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Opinion: PlayStation - Celebrating the era in which weird Japanese games went mainstream

Keith Stuart invites you to PlayStation's reunion disco

Usually we're taught to think of monopolies as a bad thing. "They stifle competition and lead to creative torpor!" people shout, and everyone nods sagely in agreement, secretly thinking, "Hmm yes - what does torpor mean?" But this is not always the case.

Let's be honest here, between 1995 and 2002-ish, PlayStation had a stranglehold on the console business. It utterly dominated the industry, destroying Sega as a hardware manufacturer and knocking Nintendo right off its perch as the accepted gaming overlord. This was a period where there were no smartphones, no global indie community to speak of, and in which Japan dominated software production. All of these factors combined to create a stable, yet wonderfully experimental era in game design. I have given it a catchy, highly academic name: 'the era in which weird Japanese games went batshit mainstream'.

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It all started in 1996 with PaRappa the Rapper, a hilarious and visually exuberant rapping game, developed by start-up studio NanaOn-Sha, and carefully groomed and published by Sony. With its jokey paper-thin characters and daisy age hip-hop sounds, it introduced a global audience to the more eccentric side of Japanese game design, flavoured by manga, J-pop, Tokyo street fashion and kawaii-infused graphical design.

Of course, there were strange Japanese games before PaRappa, but Masaya Matsuura's formative rhythm action adventure introduced a mainstream western audience to the country's more offbeat design sensibilities. Without the distraction of today's bountiful indie scene or idiosyncratic iPhone games, we were hungry for more.

Lights, rhythm, action!

And that's lucky because we got it. We got a lot of it. PaRappa was only the start of a revolution in music titles that led to NanaOn-Sha's own follow-ups, Um Jammer Lammy and the more avant garde Vib Ribbon, as well as Enix's disco-tinged Bust A Groove, in which two players could dance competitively, following arrow commands on the screen and occasionally disrupting each other's performances. The beauty of these games was the way in which they made the multiple key presses and twitch-based mechanics of the fighting game genre hugely accessible and attractive to a whole new audience.

Another beauty was that one character in Bust A Groove could win a dance off by smashing his opponent over the head with a giant hamburger. It's unlikely western developers would have thought of that. They also wouldn't have thought of 2001 PS2 cult classic Gitaroo Man, in which a Gibson-wielding teenage super hero battles a demon who wears a nappy. To show you how dull things are these days by comparison, its developer iNiS was recently responsible for The Black Eyed Peas Experience.

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Bishi Bashi Boshi

The late-'90s was also the era in which designers really started to experiment with the actual form of games, rejecting the traditional mission-based structure and going off at wild, attention-deficit tangents. Konami, for example, had its frantic, almost hallucinatory Bishi Bashi series of arcade and PlayStation titles, composed of ridiculous two-player mini-games. One minute you'd be making burgers, the next squirting insecticide at cockroaches - handily providing Nintendo with the blueprint for its hugely successful WarioWare series.

In 1999, we got the brilliant Incredible Crisis, a sort of interactive soap opera where members of a suburban family had to complete mini-games to buy presents for their grandma. The 90s showed us that games could also explore every day mundanity. So we also had the crazy Mister Mosquito, in which you took control of the eponymous insect as it terrorised an everyday family, and Gekibo: Gekisha Boy (renamed Polaroid Pete in the west), where a boy cycles around town taking photos of interesting events.

Crazy cool

Importantly, while most of these titles were produced for a domestic audience, the huge global market of eager PlayStation gamers meant publishers were keen to import wacky hits. Konami bundled a few Bishi Bashi titles together into the European release Bishi Bashi Special, while European publishers like Virgin Interactive and Titus started importing and distributing titles, hoping to ride the PaRappa wave to cult success. Eidos even started up sub-label 'Fresh Games' to handle titles like Mister Mosquito and the orchestra-conducting sim, Mad Maestro. It's a lovely vision: slick euro-publishers heading to Tokyo and saying, 'yes, we'll take this game in which you cheekily infect a family with malaria'.

The remnants of this era do live on. We have Platinum Games, creator of the awesome Bayonetta and Vanquish, and Grasshopper Manufacture, which whacks out bizarro exploitation games like Lollipop Chainsaw. Both studios retain the spirit of '90s eccentricity and make games that appeal to a reasonably sized western audience. Sony, meanwhile, is still supporting offbeat oddities, most recently Tokyo Jungle, but much of this activity is relegated to the digital realm. Sure, there are plenty of eccentric hits in the indie and smartphone sectors, but they're often either arty, subjective and arcane, or just, you know, forced zaniness to sell familiar game concepts. Angry Birds, anyone?

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In the late '90s, the sheer alien nature of Japanese culture enriched game design principles forever, broadening the horizons of developers all over the world, and teaching us that games can be silly, brash and anarchic, but still cool and beautifully crafted. Tekken, Metal Gear and Resident Evil are vital elements of the PlayStation legacy, but history books must also make room for PaRappa and Polaroid Pete. Because the things they told us about games were things many of us had never heard before.

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