The success of rhythm games would be impossible without its three key figures: a dog in a beanie (Parappa the Rapper), a polygon rabbit (Vib-Ribbon) and Mercedes. Rhythm games began in the 70’s, when a music game made by Kansei Seiki Seisakusho was installed in Japanese game centers. At the same time the USA was introduced to Simon, a toy meant to train reflexes and memory. But still, 20 years would have to pass before the real revolution would come in the form of Sony’s Playstation.
Parappa the Rapper became one of the first PlayStation’s biggest bestsellers.
PS1 took the world market by storm. Thanks to its large library of games the console gained huge popularity, especially among young people. It was a must-have gadget that no one’s household could do without. Many companies which previously had nothing to do with video games decided to ride on the rising trend. Among them was Mercedes.
At that time the car manufacturer was about to release their new car, Mercedes-Benz A-Class. As a city model it was aimed especially at young people, and so it required a different marketing approach. That’s why Mercedes turned to Sony with the proposal of creating a game that would promote their car. With one condition: the game should place an emphasis on music, it’s popular among youngsters after all. The task fell on the shoulders of NanaOn-Sha, the studio responsible for creating PaRappa the Rapper. The game about a rapping dog in a beanie whose life motto is “I Gotta Believe” is considered not only the first rhythm game, but one of the first music games in general. The gameplay consisting of pressing adequate buttons to the rhythm created the basis for future entries in this genre.
Parappa the Rapper became one of the first Playstation’s biggest bestsellers. Its sequel, as well as the spin-off “UmJammer Lammy” also enjoyed huge popularity. Masaya Matsuura, the games’ creator, was irritated by one problem though. Everytime NanaOn-Sha released a new title, Matsuura got swamped with fans’ requests to include specific songs and genres in future games. Of course it was impossible to grant all these requests because of technical limitations. Matsuura and its crew thought of an idea: instead of trying to cram all the world’s music into a single game, how about creating one that would let its players load their own playlist?
The presented idea seemed to be revolutionary. Apart from that, it also perfectly met Mercedes’s expectations to produce a game that would place emphasis on music. Even better if the player could have a say in what songs would come out of their speakers. But the question remained: how to actually put the idea into practice? The whole game would have to fit PlayStation’s 2MB of system memory so that the disc drive could be used for the player’s music. The easiest approach was to turn to full minimalism. Colourful and gimmicky graphics got replaced by a simple monochromatic style that resembled games akin to Asteroids. At that time when people were mesmerized by 3D graphics in games such as Final Fantasy VII or Tekken 3, a game with black and white vector graphics definitely stood out.
After the first demo the further development of the game was green-lit. Until… At the end of 1997, testing showed that the Mercedes-Benz A-Class had a fatal construction error that could cause the car to fall over when trying to perform an evasive maneuver. All the units sold so far were recalled, the production was halted for a few months, and all the promotional materials were suspended. Which effectively meant that the game got shelved as well. Fortunately NanaOn-Sha’s other members managed to convince Matsuura to continue working on the game despite the situation. According to them the game had too much potential to be given up on. In the end, despite all the difficulties (mainly on technical level, such as figuring out how to generate the level based on the player’s music), the year 1999 brought us a game about a rabbit called Vibri which traversed musical lanes.
Vib-Ribbon plays as follows: Vibri moves along a line filled with four types of obstacles and their combinations. These can be avoided by pressing a corresponding button or two to the beat of the music.
The game’s soundtrack consists of tracks performed by Laugh and Peace, with vocals by young Yoko Fujita. Laid-back electronic tracks lovers should particularly enjoy the playlist. But for those for whom the tempo proves to be too slow, the repertoire can be changed. The process of swapping the game disc for a CD containing MP3 tracks is so simple that there’s nothing stopping the player from making Vibri jump along to Iron Maiden songs.
The beginnings of Vib-Ribbon were difficult, but the same could be said about its end. Even though NanaOn-Sha’s music games enjoyed worldwide popularity and the critics were smitten with Vib-Ribbon, it didn’t sell well in its native country. The game was released in Europe a year later, but after seeing the sales results Sony decided to cancel the US release. Vib-Ribbon spawned two sequels: Mojib-Ribbon which combined rap with calligraphy, and Vib-Ripple, which differs from Vib-Ribbon in that the levels were generated from pictures instead of music. Both games were released on Playstation 2 only in Japan.
Vib-Ribbon experienced renewed popularity in 2021 after the New York Museum of Modern Art announced a list of games to be included in their collection. By doing this, the museum wanted to give credit to titles that had a big influence on how games are viewed nowadays. Apart from such well-known titles as Pong, The Sims, Myst, Asteroids, Minecraft and Tetris, an inconspicuous music game starring a polygonal rabbit appeared among them. The decision to include Vib-Ribbon among such esteemed titles can be easily justified. If it wasn’t for the huge popularity of the first PlayStation and its games such as Parappa the Rapper, or for Mercedes’s failure, or for NanaOn-Sha’s stubbornness, games such as Guitar Hero would most likely never come to be.