Review by Croco

Reviewed: 06/23/05

Plenty of style, but Naa-na-na-na-na-na-na-not quite enough substance


Simply put, Katamari Damacy is a quirky Japanese game filled with enough nonsensical absurdity to put Lewis Carroll to shame. Rest assured that when you buy this game, normal people will begin to shun you. They will start to hold meetings at which they consider your possible insanity and whether or not exile is an appropriate course of action against you. Questions of “what the hell is that” will flow from the mouths of family and friends who, really, are much less crazy than you are for buying such a game. Katamari Damacy is weird. Katamari Damacy does not make sense. But, and I will say but with utmost severity mere italics will allow, the silly and illogical nature of this game is exactly what makes it so refreshing.

The way I see it – and with 20/20 vision I must point out that I can see things pretty well – Katamari Damacy is so deliciously refreshing for two principal reasons. Firstly, while to the normals the game’s absurdity may be a bit strange at first, it will grow on you until you begin to appreciate it as a distinct style that really makes the game quite special. Secondwise, the concept of the game – to roll increasingly large objects up in your Katamari ball – is so amazingly odd and unique that it creates a completely new gameplay experience. Lack of innovation in the modern video game world be damned: Katamari Damacy is delving into entirely new realms of game concepts. The stylistic atmosphere and far out gameplay are the reasons you should, and why those in the know already have, taken a look at Katamari Damacy.

As I am running out of adjectives that are synonyms to the word 'weird', I shall bravely gallop into the main part of the review.

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GRAPHICS AND PERFORMANCE: 5.9

Graphical Appearance: 4.25
Nothing to see here folks, just move along. It’s not that the graphics in Katamari Damacy are bad per se, but… oh who am I kidding, they are. Most everything is very block-shaped, particularly humans and animals. Also, textures are rather boring and nothing in the way of advanced effects, including lighting, is even attempted. One could argue that this is part of the game’s style, and that would not be a completely invalid argument. The simple-yet-charming nature of the game’s visuals do manage to have their own special appeal. Another valid argument would be that since you can pick up pretty much everything you see in the game with your Katamari, these objects cannot afford to be extremely detailed or things like the framerate would suffer. I accept both these arguments, yet I do not let the game off the hook completely – excuses are excuses. This is still a PS2 game, and the graphics are noticeably sub-PS2 quality.

Graphics for the cutscenes and menus have a more hand-drawn quality to them and are quite pleasing to the eye. They stay in step with, and perhaps themselves are much responsible for, the game’s style and atmosphere.

There is also some polygon tearing in the game, where objects will ‘go through’ and intersect with each other when they’re not supposed to. This is not a huge issue, but it does happen somewhat frequently and is worth mentioning.

Camera: 7.25
The camera will dutifully stay directly behind your Katamari at all times, though as the Katamari gets bigger, it will zoom out more and will move higher overhead. This tends to work well enough most of the time, but on somewhat frequent occasions an obtrusive object will get placed between the Katamari and the camera, blocking one’s view of the surroundings. In a game where it is crucial to be able to see the many things around you so that you can determine where to go next, any obstruction of view is potentially detrimental to your performance. These sorts of situations are made more frequent when in tight confines (inside a house, in between buildings, etc.), but otherwise are not extremely pervasive. Sometimes, they can be somewhat easily remedied just by moving your Katamari around.

At certain sizes, the Katamari will be quite large on the screen, blocking some of the smaller things in front of you. In general, the game does a good job of naturally zooming out, but sometimes the Katamari will block your view too much for no real reason.

By tapping L1, you can look around from a first-person viewpoint, while pressing R1 will make the Prince jump into the air, giving you an aerial view of the near surroundings. These actions will probably not be used very much, but it is nice to know that they are there.

Animation: 2.5
The game’s animation takes after the game’s graphics in being no-frills and sticking to the basics. People, animals, cars, and rocket bears all move, but not really with much grace or elegance. Once again the argument that this is fitting with the game’s style can be made, but then again poor visuals and animation being a style is still a style with poor visuals and animation. Thus I must grade harshly.

Technical Issues: 10.0
At last, some good news. The game’s framerate stays healthy and quick without any sign of stuttering. Bugs seem to be absent from the production – another major plus. From a technical standpoint, the game runs more or less flawlessly.

Loading Times: 9.5
There are some slight loading times at the beginning of each level, but they last only a few seconds each. Aside from the standard loading time at the beginning of the game, there aren’t any other instances of noticeable loading. Quite pleasant!

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CONTROL: 9.1

Response and Ease of Use: 9.0
Katamari Damacy takes a page from the ‘simple is good’ playbook by putting essentially all the control functions in the hands of the two analog sticks. This works in a remote-controlled car sort of fashion: pressing both sticks up will move you forward, both back will move you backwards, and pressing one down and the other up will make you move from side to side in a certain direction. It certainly takes a bit of getting used to. After a while it will become more intuitive, and it really is kind of nice to not have to worry about any button pressing.

There are a couple of handy techniques thrown in, such as the speed burst (done by pushing the sticks back and forth quickly), useful for getting up steep hills, and the quick turn (done by pressing L3 and R3 at the same time). As mentioned earlier, there are also some ways to change the view to scope out the surroundings.

Control Innovation: 9.25
Kudos to Namco for the handy two analog stick formula. It certainly helps make the game more accessible to people who want to briefly try it out (perhaps some of the inevitable naysayers who will be watching you!). This is not a complicated game, and it’s good that the control scheme is not complicated either. It’s a good use of the sticks and fits excellently with the rest of the game.

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SOUND: 8.0

Music: 7.75
All the hubbub surrounding Katamari Damacy invariably mentions how the music sticks in your head. I’m the kind of person that feels quality music in video games is underrated and all too uncommon, so while reports of this nature certainly interested me, I can’t say that, after playing the game, they’re entirely accurate. Certainly, the opening theme is catchy and I know that I’ve gotten it stuck in several peoples’ heads who have watched me play the game. Personally, I find the guitar piece used for the world map/level select screen to be the catchiest tune and the best music the game has to offer. Additionally, the music used for the screens featuring the King of All Cosmos is appropriately regal and epic. The game does have some fine music in places.

However, the music featured in most of the levels – and therefore what you’ll be hearing the most of – is primarily a kind of Japanese pop. For Japanophiles, sure, this is fine, but for people with taste? It may be a bit off-putting. Some of it manages to be borderline catchy, if not somewhat annoying, but other songs are downright hard to stand.

It’s all about what you like, I suppose. But while I think everyone can appreciate the main theme and the level select song, the rest of the fare is unfortunately too narrow in who it will appeal to.

Sound Effects: 8.5
Picking up or running into the various objects you encounter will produce a variety of sounds, from the squeaking of a tiny mouse to the horrified screams of a recently engulfed little girl. There are lots of different sounds that these objects can make, and it’s nice to have such variety when you’re picking things up. Other things – like crashing your Katamari into a wall, doing a supercharged sprint move, or jumping up into the air all make nice sounds, too.

These sound effects often are pretty quirky and the things people might say when you pick them up very strange, but that goes along fine with the general atmosphere of the game. Overall they complement the game nicely without drawing too much attention.

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STORY: 8.2

Note – A game like Katamari Damacy is not one where one can expect there to be a deep, emotionally moving story or one with significant development. It is a simple game and the story isn’t so important. Therefore, grading may be a rather lenient as compared to other games.

Story Idea: 8.5
The story goes like this: the King of All Cosmos, whose title should be fairly self-explanatory, accidentally demolishes all of the stars in the sky. It’s up to the scrappy young Prince to restore the night sky by rolling up Katamaris (balls of ever-increasing size that all sorts of things smaller than it will stick to) filled will objects collected from earth. These Katamaris will be used to create new stars and constellations. I can’t think of a game where constellations were a big part of things, and I like the idea. For a simple game like this, the story idea is completely adequate.

Characters: 9.0
There is really only one character in the game that has a lot of speaking time: The King of All Cosmos. He is a most excellent character, spewing forth silliness, regal egoism, and preposterous phrases that add high mountains of charm to the game. Listening to him criticize the Prince for not being nearly as great as him or hearing him explain how the sky is not nearly 'fresh' or 'mysterious' enough can be quite amusing.

The Prince is the character whom you’ll control throughout the game, but he remains silent throughout. Still, he has a bit of likability all of his own. There is also a block-shaped family that is featured in the cutscenes (read more on them below). Indubitably, the King of All Cosmos steals the show, but he’s good enough for him to be enough.

Cutscene and Ending Quality: 7.0
After completing each level for the first time, you’ll be treated to various cutscenes featuring the exploits of a generic family whose members are all block shaped. This Fisher Price family is, to say the least, terrifyingly creepy. They say their lines in strange monotone voices and their entire story is only marginally relevant to the game. What transpires in these segments is very simple and very brief, and while certainly completely unnecessary to the game, adds a new helping of oddness to the game (as if it didn’t have enough as it was).

The ending of the game wraps up these cutscenes and adds one last minor Katamari-rolling quest that is a fun addition. Though a slightly longer ending would always be appreciated, it is appropriate in length for a short game like this.

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INNOVATION: 9.0

Concept: 9.0
It’s clear that Namco wanted to do something different, and thus the concept of a ball that rolls and picks up things is here. It’s most definitely a unique idea, and is all the more intriguing seeing as you start out picking up small things and as the Katamari grows larger, you begin to pick up larger and larger objects. It is a fairly simple and straightforward concept, but one that piques interest nonetheless. More fresh ideas like this are needed in the game industry today.

Ingenuity: 9.0
Katamari Damacy defies categorization: it’s not quite a puzzle game as there’s really not much deep thinking involved, but it’s also hardly what one thinks of when they think of an action game – despite the fact that you will perform many so-called actions throughout.

I have described how the concept of the game is both original and interesting above. The question then must be asked, where does the game take this concept? How does it use this concept to do new things? The answer is that the concept takes the gameplay exactly where you would expect it to and not a step further. This is not necessarily a bad thing – after all, the concept is so novel that its implementation, even in the most basic form, is creative and new. Even though the game never really expands upon its basic concept, I find it hard to criticize it for this reason alone. It does offer an experience unlike anything else on the market, and for that I find it extremely commendable.

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LENGTH & REPLAY VALUE: 4.6

Game Length: 2.75
This is most assuredly the critical weakness of the game. In total, there are only about twenty missions. The time it takes to complete these range from just a couple minutes for some to almost twenty minutes for some of the later ones. This adds up to a game that can easily be completed in just a few sittings. What’s most disappointing is that it doesn’t seem like it would have been that difficult to add some more missions to the game, especially when it is very much needed.

The game also only features three levels across which all the missions take place. These levels are actually quite intricate, with lots of nooks and crannies and many different places you can go, limited only by whether your Katamari is small or large. Still, while the levels don’t become menacingly repetitive during the game, it would have been nice to have some more.

Challenge: 4.25
Along with the short length of the game, one of my biggest complaints with Katamari Damacy is that it does not really rely much on strategy or building skills. There are basically three things you can do to improve your game: get the controls down, learn where things are in the levels, and always go for the biggest objects you can pick up at that certain point in time. That’s about it. There is rarely much thought needed to tackle a level.

For the most part, the objectives for each level are not overly difficult. You will succeed at most of them on your first try. A few levels require more planning about where to go and what to pick up, and may take a few additional tries. On a whole, however, it is not a particularly challenging game.

General Replay Value: 7.0
Simply meeting the objective for each level will not earn you much praise from the King of All Cosmos. If you want to really please him, and to create much prettier stars in the sky, you will need to make larger Katamaris. The “Make a Star” levels will keep track of your largest Katamari’s size for that level, and if you complete the objective size fast enough, you will create a shooting star in addition to the normal star. For the constellation levels, there is a certain number of the featured object in each level, and the game will keep track of what percentage of the total you found. Besides the creation of brighter star and shooting stars, there are no real rewards for doing better, but it can be fun to try to beat your former best on a level.

Most of the levels in the game also have hidden in them a royal present. These presents are generally not a huge reward, mostly being pieces of clothing you can put on the Prince and have him wear while playing the game. These presents can be pretty hard to find and encourage exploration of the levels. Unfortunately, it can become tiresome to try to search every corner of a level for a reward that is not all that exceptional. Die-hard fans will have fun tracking them down, but a more casual player will likely not have the patience to perform such thorough searches.

Additionally, the game will keep record of what items you have picked up, sorting them by category (food, people, nature, etc.) and by location. It will keep track of the percentage of items you have found in each category and location. Once again, those that are really into the game might enjoy locating every object in the game, while most will probably not care to be so meticulous.

Replay in this game is more of a necessity than a compelling factor, due to the short length of the game. When it’s over, you probably won’t have had your fill yet, so you’re likely to want to play the levels over again a few times – if just for simple fun rather than obsessive completion.

Finally, there is also a rather simple two-player multiplayer mode in the game that has you battling against a friend for the largest Katamari. The scope of the multiplayer mode is rather limited, and while it may be fun to try out, it probably won’t become a regular you pull out when your gaming friends are over. Worth mentioning, however, is that you can find additional characters in the single player mode that you can play as in multiplayer – which adds up to another thing to search for in levels besides the royal presents.

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ENTERTAINMENT: 7.9

Gameplay: 7.75
Gameplay is simple: you, as the Prince, push a ball to which Earth objects stick to, called a Katamari, in the hopes of amassing an even larger ball. In most levels, the object is to simply collect as many things as you can and make the largest Katamari possible. Other levels will have you collecting as many of a certain object as you can, while still others will have you trying to find the largest single object of a certain kind or making a Katamari of a precise size. These different objectives make for a little variety in what you’re doing, but the core gameplay tends to be the same throughout: pick up lots of stuff with your Katamari.

After playing this game for the first time, I immediately questioned whether the gameplay would have enough depth to sustain a fun experience for a long period of time. You just pick up stuff, and that’s about it. No deep strategy involved, not much planning or thinking. I wondered if the game would be able to last or if its simplicity would kill it. The verdict? It succeeds somehow. It may not be the most thrilling experience, nor does it reach a Tetris-like state of repetitive pleasure. But it does manage to stay fun level after level.

I do wish there was something more to the game than what’s there. Sure, the simplicity is part of what makes the game what it is, but some extra abilities, level design that encouraged fast and tricky maneuvering, or some sense of puzzle-like complexity would have been most welcome.

Atmosphere: 9.5
Oh yes, atmosphere indeed! A good atmosphere is something that can really propel a game’s likability far beyond what it would be otherwise. Katamari Damacy absolutely excels in this department. I may have mentioned somewhere in this review that this game is weird, did I not? This weirdness gives it a magnificent charm, and added to the words of the King of All Cosmos, the simple art direction, the utterly bizarre cutscenes, and the craziness of the game’s concept itself, it really makes it something of its own.

Addictiveness: 7.0
Katamari Damacy is most fun in short sittings rather than long, extended play. That being said, these short sittings may become rather frequent, as the game is rather compelling the first time through. Too bad it’s over just as it’s beginning to start!

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OVERALL SCORE: 8.0

Silver Choice Award (Recommended Title)

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In the end you should see Katamari Damacy as this: just a fun little game that will give you a pleasantly new experience. If you’ve found yourself bored with the truckloads of sequels that are so plentiful these days, this game might be a refreshing side dish from the mainstream. Mess around with it for a little while, have some fun, appreciate its underlying charm, and then move on.

Pros:
+ Unique and charming style
+ Fresh concept, new ideas
+ Fun (but initially tricky) controls

Cons:
- Extremely short
- Little strategy, skill involved
- Barfable graphics

With a selling price of $20, it seems Namco realized that game, while good, was too brief an experience to sell at full price. This is not a bad price to pay for the game, but for most people, expect to get everything you can get out of it in at most a week, if not a few days. A rental will provide you with appropriate time to experience everything – but then again for a few bucks more you can have this quirky game as part of your collection. It’s one of those games that is nice to have if you want to baffle some friends, or as something that may appeal to a casual-gaming friend who doesn’t mind the oddity of this oddity.

Note – Scores in this review are based on a system where 10 is perfect, 5 is average, and 0 is the worst imaginable.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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