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When The Band Got Back Together: Rodney Greenblat's Return To Video Games

As the visualizer behind the seminal Parappa The Rapper, New York-based artist Rodney Greenblat's whimsical style is world famous -- and he talks about his re-uniting with Masaya Matsuura for the Wii-exclusive Major Minor's Majestic March.

Earlier this week saw the release of the Wii-exclusive rhythm game Major Minor's Majestic March, developed by NanaOn-Sha and published by Majesco Entertainment.

What makes this game so special is how it marks the reuniting of the duo -- designer/musician Masaya Matsuura and artist Rodney Greenblat -- that brought the world PaRappa the Rapper, as well as the return to video games for Greenblat.

Greenblat's last game, the direct sequel to PaRappa, was published in 2001. When Gamasutra first caught up with the celebrated character illustrator four years ago at his New York City studio, Greenblat explained why he had left the world of video game behind to return to the world of fine arts.

But eight years after his last foray into gaming, he has finally returned. But what lead to this change of heart?

Once again, we caught up with Greenblat in his studio in SoHo as he was putting the final touches on the game a few weeks go to discuss his return to the medium, issues almost every American must face when working in Japan, some additional behind the scenes look at his PaRappa work, his creative process, as well as possibilities for the future...

Okay, let's get right to it. What exactly have you been up in the last four years when we last spoke?

Rodney Greenblat: In the last four years? [laughs] Well you know, I took a break from the game business in about 2004 and just went back into the studio. And started working on paintings and sculptures. Made a lot of paintings, had a couple shows, it was really great. And I was expecting to keeping going in that direction.

But [Masaya] Matsuura... Actually, it was more meeting Majesco. They had this idea to kind of reunite the PaRappa team, to make a new game. So when I heard about that, I became all of sudden interested in going back to video games.


Majesco/NanaOn-Sha's Major Minor's Majestic March

When was this?

RG:I guess it must be a couple years now. Because I've been working solid on this since December of '07, so I'd say six or so months before that was when they first starting talking about doing this.

Obviously at this point, the Wii was around, so it was always for that platform to begin with?

RG: Yes. And they wanted a music game.

Given how the music genre was starting to really take off, did they want another title similar to PaRappa or something more like Guitar Hero?

RG: Well I think they had a couple things in mind, but they were really hoping that Matsuura would come up with something so totally different. Which he did! [laughs] Much to their surprise!

Was it one of those things where when they finally saw it, they went "Okay... Well, so how in the hell are we going to market this?"

RG: I really can't tell you what they thought, but they were surprised, that's for sure. Marching wasn't on their radar as what a music game would be, I have to guess. [laugh]

Last we spoke, I recall you be pretty burnt out with video games, and not really wanting anything to do with them anymore. What was the one thing that sold you on coming back? The chance to work with an old friend? A brand new platform?

RG: I think actually it was Majesco. I liked the guys who were running the project, I liked them immediately. They seemed really open. A lot of my troubles from the past just came from the same sort of culture clash that happens in Japan to everyone who goes to work there.

Mostly the strange ways decisions get made in Japan; its not like they're that much stranger than here, its just we know our own culture, we know why our people do things, or at least can try to understand. While in Japan, it was always a little disconcerting because, it's not like I want a lot of control, but I kind of want to know generally where I'm going and what I should be doing. And it was hard to find out sometimes in Japan, at least at Sony.

And it was also this huge collaboration, and I was really hoping to get back into the studio and just get back to being by myself. So I was a little tired of the whole set-up... I had been doing it for a while.


Last time you mentioned how during PaRappa 2, you felt a bit lost in the shuffle. Here was this big property hat you had to fuel. "Okay Rodney, just make us characters so we can produce toys and cartoons!" You had no control over the art afterwards.

RG: Yeah, but it wasn't even Sony behind all that. Just a lot of things that happen when something gets so big. There were just too many people involved. And it was really hard to weed through the decision making process.

If you wanted to change something, and even if you knew everyone knew it had to be changed, it was really hard to figure out how that was going to get done.

Whereas here, when I met the Majesco guys, I realized I could talk to them, and chat about whatever. They had a real good sense of my work... even my fine art work.

And they really know the business very well. They know how to balance what they know will reasonably sell, along with more cutting edge stuff. They develop their own games, along with publishing ports of Japanese stuff...

I think it's a great business model, because it isn't riding everything on just one thing.

When we were working on PlayStation, it always felt like we were trying to make mega hits, these big games, and it was a lot of pressure.

Do you sense a lot of pressure here? It's a small company, they put a lot of faith in you, and it's something very different. Even compared to many other Wii games out there, it's very different...

RG: [laughs] Well I don't feel that pressure on myself, because it's been very clear what my jobs have been, and I have managed to deliver everything that has been wanted. So I feel I did my best, and they've been satisfied with all the materials I've given.

I think because it got delayed, there's more pressure to get it all done... right now, I'm struggling with a few little things, like the packaging and all those kind of details. But it's not any more pressure than I'm used to.

When first speaking with Majesco about Major Minor, they were quite proud of having you on board, and stressed that you oversaw every single element of its production, including the packaging.

RG: Yup. They've been really good about that. And where I've wanted to change things, they definitely let me say what I've had to say and it went out to everyone that needed to hear it. And if Matsuura didn't agree, everyone knew that as well. There weren't any personal struggles; it was all out in the open.

Can you describe what it's like to work with Matsuura? Is it any different now as before? Since PaRappa, NanaOn-Sha has evolved; they're now more business oriented to a certain extent. You described him as a rock star last time, but we all mature, we all get older and wiser...

RG: Well he's like an older rock star now! [laughs] I don't know, he's an amazing person, I'm so lucky to have worked with him. You never know what he's going to say or do. He's really hard to read, hard to get a handle on.

There's no pattern, it's like he's always letting things evolve, always challenging people. So, sometimes he's really challenging to work for, and then sometimes it's such a pleasure, because it's so much fun. You never know what's going to happen and what he really wants it to be.

I gather that perhaps he was sometimes a tad bit too unpredictable?

RG: [laughs] Well, things just get done different in Japan, so I always take that into consideration when I hear part of some plan and don't fully understand it. They're looking at the world in a different way than how I look at it, and I have to take that into consideration.

I'm a hired worker basically, and a co-designer, and I have my assignments which I try to fill, and if I feel there needs to be changes, I just tell them. If they ask me to make up something, like a character that's a placeholder, I can do whatever I want.

What exactly was the workflow? Since Matsuura's ideas mostly drove the project, aside from character designs, what else did you contribute?

RG: Throughout every game, Matsuura and his team have some rough ideas and they ask me to make some sketches. I usually give them a bunch of roughs of different directions, and then they just start to narrow it down. That's pretty much been the flow.

And once they have the characters that they like, I then have to do different poses and positions, all the technical materials that the model builders and animators need. It hasn't changed that much, except in this game it went much smoother because we know each other well.

Have you ever found yourself frustrated as someone who does work for a video game, providing the art? Since you're not able to program, if something is not moving or looking the way that you envision it, that could be frustrating. Hopefully you'll be able to help fine-tune things, but are things ever exactly as you envision it in your mind, right?

RG: The animators and 3D model makers I worked with on this game have been great and I haven't had any difficulties with them. The place where I've been frustrated with the most is the writing. In all the games I've been on.

I have shared ideas that have been used in the writing and have told the writers what I think the characters should be like, and it has always been put under consideration.

Sometimes I like to give them a character design that's really outside of what they thought, but they love it, so hey just change the story to incorporate it. That's sorta my way of getting involved in that process, in a roundabout fashion.


I also remember last time you mentioning a Rodney meter that was developed. "If Rodney can play this, then we're going in the right direction."

RG: Yes, that was in PaRappa 2. There's an easy mode, which was originally called the Rodney Mode, because it was so hard for me to test my own levels. So I would complain that I couldn't see anything, because I just wasn't a happening gamer.

Eventually they caved in and added an easy mode, but they also decided it was good because a lot of people also complained that UmJammer was too hard, so in PaRappa 2 you'll notice that there's this practice mode. That was originally the Rodney Mode.

I recall how the music stops all of a sudden and the game then goes, "Alright kids, let's do this nice and easy!"

RG: [laughs] Yup, that was for me!

Is there something similar in Major Minor? Because I've played the game, and I think it's actually pretty hard.

RG: I think it's pretty hard too. I really don't know, I've only played it a few times, and I didn't do very well, but like anything, it takes practice and coordination to get it just right.

It's actually kinda somewhat like PaRappa in how it does take getting used to the controller, getting a feel for it.

It's such a different way of playing a video game, yet actually close to what it's supposed to mimic. It's harder, but it's conceptually acceptable, because this is how it really works in real life -- as opposed to a rapper or a musician hitting a bunch of arbitrary buttons.

RG: That's true! I actually hadn't thought about that. A drum major does lead the tempo. But it's just so crazy in the game, when the music begins to slow down and speed up.

It's the most bizarre sounding thing. When I first heard about it, I really didn't think it was going to work. It was really hard to know how it would play exactly.

And they actually had trouble getting the first test version of the game to run. The programming that's involved is amazing, and to tweak it down so. Because there's a lag time between the motion and the music, they had to compensate for all that.

In the beginning it was too exact; you really had to be precise. It was much harder, so they've been refining it over all these months.

I really didn't know what to think. From working with Matsuura all these years, I know that I just have to have an open mind and let him and his team work it out. Because even with PaRappa, hearing that it was going to be 2D characters dancing around in a 3D space, I was like "Okay... we'll just have to see how all that looks."


Sony/NanaOn-Sha's Parappa the Rapper

I guess there's enough faith at this point that whatever happens, it'll all just work out in the end.

RG: Yeah. Matsuura is a perfectionist. He really doesn't let anything just slide in there that's not right. Which is why the game has had all these delays.

Do you feel more inspired to make games now, or would it have to be under certain conditions?

RG: Well, I really don't know. I guess I've toyed with the idea of building my own games. I've talked a little bit to Majesco about the possibility, but we'll just have to see. I like being in my studio and doing my studio art, and if I can do both, I'd be really happy.

I'll definitely take a break for a while, like this summer. I'm hoping to go back and do some work there. But in the fall, I'll start listening to the different waves that wash over me, and if the time is right to do another game or not.

Well, before you hooked up with Matsuura, you did create your own interactive programs on the Mac, in the early 90s.

RG: Well, I was so inspired at the time. The CD-ROM era was so do-it-yourself, getting your fingers into it, I really loved that. It's a bit harder to do that today, with consoles.

Have you explored the idea of a browser game or maybe even an iPhone game?

RG: Yeah sure, I love Flash. I've been getting back to learning it again. Actually, did I just say I loved Flash? Because that's really not true! [laughs] Flash is a very painful tool to have to use!

But I'm just staring to work on my website for a little bit, and put some Flash stuff back in. So who knows after that?

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