A number of high profile game creators have turned to Kickstarter to try and fund new projects over the last few years, but as a huge fan of – what I’d guess you’d call – personality-driven rhythm-action games, the launch of the Project Rap Rabbit Kickstarter campaign a couple of weeks ago really jumped out at me.
This is a project, after all, from a veritable who’s who in that sub-genre – Masaya Matsuura, the creator of PaRappa the Rapper, Um Jammer Lammy and Vib Ribbon, Keiichi Yano, the driving force behind Gitaroo man, Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan and Elite Beat Agents, and Atsushi Saito, the man responsible for the incredible visual style – and initial premise – of Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan.
It’s an incredible line-up of talent, but how did this project come about? “It was originally Yano-san and [publisher] PQube’s idea to launch a project on Kickstarter, and I joined later,” Masaya Matsuura tells me. “In the very early stages, I discussed with Yano-san and found that both of us were thinking of a rap game with a historical background. That was last November.”
The historical background Matsuura-san alludes to is an intriguing alternate history: it seems to be two parts 16th century feudal Japan – with all the aesthetic styling, history and legends that evokes, and one part hi-tech, futuristic world, all of which is somehow suffused with hip hop culture. Oh, and anthropomorphic animals, obviously.
It’s a wildly inventive setting, but also a complicated one. The Kickstarter page describes a world which is becoming a “hostile place” where “citizens and neighbours are becoming increasingly suspicious of, and isolated from, one another,” and in which “a toxic atmosphere of protectionism is taking hold.” I can’t help but feel Project Rap Rabbit might have something to say about the world we’re living in today.
“My idea now is to write a story that… may include different historical periods.” – Masaya Matsuura.
“I think you are correct,” Matsuura replies when I make this comment. “In social media and other places, we can see numerous articles that share the same take on particular issues, but those viewpoints and opinions are not always something that we would agree with. I (we) want to express our own thoughts and messages through the game.”
The setting we’ve been introduced to, however, may be just the beginning. “The historical setting has been a concept from the very first,” explains Matsuura. “But my idea now is to write a story that takes place in a longer time frame, so I think the game may include different historical periods.”
What that story may have in store for us remains to be seen, but one aspect that the Kickstarter page goes into gratifying detail on is Project Rap Rabbit’s core gameplay systems, which are genuinely clever and progressive. The basic idea is to modernise this genre by encouraging – and rewarding – experimentation and self-expression.
As the titular rap rabbit Toto-Maru (along with his sidekick Otama-Maru), you battle against opponents in much the same way you did in PaRappa – call and response: they rap, you rap – but you’re much more actively involved. When the enemy is rapping you’re selecting keywords to focus on when you rap back – or, more accurately, counter-rap.
To actually fully formulate that counter-rap, however, first you select an emotion using the game’s RPG-style emotion/dialogue wheel – coerce, boast, laugh or joke – which lets you preview the rhythm of your response and the damage it will do to your opponent. Each choice will result in a different flow and different lyrics.
On top of that – and this is the part that I really love – you can actually change your emotional state during your response – mixing and matching between different lyrics to change your rap in near real-time.
This approach – having what amounts to a dynamic dialogue tree in a rhythm-action game – is a pretty inspired concept and should make for some really fun, really freewheeling gameplay.
“The gameplay system and its concept are brand new as far as I know,” says Matsuura when I ask if it’s something he’d been thinking about for earlier games. “You can consider the dialogue trees in this game synonymous with rap in modern language, but as the game is set in the 16th century when the word ‘rap’ did not exist in Japan (maybe in the west too?), we call the system ‘Hyoshi-monoii’ (lit. ‘Rhythm dozens’) instead of rap.”
With 44 years of development experience between Masaya Matsuura’s NanaOn-Sha studio and Keiichi Yano and Atsushi Saito’s iNiS J, the ideas here feel very considered: the result of decades of thinking about rhythm-action. It’s a close-knit team too. “Yano-san and Saito-san have a long history of collaboration,” explains Matsuura. “In this project, too, Saito-san has been a member from the very beginning.”
Matsuura-san and Yano-san have also known each other for years, but never worked together on a project. “The sensibilities we share make the progress of Project Rap Rabbit smooth,” Matsuura says, “but we do have something different. I am used to breaking down pieces of completed music before I find ways to represent the sounds in a unique fashion, but Yano-san usually maintains the original, completed form and appeals to the audience in that manner. We actually conflict a lot in this sense!” he laughs.
The final piece of the puzzle is lead sound designer Yuji TECHNOuchi. “TECHNOuchi-san puts the ideas of music I express through texts and scores into shape,” Matsuura explains, “but that’s just the current situation. I think our duties will soon become more diversified and change over time.” And as for collaborating with other musicians to create the music for this game? “That’s possible… all options are on the table.”
Can Project Rap Rabbit hit its aggressive Kickstarter goal? After an initial surge of pledges, things have slowed down. I have my fingers crossed, however, because this is very much a game I want to play.
The team will be doing a livestream focused on the art of Project Rap Rabbit tomorrow June 2 at 10am AEST (that’s 1am BST and June 1 5pm PDT, 8pm EDT). Check it out here.
Cam Shea is senior editor in IGN’s Sydney office and is a big fan of quirky, character-driven rhythm-action games. He’s on Twitter.