The day has come. Vib Ribbon, a 1999 cult-music game by PaRappa the Rapper creator Masaya Matsuura, has finally made it to North America. Sony just released the cult oddity on the PlayStation Network for the first time, giving players like me the chance to purchase, download, and own it on any of their North American consoles.
Vib Ribbon, to North Americans, is a virtual ghost. For a while it was experienced through small magazine thumbnails, stray blog posts, and second-hand hearsay from a friend of a friend of a friend of an email pen-pal who got an exported copy from Italy. I first encountered it through its distorted, catchy pop tunes posted on some really nerdy music sharing sites a while back.
Within the first twenty-minutes of playing, I realized I had painted myself into an antiquated technological corner, because the game came out when most people bought music from… Oh, what were they called? Oh yeah, stores. I only got around to playing it last year at the Ontario Science Centre. It can also be found in the MoMA, but to play it in the comfort of your own home is surreal in itself.
The game was as uncanny then as it is now. You play as Vibri, a transforming, polygonal cartoon rabbit, tightrope walking the beats of a song. There are four main types of obstacles, pits, spikes, walls, and loops, which can be hopped over using four different buttons.
That simplicity doesn't last long, as these obstacles not only increase in frequency, but merge, and the stages develop psych-outs like coming from the opposite direction, sliding along the plane or rotating along the line like ham on a BBQ spit.
The levels and their traps are not only synchronized with the songs that came in the game, but any song your heart desired. Using the same disc-swap mechanic that Monster Rancher popularized as its gimmick, you can play any song from your Mothers of Invention collection, or bullhorn entire Grateful Dead albums from start to finish. The game is really up to you.
"PaRappa's music is mainly hip hop and, although the sales would say otherwise, I felt that there were people who wouldn't really appreciate the style," Matsuura told me. "I thought, aside from the visual aspect of the performing artists themselves, music with a concrete style also comes with a concrete visual world. In order to avoid this stereotypical image seeking, I felt the need to create a visual world that completely contradicts this idea, and this resulted in the unique visual style of Vib Ribbon."
The game was name dropped multiple times during Sony's keynote at the annual E3 video game convention this year—but without any indication of the game having a future. Shawn Layden reminisced about the title as a hallmark of the company's past, which puzzled many of the people watching who never had the pleasure to play the damn thing. In October, months later, Layden made an unusually blunt apology:
The game released in Japan and Europe, but in the Americas not so much as a demo. Vib Ribbon is the 'one that got away.' It was not my intention to rub salt in the Vib Ribbon wound, but to express my admiration for it as the genre-busting title it is and was. My mistake was that I had assumed that everyone who had been around in the original PlayStation era would have had their chance to play the game. I had forgotten that the American gamer was effectively denied the opportunity. To mention it at E3 was to delight some and to squirt lemon in the eyes of others.
This note was published with the announcement that the game would be finally released over PSN.
I. Did. Not. Wait. Once it came out.
For less than the price of a sandwich (or the price of a sandwich in Toronto, anyway) I downloaded a game I had been tantalized with for years. After beating the songs by house bands, I was struck by an immediate sinking feeling. In order to continue, just as you had when the game first came out in 1999, you needed to put in one of your own CDs. And I left all of mine at my parent's place.
Vinyl, I have, as well as MP3s doing their work to fill up my external hard drives. CDs? I live with the owner of a record store, and they don't even sell CDs. They even sell cassettes. I laughed off those… those things. Those caskets for digital tracks.
I am nothing if not a predictable twentysomething, who eventually forgot how many computers come out these days without a compact disc drive. How they must be laughing, CDs, how they must have been plotting this, writhing their hands waiting for the day I'd suffer their cold revenge.
My other roommate has some CDs, but the short stack read 'beggars can't be choosers.' I went with the only CD I recognized, because we bought it together from a party supply store going out of business. The album cover is a mock-beer can, made out of clip art of wheat and flags. Jughead's 1993 record 'Uncorked!' "The Original Motorgrass Band" reads the cover, in italics.
They're most popular for that song about hockey. No, not that one, the other one. That song is on this disc.
The obstacles in Vib Ribbon are created out of dynamic spikes in the audio waveform. Karma must have still been listening, because the jamboree tempo of Jughead made for exceptionally difficult levels. After failing and bailing several tracks, 'Monkey and the Hammer,' 'Stumblin Drunk' and the aforementioned Hockey song, I could no longer understand why I was putting myself through this.
Obviously you can't wedge a vinyl record into a PlayStation 3. Well, you could. I just would not recommend wedging a vinyl record into your PlayStation 3. When I mentioned this pickle to Matsuura, he jokingly pointed out that his own latest album also isn't available on disc, just vinyl and digital. If you wanted to play the newest music in Vib Ribbon made by Vib Ribbon's maker, you'd have to download the high resolution versions off SoundCloud, burn it on to a CD and pray the PlayStation cooperates.
I returned to my parent's place, under the guise of being a better son there to decorate the house for Halloween, when I was really just there to pry my bedroom closet open and scurry away with a bunch of old albums. And do some free laundry.
I came back home with a Spits album. I hopped around the albums seeing how the game functions with varying music, just how flexible it was. Seeing a cute, diamond-eyed bunny wabbit skip along to 'Rydeen' felt more appropriate than 'Fade to Black,' but my roommate, the one who donated Jughead, sat in and marvelled at the game. He was impressed by the game's tech, and didn't even know it came out in 1999.
"You could put on something like John Cage's 4'33" and just wait patiently for an obstacle to show up," said Matsuura. "That could be fun. When we we're developing the game, I tried out some of Brian Eno's stuff and some soft classical music, and sometimes there would be no obstacles whatsoever. You would be like 'anytime now!' but all you got to do was sit and watch until the song ended. That was interesting, I guess."
That 'moment,' the one I hoped to hit when I first installed Vib Ribbon, came during Prince's 'I Would Die 4 U.' Sure, playing the game to 'Darling Nikki' feels goofy and juvenile, getting shifty-eyed and chuckling, but boy is it fun to play with one of Prince's hop-around party pop masterpieces. It was hard, but it was tough on a great song. A song I love within a game I'm really enjoying.
Vib Ribbon is a testament to our multimedia collections ten years ago, the discs we had and the discs we wish we had. You think nostalgia hits you hard because you're playing an 8-bit game on an HD screen? Try out being forced to return to days gone by through a game that demands it. That's worth it.
"Sometimes games like Vib Ribbon require backing and belief that do not comport with the marketing wisdom of the day," wrote Layden. "Sometimes you get behind a project because, well, you gotta believe."