Katamari Damacy (Namco, 2004)

It seems like every discussion on the state of originality in video games is punctuated by someone screaming about Katamari Damacy. It was released to the Playstation 2 in 2004 in the market of over-produced first person shooters, and sports games. Players were happily non-plussed at the bright colors and deceptively simple gameplay. While it is held up on a pedestal for breaking through the one-note state of the industry, it should be noted that Namco, the game’s developer was the same company that produced such hits as Pac-man and Dig-Dug. Katamari is simply the continuation of this stylistic tradition with its simplistic graphics and obtuse game objectives.

As the game starts up, we are treated to a monty-pythonesque opening with the King queen and Prince riding around the cosmos spreading love, joy, and mushrooms to the animals of the world. Take from this experience what you will.

The title appears over the Prince, who is standing in front of a bumpy sphere of some sort. A press of the start button summons his father the King, a large, cylindrical disembodied head with the voice of a record scratch. After laying a guilt trip on you for making this space for learning how to roll, an overlay appears containing the PS2 controller and six icons detailing how to roll forwards, backwards, making turns, and stopping. The icons light up as you successfully achieve each task. Once all the tasks are completed, the King reappears to praise you on your skill. The King disappears, and then you have to master moves such as the quick turn, charge ‘n’ roll, look, and jump. This game has an interesting approach to the learning curve. It invites experimentation with controller, and it tells you when you are making motions that are useful to the game. However, the game does not let you progress until you have learned the basics.

When all this is done, you are treated to a cinema scene of the starry night sky. One by one, the stars wink out, until the gigantic form of the King hurtles by, smashing all the stars, even the moon. Naturally, this poses a problem when a King destroys his Kingdom, even though he secretly enjoyed it. So now it’s up to the tiny Prince to bring all of the stars back to the sky. After all, the King’s problems are his problems, and he still has to repay him for that whole giving him life and raising him business.

The object of the game is to roll up as many objects as possible on to the Katamari, a strange ball that can stick to anything smaller than it. These objects will then be turned into the new stars in the sky. The Prince is only 5cm tall, so naturally, we start off small. The first goal is to make the katamari 10cm in diameter. There is no time limit, so you can get used to the controls. The game marks the first object you roll up. In this case, it was a die. You are on a card table, picKing up matches, tacks, erasers and small insects

Once you reach 10 cm, the King reappears and takes you home on the royal rainbow.
We get a few more pointers on the gameplay in a simple children’s book format. The katamari can’t roll up objects larger than it, oddly shaped objects will put the katamari off balance, and the katamari can be rolled up objects like steps. People can only be rolled up after being hit. The screaming man in the diagram hints at the cartoon mayhem we’ll cause throughout the course of the game.

From there we are taken to the score screen, where the gargantuan King holds you in one hand and the katamari in the other. First he measures the size of the katamari, then statistics are displayed telling you the top 3 objects rolled up. In this case it was snacks, stationary, and necessities in that. The King then releases the star into the heavens creating a 10 cm wide jelly star.

We are then taken to the true front end of the game, the Prince’s planet, where you can check the statistics on your past exploits, as well as save and change other options on the game. From there you can head to the planet earth for more rolling goodness, or visit your cousins on the neighboring space mushroom.

On earth, we begin making star number 2. This time, you have a time limit of six minutes and a minimum diameter of 20cm. This is the first time that you can “Die”, or fail to reach your goal in a given level. The array of objects is staggering. Lego blocks, mah jong titles, frogs, The developers did well to choose a very simple polygonal format for the game’s graphics. As you collect lots of objects, confetti and doves appear next to the Prince. There is a living room, and a yard, with a garden. It’s funny that no one seems to notice this small ball of stuff rolling around. The King appears from time to time to mark milestones on your task.

There is something hypnotic about the rolling katamari. Puzzles like Tetris and Bejeweled are about assembly and respect for structure. With all of these objects in there, it’s kind of an organic form of assembly. As more and more objects get rolled up, the ball gets more detailed, varied, and more importantly, larger.

For the second scenario, 35.8 cm was my total. The King was quite impressed. It turned into a bratty star. Another cinema scene appeared. A blocky brother and sister are watching Ultraman on TV when mom comes out and says it’s time to go. A newscast comes on and says the stars disappeared from the sky. The scene ended with a “to be continued” title card.

On the planet, we put on the winter scarf, and started to make star 3. This places us in the city, and apparently there is another present that we can find. This time we start at 10 centimeters, giving us opportunity to become even bigger. It put us in the small dog-small child category of engulfment. After this we have an 83 cm messy star and another cinema scene with the blocky family. Another scenario involves the creation of the constellation cancer, where the object is (non-euphemistically) to collect as many crabs as possible.

Katamari enchanted the gaming community with its relatively simple gameplay and incredibly detailed game world. Players are rewarded for their time by allowing them to explore new areas and collect new objects as the game progresses. As the Katamari expands, so does the player’s realm of experience. If game developers gain any experience from this game, it’s that it represents the interactive transaction in its purest form. The player pushes, the game pushes back in bright and colorful ways. It just keeps rolling on from there.