Genre: Adventure / Strategy / Puzzle
Length: 11 1/2 Hours
Extras: Memory Card, Analog Control, Vibration, Stereo Surround Sound
ESRB Rating: E
Something that's tugged at the back of my mind for years now is the question of what, exactly, happened to the ingenuity, simplicity and sense of wonder that was traditionally associated with video games throughout the seventies, eighties and early nineties. There's no question, today's games are a much more detailed, beautiful, realistic and life-altering bunch than the titles that filled the SNES, NES and 2600. As a NES owner, you'd never get an experience quite like what Metal Gear Solid or Grand Theft Auto can give you today. You're afforded much more freedom on an Xbox than you were on a Sega Master System, everything's in crystal-clear high definition and the soundtracks routinely eat up several CDs all on their own. But, on that same hand, I'm not finding myself as wholly absorbed in the gaming experience today, with Fable and Halo 2, as I was in the early to mid '80s with Dig Dug and Super Mario Brothers. Granted, part of that has to do with my growth to adulthood and the maturity level that comes along with it, but another part has to do with the fact that they don't make games like that any more. The video game industry as a whole has grown much more adult-oriented and serious, and in so doing has seemingly lost sight of its past. Imagine the reaction if Shigeru Miyamoto had today pitched a game that featured a mysterious, growing, fireball-spitting plumber who makes a noise every time he jumps and battles flying turtles. He'd be thrown out the front door in favor of a creator with a grittier, more realistic "vision." Today, the few surviving franchises from that day and age are afforded certain luxuries. You take it for granted that Mario can fly, because that's just the way it's (almost) always been. To introduce a similarly outlandish game in this day and age where anything new is scrutinized by the overcritical eye of parents, teachers, internal boards, the media, the government, the FCC and, perhaps harshest of all, the critics is almost unthinkable.
That's why I'm amazed a game like Katamari Damacy made it to our shores unblemished. This game's a throwback to the absent-minded titles of gaming's infancy, when everything didn't need to make sense under the restrictions of the Earth's gravitational pull, didn't need to abide by the dynamic lighting of the sun as it floats across the sky, and didn't send you on missions that would give a real life government operative nightmares. Things just happen in Katamari, and you accept them as fact because that's they way they are. It writes the rules, tells you about them, and leaves you to flaunt or fail by them.
Basically, Katamari Damacy is a telling of the life of a dung beetle on a cosmic scale. You control "The Prince," heir to a galactic kingdom of some sort, as he rolls tiny, sticky balls called Katamaris around the Earth's floors, streets, fields and continents. When you roll over top of something, that item serves as an extension of the ball itself and immediately becomes just as sticky as the Katamari. As you can imagine, this causes the size and shape of the ball to slowly grow larger and larger, like a snowball that eternally rolls down the side of a snow-covered mountain. Like I said, you don't question it because that's just the way things are. The size of your ball is directly proportionate to the size of the items you can pick up. If you're piloting a tiny trash heap, you're just gonna bounce off if you try to roll up a tree or a fencepost. Your Katamari usually starts small, barely large enough to roll up an acorn or thumbtack, (not to mention easily tossed aside by the numerous mice that roam the city streets) and slowly increases in size to the point where it's picking up cats, then large dogs, then children, adults, motorcycles, cars, wrestling rings, houses, office buildings, etc. The real star of this show is the incredible scale of the game, how nothing is off limits so long as your Katamari is big enough.
And that's really all there is to the game. You get a time limit and a certain size that your Katamari ball must reach within that timeframe, you're dropped out onto the floor somewhere, and you just start rollin'. It's incredibly simple, yet indescribably inspirational. While it may sound lacking in depth and replay value, I dare you to spend an hour with this disc and then casually put it away. It's physically impossible. I've never been one to immediately replay a game after finishing it, but I did just that in Katamari. The only thing that'll keep you playing is the never-ending challenge to top your existing high scores... well, that and your need to constantly explore this bizarre, psuedo-Eastern world... and man, it's ben quite a while since I felt this motivated by nothing more than a number saved onto a memory card somewhere.
The story is at one time totally inane, off-the-wall nonsense and an undeniably perfect fit. It doesn't make sense, but that's perfectly all right when you consider the point of the gameplay experience. Simply enough, every single solar body has disappeared from the heavens. The Earth's night sky is pitch black. No moon, no constellations, no stardust, not a single light. As the nameless prince of the galaxy, you're summoned by God himself (if God were the cynical, neon, victorian-collared, enormous-headed hybrid of a bad anime villain and a roller derby champion) to roll your Katamari balls around the planet in search of bigger and bigger stashes of crap. Once the lord's self-imposed time limit has expired, he'll pop up on the screen, vomit up a rainbow (no, really) and use the colorful beams of light to teleport the both of you out of there. Once off the Earth, the you'll huddle together to discuss the size of your trash heap and the amount of time it took you to reach the proposed size, before launching the thing into orbit and mystically transforming it into a bright, shiny star. The goal is to replace all of the missing astronomical entities and constellations with Katamaris, returning the evening skies to their former glory and improving visibility after sunset.
The interactions between God and The Prince are priceless, as God is an overly sarcastic bastard to you at all times. He's a pompous, oblivious prick in the same way Gene Wilder was a pompous, oblivious prick in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. If you ever met a guy like this in your everyday life you'd hate his guts, but in these situations he's almost charming. He'll waste your time just to amuse himself. He'll rave endlessly about the food in a certain part of the world, suggest you visit it during your day's rolling, and then throw in a dry "...like that's possible." Occasionally he'll pop up in the middle of a game and ramble on about what you've just picked up. He'll buy you a present, lose it somewhere in Northeast Europe, buy a replacement and keep it for himself, sending you out to find the one he lost. God is a crackup, and the story just wouldn't work without him.
When you're not rolling around, picking up small animals and squishing aquatic life, Katamari Damacy has a few extras to offer... nothing to write home about, but worth further investigation all the same. Most notable is the studious records the game keeps of each item you've rolled up. There are literally thousands of different objects, living and dead, edible and poisonous, realistic and outrageous, for you to pick up throughout your journeys, and you're free to take a look at each of them individually at your own leisure in the exhaustive "collection" area. Not only does it organize everything into dozens of little categories, (which is a dream come true for an anal retentive nut like myself) but every item in the game is given a brief, sentence-long writeup that varies from humdrum to hilarious. There are enough genuinely funny item descriptions to force you into reading every last one of them, inspecting each object in greater detail along the way. It's something that wouldn't have been missed if it'd been excluded from the final package, and seriously enhances your enjoyment of the game. Just a little addition that makes all the difference between an everyday game and an unusually good game.
Along that same vein, as you accumulate the gifts that God has thrown or lost around the World, you gain new pieces of wardrobe to accent the Prince's in-game appearance. Although he becomes too small to recognize in perspective to the Katamari heap after a few minutes of rolling, it's good fun to see that he really is wearing the crown or headphones that you found in a previous level. One gift in particular, the camera, serves an extra purpose... yep, you're encouraged to snap a photo here and there if you stumble across something odd, so you can review it at a later time. There's also a two-player split screen mode, where you're both dropped into the same small, isolated area filled with various objects and forced to compete with one another in your search for the larger Katamari. If there's one area of the game that needed a little more work before its release, it was this head-to-head mode. Instead of rolling around an area as enormous as you encounter in the regular game, you're crammed into a single small space. It isn't long before you've run out of objects to roll up and you're ramming into one another, hoping little bits and pieces fall off of your opponent's ball so you can sweep them up and increase your own ball's diameter. It's missing the sense of scale and exploration that made the single player mode so much fun, and as a result I didn't spend a lot of time with it.
Alongside its outlandishly original gameplay and story, Damacy is equally original with its simple, understated control scheme. The only buttons you'll need to use in this game are the PS2 controller's dual analog sticks and the "X" button. It plays like a weird mixture of Pac-Man and the old Midway tank-based arcade game, Vindicators. Pushing both sticks forward moves you forward. Pulling both sticks back moves you back. Pushing both sticks left strafes you left, two rights strafe you right, pushing the left stick forward and the right stick back turns the whole thing (camera and all) right, and vice versa. Clicking in both analogs (commonly referred to as the "L3" and "R3" buttons) instructs the Prince to jump over his Katamari and resume pushing from the opposite side, effectively doing a full 180 in a fraction of a second. There are a few more advanced maneuvers that you'll learn as the game carries on, (like rapidly moving both sticks up and down to perform a fluorescent speed boost) but it's possible to complete it at 100% using just the functions explained above. The only time your fingers should leave the analog sticks is when you're reading some dialog (unfortunately, there's no prominent voice acting in Katamari) and you need to hit the "X" button to move things along. It's great to finally play a game that doesn't overwhelm you with dozens of button combinations right from the get-go, one that almost requires the disc to ship with a complete, telephone book-sized operations manual. This is simple enough to understand in an instant, yet varied enough to capture your attention for months on end.
Visually, this is far from the most stunning game on the PS2 today. Honestly, I don't think there's a single object in the game that couldn't be faithfully reproduced on the Sega Dreamcast a thousand times over. Now that I think about it, the original Shenmue puts the graphics of Katamari to shame. But if you still think the visuals are the point, you obviously haven't been paying attention. The simple, blocky, cartoony nature of everything in the game matches the innocence of the storyline, the uncomplicated ease of the controls and the laughably blunt attitude of the characters themselves. And one thing I'm relatively sure the old Dreamcast couldn't do is scale every one of those millions of objects, both moving and frozen, from full-screen to ant-size without the first sign of slowdown or choppiness. It's not right up in your face and obvious, like the majestic beauty of Gran Turismo 3 or Final Fantasy X, but this is a great display of the PS2's sheer polygon-crunching power. The action can get extremely fast when you're under the gun with time running out, and no matter how many individually moving creatures are stuck to your ball or out in the world at the time, you can play secure in the knowledge that the PS2 can handle it. Everything looks exactly like it was intended to, and that's a beautiful thing.
The little graphical touches, like the writing on a tiny dog's sweater or the funny sketch of an angry bear on a "Bear Beware" sign, are another nice thing that set this game apart from the pack. You'll notice subtleties like recurring advertising campaigns throughout the major cities and competing construction companies hurrying to complete their job first so the next opportunity will be theirs, and you'll subconsciously start to fill in the backstory without further provocation. Once rolled up, everything behaves exactly like you'd expect them to act, given the circumstances. Birds wildly flap their wings and children furiously wave their arms and kick their legs, desperate to escape their sticky demise. Once you've grabbed a couple of their friends, the world's living creatures will take the hint and freak out when they see you coming their way, jumping in surprise before dashing wildly in the opposite direction. Even some inanimate objects will usually perform some sort of action upon being absorbed. Wrestling ring bells chime, telephones ring, umbrellas expand... it's a constant adventure to discover the next strange, unexpected movement.
The game's audio is an equally understated success. Almost every item in the world has at least one unique sound attached to it, whether it be the loud thud of a rock, the bizarre grunt of a giraffe or the chorus of screams, telephone calls and all-around panic of a crowded office building. If it wasn't rewarding enough to roll through a city before, uprooting thousands of offices in one fell swoop, it's twice as enjoyable to do so to the tune of hundreds of horrified, screaming voices. I mean, I had enough of a blast sticking up against my first small child and listening to her terrified roars... but as the scale of the objects you're rolling up increases, so does the comedic value of their horror.
The musical accompaniment itself is, as seems to be a recurring theme in this review, a perfect fit. It's a strange mix of J-Pop, Space Channel 5-style swing / jazz, cheesy lounge singing and peppy ambient grooves, and in any other situation would be totally mismatched and out of place. But alongside these strange visuals, odd combinations, frightened screams and conversations with God, it's all... well, perfect. I can't think of another word that more accurately describes it. You'll find yourself tapping your toe, even if you can't stand the genre, and whistling the tunes or singing the lyrics well after you've finally powered off the PS2. And, even though there's some repetition in the track selection, it miraculously seems to avoid become redundant. Nothing but the highest marks from me here.
This is seriously one of the greatest games of 2004. If you haven't already played it and were waiting on some sort of official endorsement to do so, consider this your call to action. It's discount-priced right out of the gates at twenty bucks, (which makes sense, because no matter how good this game is, I don't think I could've justified fifty dollars on it) and will reward you and your friends with hours upon hours of entertainment, even after you've completed all of the single-player quests. The only thing holding it back from being a perfect ten in my book is the disappointing two-player mode and my desire to see a couple more levels tacked on before the conclusion. It's refreshing to see the return of a little imagination and ingenuity to a medium that's been dominated by clones of the "big guys" for the last several years.
On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 9.5