The best thing about the Tokyo Game Show is stumbling across gems like Patapon. Just as we were beginning to wonder whether the PSP was likely to to inspire us in any way again, along comes one of the most utterly fascinating games we've ever seen.
But once you realise that it's being developed by the team behind the enthralling LocoRoco, the penny drops. The dark, mischievous, gleefully malevolent art style. The demented, otherworldly sherbert dib-dab doo-wop soundtrack. The trippy child-like regression of Simon-Says meets The Flying Pickets in a confusingly addictive fusion of repetitive rhythm action-adventure gameplay... What drugs are these people on, and can we have some?
Finding out what the hell was going on with this game wasn't easy. The non-English-speaking Sony rep (dressed like a provocative air hostess) tried her best to help out, mainly by beating us over the head with a baton, but success was mainly a case of trial and plenty of error. Still. We pressed on in search of enlightenment.
Move over Total War
So what the hell is Patapon, and how do you describe the indescribable? Well, let's chalk off the basics. It's a horizontal side-scrolling affair, where you control a miniature army of what can be loosely described as a gaggle of flag carrying 'creatures'. As in, little critters lead by something with an eye that encompass its entire head and body, with tiny arms (that wields a spear!), and equally weeny stick legs.
In the three level demo on show, the premise was simple: get from left to right and defeat anything that crosses your path by effectively chanting two four-button sequences (in time with the 4/4 back beat) at your pon creatures until they march onwards and slay anything in their path. You wait for another four bar response and issue another command. It couldn't be simpler.
Whereas most games would be quite content to task you with pressing left or right to move, Patapon assigns certain chants to certain buttons, as if you're trying to maintain some sort of alien marching ritual. From what we experienced, circle was "Pata" and square was "Pon", so you'd find yourself (inexplicably) chanting "Pata Pata Pata Pon" to advance the banner man or "Pon, Pata, Pon Pon" to get your 'pons' to attack.
Forgive us if this turns out to be a lie. It's not the easiest game to accurately describe. No doubt the other PSP face button symbols come into play later on, and the game gets increasingly complex and challenging. That would seem logical, but then again it could just as easily turn into a jazz shooter, where the spaces between syncopated rhythms offer blasting opportunities [don't give them more lunatic ideas! - Ed].
Whatever, we'll iron out the fine details another time, but for now, what you basically get is the "new Vib Ribbon", where reaching the finishing line via button combos is the key gameplay mechanic.
That said, Patapon does appear to do things somewhat differently, in that it also involves slaying monsters ten times the size of your little pocket army, although, admittedly, it wasn't especially clear how we were disposing of them. That wasn't important. The key bit was the audio visual meltdown that we were witnessing, as if we were somehow actively participating in the mental breakdown of joyfully unhinged creatives.
It might sound horribly pretentious, or, at the very least, wilfully self indulgent. But who cares? Games are, we'd hope, primarily about entertaining people. Who cares how they go about doing that. Patapon certainly doesn't.
Patapon is a PSP exclusive, published by Sony, and developed by Japan Studio/Pyra-Mid. A European release date has yet to be confirmed, but we're assured it will be coming to our shores eventually.