Rodney Greenblat chats PaRappa, UmJammer Lammy, PlayStation All-Stars, and Nintendo

Sep 10, 2012 at 3:29 am/ Author:

parappa

Rodney Greenblat created the visual style for PaRappa the Rapper (PS1), UmJammer Lammy (PS1), PaRappa the Rapper (PS2), and Major Minor’s Majestic March (Wii).  Masaya Matsuura asked Rodney Greenblat to design and create all of the iconic characters in these games.   Rodney Greenblat was also involved on the anime series for PaRappa the Rapper.

We would like to thank Rodney Greenblat for giving us his time to chat about his past games, and the future of PaRappa the Rapper.

You can view his official website by clicking here.

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What type of projects are you currently involved with nowadays?

I’m working on character and packaging design for Japanese snack food “Pocky” with client Glico and advertising agency Dentsu. I’m making paintings for a gallery show in spring or summer 2013.  Continuing my role as arts programming director for the Village Zendo in NYC.

Currently, who are some artists or musicians that inspire you?

Currently David Hockney and antique Buddhist sculpture. Listening to Akron/Family and Mouse on Mars.

Gamers deem PaRappa the Rapper as the first modern rhythm music game ever made. It was something fresh and different from anything that had been released before.  With so many games nowadays counting on violence to be fun, do you find there to be a lack of creativity and originality in the gaming industry today? 

Thanks! I don’t find any lack of creativity in the game makers, but there is a lack of creativity in the game buyers. I think developers would like to make a wide range of interesting games, but they are difficult to sell, so they don’t get made.   So it is a problem of economics. The question really becomes how to open up video gaming to a wider audience.   Nintendo works on this question 24/7.   Playstation and XBox have little incentive to do that.  The frontier right now is phones and tablets, but once again it comes down to the buyers. What are people willing to pay for a game on a phone or tablet? Will these fees generate enough income for the publishers and developers? I hope so.

For the graphics of today’s video games, do you think there is too much focus on photo realistic graphics instead of unique art direction?

I think this goes back to question 3.  If there were more buyers for graphically stylized games then they would probably get made.

Some critics associate Hip Hop/Rap with violence or degradation.  Your art style has a child-like quality to it, and the “Parappa” games really emphasize positive messages.  Do you think the Parappa series succeeded in showing the hip hop genre in a more positive light?  Also, what is your general view of hip hop/rap as a music genre?

Yes, PaRappa was a new spin on Rap.  I think it was because Rap in Japan in the mid 1990’s was a little softer edged than US Rap. I don’t know much about the current hip hop/rap music scene. I’m sure there is a lot of great stuff out there. I’m still listening to the Beastie Boys and Missy Eliot.

For those who might not be familiar with your previous work or previous interviews, can you explain what the process was like designing all of the characters for both PaRappa the Rapper games and Um Jammer Lammy?  And did that process get more complicated as game budgets became larger with each new game?

The process was that basically Matsuura and his team in Japan would send me a list of character traits and setting details and I would make rough sketches for them. Then they would pick from the sketches or make suggestions for more sketches. Sometimes my sketches would contain new ideas that might then be incorporated into the game. Sometimes the requests and approvals became very challenging, and the deadlines tight. I’m usually in Tokyo twice a year, and at that time we would have production meetings and go to cool restaurants.

Did you and Masaya Matsuura ever have any creative disagreements/differences on character designs or art direction?

Yes we did, and Masuura always had the final say. Knowing that, and being open to his decisions made it easier for me as time went on. I guess I gave up fighting and learned to go with the flow, always doing the best work I could.

In a previous interview, you said, “He (Masaya Matsuura) usually has a funny idea for the personality, and expects me to come up with a perfect visual. Sometimes it is easy, (PaRappa), and sometimes it is difficult (Lammy).”   What made Lammy difficult to design in comparison to PaRappa, and were there any other times where creating a character design became difficult?

For some reason, Matsuura did not like my first 5 or 6 Lammy designs.  They were mostly based on his direction, so I just had to keep making them. The design for the game’s main character is a challenge, and I had to do it about 7 times. It was good practice!

How did how Masaya Matsuura came up with the game title for “UmJammer Lammy” ?

“Um Jamma” is some kind of super casual expression in Japanese. So it was a play on words in English too. Matsuura speaks English well and has an amazing sense of language.

PaRappa the Rapper will be a fighter in the 2012 fighting game, “PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale” for PlayStation 3 and PS Vita.  Are you personally hoping that the popularity of that game might spark interest at Sony to create a new “PaRappa the Rapper” game?  Do you have any interest in PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royal?

I’m very happy that Parappa is making a bit of a comeback, but not so happy about him being in a weapon filled battle game.  Actually the Battle Royal game is fun, and I have to do what I can to get Parappa back in the game scene.  My hope is that Sony realizes the golden true potential of Parappa and asks me to design some new games.   I’ve learned a lot, and I think Parappa could be great again.

You designed all of the characters in Major Minor’s Majestic March for the Nintendo Wii.  Were you happy with how Major Minor turned out?  Also, are you a fan of Nintendo and their franchises?

No, I was not happy about MMMM.  Pretty much everything went wrong.  I could write a book about the compounded mistakes made by hardworking and talented people. Yes, I am a Nintendo fan.  Their history and tradition of fun games for kids, family and party games is awesome.

You worked as a character designer on the PaRappa the Rapper anime series. Did you find it easier or more difficult working on a television show compared to video games? 

It was very different.   They just told me exactly what they wanted and did everything the way they were used to working.  The game team was much more open.  In the case of Parappa, the TV production team did not really want to work with the game team at all.   They wanted to make a prime time TV show for young Japanese children the way they had done it in the past.

Is there any interest in re-visiting ‘interactive toy’ type of software, like Rodney’s Fun Screen or Wonder Window?

No requests for anything in the form of those classics, but in Japan a “Thunder Bunny Weather App” for iPhone has been released. I designed a simple super cute interface for a weather data company using my Thunder Bunny character franchise.   It is more than a toy because the weather data is real. I think it will come to the US eventually.

Adult Swim’s television show “Robot Chicken” did a parody of PaRappa the Rapper. How does it feel knowing that you drew/designed game characters that still remain relevant in pop culture over 15 years later?

I think it is so great.  I think Parappa is a universal character that transcends time and space. He is interested in love and music, and approaches difficulties in a positive and fun way.  The bottleneck time-warp that Sony put him in is just a temporary circumstance. Parappa will be back again someday.

Many have called PaRappa the Rapper the father of modern rhythm/music games.  With Activision discontinuing the Guitar Hero series, do you think there is still a bright future for rhythm/music games?

Probably not for a while, but eventually some new music based game will break through.  It’s all in the mind.


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