The first sound you hear upon booting up Katamari Damacy is the recording of a man singing a nonsense tune a capella. Eventually, you'll recognize his song as the recurring musical theme to Katamari Damacy, but initally it's just an unexpected oddity.
Which neatly sums up the entire game: an unexpected oddity.
Katamari Damacy (which I've seen translated as "soul of the blob" and "clump-soul", but it's probably untranslatable) is a game that should never have been released outside of Japan. It is uniquely Japanese from core to skin... not in the androgynous Final Fantasy character design way, nor in the big-eyed anime style way, but in the very normal way that Japanese people live their daily lives. Katamari Damacy - alien kings and magnetic balls aside - presents a glimpse into their country. I'm not saying it's a substitute for true culture research, just that it's interesting to learn that the Japanese have special car signs that indicate a Young Driver or a Senior Driver, among other things.
I wonder what a native's reaction is to this game. What I see as bizarre or exotic might be mundane. Katamari Damacy begins with an insane open movie with singing ducks and posing pandas, mushrooms and flowers and rainbows... and the game's hammer-headed lead characters. Is this strange to the Japanese, or just the usual style? Does this stand out, or get swallowed in a whirlpool of like games?
Games like this only rarely see a US release. Culturally, it reminds me of Mister Mosquito, No One Can Stop Mr. Domino, and the Parappa series. All of these games contain that undefinable central Japaneseishness. Particularly Mosquito and Domino, and Katamari (appropriately enough, as you will soon see) builds on that. All three take us inside the social aspects of Japan, albeit in a slightly funky fashion... not in the obvious way that The Sims goes inside American culture. And while Domino was brief, and Mosquito damn near unfinished, Katamari marks a full flowering of the progression. There are plenty of levels, a solid interface, cataloged unlockables, a wonderful soundtrack, and the simplest of control schemes.
As the game begins, the King of All Cosmos - your father - has gone on a bender and knocked every star out of the sky. Immediately regretful of his actions (although he'd do it again in a second), he tasks you, the Prince, with putting the stars back in the sky. To do this, you must use a knobbed ball, roughly the same size as the Prince, called a katamari. The katamari is sticky or magnetic or something, because anything it rolls over will become permanently glued to it. After you roll random Earth objects into giant balls, the King turns the clump into a star.
Initially, the katamari can only stick to small objects. Thumbtacks, postage stamps, wrapped caramel candies. But as you collect more items, your katamari grows, and it can then pick up bigger objects. Kanji workbooks, plates of sushi, fried snacks with a small octopus inside. And the katamari gets even bigger. Cement blocks, RC cars, alley cats. And so it goes, to levels that I'm positive are beyond your imagining. If you are moving too fast and roll into something you can't pick up, you'll likely do damage to your ball in the effect of having a part of it knocked off.
Beginning with a katamari of a predetermined size, you are given undirected access to wherever you wish to roll. The floors are littered with objects for you to pick up, and how quickly you achieve your goal size is determined by how cleverly you explore. It's possible to get distracted with the flurry of small objects early on, and thus ignore your opportunity to pick up larger objects as you grow. There's no set path, and the only restrictions are a time limit and the occasional barrier that demands you to be at least X meters to cross it. The levels are all really large (relative to your starting size) so you can play and play and not feel like you're repeating levels. Smart level design adds replay value.
Throughout each level, your katamari will reach several plateau sizes that cause an upgrade to your vision: the camera zooms out so you can see more. Although it is hidden with a trippy blur effect, what is actually happening is the game takes the opportunity to shrink all the objects in the world so you can more readily see what new items can be grabbed. Tiny objects are eventually eliminated altogether as your viewpoint gets bigger and bigger. Now you can go grab the bicycle that you could initially roll straight under.
And in case you're still unclear about this, you can see the items you have picked up, all still stuck to the exterior of the katamari. Cows, train cars, buckets, all visible. Depending on how you touch certain objects, you can even cause the long end of a flagpole to stick out, giving you a rod to balance on or vault yourself over a barrier.
The graphics are nothing astonishing, partly due to a quirky style (everything is blocky) and partly due to the game's fundamental design. It's tracking hundreds of objects at once, including the ability to scale them down as your viewpoint grows. Although I'm sure the PS2 could do a nicer job visually, it's not going to upset your asthetics even though it's probably the equivalent of a PS1 game with a hellaciously good draw distance.
This world is not sitting back and waiting for you to suck it up. There is plenty of movement, even some objects that must be chased. Living things (rats, pigeons, people, bears) will run around and bonk into you, sometimes causing damage. If you're close to the proper size for attracting them, they will be stunned... sometimes physically thrown for a short distance and stunned. That means you're probably just a smidge away from picking them up proper. Some items are genuinely aggressive and will chase you for a time, but never more than a few steps. Usually just long enough to hit you.
Once you reach your goal, the King allows you to keep playing (until time runs out) so you can work up an even larger katamari. At the end of the level, the King turns your clump into a star and the nighttime sky gets a little bit happier. Then you play again. Stars are essentially high score boards; when you play a level again, you can elect to have your new star replace the old... or just turn it into dust. There's some sort of star naming system that is based on what class of objects you collected the most. Like, I have the Playtime Star because on one level I rolled up more game bits than anything else. There doesn't seem to be a way to keep track of all the possible stars, since you erase an old one completely if you get a new one.
However, the other "collectible" elements of the game are treated with anal reverence. The collection screens organize every possible object in the game according to class or size. Some objects are dubbed rare and some have personalized names (like a dog named Lin Lin) that are even harder to find. The info includes the minimum katamari size required to "roll up" the item, plus text commentary from the King of All Cosmos himself. Filling out the entire collection is a feat not unlike collecting everything in Animal Crossing, because the game is so big that there are places you may never ever see.
Each level also has a hidden Royal Present, which were intended to be given to you by the King but lost along the way. The best Royal Present is a camera - which allows you to take three pictures per level, which can be saved - but most are just dress-up items for the Prince. Like a scarf, wrestling belt or guitar. They can be a crazy bitch to find, since they are naturally very small.
In addition to the normal levels, there's a bunch with unique goals. Some require you to collect a ton of one type of object, like crabs or fish or women. Two levels require only one item to win: the biggest bear or cow you can find. Naturally, the place is covered in bears and cows of all types... and if you accidentally snag a small one, the level ends and the King gets upset. One level asks for a 10m katamari, but it doesn't tell you your current size. You have to guess when to stop rolling!
After completing a level, you'll get a mini-movie. Half of them tell a short story of an Earth family and their astronaut Dad. The other ones (from the sidebar missions) feature the family daughter explaining what constellation has been returned to the sky. She begins each clip with "Oh! I feel it! I feel the cosmos!" which is as quotable as anything video gaming has yet produced.
And just to give you a spoiler on how far the game will take you: The first level asks for a 10cm katamari. The final one demands one at least 300m, and you can easily double that.
The controls are dead easy. Using both analog sticks, you roll the ball as if it were a tank. Push both up to go forward. Push one up and one down for a tight turn. There are some ancillary functions mapped to the shoulder buttons (first-person look, birds-eye view) but they're rarely used. The developers did a great job of making the movement seem real. As the ball gets bigger, inertia plays a greater role and you must become judicious with your control. You'll occasionally bounce around, or get stuck between objects.
It all makes perfect physical sense, except for the charge move... by rapidly moving the sticks up and down, you can build up a charge and fire the katamari ahead faster than normal. It's tricky to pull off. It would work better to have that also on a shoulder button, but the manual specifically wants to avoid button combos that "cause distress."
There is an attempt at a multiplayer mode, called the Space Mushroom. Vertical splitscreen pits one player against another in a circular arena filled with random objects. You can ram each other with that obnoxious charge move, and you can temporarily roll up the other player if you're suitably large enough. Which means that once you fall behind, it is stupidly difficult to catch back up. It's awfully weak. There's very little reason to play it, especially since even watching 1P mode is ten times as much fun.
That's what Katamari Damacy is all about. As crazy as it sounds, it's easy for anyone to understand and play. "Oh, I roll around and pick stuff up?" And even if you don't meet the King's request on a level, this is one game where losing doesn't really matter. Do you have less fun playing the level because you didn't make a star? You still play the full time, you don't lose life or points. You just have to endure a couple sarcastic jabs from the King of All Cosmos. This is a game that has bypassed even the time-honored practice of YOU FAILED GAME OVER. Fun regardless.
This is going to be a tough game to find, but it is worth the hunt. Early reports indicate that retailers under-ordered and Namco probably under-produced. At only $20 (a price that greatly mediates any concerns about length or graphic quality) it is a super addition to your shelves. You're going to see this one talked about in all the Best of 2004 lists... and if you're scratching your head wondering what the hell is that crap, you will have missed out.