Time Ex­tend

The mar­riage of god sim and rhythm game that re­mains PSP’s catchi­est tune


Re­vis­it­ing Pat­apon, the mar­riage of god sim and rhythm game that re­mains PSP’s catchi­est tune

Adecade ago, Pat­apon achieved a mi­nor mir­a­cle. Upon its re­lease in 2007, it trans­formed Sony’s sorely un­ro­man­tic PlayS­ta­tion Por­ta­ble (which had be­come a dump­ing ground for pass­able hand­held ports of the likes of Mon­ster Hunter and

GTAIII) into some­thing more mag­i­cal than tech­ni­cal, a totem grant­ing the wielder not just con­trol but mys­ti­cal au­thor­ity over an­other realm. Tap the face but­tons and drum beats ring out, deep­en­ing in tim­bre the closer they cor­re­spond to the flash­ing of the screen. A horde of cu­ri­ous, heav­ily armed eye­ball crea­tures shrills a verse in re­ply, ad­vanc­ing across a land­scape of inky mono­liths and pas­tel-shaded trees that owes a lit­tle to Mayan ar­chi­tec­ture and a debt to Dr Seuss. Dif­fer­ent drum com­bi­na­tions in­spire the horde to at­tack, hurl them­selves back­wards or form up be­hind a shield wall. At first the cho­rus is me­chan­i­cal, dogged – the chant­ing of oars­men in a gal­ley. But af­ter ten eight-bar rep­e­ti­tions, Fever mode is trig­gered, sup­port­ing in­stru­men­tal parts fade in, and the Pat­apons en­ter a state of ec­stasy, whoop­ing and throw­ing in their own giddy phrases be­tween verses. Your dis­ci­ples hit harder while Fever is ac­tive, but it’s also harder to fol­low the beat. Mess up an in­put and the army will stum­ble to a con­fused halt, wide open to a coun­ter­at­tack.

Pat­apon is, among other things, a de­light­ful sub­ver­sion of the god sim – one which es­chews the top-down man­ual cam­era beloved of west­ern stu­dios like Bull­frog in favour of a side-on view that is both a work­around for the PSP’s stunted ana­logue nub and a play­ful med­i­ta­tion on the na­ture of di­vin­ity. This, surely, is how a de­ity would per­ceive the mor­tal plane, not just as geog­ra­phy glis­ten­ing far be­neath one’s ce­les­tial san­dals but as a more prim­i­tive di­men­sion, com­pressed and un­real. The Pat­apon lan­guage is largely ono­matopoeic, a Ja­panese vo­cal­i­sa­tion of drum beats, so to play the game is to hear mo­tifs re­peat­edly trans­lated from one medium to an­other, mir­ror­ing the trans­la­tion of divine in­sight into holy writ.

The view­point also gives rise to a play­ful en­twin­ing of de­sign and in-game mythol­ogy that is open to be­ing taken as re­li­gious satire with­out in­sist­ing on it. The Pat­apons are on a pil­grim­age to Earthend, lo­cated at the far right of the strip of weather-beaten parch­ment that is the world map; there, they hope to en­counter the fa­bled ‘IT’, a con­duit to eter­nal hap­pi­ness. Their ri­vals the Zig­o­tons, how­ever, be­lieve that should the Pat­apons ever gaze upon ‘IT’ the uni­verse will de­scend into chaos. So be­gins a fun­da­men­tal­ist tug-of-war that is ev­ery bit as lu­di­crous as any real-life tus­sle over a mi­nor point of scrip­ture. While prob­a­bly not di­rectly in­flu­en­tial, Pat­apon’s gov­ern­ing con­ceits look for­ward to the philo­soph­i­calplat­former genre epit­o­mised by Play­dead’s

Limbo and In­side, in which some form of spir­i­tual cathar­sis or clo­sure is al­ways just a lit­tle fur­ther to the right.

Pat­apon is the brain­child of Hiroyuki Kotani, a long-serv­ing but not es­pe­cially well-known Sony de­signer whose ca­reer be­gan with Su­per Fam­i­con RPG Dual Orb II in 1994. The Pat­apons them­selves, how­ever, were orig­i­nally con­ceived by French artist Se­bastien ‘Rolito’ Gi­uli as an­i­mated fix­tures for his pro­fes­sional web­site in 2002. Kotani has sug­gested that the en­tire game arose from con­tem­pla­tion of Rolito’s de­signs – “Cute but at the same time kind of prim­i­tive, with a wild charm,” as he put it to Sil­i­con­era in 2008 – but the con­cept also owes some­thing to his com­pa­ra­bly whim­si­cal 2002 rhythm game, Mad Mae­stro, and read­ings of west­ern genre fan­tasy, specif­i­cally the idea of a rite of pas­sage into an un­earthly realm. One of the first things you do in the game is sign a con­tract, promis­ing to guide the Pat­apon tribe to Earthend, re­call­ing how Bas­tian in The Nev­erend­ing Story must read a mag­i­cal tome in or­der to open a path to the do­min­ion of the Child­like Em­press.

This quirk­ily le­gal­is­tic over­ture has a dis­tanc­ing ef­fect, as does the Pat­apon tribe’s aware­ness of the fact that its de­ity is, in fact, a player – fudge a drum beat or in­struct the army to at­tack some­thing that has moved out of reach, and you’ll at­tract sar­cas­tic re­ac­tions in speech bubbles. This may sound like heresy, per the

school of thought which holds that all points of rup­ture be­tween player and world must be steamed out through a com­bi­na­tion of sheer over­work and high­fi­delity graph­ics tech­nol­ogy. In prac­tice, though, drama­tis­ing your en­trance into the uni­verse only adds to the il­lu­sion, and the idea of en­gag­ing in a bois­ter­ous di­a­logue of sorts in­fuses a broadly fa­mil­iar re­la­tion­ship be­tween player and min­ion with un­usual sym­pa­thetic force. In this re­gard, Pat­apon feels like a game de­signer’s med­i­ta­tion on the prac­tice of call-and-re­sponse in African mu­sic, a har­mo­nious ex­change that re­in­forces the bonds be­tween mem­bers of com­mu­nity while play­ing up dif­fer­ences of sta­tus.

Blur­ring ideas from re­al­time strat­egy, role-play­ing games and 2D beat ’em ups,

Pat­apon’s core is at once in­tu­itive and ar­cane. There are only a hand­ful of com­mands you can is­sue – at­tack, re­treat, march, bunker up, and trig­gers for var­i­ous spe­cial abil­i­ties – and they ap­ply to the en­tire army, so it’s im­pos­si­ble to, say, or­der a squad of spear-throw­ing Yaripons to run away from a fiery bom­bard­ment while shield-armed Tatepons dig in. This in­abil­ity to do more than bash out the score is frus­trat­ing to be­gin with. Dif­fer­ent Pat­apon units move at dif­fer­ent speeds, so to is­sue the at­tack or­der too of­ten is to risk stretch­ing your forces out – it’s com­mon for slower, tougher war­riors like the brutish Dekapon to fall be­hind the flimsy cav­alry they’re sup­posed to be pro­tect­ing. But af­ter a few clashes, you learn the art of com­pen­sat­ing for your army’s oc­ca­sional in­co­her­ence, de­vel­op­ing a gen­eral’s feel for the tim­ing of of­fen­sive and de­fen­sive ma­noeu­vres even as you com­mit those catchy drum phrases to mus­cle mem­ory.

The game’s boss en­coun­ters bring all this to a head. Be­tween sor­ties against the Zig­o­tons, you’ll pitch the Pat­apon army against myth­i­cal crea­tures with dis­tinct at­tack pat­terns. These en­coun­ters – all re­playable at tougher dif­fi­cul­ties for greater re­wards – are the game’s most spec­tac­u­lar, as the Pat­apon van­guard swirls around the feet of di­nosaurs and golems like the Lil­liputians of Gul­liver’s Trav­els, nip­ping and jab­bing. They’re also a nicely dis­guised bat­tle of the bands. Boss pat­terns may fall out of sync with the back­ing beat, throw­ing you off at a crit­i­cal junc­ture – a sand­worm re­peat­edly smash­ing its belly against the earth is as much an as­sault on your sense of tempo as it is on any Pat­apons un­for­tu­nate enough to be clus­tered nearby. Such bruis­ing en­gage­ments aside,

Pat­apon also dis­proves the as­sump­tion that rhythm-ac­tion games are breezy, skin-deep af­fairs by way of its pro­gres­sion sys­tem, which sees you breed­ing and out­fit­ting new Pat­apon va­ri­eties be­tween mis­sions us­ing the spoils of war. This gives the game more longevity, but does cre­ate a slightly un­wel­come el­e­ment of grind. If re­play­ing boss bat­tles in hopes of a rare min­eral is a


thrill, the same can’t be said for ‘ hunt’ mis­sions in which you chase down in­of­fen­sive fauna. The ex­pe­ri­ence is at its most grip­ping when in­tri­ca­cies of this sort are con­veyed through the ears and fin­ger­tips, rather than served up to the player in the te­dious shape of char­ac­ter statis­tics and loot drops. The fo­cus on mu­sic also charges lulls in the ac­tion with eerie power. Fail a mis­sion, and you may be un­set­tled by the si­lence that greets you when you re­turn to the Pat­apon camp.

Pat­apon ends with the dis­cov­ery that Earthend is, in fact, merely the ocean and ‘IT’, the ris­ing sun, a spec­ta­cle that sym­bol­i­cally co­in­cides with the Pat­apons gaz­ing away from the player, into the sud­denly per­cep­ti­ble depths of the back­drop. The game would have less trou­ble cross­ing oceans in re­al­ity – with two se­quels to its name, it stands as an im­prob­a­ble ex­am­ple of a un­mis­take­ably Ja­panese ti­tle that has in­ter­na­tional reach, though its sales fell pre­dictably well short of the likes of GTA. Pat­apon also, thus, stands as a mark of what the mod­er­ately pop­u­lar PSP could have been had it man­aged to di­vorce it­self from the shadow of PS2 and Sony’s broader mul­ti­me­dia em­pire, which looked upon the de­vice as a 21st cen­tury Walk­man. The al­most ag­gres­sively de­light­ful Lo­coRoco is the ob­vi­ous com­pan­ion piece – it, too, makes a virtue of in­di­rect­ness, ask­ing you to tip the world with the shoul­der but­tons in or­der to pro­pel smil­ing, singing jelly­baby crea­tures past a va­ri­ety of preda­tors and deadly plant-life. It’s dif­fi­cult to trace the shadow of ei­ther se­ries to­day, with Sony’s hand­held busi­ness at large in the dol­drums, but they can, per­haps, be con­sid­ered part of an on­go­ing pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the idea of game­play as a ne­go­ti­a­tion with fic­tional en­ti­ties, rather than the mun­dane and in­her­ently cal­lous act of ex­ert­ing your will. As with Fu­mito Ueda’s

The Last Guardian, which en­tered ac­tive de­vel­op­ment dur­ing the year of Pat­apon’s re­lease, Kotani’s pe­cu­liar yet har­mo­nious hy­brid makes the process of woo­ing un­ruly, semi-au­ton­o­mous crea­tures part of the fun. It’s a ti­tle that un­der­stands that game worlds are of­ten most en­tic­ing when they’re a lit­tle dis­obe­di­ent, a lit­tle im­petu­ous; when they re­quire you to de­velop a feel for un­der­ly­ing rhythms, rather than sim­ply drum­ming every­body into line.

As long as your re­doubtable stan­dard bearer Hat­apon is alive, your army can carry on fight­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, he can’t at­tack or de­fend him­self

Rare­pons are va­ri­eties of Pat­apon un­locked by spend­ing re­sources dur­ing minigames in be­tween mis­sions. They have bet­ter base stats than the rank and file, but can’t equip hel­mets

There are a few named char­ac­ters and the odd cutscene to reckon with, but the saga is hardly con­vo­luted. Se­quels would pile up the backstory

Re­treat com­mands must be timed care­fully – the Pat­apons will surge back into po­si­tion af­ter the move com­pletes, even if an enemy’s at­tack is still un­fold­ing

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