Like any great film, a video game is often only as strong as the sum of its parts. Music can be just as important as gameplay or visuals to making or breaking a game. In his new column Audio Play, Deadshirt Video Games Editor Kyle Herr showcases some of his favorite composers from the past and present.
If you owned a Playstation growing up, then you’ve probably heard of NanaOn-Sha, a quirky studio that specializes in rhythm games. They were responsible for creating one of the console’s first mascots, PaRappa the Rapper. Along with PaRappa and his gang of colorful characters, NanaOn-Sha has also spawned a number of other memorable faces such as the guitar playing PaRappa spin-off character Lammy, and Vibri the rabbit, star of musically generated game Vib-Ribbon.
Founded in 1993 by Masaya Matsuura, the composer and keyboard player from the most 80s J-Pop band ever, PSY • S, NanaOn-Sha was born to develop interactive music that could be affected by listener input. This idea was inspired by a growing interest in technological advances in multimedia following the release of Matsuura’s The Seven Colors, the first release of a CD-ROM by a Japanese musician. After deciding to pursue the dream of creating the first interactive music game, Matsuura quit PSY • S and his team began development on their first project with American animator Rodney Greenblat. Let’s take a look a live performance of PSY • S, complete with a team of dancers.
Hopefully you took some time to let that song sink in if you enjoyed it, because you won’t be hearing any more music like that in this article. If you didn’t, well I’m sure you’re happy to move on. If you haven’t guessed, this first project would take shape to become 1996’s Parappa the Rapper. With this project, Matsuura wanted to create a game based around hip hop style (a notable feature is an entirely English voice cast, despite being a Japanese made game) with a focus on player interaction. By matching on-screen inputs in time with the beat of the songs, players control PaRappa’s lyrics as he raps along with the various “masters” throughout the game. Here is probably the most well known song from the original title.
In this stage, PaRappa trains with Chop Chop Master Onion in an attempt to impress his crush, Sunny Funny, a sentient flower-lady, by learning how to fight. This song is heavily influenced by the basslines common to funk, and flavored with tinges of the 80s synth sound that permeated the music of his old band.
While this track doesn’t feature any sampled beats, a staple of many great hip hop tunes, two tracks in particular use them prominently. The first comes in the second stage while PaRappa raps along with Instructor Mooselini as he takes his driver’s test. The track in this level features the main melody from Krautrock band Can’s song “Turtles Have Short Legs.”
The second sample appears in the excellent final stage featuring MC King Kong Mushi, where PaRappa finds the courage to confess his love to Sunny at the big show where he’s set to perform. This song features the intro melody from The Four Season’s “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” as the main beat, and in a really cool twist, includes back up vocals from all four masters and interactions from the audience. I highly recommend listening to this track for these unique methods used to mimic a live show in what was essentially the first widely released rhythm game.
PaRappa the Rapper was released to significant critical and commercial praise, which led to an animated series and sequel> More importantly, it gave birth to the spin-off game UmJammer Lammy in 1999. This game is played similarly to PaRappa the Rapper, but instead of focusing on hip hop, it takes on rock ‘n’ roll music. The player controls Lammy, the guitarist from a band called MilkCan.
Not only was this game even more visually striking, but the musical integration was much smoother than the somewhat robotic, staccato delivery of PaRappa’s lines in the first game. To showcase this improvement in delivery, let’s take a look at Stage 3, in which our hero Lammy is taken to the hospital after a nurse mistakes her pizza-filled stomach as a pregnancy and is talked into lulling a maternity ward to sleep.
On top of the nightmarish distorted vocals from the caterpillar nurse which serve to punctuate the darker (perhaps not intentionally) style of this game’s music, this song heavily features a ton of riffs inspired by early rock n’ roll icons, particularly Chuck Berry. Like the previous game, each stage has its own style, ranging from rock ‘n’ roll to funk to metal to psychedelic, albeit to a much more noticeable degree.
Here’s a final Lammy example from a stage where she needs to rebuild her guitar with the help of a lumberjack beaver named Paul Chuck. This song reminds me of the oddball alt-rock style of Primus and Buckethead that includes long, seemingly improvised guitar lines and cartoonishly exaggerated vocals. Granted, a lot of the singers in this game are portraying cartoon characters, but this one in particular seems like it would be at home on an album by one of the aforementioned real-life artists.
Also in 1999, NanaOn-Sha released Vib-Ribbon, possibly the most unique game of the bunch. This game never actually made it to the United States, much to the chagrin of many rhythm game fans. It was based around a program that allowed the user to place a CD in their Playstation and generate a unique level based on the beat of the song. The goal in this game was much simpler than the others and had no real plot–all you had to do was guide Vibri the rabbit through the obstacle course designed by your favorite songs.
Now, why am I mentioning a game that you’re supposed to bring your own music to? Because this game came with six tracks by the band Laugh and Peace and they’re all incredible. Check out the track “Sunny Day.”
Keep in mind that this song was written in 1999, because quite frankly it sounds ahead of its time to me. I went to college in 2008-2012 and I heard a lot of then-current indie rock songs featured the same sort of vocal processing and arrangement, and those artists were praised as innovators. That’s one of my favorite things about the music in Vib-Ribbon; it’s just so strange for the time of its release, and even today these tracks are still memorable for first time listeners.
The other great thing about these tracks is that they were written specifically for Vib-Ribbon, which means the beat and time signature changes that happen many times over the course of each were specifically written in to modify the stages. Since the game changes based on aspects of the music that’s used to generate them, all of the included songs revolve around some pretty odd rhythms that somehow never seem forced.
Unfortunately, NanaOh-Sha has been pretty quiet in recent years and has been focusing almost exclusively on mobile games. However, at this year’s E3, Vibri made a surprise appearance during the Playstation press conference, which drew a strong reaction from fans still hoping the the game would one day come to the US, and rumors of a third PaRappa game have been circulating since his inclusion in Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale. While this is all speculation, it’s easy to see how fans of NanaOh-Sha would see this as a good sign that they may one day see new titles starring their favorite dog, lamb, and rabbit. Before I say adieu, I’ll leave you with the track “Roll Along” also from Vib-Ribbon. Until next time, folks!
Make sure to read more Audio Play for more in-depth explorations of the music of video games.