CSG Retrospective – Katamari Damacy
Some people view the Katamari Damacy games as being too weird for their tastes. Others see them as innovative masterpieces. And some dismiss them as complete trash. I just call them fun, simple as that. In Katamari Damacy, you don’t kill hordes of monsters or platform your way to the end of a level, you collect stuff by rolling a big ball called a katamari around. Yes, you read that right, the goal of Katamari Damacy is to collect random, everyday crap. As strange as that sounds, this puzzle-action game is very compelling. In contrast to what I usually do in my retrospectives, I will only be looking at the first two Katamari games as opposed to looking at all the games collectively. I decided to do this because the other Katamari games essentially reuse the core gameplay mechanics and features introduced in the first two. So discussing all of them in detail would only make this article repetitive.
Former Namco programmer Keita Takahashi is the man behind Katamari Damacy. He based the game off of a project he developed at the Namco Digital Hollywood Game Laboratory, a sponsored school for game development education. The game’s title literally translates to “clump spirit” which Takahashi said during an interview, “it just popped into my head suddenly, and this is what it has been from the beginning”. Katamari Damacy was made on an incredibly small budget (less than one million U.S. dollars) with a team of ten developers including Takahashi. His ultimate goal was to make a game that was silly, simple, and most of all, fun. Apparently, during the game’s development, Takahashi “proactively ignored” all feedback from Namco to make the game more complex. This demonstrates that a game does not need to be oversaturated with content to make it viable.
After development wrapped, Namco showed off Katamari Damacy at Japanese and American gaming conventions where it immediately struck a chord with attendees. Namco was reluctant to release Katamari Damacy outside of Japan because they feared its bizarre nature would deter larger American audiences. Thanks to Takahashi’s insistence and a handful of petitions, Namco caved in and released the game in North America for the PlayStation 2 in 2004.
Katamari Damacy‘s story begins with the King of All Cosmos clumsily destroying all the stars and constellations in the Milky Way. Distraught at the damage he has done, he instructs his young son, the Prince, to go to Earth and use the katamari to rebuild all the celestial bodies he obliterated. Most of Katamari Damacy‘s missions revolve around the Prince rolling the katamari in different environments to make it a certain size in a limited amount of time. The constellation missions on the other hand require you to collect specific objects or the biggest item possible; for instance, in order to reconstruct the Cancer constellation, you must nab as many crabs as you can. During missions, you can pick up presents that contain accessories that the Prince can wear. Additionally, you can roll up the Prince’s cousins who, after being collected, can be used as playable characters in the two-player versus mode.
The best part of Katamari Damacy is its soundtrack. Many of the tracks are sung and composed by various Japanese pop stars. It sounds bad I know, but the songs are an absolute blast to listen to because they are very upbeat and catchy. Surprisingly, the soundtrack also goes hand in hand with Katamari Damacy’s gameplay. Moreover, the game’s graphics are a testament to Takahashi’s mission statement of silliness and simplicity rolled (pun intended) into a nice little package.
Here is a song from the Katamary Damacy OST to sample.
Katamari Damacy‘s gameplay is all about “snowballing”. You must roll and roll to make your katamari as large as physically possible. You can start a level rolling up small things like ants and crayons then move on to collecting large swaths of skyscrapers and landmasses. The game’s controls are so intuitive that anyone of any age can get the hang of it relatively quick. All you do is use the analogue sticks on the controller to move the katamari around. No extra button presses or complicated inputs here, just straight-up sticks.
As fun as Katamari Damacy might be, it does have have one big problem plaguing. That problem are its nonsensical hitboxes. In other words, get used to crashing and getting stuck because it will happen a lot. What is worse is that after you crash, you can lose a bunch of collected items and potentially reduce your katamari’s size. No joke, I once got stuck between two buildings and lost nearly half of all the stuff I had collected within seconds. Katamari Damacy‘s short length is a bit of a downer too, but its catchy soundtrack and addictive gameplay will have you rolling back for more.
Namco was proven wrong about Katamari Damacy not appealing to American gamers, and it became a sleeper hit in the States. Not long after its release, Takahashi returned as lead director for Katamari Damacy‘s sequel, We Love Katamari. Released in 2005, We Love Katamari begins just as hilariously as the first. The King becomes aware of all the success Katamari Damacy has garnered and learns that the game has amassed a huge fanbase. The fans ask so many katamari related questions to the King that he decides to send the Prince to fulfill their requests. As you progress through We Love Katamari, you are treated to cutscenes that reveal more information about the King’s past. What I like about the King’s backstory is that it is unneeded in a totally bonkers game like this, yet the cutscenes are gorgeous to look at and are fleshed out very well
Gameplay in We Love Katamari is identical to the original, but some changes have been added here and there to make it more palpable. One of such changes are improved hitboxes. No longer will you lose half of the items you collected after crashing. Another welcomed improvement is the mission variety. In the first game, all of the missions revolved around repairing stars and constellations by collecting a bunch of stuff; however, We Love Katamari‘s missions have you doing outlandish fan requests like racing a katamari or using a katamari to light a campfire. You can clearly see an example of such insane requests illustrated in the image below, which shows the Prince rolling up food for a sumo wrestler fan who wants to plump up for his matches.
The Prince’s cousins return in the sequel and can now be used in the single-player mode. All of the cousins are visually striking; I always pick them over the boring Prince any day. In addition, We Love Katamari‘s soundtrack lays down those Japanese pop songs once again, surpassing the first game’s soundtrack. Yes, this sequel certainly delivers as all sequels should, and I consider it my go-to Katamari game. I still play it to this very day on my dusty old PlayStation 2 whenever I get bored. In fact, I am bold enough to claim that We Love Katamari is a better than Katamari Damacy as it is brighter, funnier, and twice as addictive.
We Love Katamari was Takahashi’s last Katamari game as he left Namco to pursue independent projects. Following his departure, Namco spearheaded development on all future sequels themselves. Out of all these sequels, the only one I managed to play was Beautiful Katamari. Honestly, it felt like I was playing a variation of We Love Katamari with a higher resolution. The more I played it the more I wished I was playing We Love Katamari instead. Over time, I stopped bothering with the Katamari sequels because they resembled carbon copies of the first two games to me. They are aren’t lackluster games; they are just lackluster Katamari games.
Don’t let my disregard for the Katamari sequels deter you, if you happen to own any of the Sony consoles released in the past 17 years then chances are there is a Katamari game right up your alley. There is even one for the iOS and Android, so roll your heart out if you got one of those things handy. If there is one thing I have come to respect about the sequels following We Love Katamari, it is that they all serve as starting points for players to immerse themselves in the wacky world of Katamari.
Katamari Damacy and its sequel are beyond quirky, that is irrefutable. Furthermore, I can understand if people dislike these games. They are certainly not for everybody and enjoying them is definitely an acquired taste. However, Katamari Damacy offers players a break from the routines of platformers and shooters. It is carefree and silly gaming at its finest, which can at times be hard to come by in the gaming world.
Sources: Katamari Damacy Wiki