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
FAIL A MISSION, AND YOU MAY BE UNSETTLED BY THE SILENCE THAT GREETS YOU WHEN YOU RETURN TO THE CAMP
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