How the devs behind Parappa and Ouendan are teaming up for an audacious encore
Parappa and Ouendan’s devs are teaming up for an encore
This sounds like a pitch from a wildly optimistic forum post: the kind of dream collaboration that could happen but probably never will. We did, admittedly, check the date when we first learned that NanaOn-Sha, the creator of
Parappa The Rapper, and iNiS, maker of
Gitaroo Man and Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, were working together on a new narrative-led rhythm-action game, keen to ensure we hadn’t been fooled. Apparently not. Project Rap Rabbit (that is, thankfully, a working title) is entirely real, and currently in development across the two studios, with a crowdfunding campaign just around the corner.
It’s exciting news for those of us who fondly remember the two studios’ previous games, though it’s hard to ignore the fact that it’s been some time since either studio has been in the spotlight. Since Ouendan and its westernised successor Elite Beat
Agents, iNiS has kept busy, having pivoted towards mobile and casual games including the likes of Lips for Microsoft, and Just Sing and The Hip-Hop
Dance Experience for Ubisoft. NanaOnSha, meanwhile, co-developed 2011 horror adventure Haunt, but otherwise has been working on mobile and console projects local to Japan. But with the recent 20th-anniversary remaster of Parappa The Rapper having brought Masaya Matsuura’s seminal rhythmaction game to a new audience, it’s the ideal time for these two studios to get back to doing what they do best.
As it transpires, it’s perhaps surprising it hasn’t happened sooner, since Matsuura and iNiS COO Keiichi Yano have been close friends for years. “I have great respect for Matsuura-san as he is the reason I’m in the game industry,” Yano tells us. “He inspired myself and many others into creating games that featured music as a core mechanic.”
But the two only partnered up after UK publisher PQube approached Yano last year to discuss ideas for a new music game. Impressed by PQube’s fan community, Yano sensed an opportunity to explore some concepts he’d been mulling over for a while. “That’s when I approached Matsuurasan,” he says. “He and I have a long-standing relationship and we’ve discussed many great ideas for how music games could evolve.”
In other words, this was never going to be a simple Parappa
style rhythm game with a different character, nor a reskinned Ouendan – though it will borrow elements from both games. “From the get-go, we knew that the game should be story-based as we are some of the few creators that have built story-based music games,” Yano says. “We knew it couldn’t be a simple ‘follow the music and rhythm’ style of game as we’ve done in the past,” Matsuura adds. “We believed that the next generation of music games should be more player-centric and allow expression, while still being a game. We definitely seek to cultivate a new style of rhythm-action game that we ourselves can be excited about.”
Even so, it’s a surprise when Yano reveals two of the key influences. “We’ve taken inspiration from modern open-world games such as Fallout and Horizon Zero
Dawn – where having freedom does not necessarily have to restrict the gameplay, but rather open up choice,” he says. “We felt that a rap game should be about how the lyrics ride on top of the rhythm and that the lyrics [in particular] should be an important focus. The dialogue systems on those games provided some early hints as to how we could structure this.” Which isn’t to say you should expect a vast open world. “The basic structure will be level-based, with unique music applied to each stage,” Matsuura confirms.
If two western games have informed Project Rap Rabbit, its own story – the synopsis for which Matsuura has penned – is firmly steeped in eastern culture. The game takes place in an alternate-history Japan during the 16th century, in the aftermath of an unspecified calamity. It’s a fragmented place populated by anthropomorphic animals, who have become insular and distrusting of others: the various territories, with their very different ways of life, might not be at war, but they’re not on the friendliest of terms. Toto-Maru, a rabbit and farmer, eventually decides enough is enough and embarks on a journey to unite the kingdom. What better way to fix a world in turmoil than via the power of hip-hop? To which end, he travels to neighbouring territories and engages in rap battles with their leaders.
The game systems have yet to be fully finalised, but we’re told that these faceoffs will be reminiscent of Parappa, adopting the same call-and-response structure, where you’ll use the four face buttons to spit rhymes. So far, so familiar,
“We definitely seek to cultivate a new style of rhythmaction game that we ourselves can be excited about”
then, but there’s more to it than that. “We’ve always discussed the difficulty of providing some freedom of expression while still maintaining the essence of what hat our fans expect a music game to be,” Matsuura says. “I believe that this collaboration can provide one interesting solution to this difficult problem.”
That solution, while still subject to change, currently takes the form of a
Mass-Effect style dialogue wheel, which lets you choose between different emotions, opening up several lines of attack when responding to your rival. Each has its own rhythm to follow, but there’s no ‘wrong’ choice here – though certain choices deployed at the right time will produce higher scores, you won’t be punished as long as you follow the beat.
Meanwhile, your opponents will enter different states depending on how the battle is progressing. Specific moves might be more effective if they’re exhausted, or you can use the extra breathing space as an opportunity to heal. Extra depth comes from the ability to pick out words from your opponent’s raps to use against them for a revenge bonus. Though it should be as accessible as a Parappa or Ouendan, there’s room for high-level play if you’re familiar with the lines and can recognise how they link up. You can even call in different emotions in the middle of a line for an extra score bonus. Both songs and story will have multiple paths; the publisher describes it as “a rhythm-action OutRun”, as if it didn’t sound appealing enough already.
It’s quite a departure for both Matsuura and Yano. While Parappa offered a degree of flexibility by letting you freestyle as long as your button presses kept time with the track, by and large rhythm-action games prefer to ask players to follow the music, rather than create it. “Choice doesn’t necessarily have to mean ‘creation’ per se,” says Yano. “Rather, it is giving players differing goals based on their choices, and rewarding players differently.” It has, Matsuura admits, been a challenge to make this work. “But we believe there is precedence in other styles of game that have informed our current design. We are trying to push limits and expandexp d boundaries, so nothing comes easy.”
The game is primarily being developed by iNiS, with NanaOn-Sha providing additional creative leadership. “Game development is a very organic process and I’m sure roles may shift from time to time, but the important thing is that Yano-san and I collaborate on the creative direction and productionleadership aspects ,” says Matsuura. But has the friendship of these two old pals been tested by working together? “We are always at each other’s throats!” Matsuura says. “Jokes aside, I believe both of us have enough experience to know when and where there are gaps and to fill them as necessary.”
Funding is one of the gaps in Project Rap Rabbit that needs plugging, and so Yano, Matsuura and team are heading to Kickstarter for support. The target, which is yet to be finalised as we go to press, will give the team enough to build the game for PlayStation 4 and PC, though additional Switch and Xbox One versions will be among the stretch goals. The traditional publisher-funded route, Matsuura tells us, was never really on the cards. “Because of the aggressive design of the game, we wanted to make sure that we could keep the necessary creative freedom and control while still creating a triple-A music title,” he explains. “The genre is really begging for a fresh approach – and what better platform than Kickstarter is there to get the community excited and on board?”
Yano agrees. “As creators, it’s always scary to reveal your ideas very early in the process, but I’m with Matsuura-san in that we need to get the community excited for a new type of music game. Additionally, there is a perceived risk in creating a story-based music game that we believe has been missing from the equation for a while now. Kickstarter is a great platform to generate the necessary support to execute on this well.”
It’s an ambitious plan, but Project Rap Rabbit has a team with the talent to pull it off. Atsushi Saito, who created the concept for the original Ouendan during an internal game jam at iNiS, is the artist behind the game’s stylised 3D ukiyo-e aesthetic. And veteran composer Yuji Takenouchi, who in recent years has contributed to the sound design of the
Dark Souls series, will be the audio director. After years of toiling in comparative obscurity, the two musically minded friends in charge are clearly thrilled to be returning to the worldwide stage, in the genre through which they made their names. “It’s a really good time for us to think about an international project again,” Matsuura enthuses, demonstrating the kind of belief that led his most famous creation to rap success. All he and Yano need now is their very own cheer squad to push this pioneering project over the line.
This interface mock-up shows the emotion system and the Parappa- style call-and-response mechanics. The game will include calibration options that were noticeably absent from Parappa’s recent PS4 return
Every good hero needs a sidekick, and TotoMaru is no exception. He’ll be joined on his journey by the loyal Otama-Maru
Masaya Matsuura (top) and Keiichi Yano have been friends for years, but never colleagues