Rhythm games are a dense, primarily foreign genre that I've yet to fully explore, and that I don't have the leisure of discussing with any degree of authority. What I can say, however, is that rhythm games make for some fantastic counter-examples. Just when I think that indie titles can only have a viral presence from Let's Plays, I rediscover Audiosurf. When someone insists that peripheral-based games are too hardware-dependent to reach massive profits, in swoops Rock Band and Guitar Hero to save the argument. And when I need to make the point about why context is important in any game, I compare OSU! vs PaRappa the Rapper.
At first glance, you would think the similarities between these two titles to be negligible. They seem to differ in just about every aspect of their presentation, but that's what makes the comparison so interesting.
PaRappa the Rapper (1997) is popularly (and falsely) acclaimed as the very first rhythm game by nostalgic onlookers, and while it may not have been the first, it certainly established a precedent for rhythm games as we know them today. PaRappa involves your player-character, a rapping dog made out of paper, trying to prove he's a REAL MAN by mastering martial arts, cooking, driving, and entrepreneurialism, all so he can win the heart of his soon-to-be-girlfriend, who's a literal wallflower.
Footage from the upcoming remastered version of PaRappa the Rapper.
Sufficed to say, the game is a bit odd. Still, that's what gave it an edge in a 90s PS1 market packed to the gills with fighting game re-hashes and cookie-cutter, melodramatic RPGs. It was a rudimentary title, consisting of just six stages and a neat, concisely presented mechanic, accentuated with a perfect difficulty curve. Just hit the buttons on the top of the screen: nice and simple.
OSU! (2007) is a much, much different game in execution. Acting as more of a utility program that games can be loaded into, OSU! bases its gameplay around the many sub-genres of rhythm games that popped up subsequent to PaRappa's release. Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, Taiko no Tatsujin, and Beatmania IIDX are the clearest comparisons to draw between the type of game OSU! emulates. Using the OSU! client, custom songs ("beatmaps") of just about any variety can be loaded from a community-driven website. And I do mean every variety, from U.N. Owen Was Her? to the Space Jam theme.
OSU!'s primary game mode, involving following several nodes with your touch screen or mouse.
Still, it's a rhythm game all the same, albeit one with a generous advantage given to its longevity, provided by the dense modding community behind it, something that barely even existed on consoles back when PaRappa was released.
Despite this, I find myself going back to PaRappa far more than OSU!, but why is that the case? PaRappa is a clunky, pixelly goblin of a game once you get your hands on it. It always feels like there's a huge disconnect between the timing of the button prompts and the indicator at the top of the screen that passes over them. Way too many times I find myself thinking: "How did I not hit that?!" OSU!, by comparison, is much more fluid, responsive, and sleekly presented. It has multiplayer (a feature that no competent rhythm game can live without these days), the aforementioned infinite number of custom tracks (compared to PaRappa's measly six), several game modes, etcetera.
The hilariously awkward cutscenes give you motivation to rap about ripping people off and pooping, among other things.
When I got to thinking about it, I realized that OSU! is lacking one critical component of what makes a game in any genre good: context. PaRappa has a way of getting stuck in your head that OSU! can't even come close to. Partly, this is the nature of the highly catchy tunes in the former, but more so, PaRappa gives you a reason to rap, whereas OSU! doesn't. PaRappa, the character, is someone we can relate to. He has feelings, a goal, and is so gosh darn cute you just want to hug him. We care about his problem, and that context, however slim it may be, gives us justification to keep matching those beats. Coupled with that is a wonderfully colorful papercraft art style, resonating a bright visual connection to the music in your head.
An OSU! player completing a particularly difficult song.
OSU!, though clearly being the superior game, just can't match up to the enduring appeal of PaRappa. It doesn't need to, frankly, because OSU! fully accomplishes what it set out to do, but I just find it fascinating that you can explain so much of how mechanics work simply by looking at how story is presented.
In gaming, story is often seen as something incedental to the gameplay, and that if the latter is well-crafted, then the former can suffer with little harm. I wholly disagree. They are completely intertwined, and have to be developed with each other in mind. As PaRappa the Rapper demonstrates, even a dumb plot about a rapping dog can do wonders for a game's progressing age.