Rap­per’s de­light

How the devs be­hind Parappa and Ouen­dan are team­ing up for an au­da­cious en­core

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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

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