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We Love Katamari

March 04, 2006 ・ Blog

Goddamn it. Note to self: check that someone hasn’t already done a review of a game before embarking on writing one…

Two long years ago, Katamari Damacy was released in Japan. Frustratingly deemed too esoteric for Europe, this game was quickly celebrated as a rare gem of original creativity in a morass of safe, uninspired sequels.

Tantalising accounts of just how radically new it was surged over the Atlantic once it was released in America. They painted a picture of a startlingly imaginative game that tore up the rules with glorious simplicity. The object is to roll a sticky ball – a Katamari – around an environment, picking up stuff. You start with paperclips and bottle caps, and as the ball gets bigger and bigger you start collecting cats, chairs, people, cars, buildings, and, eventually, even continents.

The screenshots and concept art showcased on the official website displayed a unique and hugely characterful set of art styles that immediately had me installing Katamari Damacy desktop wallpaper on my computer, and it’s stayed there ever since. Its creator, Keita Takahashi, became a celebrity on the strength of this one game, with gushing reports describing him as a maverick auteur, bringing desperately valuable new ideas into the videogames canon and making brave sweeping criticisms of the games industry. The whole Katamari Damacy thing became a symbol of hope for gamers disenchanted with the lack of innovation in game design and art style. They may be on the cusp of a new generation of games consoles but they have no concrete promises of getting to play genuinely new games on them.

In short, this was a game that spoke – no, shouted out – to me. I needed it. Along with Nintendo’s DS, Katamari Damacy was going to be the saviour of videogames. And when Namco announced that its sequel, We Love Katamari, would at long last be released over here you can be sure that my heart leapt with delight.

And so it came to pass that I recently got the chance for myself to clammily tear the cellophane off the case of my own We Love Katamari game, load its disc in my PS2 and experience its joyous exuberance. The intro started and I kind of swooned: the music and visual style sparkled with imagination and character. Its self-consciously eccentric sense of humour tickled me, and I couldn’t wait to show it to my girlfriend.

So I started a level, and there the dream fell a bit flat. With all that anticipation, it couldn’t really have been any other way, could it? I rolled around awkwardly, picking stuff up. The time limit came up and I failed. I started again, picked more stuff up, did a little better, but failed again. The strict time limit seemed to remove its much-vaunted sense of go-anywhere freedom. And was all this rolling about all there was to it?

Yes and no. We Love Katamari broadens out from the imposed limitations of that first level. The next levels give more time and ask you to create much larger katamari. And the game begins to shine. It quickly becomes apparent that the main attraction is about the sense of scale. It sees you smoothly progressing from picking up toothpicks to whole buildings. A marauding cat turns from threat that can knock your katamari about to yet more fodder for it; a fence is a barrier until you’re so big that you can simply consume it. You begin a level feeling powerless and, quite literally, towered over, and you end in a magnificent, mad rush of near omnipotent consumption, devouring whole streets at a time to make your ball still bigger and bigger.

But rolling is all there is. We Love Katamari mixes up the concept a little with themed levels, like one around a car race in which your katamari is permanently set to accelerate, and one where you roll a little sumo wrestler around so he can pick up enough weight to fight his next opponent. But ultimately the game is tuned to that single theme of roll-and-consume.

Katamari Damacy has been unfairly criticised for being little more than a modern interpretation of Pac-Man. It’s much more freeform and multi-layered than that, of course. But I wonder whether it would be anything like as compulsive without its ebullient, idiosyncratic presentation: the bizarrely poignant narrative about the King of all Cosmos’ early adulthood; the crazily catchy soundtrack of J-pop, beatbox and 16-bit fugues; the sheer variety of the 2987 different objects that you can roll up; the little costume collectibles; the cartoon black humour of the twitching limbs and panicked screams of the people you consume.

But, ultimately, We Love Karamari’s single-minded and imaginative devotion to one well-realised principle means that it is never anything less than good, uncomplicated yet multifaceted fun. It’ll leave a big grin on your face – just don’t expect it to start a revolution as well.