Gaming can be dull. When you look along the shelves and see endless first-person shooters, each of them a variation on the same grey landscapes and multiplayer modes, am I the only person who yearns for originality? Am I unique in wanting bright, colourful games with a sense of FUN? Katamari Damacy (in Japanese Katamari Damashii, literal translation “clump soul”) and its sequels typify what I want. The clever control method, the beautiful cartoon worlds and the quirky sense of humour make it an unforgettable slice of gaming. More people should be playing them.
My first encounter was at a gaming event in 2005. This group of people includes many importers and seekers of unusual games, so seeing this on the projector was inevitable. That first glance intrigued me, the two-player mode kept me watching and that first go was sublime.
If you are unfamiliar with the series, here’s the basic plot. The King of all the Cosmos got drunk, knocking the stars out of the sky. It’s up to you, as the Prince, to find a way to replace the stars. You do this by creating a Katamari – a big ball of things. It starts off small and you can only pick up small objects. As you pick them up the diameter of your Katamari grows, allowing you to pick up bigger things. The control method is simplicity itself to pick up. Twin analogue sticks provide the movement, similar to a tank’s controls. Push both forward to roll forward, both left to roll left and so on. The Prince can move around the Katamari to roll from different angles, and helpfully there is a button to locate the camera directly behind you quickly. Other controls include the dash (waggle both sticks up and down), which can be important strategically and in the two-player mode (to knock items off your opponent’s Katamari as you duel to create the biggest ball possible.) Recent ports for newer devices have included touchscreen and tilt sensor movement, adding to the physical feel of being in control.
The game’s most impressive trick is the sense of scale and the way it changes. You start off on a desk rolling up stationery items. By the last level you are rolling up Godzilla and entire islands. There are themed levels, such as a school, that add even more fun. The sequel even features a memorable task where a sumo wrestler must roll up lots of food to gain weight. There are hidden items to discover (for dressing up your Prince), cousins to find (giving alternative colours) and stats telling you just what you rolled up. Each level is governed by a time limit or a minimum size limit to reach. There is no hardship in trying again; you want to, to see what happens next.
The graphics are a glorious cartoon evocation of Japan with a wide range of bizarre people, animals and scenery. The soundtrack is filled with a series of jolly J-Pop influenced tracks (alongside soul, jazz and more traditional chiptunes) with seemingly nonsense lyrics that will be buzzing around your head for hours after you stop playing. Presiding over proceedings is the King, a louche, laid-back fellow in purple tights and an extravagant hat who still manages to criticise your every effort – and yet you laugh with him.
Keita Takahashi was an artist first and a game designer second. You only have to look at the Katamari games and Noby Noby Boy to see a unique and unusual mind, turning out fun experiences. I was lucky enough to meet him at another UK event, where he demonstrated the Noby Noby Boy prototype months before it was released – backed by an unusual slide show explaining how he came up with his ideas. And as a result of his time in the UK, he collaborated with the local council to design a new children’s play area. But it does not feature Katamari… While Takahashi left the series after the second game, Namco tried to stay faithful to what he had put forward. The only major mis-step was the DLC content for Beautiful Katamari, shutting off parts of the game for a payment when it was effectively already on the disc. Ironically a format for which the game style was suited – the Nintendo Wii – never saw a conversion.
Why did the Katamari games strike such a chord with gamers like myself? Is it the upbeat and bright attitude? Is it the unusual style and ease of play? Is it TOO quirky? All of the above and more. If you have never played a Katamari game, search on You Tube and watch a video. I guarantee you will see why I love them so much and want to try for yourself.
Games in the series:
Katamari Damacy – PS2 (NTSC only)
We Love Katamari – PS2
Me & My Katamari – PSP
Beautiful Katamari – Xbox 360
i Love Katamari – iOS, Windows Phone 7, Android
Katamari Forever – PS3
Katamari Amore – iOS
Touch My Katamari – PS Vita
Tap My Katamari – iOS, Android
Note that at the time of writing, only Tap My Katamari is presently in the iOS App Store.