When putting together a list of my favorite video games of all time, one of the titles that consistently breaks my top 5 and has yet to leave is Patapon 2. Standing alongside games like the original Bioshock, Nier Gestalt, and Earthbound is a PSP game about using war drums to command a singing army of eyeball creatures. My particular enjoyment with the Patapon games (specifically 1 & 2) is something I’ve hawked for years but have yet to actually articulate, so why not finally do so?
The original Patapon was released in 2007, during a time when PSP developers realized that yes, you can develop games specific to the console that aren’t janky action games (ports like Tomb Raider, Star Wars Battlefront or otherwise) that function better with two analogue sticks. A direct sequel was released two years later, and the final game in the trilogy came out in 2011. The games were iconic enough to warrant a bizarrely specific stage appearance in Playstation All-Stars, wherein the patapon beat the tar out of God of War’s version of Hades. 2017 brought an HD remaster of Patapon 1, with a remaster of 2 following a year after. Oh, and apparently the games were popular enough to warrant a Chinese knock-off iOS/Android game called Patapon-Siege of Wow!.
To really understand my general affection for the Patapon games, sans 3, the series needs to be broken down to its individual parts. First and foremost is the game’s art direction. The game was designed by Rolito, a French artist who originally created the patapons themselves as little recurring characters for his website, Rolitoland. Rolito’s art style in general is striking and unique. He utilizes vectors to create sort of a ‘flat’ design in the foreground with a multilayered background to create an illusion of depth. Additionally, Rolito prefers to dabble with the abstract with his designs – the patapons themselves are essentially eyeballs with arms and legs and they fight monsters like a walking cannon-spewing fortress, a giant farting phoenix/emu, and a sandworm, because it’s not a desert area in a video game without sandworms. Rolito’s design work was so striking that he was approached by the game’s producer, Hiroyuki Kotani, who was immediately enamored by Rolito’s artistry.
The actual music in Patapon is…unique, and I mean that in a good way. The music blends a mix of percussion choices on top of a base of African-styled instrumentals. Apparently, getting the accompanying music to flow with the lyrics mirroring the input commands was difficult for the developers, but sound designer Kemmei Adachi was able to find a workaround. Also, for the longest time I always thought the patapon’s singing voices sounded like chanting children, which apparently is half-true! Under Kotani’s direction, his son provided the singing for the patapons and he was able to provide a range of voice overs to add depth to the game and give the illusion that multiple patapons were singing.
Patapon’s hybrid system as one-part rhythm game and one-part RTS is a mix that I’ve yet to see implemented elsewhere. Okay, yes, there is the Jungle Rumble app/vita game that proudly wears its Patapon and Rhythm Heaven influences on its sleeve, but it’s not a mashup you see often. As I mentioned previously in my Muse Dash review, Harmoknight attempted to be a rhythm game/platformer mix, and the more popular Crypt of the Necrodancer utilizes rhythm game elements mixed with roguelike elements. Anyway, yes Patapon is/was pretty unique for its time.
The basic gameplay structure of Papatapon involves banging war drums to the beat of the music in order to issue commands to your army. You start off with basic orders like moving forward, attacking and taking a defensive stance, with later commands adding the ability to jump, quickly retreat to the left of the screen, and…dancing, which cures status effects. The mechanics are pretty straightforward but requires tactical judgement especially in boss fights where misreading a boss’s action can potentially wipe out a good chunk of your standing army.
Your army can be customized down to the individual patapon unit. The patapons can assume specific job classes, with the defaults being the Yaripons (spear), Yumipons (bow), and Tatepons (sword and shield), though you can later unlock units like the Toripons, who ride on birds and throw javelins, and the mildly-creepy bard-like Megapons, who attack by playing with giant horns. The individual units can be equipped with job-class specific weapons, shields or helms. Furthermore, the patapons can evolve into Rarepons, which grant them animal-like characteristics with increases in stats and/or status effect abilities. If you want to raise an entire army composed of frog and dragon patapons and set everything in the immediate radius on fire, you absolutely can.
The 2nd game adds the Hero Unit, a masked patapon with special abilities. Depending on his job class, the hero unit can unleash special attacks if you get command beats perfectly, like throwing an exploding javelin or granting temporary immunity to all attacks. You can also collect additional masks for the hero using 2’s multiplayer mode, wherein you run missions with other hero units. Sadly, since my friends weren’t cultured, I played the multiplayer mode on my own, using the surprisingly-not-terrible AI-controlled characters.
Patapon 1 and 2 offer an overly specific blend of really charming graphics and design with addicting gameplay that allows for really specific levels of finetuning. I’m not much of an RTS fan, but once you have the song commands memorized, you can slide into a cozy habit alternating between hunting and farming materials to enhance your standing army and progressing the game by beating on bosses or raiding enemy strongholds. When I originally played 2 during a stressful time in high school, I devoted far too much of my time to min-maxing all the minigames, which netted me the best equipment in the game and more hero masks than I logistically needed. Also, yes, I played 2 first, so my bias towards that game is strong for a reason. While I do enjoy 1, which I played years later, I think 2 in general is a better game. Patapon 1 still holds up but has some annoyances like perma-death risks towards the end of the game, which can result in the loss of valuable Rarepons. 2 took 1’s base and greatly expanded on the mechanics and improved quality-of-life features.
So, what was the problem with Patapon 3?
Well, you know the aforementioned multiplayer mode from 2 I talked about earlier? Apparently, the developers wanted to expand on that mode for 3, which ended up overhauling most of the gameplay, for the worse. Gone are the days of having a huge army and micromanaging their assets, and instead you get a much smaller group to work with and tacked-on RPG mechanics that make the game a slog. 3 reduced the game to 4 primary fighters and encouraged leveling up and farming materials to unlock advanced job classes but doing so made the game needlessly grindy and boring. As I said before, the nice parts about the first two games was finding a nice balance between item farming and progressing the game, whereas 3 seemed to toss that balance out the window. Since I continue to not have cultured friends who want to experience the joys of eyeball armies, I had to attempt to brave 3’s cruddy gameplay for about 10 hours before finally bowing out. Ultimately the main reason I am so cynical in my current age is watching my beloved Patapon series become the villain instead of dying as a hero.