Your father, the King of All Cosmos, had too much fun partying last night and accidently destroyed all the stars and constellations. Whoops! Being a mighty king, you’d think he’d be able to rectify this problem easily, but he’s never been a particularly effective king. As a matter of fact, he’s not a good father, either—he definitely never liked you. He’s as big as a planet, and he doesn’t consider you, at 4 inches tall, much of an heir to his kingdom. He always orders you to clean up his messes, and without so much as a thank-you. While he’s having a good time, you’re stuck on Earth with a tiny adhesive ball that’s supposed to grow large enough to transform into a star in the heavens.
So goes the premise for Katamari Damacy (塊魂 or “Clump Spirit”), one of the most unique video games ever created. When I saw it delivered to the ICHEG Lab, I knew I was in for a treat.
Katamari Damacy began as a school project designed by Keita Takahashi, a student working out of the Namco Digital Hollywood Game Laboratory. Developed for under $1 million, mere pocket change compared to most other Namco hits, and published in 2004 as a PlayStation 2 game, it was intended to be funny and entertaining yet simple to play, and the high level of its success took everyone by surprise.
The game play is basic. As prince, you are given a small katamari (adhesive ball) to roll across the planet. As you roll, the ball picks up tiny objects, such as ants and thumbtacks. The larger the ball becomes, the bigger the objects it attracts, and before you know it, you’re picking up mountains and skyscrapers. However, if you bite off more than the katamari can chew, you risk getting stuck or digressing. For example, if you try to pick up a house when your ball is the size of a car, the house may knock off some of the other things you have collected, and the ball will shrink. Eventually, however, you may be able build a katamari large enough to turn the King into a star.
Some players complain about the game’s simplicity and say, “All you do is roll the ball around,” or “The graphics aren’t even realistic.” Others say the game is too short—you can finish in about 10 hours—but even the harshest critics admit they’ve never played anything like it. In fact, some of these perceived weaknesses translate into great strengths. Young children understand the basic concept of the game—roll around the sticky ball, pick stuff up, and watch it grow. Adults love the underlying complexities thinking, “I could pick up this pencil, but since it’s longer than the ball that means the ball will roll at odd angles until I can collect enough objects to make it round again!” In addition, the innovative music, which combines traditional video game sounds with jazz, samba, and pop, is one of the game’s highlights.
Katamari Damacy had a modest introduction in Japan, and European publishers believed it was too quirky for their market. So Namco released the game in the United States without high expections. Katamari Damacy quickly became a cult favorite, however, and stores sold out at a rapid pace. The game won numerous awards, including recognition for “Excellence in Game Design” at the 2005 Game Developers Choice Awards. Since its release, Namco has created five sequels: We Love Katamari, Me & My Katamari, Beautiful Katamari, I Love Katamari, and Katamari Forever. Given all that success, I can’t believe I’d never heard of this game before it made its way into the ICHEG Lab! I’m hooked now, though.