Mike Sholars is a writer, editor, podcast host, Creative Director, and former full-time journalist who got tired of getting laid off all the time. His work can be found in HuffPost, Kotaku, Polygon, and VICE. He lives in Toronto, Canada. All Canadian spellings of words are therefore intentional.

Boss Fight Books: PaRappa the Rapper by Mike Sholars

In the mid-90s, a Japanese prog rock star, an American visual artist, and their small team of collaborators made a colorful cartoon hip hop rhythm game that looked and played (and kicked! and punched!) like nothing else on the market. Initially dismissed by some as a curiosity, PaRappa the Rapper was a hit with players that would eventually sell millions of copies, receive two sequels, and inspire entire genres into being. And for author Mike Sholars, PaRappa left a lasting impact.

Featuring exclusive interviews with creators Masaya Matsuura and Rodney Greenblat, original voice cast member Saundra Williams, and a medley of sharp game critics and music experts, Sholars' PaRappa the Rapper is equal parts recap, remix, and recollection.

Sholars uses his love of hip hop and gaming to celebrate PaRappa's unprecedented mechanics, art, humor, cultural specificity, and uplifting themes as he pairs energetic game history with personal memoir to explain how a game about a rapping dog helped him feel seen when he needed it the most. Funny, informative, and sincere, Sholars' book is a heartfelt reminder why we all gotta believe.


Kick, punch, it's all in Mike Sholars' mind—and once you read his hilarious and insightful history of one of the PS One's most beloved classics, the story of the titular PaRappa the Rapper's invention will hold a place in yours. I love books that get developers to open up about our industry's more eccentric hits, and Mike more than does this memorable story justice. – David L. Craddock



  • "Scholar's book is yet another great addition to the series. His passion, his analysis, his investigations, his methodology, everything is well executed. By the end of the book I wanted to play Parappa the Rapper, not because I only knew it through Robot Chicken, but because Scholars made me believe."

    Accordion Sprout
  • "This was a fantastically written book covering the history of 'music games' and of course the development of the game itself. Personal highlights for me were the personal touch of the author's life experience around the game and what it meant to them personally, and of course the interviews with the people involved in the game's development were fascinating. I was personally shocked how little I really knew about the game and everything it had to offer. I will for sure keep an eye out for the author in the future, will read more Boss Fight Books, and will surely revisit Parappa in the future and hopefully he can help me believe in myself just a little more."

  • "A book about being a Brown kid and playing a weird game about a rapping dog, how that game changed an industry, and how it was created. Great, interesting, and at times beautiful. There are parts of this book most people I know won't give a damn about, but there are other parts that I want every single person I've ever met to read, to help them understand me more, understand video games more, and understand themselves more. I gotta believe."

    – Goodreads



If you booted up your PlayStation on any given day in November 1997, you took part in a ritual conducted by millions of others across the world. First, you released the mysteriously black-bottomed PS1 CD-ROM from its jewel case, then you popped the top of your cloud-gray PlayStation open and inserted the disc. The two-part soundscape of the PS1 boot-up sequence washed over you, as the Sony logos emerged into being on top of white, then black, backgrounds.

If your disc was scratched (or if you had a mod chip installed because crime is cool), waiting for the screen to turn from white to black was like watching God flip a coin. But everyone who played a PS1 game performed their own version of a start-up ritual. Playing that 16-second sound bite in public (like R&B singer/songwriter/visionary Frank Ocean did at the start of his 2012 album Channel Orange) is a quick way to identify Nerds of a Certain Age. Hell, my PS4 currently has a theme that mimics the PS2 boot-up sounds. Everyone's nostalgia has its own soundtrack.

After the logos and soundscapes, four unforgettable words greet you on the title screen of PaRappa the Rapper: The Hip Hop Hero. PaRappa stands in the middle of the screen, his paper-thin arms swinging and folding to the beat as he ushers the player to choose between "START" and "MENU." It's a high school doodle brought to life with a boombox, the perfect introduction to this game and its world.

The name "PaRappa" is a pun on Japanese words meaning "paper-thin," while also rhyming nicely with his title and profession, The Rapper. Every character in PaRappa is presented almost as a literal translation of their hand-drawn origins, and their bodies bend, roll, and fold like paper throughout the game. While later games adopting an arts-and-crafts visual style (like Paper Mario on the Nintendo 64 and, much later, Sony's own LittleBigPlanet on the PlayStation 3) opted to focus on the paper aspect as a key part of story and gameplay, in PaRappa, it's just a fact of life.

Once you hit START, you get to experience the hour-long reality of actually playing PaRappa the Rapper. It is a slice-of-life cartoon musical rhythm game that the player experiences through six playable songs bookended by relatively lengthy cutscenes that tell the bulk of the story.

On an objective level, that's the whole game. It's absolutely more than the sum of its parts, because everything about it—the fresh art and animation style, the charming slice-of-life story, the Simon Says/proto quick-time-event gameplay loop, the amount of time dedicated to cutscenes and music videos—was nearly unprecedented at the time of its release.

Since I didn't experience PaRappa at launch, it's worth exploring the landscape around the time it was completed, and what fans and critics were thinking at the time. And if there was one thing I was obsessive about in 1997, it was video game criticism.

As a child, I quickly found my passions and talents through a rapid-fire process of elimination, until I was left with the combo of reading, writing, and video games. I wanted to be a video game critic for almost as long as I knew that was a job. I'd pay for my trio of magazine subscriptions with money from my allowance and haunt my public library at the end of each month to read all the others I couldn't afford.

I pored over the reviews in Electronic Gaming Monthly (EGM) and compared them to the ones in GamePro. Even back then, a video game review was already given an inflated sense of prominence. Most magazines put their review scores in the final pages of each issue; your reward for sifting through ads and fold-out posters that doubled as level walkthroughs on the other side.

But the review itself? That was numbers, son. That was science.

I remember seeing games dissected in no more than 300 words in a tight column; the end result of years of collaborative labor broken down in metrics like Graphics, Controls, and Sound. (Not "Music," but Sound!) This format hasn't vanished, it simply moved online and became even more lucrative for both the companies that own today's gaming news websites, and the publishers that benefit from 24/7 coverage and discussion of their products.

At its best, art criticism attempts to translate extremely subjective emotional reactions in more universal terms, even if turning feelings into numbers fails to do anything of the sort. Still, many fans want that analysis communicated through a ten-point scale; more akin to something out of Consumer Reports than Roger Ebert. This struggle is still felt today, but at the time of PaRappa's release, numbers ruled the day.

James Mielke's reviews in EGM could always distill a piece of interactive art down to a paragraph and a point total; he was one of the first game critics I knew by name. As both a DJ and a seasoned veteran of both games journalism and development, he was well-versed in the culture around PaRappa's initial release.

"PaRappa was a standout because it was so crisp—it was so clean," he told me during a video call. "And the closest hip hop analogy I can make with PaRappa is that it was the [1989 debut album from De La Soul] 3 Feet High and Rising of video games, right? Because it's got that DAISY Age vibe."

According to Mielke, PaRappa "came out when Sony didn't honestly know what they were doing. So [game developers] could get away with a lot. [They] could be experimental," he says.

According to many in the game industry, the PS1 era was a wild west of new and strange games getting published as Sony tried to establish a toehold against Sega and Nintendo.

In this way, Mielke says that the novelty of PaRappa helped it to succeed. "What's interesting to me about PaRappa the Rapper is that… I don't think that it's the best game," he admits. "And the reason for that is the time and the technology." As a pioneer in its genre, PaRappa has its share of technical and gameplay wrinkles that made it hard for some players to appreciate it at launch.