Katamari Damacy is simultaneously a simple yet addictive puzzle game and a celebration of the truly absurd–one of the few games ever produced that can tickle the imaginations of kids, adults, and stoners alike.
“When the King of All Cosmos accidentally destroys all the stars in the sky, he orders you, his pint-sized princely son, to put the twinkle back in the heavens above. How, you ask? By rolling everything and anything on Earth into clumps, so he can replace what’s missing in space.” (Description that’s on the box)
That’s the story behind the game, and it pretty much sums up how it plays. The prince is ridiculously short (about 4cm tall) and has to push this sticky ball around–called a “katamari”–so that things stick to it. The entire objective of the game is to amass the biggest ball of stuff possible.
Players begin each level with a small-sized katamari, which at first can only latch onto small objects such as dice, erasers, eating utensils, pieces of sushi, and other such tiny things. As more items get stuck to the katamari, it increases in size, which in turn allows the katamari to grab onto larger items (things like potted plants, milk bottles, family pets, etc.). Each subsequent level calls for players to compile a larger katamari than in the previous level. By the last level, people, cars, buildings, and even entire towns will end up sticking to and rolling along with the katamari.
Just like a certain wildly successful puzzle game that once swept the world by storm (Tetris, anyone?), the controls in Katamari Damacy are so simple that anyone can play it. The two analog sticks steer the ball and propel it forward and back. No other buttons are used. A five-year-old could play it. And, just like Tetris, the game isn’t as easy as it looks. Each level implements a time limit that puts a sense of urgency into katamari-building. Also, bumping into walls or larger objects will knock items off of the katamari, causing it to shrink. Things in the environment will try to assault the katamari, which can also dislodge items from it. Small animals will attack the katamari while you’re rolling up tinier items. Once the katamari is big enough to pick up mice and cats (50cm), humans will take notice and try to kick it. By the time you’re able to roll up humans (2m) and farm animals (3m), you’ll have to watch out for cars and construction vehicles that try to ram the katamari. It doesn’t stop there, either. Battleships, sea monsters, giant robots, and tornadoes all become hazards to and, eventually, fodder for the katamari.
At the end of each level, the King takes the katamari and transforms it into one of the missing stars. The game has 16 stages and four main environments. The first couple levels start out inside a house and around the yard, but you’ll soon discover–by gobbling up the entire house–that the house is just one environment in a town, which itself is just one part of an island, which itself is just one island in an entire world of islands. As the katamari continues to grow–from 10cm, to 1m, to 10m, up to 100’s of meters in size–people and homes shrink out of view and the viewpoint zooms out so that you can gobble up skyscrapers and volcanoes that were previously just window dressing. There are literally thousands of items to pick up and the PS2 handles all of those details and the constant scaling of the environment flawlessly.
The best things about the game are seeing what you can roll up into the katamari and watching animals, people, and monsters turn tail and run away screaming from it once it’s big enough to abduct them. There’s literally nothing in the environment that can’t be picked up eventually.
Which gets into the real reason why it’s nearly impossible to stop playing Katamari Damacy once you start. There’s an absurd, twisted style of humor running through the whole presentation that’s innocent enough for young kids to miss, but depraved enough to really tickle the funny bone of any teens or adults playing it. The graphics have a Zelda-shaded (or Animal Crossing, if you prefer) look to them that gives the world a cartoon-like purity about it, which you’re able to take apart piece by piece until all that’s left is a massive ball of stuff floating in a big empty ocean. When you actually take the time to look at some of the things you can pick up, you’ll notice some pretty bizarre things–like a kitty cat pulling a rickshaw, crabs having watergun fights, or a giant Ultraman wrestling a fake Godzilla out in the shipyard. In one stage, you’re supposed to gather at least 150 women into the katamari before time’s up, and the stage is full of school girls, women in bathing suits, and old ladies. Once in a while, a dialogue box will pop up and the King will comment on something you’ve picked up in the katamari. It’s pretty messed up when you grab a rotten turkey leg out of a dog bowl and the King says, “Mmmm, take out.” The introduction is a Yellow Submarine -inspired montage that may cause some people to trip out without the need for LSD or stronger drugs. We’re talking deformed creatures, singing ducks, dancing cows, and rainbows being vomited out of the King’s mouth here. The cinematic cut scenes that appear between the levels aren’t as trippy as the opening intro, but they do tell a rather wacked-out tale of a Lego-headed family coming to terms with the lack of stars in the sky and the sudden appearance of a mysterious ball that seems to be gobbling up everything on Earth.
The soundtrack is just as disturbing as the graphics are, perhaps more so. While you’re rolling the katamari around, you’ll hear the kinds of noises and sounds that you’d expect to hear in a bustling town or city. Cats and dogs bark, people chatter, cows moo, cars honk their horns, etc. If the katamari is large enough, animals and people will turn around and run away from it while screaming loudly or muttering gibberish. When you roll the katamari over these objects and pick them up, they’ll let out one last scream, cry, or honk before falling silent. All throughout, the music that plays in the background is a selection of happy-go-lucky jazz, bebop, lounge tunes, and love songs that put a calming Sesame Street style happiness into the process of basically destroying the world. Credit goes to Namco for not changing the soundtrack from the Japanese version of the game. For some reason, having the lyrics in Japanese adds to the game’s overall strangeness.
Some people have complained about how “short” the game is. Sure, if your entire definition of game length is doing the absolute minimum required to reach the end, then Katamari Damacy IS short. It should take most people 3 hours or so to meet the size goals for all 16 stages. Nevertheless, do not be mistaken–Katamari Damacy isn’t just 16-stages-and-done. After you beat a stage, you can, if you want, go back and try to beat the fastest time for that stage, which, if you’re successful, will put a comet up there along with the stars you created. The King has also hidden presents in some of the stages, which offers some incentive to poke around them a bit further. Most of the presents are just clothing for the pint-sized prince, although there is a camera in one of the stages that lets you take and save snapshots of the game once you’ve found it. Three stages have “endless” modes that can be unlocked by amassing a katamari above and beyond the specified goal. Endless mode does away with the timer and lets you roll the ball at your own pace until you return to the menu screen. Above all, the game never really ends even after you’ve seen “the ending,” because you can always go back to any level and make a larger katamari than the last time. There’s so much bent joy in seeing how many cats, dogs, people, and buildings you can cram into a single katamari, especially when the King acts so nonchalant about turning the whole mass into a 50,000 degree ball of fire. The music player and cinema galleries that unlock after “finishing” the game, as well as the basic two-player split-screen mode, are pretty nice extras too.
It’s tough to evaluate Katamari Damacy objectively, since it’s the kind of game that many people just “won’t get,” whereas a certain subset of the population will simply devour it lock, stock, and barrel. Taken strictly as a puzzle game, it’s pretty good. However, when you factor in the surreal Yellow Submarine style cinemas, the happy-happy music, the twisted dialogue, and the sole play mechanic of steamrolling people and towns into a giant ball of stuff, the end product is one of the most unique and altogether satisfying games ever published for the PlayStation 2.
And it retails for just $20 !