Patapon is a brilliant and adorable mash up of rhythm and strategy originally released on Sony PSP back in 2008. This game revolutionized rhythm games, and that’s not just hyperbole; it literally turned the genre around.
What I mean is most rhythm games are reactionary: music plays, notes fly across the screen, and you press the right buttons or slide your finger on the screen in keeping with that tune. In Patapon, the player creates the music himself and it’s the game elements that must react to him.
By “game elements,” I mostly mean the Patapons themselves: little tribal eyeball creatures that are as ferocious as they are fun-loving. You play the role of The Great Patapon, a kind of deity who leads them by beating away at the drums to communicate orders. A different sound is linked to each of the four face buttons. So, for example, pressing square-square-square-circle (PATA PATA PATA PON) instructs your tribe to move forward. Circle-circle-square-circle (PON PON PATA PON) is how you say “attack!”
The tricky part is that you can’t rush it, even if you just gave an attack order and desperately need to call your Patapons back before a giant sandworm crushes them; neither can you change the song half-way through drumming it. You have to know what your followers should be doing for the next meter or two of music, because breaking the rhythm will send them into disarray and often defeat. This forces you to pay attention what’s going on and read your enemy’s movements before picking a song. But once you keep the beat for a while and your Patapons hit “Fever” mode you know you’re in the zone. The music starts to amp up, the Patapons chant along with you like a chorus of frenzied warrior poets, their abilities becoming unstoppable, you become unstoppable, and you truly feel like a god among the Patapons.
The ultimate goal of your tribe is to reach Earthend to find “IT.” But there is a lot of world between Patapolis and Earthend. Plus there are deserts to cross, monsters to slay, and the rival Zigaton tribe to defeat. Fortunately, the Patapons have ways to meet almost any challenge head-on.
There are several different types of Patapons you can recruit. Expecting some flaming dragon’s breath? The defensive Tatepons can shield their comrades. Need to drop a little firepower of your own? The Yumipons can black out the sun with a rain of arrows. Each Patapon can be equipped with spoils recovered from previous raids. But no matter how good your gear, you always need to know what you’re going up against and have the right plan to handle it.
It’s enjoyable to watch your army swell from one stage to another as new kinds of Patapons also become available. Some stages even throw in special units, like a catapult or a legendary Patapon hero to help you. At the same time, new songs become available giving you more command options and even a few “miracles” you can summon, like a fire quenching rainstorm. It can get confusing – trying to pay attention to the action, pick the right song, remember the buttons for that song, all while maintaining rhythm – but it’s remarkably fun when you pull it all off.
It’s also just fun to watch your Patapons just doing what they do. The game’s art style is truly unique (though it’s been impersonated by numerous games since). Despite the simple silhouettes, it conveys tons of personality in every little Patapon, animal, and obstacle along the way. It’s also functional, since you can easily discern every Patapon on the screen, what kind of unit it is, and even their mood based on the expression of their one big eye.
The only complaint I have is that the game has some monotonous moments, particularly at the beginning and end of some stages where you have to repeat the marching song eight or nine times. It
gets stuck a little deeper in my head every time. It’s also annoying that you can occasionally go on a hunt only to find an entirely desolate stage with nothing to attack. Though
that could be due to something I’m unintentionally doing that scares off the wildlife.
Patapon isn’t just an original concept with brilliant execution; it’s a classic game that offers something to a lot of different players. Rhythm is the mechanic behind the controls, but cunning strategy and keeping your cool is how you win, even if you’re not great at keeping time with the beat.
What other games have you played that do something out of the ordinary with rhythm mechanics? Tell us about it in the comments!