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The rhythm method

Patapon  bangs the drum slowly
By MITCH KRPATA  |  March 18, 2008
2.5 2.5 Stars

LESS IS MORE: But what good is a music game when the music gets tiresome after 20 minutes of play?

Patapon | for Playstation Portable | Rated E for Everyone | Developed By SCE Japan | Published By Sony Computer Entertainment
Rhythm games have a proud and noble tradition as one of the most innovative genres around, going back at least to the day in 1997 when a cartoon dog named PaRappa rapped his way into our hearts with his constant refrain of “I gotta believe!” Since then, we’ve been treated to the cardiovascular punishment of Dance Dance Revolution, the psychedelic freakouts of Rez, and the transcendent wankery of Guitar Hero. But after launching the modern age of music games with PaRappa the Rapper, Sony Computer Entertainment is, once again, the company that best marries button-mashing rhythmic gameplay with innovative visuals and an offbeat story line. There’s just one problem with Patapon, and it’s a fatal one: the music is terrible.

If all you saw of Patapon were the game screen, you might not grasp the concept. It looks like a sidescrolling action adventure, with squads of little creatures called Patapons advancing across the screen from left to right and attacking anything in their way. There are RPG elements, too, as you can acquire different items to power up your Patapons. The key difference? You control them not with a directional pad but by keeping a beat.

By my count, this is the second time such a thing has been tried, after Donkey Kong Jungle Beat for the Nintendo GameCube. That game was a little more forgiving, according you the freedom to control characters by mapping the usual controls onto the ’Cube’s bongo drums peripheral. In Patapon, you give commands to your squads by tapping out different sequences. Each button causes a different sound: the square is for “Pata” and the circle is for “Pon.” To order your troops to advance, you drum “Pata-pata-pata-pon”; to attack, it’s “Pon-pon-pata-pon.” The drumming all takes place in straight-ahead 4/4 time, never varying.

That’s Patapon’s greatest weakness, as well as its strength. The music takes a call-and-response form, with the chipper little Patapons chanting their orders after you input them. If you string together commands without missing a beat, their power increases; trip up the rhythm and they weaken. The emphasis on keeping time like a metronome can lead to a hypnotic gameplay experience. There’s something zen-like about adhering to a rigid beat regardless of the mayhem taking place on screen. The problem is that the rhythm never changes. Not once. What good is a music game when the music gets tiresome after 20 minutes of play?

And that’s too bad, because what’s happening on screen is delightful. The visual æsthetic is more interesting than anything that’s landed on consoles recently. Characters and foreground objects are largely monochromatic silhouettes, and the backgrounds are rendered with clean lines and subtle gradients. Patapons themselves seem to be nothing more than giant eyeballs with stick-figure arms and legs. More charming still are the speech bubbles that mark the battle cries of your Patapons and their foes, the Zigotons. Less is definitely more in this case.

But when it comes to the between-mission status upgrades and inventory management, more is unfortunately less. After just a few missions, your Patapons will have acquired so many spoils of war that your inventory menus will become untenable. Worse still, losing Patapons on the field of battle can result in your having to resurrect them using certain hard-to-find items. Before each new mission, you have the option of equipping each type of Patapon with its own unique weapons and armor — all of which affects what happens on the battlefield. It’s a lot of work when you just want to bang on the drum all day.

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