This humorous PaRappa the Rapper interview with developers Masaya Matsuura, Gabin Itou, and Ryu Watabe covers the origins of the project and its unique “live” development process. The first interview comes from Japanese magazine The Playstation, and the Ryu Watabe section comes from the official strategy guide.

R. Greenblat interview @gamasutra

PaRappa the Rapper – 1996 Developer Interviews

originally featured in The Playstation magazine

Masaya Matsuura – Producer
Gabin Itou – Story/Scenario

—To start off, please tell us what led up to the creation of PaRappa the Rappa.

Matsuura: From the start I knew I wanted to make a game about rapping, and I was trying to imagine how I could create actual gameplay with a scoring system based around a rap performance. I thought it could make for a really interesting game.

Itou: Why did you choose rap?

Matsuura: I had been making CD-ROM and music related software for computers for awhile, and in the course of that work, I got hands-on experience with a wide variety of musical genres. When I started experimenting with my own ideas for a music game, rap was the most interesting choice. I also tried out guitar, synth, vocal music, and various others, but rap best matched the direction I wanted to go in for a music game.

—And can you elaborate on what that direction was?

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Masaya Matsuura.

Matsuura: When you talk about making music on a computer, the easiest thing to go for, and what most people will choose, is MIDI. But having done nothing but make music for these last 10 years, I can tell you there are a lot of drawbacks and problems with MIDI. Honestly, it just kind of sucks. (laughs)

Itou: What’s so bad about it? (laughs)

Matsuura: Well… to really get into the details would take awhile (laughs), but basically, MIDI can only be used with synthesizers. It’s really samplers that have extended the lifespan of MIDI technology. If you want to individually shape a sound and have it directly reflect your personality, samplers are the only way.

But actually, a turntable is a kind of sampler! When one starts to DJ and play around with the sampler, before long you’re using it to make your own music. That happened to me, too. Samplers are cool in that you start writing music with one specific idea in mind, but the sampler shows you all these possibilities you never would have thought of. It’s extremely fun, discovering those new and unexpected twists and turns.

To be honest, that creative process is kind of like a game in and of itself. But crafting an actual video game out of those ideas, as I learned with PaRappa, was not as easy as I had expected.

Anyway, that’s how I got started, doing work closer to software tools than games, exposing myself to lots of different kinds of music and making CD-ROM software for computers. And rap turned out to be the most exciting music I worked with then. The thing with rap is, no matter where a piece goes musically, the rapping element can ride on top of that freely, unrestricted (in a good sense and in a bad sense). It’s a genre with a high degree of interactivity. Perhaps another reason for my attraction to rap—and a very big one—is that I can’t rap in English at all! (laughs) I guess I had a kind of subtle mental complex about it, which made it all the more fascinating to me.

—And how did you get started with this project, Itou?

Itou: I was originally an editor for a magazine, which involved both writing pieces from scratch as well as editing them later. It’s a given that the early drafts of any piece won’t be very good, and will need revisions all the way to the final manuscript. The scale of game development is so large though, that if we approached it like an editor would, not making anything final and always revising, then nothing would ever get done. But the way we made PaRappa actually had a lot of “live” moments, like a band writing and improvising music there on the spot. It was surprisingly fun.

Matsuura: We did have a lot of moments like that. (laughs)

Itou: The way it worked was like this. Each time I wrote the story for a stage, I’d bring it to the rappers (Ryu and Matsuura), who’d then plot out my basic story on a big piece of butcher paper. With that, they’d start drawing pictures and storyboarding the movie scenes…

Matsuura: It was something midway between storyboarding and screenplay writing.

Itou: Exactly. (laughs) Using that storyboard/screenplay hybrid, we’d write out the dialogue and the general backstory notes in Japanese. Ryu, the rapper, would then start freestyling lyrics in English on the spot. (laughs) Then Matsuura would break out his laptop and record them, and they’d work out the art there too. Those sessions were really where Ryu’s performances came together.

It was so different from the work I did as an editor, which is about revision and rewriting, whereas this was all done with immediacy on the spot.

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Masaya Matsuura and Gabin Itou posed with a life-sized PaRappa.

—It sounds like the development itself was a kind of rap…? (laughs)

Matsuura: Yeah, maybe so. (laughs)

Itou: It was really special.

—Itou, what was your role in PaRappa?

Itou: I wrote the scenarios, but that’s not really related. (laughs)

Matsuura: No way, those were important!

—Matsuura, did you bring Itou on board?

Matsuura: Hmm, how was it?

Itou: Yeah, I don’t remember… who was it that decided to bring me on…? (laughs)

Matsuura: It was more like, one day Itou was just there. (laughs)

—Were you consciously trying to make PaRappa into a “game”, or was it a more open design?

Matsuura: I wanted it to be a proper game of course. I had worked on CD-ROM software before this, so PaRappa was deliberately meant to be a challenge for myself to create an actual, clearly recognizable game. I didn’t want to make one of those typical CD-ROM “games” with low interactivity and lots of movies… that would have been an embarrassment. (laughs) And I thought they were lame anyway. Music was the theme, and that was the only way to go.

—Can you tell us about the scoring system?

Matsuura: I don’t want to give away everything, but basically if you don’t do your own “arrangement”, you won’t get a COOL rating. When you play the finished game, the rhythm timing should feel pretty strict, but in our earlier betas it was far more loose and forgivable. You could clear the game very easily, but it had none of the tension we wanted, none of the feeling of being a musician performing on a live stage. But if we went and made the hit detection too strict, that would mean most people wouldn’t be able to clear the game.

What we came to realize, is that what we really wanted was for people to be able to bring their own energy and enthusiasm to their performance, so we adopted the improvisational system. When we got that part down, it gave us a swell of confidence that this was going to be a fun game, a real game.

It’s kind of similar to STG games, isn’t it? If you don’t maintain a level of enthusiasm and energy from the start, your run isn’t going to go well. I feel it’s the pursuit of that experience of tension that makes a game, a game.

—And how do you feel PaRappa came out, as a game?

Itou: I think it all came together quite nicely. (laughs) If you put in the time and effort to practice, you’ll get better, which I think is an important quality for a game to have. I did the writing for PaRappa, but I think that’s one of the basic criteria that divides a “good game” and a “bad game”…

Matsuura: Hey, if you thought it was that important, you should have spoken up sooner. (laughs)

Itou: (laughs) People who see the game for the first time get excited about what scenario PaRappa will get into next. In that sense I think the game is a success. We didn’t make a good game for a pre-existing genre; instead, we presented a new model for a new type of game, and I think we succeeded in that. What kind of feedback have you heard from players?

Matsuura: A variety. Overall the feedback has been really positive, although people did say they wanted more stages. We already filled the CD to the brim, unfortunately. (laughs)

Last, I’d like to say, there’s no “right answer” when it comes to music. But there is a difference between feeling like you achieved something special in a performance, and just randomly flailing around to try and get points. I hope players can feel that difference in PaRappa!

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Ryo Watabe, the voice of Chop Chop Master Onion.

Ryo Watabe Interview

Lyric Writer / Voicer Actor / Rapper

—Sooo, I don’t think many people know all the roles you played in the PaRappa development. You wrote the lyrics, did the rapping for Chop Chop Master Onion, and performed Joe Chin. As if that wasn’t enough, during the rough drafting of the movies, you provided all the temporary voice recordings for every character!

Ryu: Yup. After it was all over, I sat back and though, “Damn, I’m a badass.” (laughs)

—For the movies, I understand that you took the Japanese dialogue and lyrics that were created during the scenario meetings, and then on-the-spot, you would convert that to English and perform it. Then Matsuura would make recordings of your performances there on his notebook, and sync them up to the movie visuals. I also heard that most of your rough takes there actually made it onto the final version of the game as-is!

Ryu: It was all recorded totally live like that, yeah. All we did later was add some vocal overdubs. I’m really happy… that no one seemed to notice how we did it. (laughs)

—That’s amazing, being able to suddenly manifest that level of energy, as if you were possessed by something!

Ryu: Hah, no, it was my first time doing something like that. Though, actually, I did have one similar experience: my interpreting work for CNN. But the people I worked with there spoke Grade A, “professional” English, so even if they were interviewing a hip-hop artist, for instance, it would be in this very dignified, formal style. I hate that stuffiness though, so when I worked for CNN, I tried to be more emotional and exaggerated, conveying the personalities of the people I was interpreting for.

—That experience must have been very helpful for your work in PaRappa.

Ryu: Yeah, that and when I bring women over to my place, I often show them Japanese movies that don’t have English subtitles. Then I sit there beside them and act out and translate the entire movie in real-time. Having done stuff like that, the work in PaRappa came pretty naturally to me.

—Haha, so we’ve got both your work as an interpreter for CNN and your private love life to thank for PaRappa! By the way, I’m sure there are people out there wondering, who exactly is Ryu Watabe? How is it that you can speak Japanese and English so well? Please tell us a bit of your personal history.

Ryu: I was born in Tokyo. And I lived in Roppongi. (laughs) So the city of Tokyo is close to my heart. I lived over in the four bridges area of Azabu. But my family moved to America when I was fairly young, and I never actually went to Japanese school. From kindergarten, I was in America. I went to school entirely with other Americans, and until 6th grade, I was the only Japanese student there. After high school, I wanted to work in movies or music, and thought I’d enroll in school to study one of those subjects, but my Dad told me to go to Japan. “You’re Japanese, but you don’t know anything about Japan!”, he said.

Well, I really loved American Football, but I didn’t have the physique to compete in America, so I figured I’d try my luck in Japan and enrolled in Sophia University. At first I was thinking I’d go back to America after my 4 years there, but I soon realized that with my ability to speak English, my sports background, and a degree in economics, I could find employment anywhere in Japan. It seemed perfect, a chance I’d be a fool to pass up. I interviewed with banks, business firms, and advertising agencies, but the business firms seemed the most attractive. So I joined a general trading firm, and for the next three years I was a Company Man.

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Very early concept art for PaRappa, faxed over to
Matsuura by character designer Rodney Greenblat.

—Whoa, what? (laughs) How does a rapper become a salaryman? (laughs)

Ryu: I had an interest in business. Living in America, I was very curious about the Japanese business world. It was a world where huge fortunes could be made or lost by the movement of a couple yen on a stock or commodity. That was interesting to me. But the people who worked there were really unbalanced. In Japan, you know, if you simply study and do well on your exams you enter this elite world. And when those guys drink, they revert to total children. I got into a fight with one of them at one of those drinking parties, and I stormed off and went home. That was my second year, at the bounenkai (year-end party). I’d had enough.

—Was that why you quit?

Ryu: Well, it was a number of things really. The feeling started to grow in me, that music was what I really wanted to be doing after all, and I became a rapper. Of course, no one just “becomes” a rapper overnight, so the next day I went out and got a part-time job, working at a sorting facility. Then later I did the interpreting work for CNN, and here we are today.

—Yeah, but… how did you get involved in the PaRappa project?

Ryu: A friend of mine was working on his debut cd, and he invited me to help with the recording sessions. About 2-3 weeks after that, I got a call from him again, saying “Hey, I know someone who is working on a video game and needs some help.” After that he introduced me to Matsuura, which was my first meeting with him.

Unlike today, at that time, the Playstation wasn’t popular at all. (laughs) It was still the golden age of the Super Famicom, I think. So when I first heard about this game, I thought it was going to be a commercial dud. But it was about rap, and that sounded cool to me. The thing is, though, hip hop is all about freedom and originality, and I was worried that those qualities would be lost if you tried to translate hip hop into a video game.

—What did you think when you first met Matsuura?

Ryu: He didn’t really leave much of an impression on me. I was like, “who is this guy?” He had his laptop with him, and some animations of PaRappa already prepared. He showed them to me and said he wanted to do something like this. But yeah, to be honest, the first time I met Matsuura, I didn’t really think much of him. Sorry Matsuura. (laughs)

Later, at the first demo recordings for PaRappa, I realized he really was amazingly talented. Matsuura and I have completely different approaches to music, you see. We didn’t understand each other at first. My creativity is more in-the-moment. Long ago I used to play piano, and I can also play bass, trumpet, and guitar. I can read music. But I ran to hip hop because I didn’t like that kind of music. Hip hop is all about freedom. There aren’t really any rules and restrictions. But Matsuura is more of a planner, he always has blueprints and a vision in his mind of what he wants to do. He’s very calculated. On that first day of recording, I was freestyling all over the place, really getting into it. Even I couldn’t remember everything I did.

Then, at our very next session, Matsuura had musically notated ALL of my rapping. I was like, “what the hell is this?!” I didn’t know what to think, whether this collaboration was destined to fail, or whether we were onto something really new and interesting. He was a really quick study though, and he learned my style very fast and let me work the way that fit my creativity best.

—I see. How did that work go, by the way, of creating the music?

Ryu: Well, first there would be a music track, and I’d listen to it first, then try and rap over it on the spot there. At the end of each session we’d record how far I got, then I’d take that home and listen to it again, studying it, making adjustments here and there. Matsuura would do the same, and we passed recordings back and forth to each other. It was kind of like playing catch. By the time we had hammered it all out, usually the next music track would be finished and ready for us to start.

“kick! punch! it’s all in the mind”

—Next I’d like to ask about the lyrics you wrote… how was that? (laughs)

Ryu: One thing that gave me a ton of trouble was the rhyming. I’m always saying this, but in English lyrics, no matter what song, there always has to be rhyming. It’s even in things like the alphabet… think about it: “ABCDEFG, HIJKLMNOP. Even the American national anthem rhymes.

—So rhyming is something all English lyrics have, not just for rap? Without rhyming, there’s no lyrics…?

Ryu: It’s the rhyming that makes the lyrics singable, allows you to get into the groove and rhythm. But in Japanese, there is no rhyming, and you don’t get that same rhythmic groove. Imagine 4 stanzas of lyrics. It’s pretty standard to have end-rhymes on the 1st and 3rd lines, and on the 2nd and 4th. But in rap, there might be all kinds of additional rhyming, internal rhymes, more complicated wordplay. That’s one of its merits. However, with PaRappa, I was told to make all the end-lines rhyme neatly. Honestly, it sounds kind of cheesy and outdated to do it that way… maybe that’s how older rap sounded, but it’s more complex now.

Another thing I tried, early on, was to make the words you repeat back easier to rhyme, so they’d flow better. Like “kick” and “stick” (instead of “kick” and “punch”) and “chop” and “top”…. but when I tried it, it sounded so horrible. (laughs) So it ended up that only Master Onion’s own rapping rhymes.

—It sounds like there was a lot of frustration on writing the lyrics, then?

Ryu: No, I mean, in the sense that this was for a video game, I don’t think I could have done any better. I think Americans have been generous when listening to it, and they understand the limitations we worked under. In that sense it’s all in good fun, as a video game. But yeah, I was a little embarrassed about my fellow rap artists hearing it. Yet the feedback I’ve got from them has all been positive. They understand what we were trying to do.

—I wanted to ask about PaRappa’s catchphrase, “I gotta believe”… could you say something about that?

Ryu: “I gotta believe” was actually the first title I had intended to use for my own album. But I gave it to PaRappa instead. (laughs) It comes from the motto of my old high school football team… which was actually “You gotta believe.” Our team was really strong. But as you rise through the standings in a season, you start to face stronger and stronger opponents, rivals stronger than you thought. In those times, when we’d find ourselves in a pinch, we’d yell out to each other “You gotta believe!!” Sometimes 10 times in a row. For PaRappa I wanted to give that expression back to players.

I remember one game where we were losing 28-0. But when we would say “You gotta believe!!” to each other, it would keep us out of a losing mindset. And then we’d win. The words had that much power. I think you’ve always got to keep a positive attitude in life, you know? Many Japanese are so pessimistic and negative, so I thought, hey, they need this phrase, and I gave it to PaRappa. (laughs)

—It sounds like you gave something very special away.

Ryu: Well, it was one of the titles I’d had brewing for awhile. But I’m very happy that I got to use it in PaRappa.