a review of Katamari Damacy
a videogame developed by namco
and published by namco
for the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers
We’re not going to lie — we don’t really like this game that much. We are not really in love with it. We would not marry it, unless, maybe, we were forced to at gunpoint. We are awarding it the number-thirteen place on our list of the 25 best games of all-time because we have to. Not because of its “historical importance” or because of something “significant” it “did” for “the medium”. We are putting it here because it can’t not be here. It is a dynamo; a big bright disgusting burning churning pink-red sun, a ball of gasfire with a diamond-hard core. It is substance over style, and the style is spectacular. It is one man firing on all cylinders; it is several other men being beautifully lazy. It is a genuine pop-culture event. It is what nothing Nintendo has ever been since Nintendo stopped inspiring people and started worrying about letting them down. It is Katamari Damacy, a triumph of simple game design, a proponent of personable wallpaper, a showcase of excellent music, the torchbearer of a coming tide of pure-of-heart retro-minded simple game designs that are conceptually hip, palm-sized, and enjoyable for any man, woman, or child.
Katamari Damacy is, simply put, the type of game design that was only theoretically possible back when pixel graphics were a compromise (as opposed to something to make into a sweater or birthday cake, take a photo of, and send to Kotaku). Back then, of course, an idea like Katamari Damacy would never escape its creator’s brain: it’d just bang against the walls for several years while he sat in on planning meetings during which two pimply men debated — very seriously — whether the life-replenishing power-up items absolutely required by modern game design standards should be red hearts or blue shamrocks.
Katamari is a game, first and foremost, about a very simple concept. We can imagine that this concept existed in its creator’s head for several years before he bothered to slap it into a game. It sat there, unchanging, as time wore on, like the story of a wrongly-accused man enduring appeal after appeal. During the imprisonment of his idea, during which the technology grew and stretched its legs, the absolute refusal of his idea to change only proved that it was probably a good one.
In Katamari, you roll a ball, using the two analog sticks (press both forward to roll forward, pull both back to roll backward, press them in opposite directions to rotate, press them both to one side to strafe) and pick things up as you roll over them. Gradually, your ball grows bigger. Certain objects can’t be rolled into your ball unless your ball meets certain size requirements. Meet those size requirements, and you can now pick up larger objects, increasing the overall size of your ball more rapidly.
That’s the whole game. Level design and a difficulty curve informed by common sense fills in the blanks.
When Katamari Damacy eventually saw release, it was coated in a fabulously, gorgeously, miraculously tacky wallpaper representing the highs and lows of Japanese pop-art from the last half of the 20th century. It’s so breathlessly superfluous it’s downright essential. It is a living, breathing, loving critique of the very concept of fashion. It’s a necessary experience, we dare say, for anyone attempting to grasp what we call “the modern pop movement”.
That said, it’s naive to presume to assume that the look — and the bombastic, brassy, triumphant Shibuya-kei soundtrack — was ever the point of Katamari Damacy. We know that the point was always the concept. Anyone who’s ever made a snowman can believe in Katamari Damacy. More than anything else, it was creator Keita Takahashi’s intent to convey the absolute tactile bliss of rolling a ball through a videogame. The game could have been about rolling a black sphere and picking up small white cubes, then medium-sized gray cubes, and eventually black large cubes, and the tactile sensation still would have made for a hell of a game. Think Tetris — Tetris didn’t need personality. Neither does Katamari. The best games are that way.
It’s impossible to ignore, however, that the personality adds heaps to Katamari Damacy. It might even be half of the game’s appeal. (We’re going to go ahead and say that it’s probably only 49% of the appeal, for the sake for argument.) The objects littered throughout the world of Katamari resemble things that any player will feel familiar with. You start out rolling up paperclips, which are small, though if you roll up enough, you might be able to snag a pencil. Irregular shapes make the game engine sing: with a pencil stuck to the side of your ball, you will feel the friction as you clatter along.
Theoretically, if a stage’s time limit and item quantity allows, you could roll up enough pencils to become bigger than a house. This is never the case, however. The game is always about escalation, always about picking up enough small things to start picking up bigger things; once you’re able to pick up a table, you stop worrying about sheets of paper. Once you’re big enough to pick up a building, you stop worrying about the cars and buses: they’ll come to you. They can’t not.
The best games play with the player as the player plays with them, and Katamari is no different. The graphic design is constantly toying with you: you might see a dozen telephones arranged in a circle around a tree. Why should these telephones be arranged in a circle around a tree? If you stop to think about it, it won’t make any sense. Eventually, you realize that not making sense is the point, just as is not stopping to think about anything. Each stage has a simple goal — grow to a certain size — and your father, The King of All Cosmos (who wields a spectacular groin-bulge, by the way) will blow the whistle when the clock runs out. The game prevents you from going hog-wild, from rolling up everything in the damned world, for just long enough to be poignant. When, eventually, you get to the first mission where it’s possible to roll up human beings, the jaw drops and hilarity ensues. A stage later, you’re rolling up cars and trees.
And then, you’re asked to make a ball fifty meters in diameter. The first meter is excruciating. It’s all downhill from there. The next forty-nine come naturally. (By the way, if you fold a sheet of paper perfectly in half twenty-five times, mathematics tells us that the height of the sheet of paper should reach through the earth’s atmosphere and to the moon.) This is where the graphic design and the game design and the “plot” merge into one. Once you pass a certain size, there’s no stopping you. If you are taller than the tallest building, the city doesn’t stand a chance. You roll up buildings like they were thumbtacks; before you know it, you’re plucking the islands on which a city sat right out of the ocean. A great catharsis settles down over everything as your hefty ball rolls, fat and full, in the middle of a swirling ocean, a sticking point for drifting clouds. All at once, the quirky, conceptual, fantastic, bombastic game becomes a qualified masterpiece. There you are, looking at something, and feeling something. That’s the most we can hope for, these days, out of anything that seeks to entertain us.
On top of this, there’s a smooth-enough interface, tasteful, worldly menus, and a vestigial co-op mode. You can eventually play the stages with an endless timer, though why you’d want to do that is beyond us. The game is conceptually pure as Pac-Man, though the emotional pay-off is so strong that to be able to conjure it at will (and, even then, more than once) seems sacrilegious.
Even so, Namco saw fit to force Keita Takahashi to make a sequel. They told him, basically, that “here at Namco, the Tekken team does Tekken, the Ace Combat team does Ace Combat, the Soul Calibur team does Soul Calibur, the Ridge Racer team does Ridge Racer, the Tales of… team does Tales of…. You are the Katamari team.” Takahashi politely refused this typecasting. Namco announced that they were schlocking a B-team on the sequel, and that it would be “Christmas-themed”. That got his attention. The sequel, while refined as a game, with nice-enough co-op and VS modes that exploited the full potential of the engine, was full of spite: the character of the King was verbose and obnoxious, insulting the player and loving himself. Most players thought this was funny, and “added to the appeal”. Eventually, there was a Katamari on the PSP, controlled with face buttons — that didn’t go too well — and one on the Xbox 360, full of rehashed levels.
Keita Takahashi managed to escape from the series, by announcing on the official site that they were done making Katamari games. Someone at Namco must have shat a silver brick that day. Takahashi, who in an interview once said that he likes to think of games as playgrounds (something Shigeru Miyamoto coincidentally said many years before), was misinterpreted as saying that he’d rather quit making games and start designing parks for children. In fact, the man is very much about making games. He just knows — as any truly “creative” person does — that you can’t schedule brainstorming sessions. He was no doubt pissed at Namco — as any truly “creative” person would be — for assuming blank-facedly that any man who had one good idea would never, ever have another good idea. He does, in fact, have a good idea — the game is to be called Nobynoby Boy, and it is presumably a game based on the concept of stretching something. Takahashi gave a technical demonstration of the game last year, during which the on-screen character — with two sets of legs and a stretchy body in between — moved apart and snapped back together, tumbling end over end, causing whirlwinds, picking up animals and throwing them into the air. We can imagine that the game, like Katamari, is played entirely with the two analog sticks. Anyone doubting that Nobynoby Boy won’t be interesting needs only think for three seconds about its concept: capturing the tactile bliss of stretching something elastic with your two hands. Katamari is a game about the tactile bliss of rolling a ball with your two hands. And it turned out miraculously. We here at Action Button Dot Net hereby profess Eternal Faith in Keita Takahashi: he’s just the type of pure-hearted thinker we need designing our games. He’s the Patron Saint of Every Inexperienced Game Designer Alive today. Carry that torch, you gorgeous man.
It’d be pedantic to say that the games industry could learn a whole slew of things from Katamari Damacy, because they already are learning. The space of a heartbeat is more than enough time for us to selfishly make the conclusion that Katamari Damacy is, in fact, the inspiration for every newly-empowered indie game developer out there today throwing together conceptually simple, balls-to-walls courageous (and fun) games for the various downloadable services. People like us here at Action Button Dot Net — and you out there in readerland — find visually / aurally confident (and budget-priced) games like Braid, N+, Pacman: Championship Edition, PixelJunk Monsters, and Bionic Commando: Rearmed exponentially more exciting than the latest multi-million-dollar blue-key / red-tree / orange-lantern polished megaturd, and we have the sleeper success of Katamari Damacy to thank. For proof, look no further than David Jaffe, the man whose Hollywood-blockbuster aspirations eventually birthed God of War, the most over-the-top bombastic videogame perhaps ever to exist. After pushing out God of War, Jaffe went on record quite vocally as saying that he didn’t want to make games that aspired to “opera” anymore, because “pop songs” are by far the higher form of entertainment: they start with a hook, they touch the masses instantly, they move people (on the dance floor and in life) and they build indestructible memories. Katamari Damacy, relatively high-budget though it may be, was born of a rock-and-roll-like bigger-than-life dream, the kind you can’t buy in a university bookstore. Aside from containing an excellent pop song or two, it is a pop song, and it’ll beat on in the radios of our hearts for probably the rest of our lives.