"I gotta believe!"
That was the optimistic motto of gaming's preeminent MC, PaRappa the Rapper, and the declaration of hip hop's looming arrival to videogames as more than a collection of beats and rhymes. Like punk rock and reggae, hip hop began as a musical movement and developed into a rich culture that allowed for a diversity of styles and viewpoints. Hip hop has been pulsing in and out of gaming like a sine wave for nearly two decades, and while commercial tie-ins have always been a part of this relationship, recent years have shown hip hop's true potential to lend a unique vitality to game worlds.
I don't blame you if your first mental connection between hip hop and gaming is gangster-turned-rapper 50 Cent - it's hard to ignore someone whose idea of formal attire is a bulletproof vest. PaRappa's lighthearted anthems and 50 Cent's hard attitude couldn't be more different, yet they're distant cousins of a common ancestor. Such contradictions are common in hip hop.
Hip hop culture arose in New York in the 1970s and absorbed influences from every location it visited. It provides one of the few spaces where a chorus by The Police and rumbling bass, sweaters and oversized hoodies, Hummers and bicycles can all coexist. Even at its most subversive, as in the sounds and behavior of Young Buck, or individualistic, as in the dancing of Junior (aka Buana), the prevailing attitude is one of community and uninhibited expression.
Hip hop began with experimentation. Mixing records on turntables lead to new sounds and paint-sprayed shirts into new fashions. At times, it feels like that willingness to experiment is sorely lacking from the games industry. Perhaps this is why a handful of developers have turned to the malleability of hip hop for inspiration to challenge genre conventions and energize their gameplay.
It wasn't until Jet Grind Radio that a game wholly embraced hip hop as a focal point of its design. Although its cel-shaded visuals were revolutionary at the time, Jet Grind Radio's style was firmly rooted in the traditional elements of hip hop - breakdancing, graffiti, rapping and DJing. Many of Jet Grind Radio's movements and rhythms came straight from the dance floors, and the tags that characters spread around the city with spray paint could have been pulled from the sides of real buildings. Jet Grind Radio was hardly radical in terms of its hip hop aesthetic - you could even call it old-school. But it was a pioneer of a style that, nine years later, still attracts a dedicated fanbase.
It's likely that Jet Grind Radio helped pave the path for The World Ends With You. Both are set in the vicinity of Tokyo, and both protagonists have a strange affinity for their headphones. But the most striking similarities lie in the engaging colors, bold outlines and sharp angles of a graffiti-inspired art style rarely seen in gaming. Every background and two-dimensional portrait radiates with a depth that is much harder to convey in a polygonal landscape.
While PaRappa the Rapper, Jet Grind Radio and The World Ends With You tap into the expressive forces of hip hop to enliven their worlds, they pale in comparison to the urban pastiche of Afro Samurai. In Afro's world, created by Takashi Okazaki and rendered in an atypically loose and dirty style, swordsmen carry cell phones, gold chains compliment kimonos and a cyborg teddy bear dual-wields katanas.