There is a scene in the slightly-above-average 2014 film Whiplash where the protagonist, an ambitious young jazz drummer (played by Miles Teller) studying music at an elite university, is being given his first verbal dressing-down from J.K. Simmons’s terrifying bandleader. Leant over the drum kit, Simmons brutalizes the protagonist in an expletive-laden rant, all because he has struggled to keep time.
Simmons demands to know again and again whether Teller was playing behind or ahead of tempo – “Were you rushing, or were you dragging?” – but Teller is too shaken and overwhelmed to even know himself. Simmons throws a chair, and slaps Teller’s character across the face repeatedly. He’s like a humourless, American Malcom Tucker. Teller is exhausted, humiliated and in tears. He’s been torn apart in an act of destructive criticism, the only feedback being that he must be perfect or give up.
Having played the Cheap Cheap level of Parappa the Rapper: Remastered, I think I can sympathize.
When news of a PaRappa remaster surfaced, I was delighted. I had fond but foggy memories of playing the game, which created and popularised the rhythm genre, upon its first arrival in the mid-’90s. PaRappa the Rapper: Remastered celebrates rap in its own weird but earnest way. Though the lyrics in PaRappa are as dreadful as they are wonderful and bizarre, with the raps themselves muddled through strings of non-sequiturs that often sound like they’ve been translated, re-translated, and then had the odd word changed to make everything rhyme, there’s something catchy about the game’s track list. Iconic, even.
“If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will gut you like a pig.”
Hearing that opening salvo of “Kick, punch, it’s all in the mind / if you wanna test me, I’m sure you’ll find…” delivers a fat dose of opioid nostalgia straight to your brain-danglers. And who can forget the rap about passing your driving test? Or the one about working in a flea market that sounds a bit like a Shaggy song? Or the one with the James Brown-esque instrumental that’s also about being desperate for a shit?
Or the one where Cheap Cheap the chicken challenges you to a battle rap cake bake-off?
Cheap Cheap’s stage is the 4th in a game that only contains 6 stages/tracks. It’s also staggeringly difficult – far more difficult to complete than any of the tracks before or after it. And, just like J.K. Simmons in Whiplash, Cheap Cheap won’t tell you what you’re doing wrong, or why. Only that you are doing it wrong and so you must try again or leave, because you are worthless, and terrible, and do not deserve to be there.
Cheap Cheap raps a phrase, showing you a sequence of button presses in time to the music. The lyrics make no sense but you do not question Cheap Cheap. It’s then your turn to repeat the phrase. You do so. ‘U rappin’ GOOD !’, the game tells you, and the rap continues. This is the only feedback the game provides, besides the speech samples triggered with each button press. And then Cheap Cheap starts to mix up her flow, with syncopated rhythms and quick-fire sections wanting rapidly pressed eighth notes. You hammer out the sequence as accurately as you can. The rap meter doesn’t change but it it does briefly flash ‘U rappin’ BAD !’, as a warning. You tell yourself it was fine and you were in time, even though you know in your heart of hearts that you were a little off on that last press.
“Oh my dear God. Are you one of those single tear people? Do I look like a double fucking rainbow to you?”
The cartoon visual style doesn’t allow for bulging forehead arteries, but if it did you could probably bet Cheap Cheap would be sporting a bulger that’d make any bald and shouty character actor proud. The next sequence flashes up, and it happens: the meter slides down into ‘U rappin’ BAD !’ and stays there, and so begins a classic PaRappa Death Spiral. Remember the PaRappa Death Spiral? From your youth? Where your rap appraisal would slide into the abyss, the mounting pressure to shore yourself up only causing more mistakes, as ‘U rappin’ BAD !’ quickly devolves into ‘U rappin’ AWFUL !’. Cheap Cheap ultimately gets so angry that she puts the brakes on entirely. She lays an egg, which then hatches. Then the newly hatched chick tells you to try again. This was your 12th attempt.
“Now are you a rusher, or are you a dragger or are you gonna be on my fucking time?”
You consider giving up, but you are really keen to unlock the level where PaRappa is desperate for a shit and has to rap his way to a toilet. You try again, and again, and again, and each time the game comes down on you hard for the smallest mistake. Even a BAD rating is enough to halt your progress – you need to be rappin’ GOOD by the end of the song to get anywhere. Not good enough, try again. Were you rushing, or were you dragging? You don’t know. You are exhausted, humiliated, and in tears.
And heaven forbid you wish to ascend from ‘U Rappin’ GOOD !’ to the upper echelons of ‘U rappin’ COOL !’. In order to be rappin’ COOL, see, you need to freestyle around the sequence. Just like how J.K. Simmons in Whiplash encourages Miles Teller to play a freestyle fill, only to violently admonish him for getting it wrong, PaRappa the Rapper: Remastered wants you to rap well without being transparent about what that means. Music is a cutthroat industry.
PaRappa the Rapper was, and remains, a game demanding notoriously fussy precision that offers no meaningful feedback. Cheap Cheap’s is a severe difficulty spike in what’s already a tough game, and to compound the issue, the stage’s peculiar swung rhythms don’t sit at all well with the higher latency of modern TVs. I’ve heard some people claim you should turn the sound off and focus on the visual sequence of buttons. Others that you need to close your eyes and just let the music guide you. Others have claimed that the game is actually broken at that point.
It’s not broken. Cheap Cheap just has high standards.
Like J.K. Simmons angrily shouting sex things at a teenage drummer, Cheap Cheap only stands in your way because she wants to see you surpass the height of your musical ability. If you want the next generation of rappers to be Rappin’ COOL, you have to push them past their limits. Cheap Cheap understands this and she will not accept your excuses. And yeah, just like J.K. Simmons in Whiplash, Cheap Cheap’s behaviour is unacceptable, unprofessional, and has no place in modern musicianship.
But, like Simmons, Cheap Cheap is from another time, another place. When people said “U rappin’ COOL !” in 1996, you could be sure they really meant it. And that’s something.