha/Sony Computer Entertainment

PaRappa the Rapper’s name is kind of a misnomer: The stylish pup isn’t actually much of an artist. In fact, not only are his rapping skills pretty meager, but his two eponymous games might not be all that good, either.

Yet PaRappa the Rapper, both the dog himself and the short-lived rhythm franchise, endures. In honor of the first PaRappa game’s 20th anniversary on Dec. 6, Sony announced to an ecstatic audience at PlayStation Experience that it would remaster the original game for PlayStation 4. A demo is out now, ahead of the full game’s 2017 return.

The demo’s not much; it’s just the first level of the game and its earliest cutscenes. But playing the five-minute teaser is a strong reminder of what has kept PaRappa in our hearts and minds for 20 years — whether or not he deserved to stay there.

PaRappa has, without a doubt, made an indelible impression on longtime PlayStation fans. It’s easy to see why on the most superficial of levels. There are few games that looked like PaRappa the Rapper back in ’96 and ’97, and that’s still true today. Developer NanaOn-Sha preserved Rodney Greenblatt’s beautiful character designs by keeping them two-dimensional, while the world around PaRappa and his crew hung behind it in 3D. That gave birth to PaRappa the Rapper’s instantly memorable paper-thin aesthetic, which is just as beloved as its soundtrack.

NanaOn-Sha/Sony Computer Entertainment

A major part of that aesthetic’s appeal is how of its time it is. That’s true both then and now, as those who wax nostalgic about the ’90s rave and hip-hop scenes and garish color schemes look back at PaRappa fondly. The rapper-to-be is decked out in some perfectly ’90s streetwear, lives in a Day-Glo-colored world and hangs out with some surreal anthropomorphic buds, like a talking onion and Hunter S. Thompson-esque chameleon. (Let’s not forget that PaRappa’s girlfriend is a flower.) It’s 100 percent dated, but in the most charming way possible. Today, PaRappa the Rapper’s look isn’t anachronistic; it’s ... vintage.

But PaRappa the Rapper is a rhythm game, so the music is what matters most. And PaRappa the Rapper’s soundtrack is perfect. It’s almost shocking how well the jams hold up, since they’re arguably more of their time than the games’ style. The lyrics are inane, literal recitations of mundane chores like cooking and driving. PaRappa’s contributions are rarely more than parroting his superior rap mentor’s verses. But everything just works, thanks to some fantastic beats and how easy it is to memorize and sing along to these goofy songs.

Songs like the “Car Rap” are legitimate bangers, too. Lyrics be damned, it’s an infectious piece of music. Every song from PaRappa the Rapper is like that, and each one sounds different than the one before it. That may seem like faint praise, but it really means that the soundtrack is full of discrete, original pieces. For the mid-’90s, when rhythm games weren’t quite the phenomenon they would soon become, that had to be impressive.

So here comes the bad part. PaRappa the Rapper might contain one of 1996’s best albums, but it’s a pretty clunky game built around that album, and listening to it in full and in its best quality requires playing that game.

It’s not that playing PaRappa the Rapper isn’t fun. It’s just that, compared to everything else about it, it’s about a million times less fun than it should be. Maybe this is the perspective of someone who’s been exposed to greatly improved rhythm gameplay across a variety of genres and instruments. No matter where you’re coming from, PaRappa the Rapper’s gameplay suffers from some major dissonance.

The call-and-response nature of every song has a mechanical purpose. Chop Chop Master Onion or Instructor Mooselini or whoever says their lines first, as a rhythm bar shows which buttons to press and when. When it’s PaRappa’s turn, it’s up to the player to mimic those same button presses. That’s a simplistic control scheme that actually becomes incredibly, incredibly infuriating.

Part of the blame falls on modern TVs, which aren’t calibrated to keep pace with PaRappa’s blistering flow. (PaRappa’s verses are actually super slow, but seriously, this is a problem that many older rhythm games face.) But even back in the day, PaRappa the Rapper was a difficult game. There’s no intuitive feedback for getting the timing right, so creating chains of successful button taps is super difficult. Even playing the 20th anniversary demo’s introductory level, it’s obvious that there’s something seriously wrong here.

The playthrough below is painful to watch for this reason: The game doesn’t seem like it should be so hard, since it just uses six different buttons. But without any way to establish a sense of timing, it just is. This guy isn’t bad at PaRappa the Rapper — he’s proof that rappin’ cool is no easy task.

Lag’s contribution to PaRappa’s difficulty is a serious concern, and the PS4 demo doesn’t alleviate that. We can say we can’t get enough of PaRappa’s soundtrack, but after failing a level six times in a row? It can make “PaRappa’s Live Rap” — and the rapper’s constant refrain of “I gotta believe!” — the worst kind of grating.

Even with the frustration and failing out, reaching the game’s celebratory conclusion takes no time at all. A full playthrough of PaRappa the Rapper lasts about as long as the average Disney movie. What with the cutesy animals and funky colors, the runtime lends itself to PaRappa the Rapper being a great game for kids. But that art style and soundtrack attracted people of all ages, and an experienced player might take issue with how short the game is.

That’s partially because the songs are so good that we want to hear more of them. But it’s also that the characters barely get to stretch their legs in just one hour. Although, with something as narrative-light as PaRappa the Rapper, maybe that doesn’t matter much. In fact, PaRappa’s story is kind of a highlight, all things considered. It’s a sunshine-y cheerfest about turning a zero into a hip-hop hero, with help from literally every single non-human person he’s ever met.

There’s a reason we all associate the act of believing with PaRappa the Rapper. There are few characters and few games as all-out positive as this one. Everything about the game exists to disarm you, to get rid of all bad vibes as soon as it starts. Maybe failing out all the time stinks, and maybe the gameplay gets repetitive and bland fast, but it’s that optimism that remains so endearing about PaRappa.

There are a lot of things this game — and to a much, much lesser extent, its PlayStation 2 sequel — gets right. Those are the ones that fans keep close, and they’re why PaRappa the Rapper’s 20th anniversary is worth remembering. The PS4 remaster may bring back some of those darker memories, but we gotta believe that the happy times with PaRappa and the gang will shine through.

Parappa The Rapper: 20th Anniversary Demo

Parappa The Rapper is back! After 20 years, we still believe.

Posted by Polygon on Tuesday, December 6, 2016