Whereas any remaster of a past-gen game is bound to carry with it dated visual qualities however good the added gloss, as is absolutely the case with the returning PaRappa the Rapper, Mad Fellows' brand-new Aaero is immediately cool on a cursory impression. It's packed with big, busy polygons, bright particles that pop and sparkle across the screen, and fantastical, futuristic landscapes to fly into. You're a little spaceship thing, impossibly small against the odds, locking onto and destroying enemies of all shapes and sizes—some of which shoot back, so you'll need to eliminate those projectiles, too, by sweeping a target around with the right stick, Rez style.
It looks like a slick shooter, but is actually a rhythm action affair—your missiles impact in time to an array of bass-heavy tracks, and all the while a racing line of sorts must be stuck to, or else a substantial part of the song in question simply falls away to silence. So then, it's more than Rez in feel—when it's properly singing, tasking the player with navigating their ship on the left stick and lining up shots with the right, there's a rising whisper of Gitaroo Man to proceedings, just with more Katy B and Flux Pavilion, and less "Legendary Theme".
If you've played either Rez or Gitaroo Man, Aaero—which comes from a British studio formed of former FreeStyleGames employees, who know their way around the rhythm action genre after DJ Hero and its sequel—is going to feel at once fresh of sight and sound but familiar of feel. It hurtles along at a hectic pace, and there's a degree of song retention, not to mention muscle memory, necessary to crack its harder sequences, but the mechanics are essentially ones we saw back in the PlayStation 2 era. Follow this line to keep the song going, and destroy these targets before they either disappear or turn you into a smoldering heap of slag.
Granted, Aaero doesn't look a damn thing like Gitaroo Man—but the proof of the comparison is in the playing. Lines, lines, lines. And I'm not coming at this parallel from a negative perspective—it's good that a player who's been around the music games block a few times can very quickly click with how a new one handles, or else comes the disappointment of fighting against both a twisting track you've not previously encountered, in two senses, and the game's controls at the same time.
It makes absolute sense that Aaero builds on foundations laid long ago—to attempt to reinvent rhythm action today would necessitate a complete rethink of the controllers we use. (On topic: All the best to Hasbro and Harmonix's Dropmix, but I can't see it taking off.) But turning on a genuinely old game after spending an hour or two with Aaero does illustrate just how refined, how precise of on-the-beat button press and tight of melodic turn, rhythm action has become in the right hands.
PaRappa the Rapper's popularity in the original PlayStation period, and rose-tinted memories of it since, marked 1996's cutesy rhyme-along exercise as likely remaster-in-waiting long ago. But now that the remaster is out, its gameplay sequences cleaned up and looking sharper than ever (although the older FMV clips remain curiously fuzzy, and restricted to a small screen on your screen, 32X DOOM style), its shortcomings in a contemporary context are crushingly obvious.
There are only six main tracks (Aaero has 15, which can be practised at any time) for the player-controlled paper-thin puppy to rap along to. On a good run, you'll clear its childhood sweethearts story inside an hour. The bonus remixes cover smooth electro and boisterous rock, but as far as I can tell they stick to the same tempo as the originals, or at least very close to them, and the button prompts remain the same. There are no leaderboards to compare your efforts against your mates'. And the repeat-after-me method of virtual science dropping regularly has PaRappa's words sounding painfully stunted, which isn't helped at all by the game's own version of, I guess, collision detection.
Whereas in most rhythm games you want to hit the note dead on, here there's a need to delay just a fraction of a second to guarantee the best flow, and win through each stage. It's necessary, therefore, to reprogram your sense of rhythm, and hit each humorous couplet just a little late.
PaRappa the Rapper got a pass in the 1990s due to its innovative gameplay and cool cartoon visuals—and yeah, the songs were great fun, too, the first time you heard them. But held up beside Aaero, a game that's been made by just two people for the most part, it doesn't so much show its age as crumble into dust and blow away on the breeze. And that isn't because Aaero does anything especially new—just that what it does, it does very well, its demands exacting but never less than fair.
Imbalanced difficulty spikes in the remastered "classic", however, represent another area where it simply doesn't stand up to today's best rhythm action affairs—you'll hit the "Cooking Chicken's Rap" and wonder why your developing skills are now deemed so incredibly "Bad". If you can pass a driving test while rhyming, how come baking a cake's such a challenge? Turns out that rather than pausing just a sliver of time before pressing each button, here you actually have to go a little early. So much for consistency.
The more things change, in rhythm action, the more they stay the same, then. (The French say it better.) And so it's always been, really, this side of the PS2 years. In 2015, Guitar Hero Live tried to shake up the series formula with its new controller and "live" presentation—but, when all bells and whistles were stripped away, you were still keeping time with Kasabian using a fake plastic axe. The Amplitude remake of 2016 didn't deviate from the multi-track layout of the 2003 original. I suppose LOUD on Planet X was a bit different more a mash-up of music games past with tower defense titles—but it never felt like more than the sum of its Plants vs Zombies to the tunes of CHVRCHES parts.
And that's fine. Listen to the top 40 singles right now and tell me how much devastating originality you can hear. No need for me to wait: there's not a great deal. And really, realistically, all rhythm action games need to do is make their interfaces responsive and their music selection compelling—the rest is just window dressing. That's what Aaero achieves, and it comes recommended regardless of whether or not you're an everyday basshead. The PaRappa remaster, less positively, is absolutely a relic of the past, of the genre's hit-and-miss formative years, that only the most nostalgic need seek out. It was fresh once, sure, but so were "Ice Ice Baby" and "Do the Bartman" when I was 10 years old.