Mike Sholars is the author of a new book about the 1997 PS1 classic PaRappa the Rapper, currently funding on Kickstarter. I caught up with Mike over email to discuss games writing, demo discs, video game music concerts, and the rapping dog mantras. - Gabe Durham
Why was PaRappa the Rapper THE game you wanted to write a book about? Were there other games you also considered pitching to us?
Short answer? The Chicken Level Song had been stuck in my head for decades, and this was the best way to do something about it. But taking a step back, I had to do a lot of introspection. I've written articles about individual topics, games, whatever. I've written some aggressively long articles. But a book is a conversation, and I wanted to make sure it was a good one. There are games out there I could ramble about for tens of thousands of words, but it would be painful for everyone involved. Something like Super Mario RPG would be a great example of that; lots of thoughts and feelings, but I knew I'd struggle to provide big ideas or new historical research. And I also didn't want to go Full Journalist Mode; I wanted to make sure the reader knew I had passion and a personal connection to the game. My mind went to the Yakuza games; I love them and find their development history fascinating, but my own insight would be at arm's length.
PaRappa felt like the perfect mix; I'm a forever fan, but I felt like its story wasn't common knowledge when compared to something like Doom or Super Mario Bros. At the same time, I knew there was a universal story here: This decades-long arc of a game that invented music games as we know them, but doesn't get the credit. Like Searching For Sugar Man or The Sparks Brothers, but also written by an anxious Millennial who turned his first published book into a running joke about Aerosmith. (And I'd do it again.)
You mention in the book that as a kid you read video game mags obsessively, and as an adult you've written essays for a lot of good video game and pop culture sites. What do you look for in good writing about games? And how has that changed over time?
Despite spending all my formative years as a know-it-all, my favourite feeling in the world is being shown something new. When someone you trust (a friend, a critic you follow, someone on social media) can express not just why a work of art is good, but how it made them feel and think, that's magic. When I was devouring GamePro and EGM issues as a kid, game criticism was mostly surface level; more product review than At the Movies, you know? And there's absolutely a place for that; I have had my mind changed plenty of times because I thought a game was going to play like one thing, and in reality, it was something else. We've never had more options when it comes to objective coverage of video games, and I don't see that changing. So what I look for in good games writing, and what I try to do with my own work, is take that next step, and do my best Roger Ebert impression.
(Did I just spend 100 words paraphrasing that one monologue from Ratatouille? Oui.)
A Marques Brownlee-style approach to reviewing things is incredibly valuable when you're on the fence about committing your time and money to something. But what about after you've watched the movie, read the book, or played the game? When you're sitting there with your thoughts and the end credits scrolling in the darkness, where can you take that energy? That's good games writing, for me; it's something I can take with me and turn around in my brain. It doesn't need to be full of spoilers, but I want it to go deeper. I love when writers are brave enough to explain what they brought into their experience with a game, because it shapes what they took away from it. Because games journalism and pop culture criticism outlets are facing the exact same money-gatekeeper problems that drove me away from mainstream journalism, the biggest change I've seen over time is in how many writers are encouraged and supported in those kinds of deeper dives. You can't write that type of piece around a week-long embargo review period (although everyone does their best, and many of them are miracle workers), and a game will rarely be as click-worthy as it is during its launch window. This type of writing (and these kinds of writers!) are often migrating towards YouTube, creating multi-hour video essays that I adore.
But that's the heart of it: I think games are relevant past their first month of release, and I don't think games writing should be treated like it has an expiry date. You may have noticed this when I wrote a book about a game released in 1997.
You also mention in the book that a demo disc was how you first encountered the game, or at least the first level. Was that true of a lot of people you've talked to? And if so, how did that one demo disc find so many eager players?
I have no way of proving this, but it feels very accurate. Everyone who knows a bit about PaRappa remembers Chop Chop Master Onion. In some ways, I think it's just that the whole world was smaller at that time; console gaming was split between two companies, all games were enjoyed through physical copies, and pirating media was a dark art that few had the resources or desire to master for themselves. And demo discs were cheap/free. There's also certainly a novelty aspect to all of this: On that same demo disc, you can play Cool Boarders 2. We were already at a point where multiple 3D snowboarding simulators existed, and Cool Boarders wasn't even the best one. But a voice-acted cartoon starring a rapping dog? It was fresh then, it's fresh now.
What is something you learned about PaRappa while researching and writing the book that surprised you?
There were so many things, I don't even know where to begin. I learned that a huge amount of the preliminary art was sent via fax machine from Rodney Greenblat (in New York) to NaNaOn-Sha (in Japan). But we're talking mid-90s fax machines here; they were in black and white. So Rodney essentially turned all of his concept art into a paint-by-numbers, which the team in Japan would then decipher and put into the game. One of the most colourful games of its era started in monochrome!
I learned that both Greenblat and Masaya Matsuura were relatively new to game design, and operated without a ton of oversight from Sony. The PlayStation was a gamble, and every option was viable. That wouldn't last long; even by the end of the 90s, the idea of what games were supposed to be like had a big influence on Um Jammer Lammy and PaRappa 2.
Finally, I learned about Ryu Watabe, who might be the coolest person ever? He was the backbone of this project. Bilingual in Japanese and English; left a corporate job to pursue his love of hip hop. He penned all the lyrics on the fly, working with Matsuura and Gabin Itou. He laid down the demo tracks for every character in the game. And that's his voice as Chop Chop Master Onion. Dude put in the work, and I did my best to sing his praises.
I'm obsessed with this YouTube video you shared with me of the PaRappa rappers and singers performing their songs live (along with songs from Um Jammer Lammy). I want to be at this concert! Do you think a cover band who performs songs from the PaRappa/Lammy trilogy would be successful? How much should they charge?
Yo, I want to be at that concert. On a very practical level, that is footage from a Sony marketing event; most of the crowd is games media and/or people affiliated with the games. But the vibes are immaculate (and once again, Ryu Watabe is objectively dope as hell). But...PaRappa is weird when you just consider the songs. Almost every music game that followed it treats player input as the trigger that makes music happen; it you don't press a button, the song stops, or your score goes down. But if you mess up in DDR, the song keeps going. PaRappa and Lammy are more like Simon; the song is built around a pattern that the player immediately repeats. It's fun and intuitive when you play it, but it's kind of ridiculous when you do it live.
So, I think it would have to be a more general cover. And we're in a golden age of amazingly talented musicians taking the bones of game music and turning them into compositions and performances that are amazing as a cover and in their own right. I'm talking about groups like the J-Music Ensemble, Mariachi Entertainment System, The Oneups, GameChops, and the 8-Bit Big Band. That last artist won a goddamn Grammy for a Kirby Superstar cover last year.
Somewhere out there, a punk band an a jazz/hip hop duo are planning out their Lammy and PaRappa projects. I can't wait to hear them.
There is a contagious optimism to the character of PaRappa. This optimism scans as authentic in a way that sneaks past my defenses and warms my frosty heart. Why do you think that is? What's the difference between the cheap sentimentality, sometimes called "toxic positivity" these days, and PaRappa's "gotta believe" mentality?
There's layers to this one. Hip hop culture has always been tied to the energy, perspectives, and creativity of youth; that's why it ages so fast, like comedy. I talk about this in the book, but for a variety of reasons, there is no Aerosmith or Rolling Stones equivalent in hip hop. And once you slip past that cultural event horizon, you come off as corny. The coolest thing in 2003 will almost certainly be the corniest in 2023. PaRappa avoids this because he wasn't trying to meet a mid-90s idea of Hip Hop Cool; there wasn't anything quite like him. He's not Poochie from The Simpsons; there's no sense that a board of shadowy executives crafted him into being by committee. It's too sincere to be fake, basically.
That sincerity is absolutely not going to work for some people, but that's a separate issue altogether. Once you get past his basic visual design and presentation, the surprising thing about PaRappa as a game and a character is how character-focused it is. It's a 6-chapter slice-of-life cartoon about someone working to believe in themselves. PaRappa's insecurity isn't a vague reference; we are shown, in big cartoony cutscenes, that basically all of his anxieties come from a false belief that he needs to be richer/manlier/better in order to deserve love and friendship. And I don't know about you, but I've dealt with those feelings way more than my struggles with saving a Princess from a castle, or my fears of a weapon to surpass Metal Gear. We connect with his positivity because we relate to his negativity, as well.
Finally, I feel like "toxic positivity" is more of a social phenomenon; it's when negative thoughts and feelings are downplayed or denied. When only positive feedback is allowed or acknowledged, it's just an echo chamber with pastel colours. Versions of it are everywhere, especially in the worlds of fans and fandom. PaRappa could have easily fallen into that trap. Then there's artificial sentimentality; when you know your heartstrings are being pulled for maximum effect, and it doesn't feel earned. Think of every action movie that opens with an obligatory Tragic Backstory for its main character; for a game example, play the first hour or so of Watch Dogs. The game is doing everything in its power to make us feel, make us care, but you can't force that. And on the flipside, look at Pixar's Up, and how it wordlessly made millions of people cry in its first 10 minutes. PaRappa could have stumbled here, too.
I think it avoids both by being, for lack of a better word, real. PaRappa is a character riddled with insecurity and anxiety; his motto is about pushing through all of that, or at the very least not letting it define you. His failures are small (but real), and his wins are also pretty humble. There aren't life-or-death stakes in this game, and it trusts its audience to care. So many things about the game's presentation are loud and big, but the victories of everyday life are treated as worth celebrating in their own right.
I could write a book about all this!
Mike's book is currently funding on Kickstarter.