Review by BlueSunrise

Reviewed: 06/09/06

Stuck in the Middle

Katamari Damacy is madness. Complete and utter madness.

Here’s what you need to know: the King of All Cosmos went on a tirade through the galaxy, smashing all of the stars out of the night sky. To redeem himself for such a ludicrous act, he places the task of restoring the heavens to their natural splendor all on his hapless son, simply known as the Prince. As the Prince, you have but one task: push a sticky ball (called a katamari) all around the earth, rolling up anything and everything you can find into one giant ball of... stuff. Eventually, as the ball slowly grows in size, it will become a star.

Make sense yet? Good.

Like it or not, Katamari Damacy is probably one of the most bizarre titles I’ve ever had the privilege of playing, and that’s definitely a good thing. Industry eccentric Keita Takahashi, working for Namco, has created a real gem of a title that only retails for around $20 here in the United States. Unfortunately, underneath its sweet candy-coating lies a game that falls victim to some fundamental flaws in its design that hinder the overall experience significantly, preventing the title from ever achieving true greatness. Read on.

Clump of Souls

Roughly translated, Katamari Damacy (pronounced Kat-uh-mar-ee Da-ma-she) means “clump of souls” in Japanese, though you’ll certainly be clumping together more than just souls on your quest to re-star the sky. The basic premise of the game couldn’t be simpler (or more unique): you’ll need to roll your katamari around the environment, gradually increasing its breadth until you’ve met the level’s target size under the allocated time limit (you’re usually given anywhere from five to twenty minutes to complete a task). The time allotted to you is usually more than adequate to accomplish the task at hand on any given level, whether it be it rolling up the biggest ball you can muster or singling out a certain type of item. These simple proceedings, however, can be quite frustrating and overly troublesome because of some major snags with the controls and the game’s camera (more on those two... pleasantries.... to come). Despite what it has working against it, the concept of the game is so genuinely fresh that you’ll have a good deal of fun with it for the short time it lasts.

You’ll almost always begin a stage dwarfed by your surroundings, and all you can manage to pick up are little items like coins, flowers, batteries, and the occasional mouse. Eventually, after collecting enough tiny trinkets, your katamari will swell larger and you’ll be able to go after bigger items and access areas that were once blocked off by barriers (that you can simply roll up). Now you can swipe th dog that was terrorizing the poor Prince when the level began, or that fence post that was in your way before. Your katamari will keep growing and growing at an exponential rate until cars and houses are mere fodder. At the highest levels of the game, entire islands and clouds are nothing to stop your might.

The sheer scope and size of the levels is fantastic. As your katamari bulges in size, you’ll notice items and areas that you had no idea even existed earlier in the level. That giant gray wall you kept bumping into actually turns out to be a windmill that you can eventually roll up. You'll find that you're now big enough to travel up those stairs, and you discover another room – but wait, there’s a door in that room that leads outside – and outside there’s a hill – and up the hill there’s a town – and so on and so forth. It’s really neat to make those kinds of discoveries as the game seemingly grows around your katamari. Every increment in your overall size slowly expands the local ecosystem, and this is where the game succeeds brilliantly.

There are hundreds and hundreds of different items to collect, and it’s always fun to try and add a certain creature or ornament to your collection that you see in the game. Often, your katamari won’t be big enough yet to roll up that black cat pulling the carriage behind it, so it then becomes your motivation to get larger just to acquire it. It’s not as if it really matters what particular objects you roll up in most cases (the occasional odd-shaped item may cause a “limp” in your rolling), it’s personally very satisfying to finally go up and add that black cat to your ball. Everything in the game has a name to it and is logged in a collection file which keeps track of all the stuff you’ve amassed.

From the Land of the Rising Katamari

Katamari Damacy is inherently Japanese, and I can’t think of a title this unique since Mister Mosquito. The game’s art style is as off-the-wall as its concept – I’ve heard it compared to tripping on LSD, a surreal Japanese fever dream, and the Beatles’ own “Yellow Submarine”, for starters. There’s really no way to describe it, or the game as whole, without saying “it’s just crazy.”

It’s not as if the visuals really shine (they’re comparable to an early PlayStation game), but they’re not supposed to. Textures are seemingly nonexistent, but it doesn’t matter, and the fact that everything looks like it was created from a massive tub of Duplo blocks only helps the game’s case – the square shapes are actually a nice contrast to the round ball. Where the visuals shine in the most is the draw distance and the game’s superb sense of scale, and I only noticed slowdown a few select times. Everything is bright, colorful, and distinctly bizarre.

The game’s soundtrack is a bubbly mixture of easy listening, lounge, a spice of jazz and a sprinkle of J-Pop, and they’re all pretty catchy. Very catchy, actually, and it’s hard not to hum along to them while you’re taking in all the surrealism. The sound effects themselves are cute and playful, as they’re supposed to be, and each item makes a little pop or chime when it’s picked up. You can’t help but grin when you eventually start adding people to your mass, as their cries for help (or giggles of joy, depending on which kind of character you roll over) are lost in the sea of... stuff.

It’s debauchery in its most primitive form, and it works. The game has style like you wouldn’t believe. Unfortunately, that brings me to my next point – take away all of the pizazz and you’re left with a game that falls short on several basic levels. Keep reading.

On Controls and Camera

Controls. The game’s box states that there are “...no real buttons to press or combos to cause distress”, and while there are no “real” buttons to press, the shoddy setup the game employs has caused me more than enough distress.

The best way I could describe moving around in Katamari Damacy is that it’s very similar to controlling a lumbering tank, thanks to Namco’s insistence on utilizing both analog sticks for movement. Pressing both of them in tandem in any direction will move you in said direction, which leaves me to believe that you would have really only needed one stick to move the katamari around (why do I have to press left on both sticks to go left? Why not just one?). There are a few “moves” that make use of both sticks in different ways (for example, pressing up and down oppositely on both will make the Prince charge forward), but that could have been easily mapped to one of the shoulder buttons in favor of freeing up the right analog stick, because using both sticks for movement just doesn’t make much sense considering my next point on the camera.

What would have made sense? Letting the player control the camera with the right stick – but then again, Katamari Damacy is not about making sense.

See, the problem with the game’s camera is that it’s static. It likes to cling to its viewpoint, directly behind your katamari, and that’s pretty much it. If you’re moving forward in a straight line, sure, this works fine. But as soon as you veer off to the left or right, the camera will refuse to automatically adjust itself and it becomes very difficult to see just where you’re pushing the darn thing. The only real way to adjust your viewpoint to different angles manually is by pressing L1 and slowly rotating the Prince around the ball. You might as well be rotating a cannon or a gun turret, though I dare say that that might even be faster. This becomes a pretty significant problem since you’re racing against the clock and can’t afford to waste precious seconds, or even minutes in total time, switching your viewpoint.

What’s worse, since the camera rests behind your katamari, it will often get caught behind a wall or a large object, completely obstructing your view. This is most noticeable at points in the game where your katamari is in that “in-between” phase – you are small enough to travel into a group of trees but not large enough to actually roll them up yet. The camera stays on the outside of the forest while your character is on the inside – your ball simply disappears from sight while you move around under the trees, clueless as to what’s down there – walls, creatures that will knock items from your katamari, or a myriad of other threats that you just can’t see. Be prepared to slam into more than a few tree trunks, sending objects flying from your load of stuff and burning even more precious time off the clock as you attempt to hastily retreat from the forest.

This glaring problem with your viewpoint stood out the most to me the other day, when my wife was playing Katamari Damacy. She doesn’t play games as much as I do, so I thought she’d appreciate that the title employs a simple button configuration and is easily accessible to both casual players and non-gamers. Yet I found her similarly frustrated. “I can’t see where I’m going!” she said, and it was at that point that I realized the truth: even as the title seeks to bring in new gamers with its accessibility, it simultaneously alienates them with its unwieldy controls and camera.

There is simply no excuse for a poor camera in today’s games. Three-dimensional gaming has been the standard for over ten years now in the industry, and a decade after its inception Namco still can’t produce a functioning setup? The whole situation just points to a low budget and a short development cycle, which is why we’re seeing this title on shelves for $20. You get what you pay for, I suppose. If you want lots of style and zest, it’s hard to beat Katamari Damacy. If you want good functionality and smooth controls, you’re better off looking elsewhere.

As another example of poor design: if you’re rolling through the streets of a town and try to pass between two houses, you may find yourself stuck if you’re too large to fit smoothly but too small to roll the houses up. This can happen frequently at any level of the game if you’re not paying a lot of attention to your surroundings. There have been several times where I’ve been jammed between a wall and, say, a flower pot, for nearly a minute as I desperately struggled to free myself. Considering I’m being timed here, this doesn’t bode well with me. It seems like you’re just stuck in the middle, between two sizes, and so is this game.

Also worthy of note here is that the game suffers from some rather poor hit detection. Items I would roll directly over sometimes failed to be absorbed which means that most of the time you’ll roll through a group of items like telephones and notice the one or two phones were skipped over. Because adjusting your position takes time and effort, you’re usually better off coming back later because attempting to turn around and grab the few items you missed proves much more difficult and cumbersome than it should be.

The Overall Package

A short development time also leads to a short game – short being a mere four or five hours to complete the one-player mode in Katamari Damacy. While the quirky play mechanics do offer an incentive to come back, at least for a few short sessions due to its pick-up-and-play approach, the game’s structural flaws hinder the experience. Thankfully, as I’ve said, the game only sets you back twenty dollars here in the States, so you won’t feel too sour about picking it up.

Katamari Damacy also features a two-player mode, which is fun to goof around in occasionally. You compete against your opponent in a split-screen match to see who can roll up the biggest clump of stuff, and you can smash into their ball to impede their progress. Unfortunately, all of the structural problems surface here, too, and you’ll always find yourself playing in the same tiny arena which causes the game to lose one of its greatest assets – its fantastic sense of scale.

Ultimately, your outlook on Katamari Damacy will place you into one of two camps. In the first, you’ll fall in love with the game’s wacky, inherently Japanese style and consider it a Godsend from overseas, appreciating it immensely because of what an original concept it really is. In the second camp, in which I’m in, you’ll too appreciate the game’s quirkiness yet realize that it has fundamental gameplay flaws which prevent if from truly taking off.

Katamari Damacy takes an ingenious design coupled with a surreal setting in Japanese pop culture to produce one of the most original concepts in years. Unfortunately, the experience is marred by a static camera and frustrating controls. In a way most fitting for the title, it manages to be both a great game and a mediocre one at the same time. It, like your katamari in the game, just manages to get itself stuck in the middle.

Rating:   3.0 - Fair

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