The game starts with male voice humming, a capella and a little warbly. The microphone picks up his every inflection, the soft smack of his tongue on his soft palate as he forms the beginning of the nonsense syllables used to carry the melody. It loops after just a few bars, and the background is scratchy.
Press a button and the hummed theme appears again in full-fledged orchestral mode, accompanied by rainbows of color and visuals that could very well be the bastard offspring of Terry Gilliam and the Yellow Submarine cartoon.
Friends who know more Japanese than I do tell me that Katamari Damacy translates roughly into "soul of a clump." At 2004's Electronic Entertainment Expo, its demo was off in a corner—Namco's little game where you did nothing but rolled a sticky ball around collecting an eclectic assortment of crud. It was one of a handful of titles that wasn't an massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), a sequel, a license, or about the Vietnam War. I don't think anyone was sure at that point whether Katamari Damacy would get a North American release at all. Namco would seem to be taking a big risk by doing so.
I mean, all it is is humming and rolling and stuff.
Actually, Namco's gamble has more than paid off. Katamari Damacy, released stateside for the modest price of $20, is wonderful. Cheeky, surprising, whimsical, and odd. Not perfect, mind you, but I'll get to that later.
The game is indeed about rolling around a big round ball called the katamari. The simple control scheme is reminiscent of Super Monkey Ball, though both analog sticks are required for basic movements; doubling up is needed for forward, back, left and right, and using a single stick rotates it for steering purposes—just like a remote-control car.
But why does one roll around a ball, exactly? The short answer is that the King of the Cosmos, who happens to be insane in that royal inbred sort of way, has gone and made all the stars disappear from the sky. In order to set things right again, the king enlists the help of his son, the Prince, who must journey down to earth with his katamari and make enough objects stick to it that it expands to a respectable enough circumference that the king can turn it into a brand new star.
During each "stage," the King sends his son down to Earth with a time limit and a certain circumference that must be achieved: for example, 6m (metres) in 10 minutes. From there, the strategy is simply to roll over everything smaller than the katamari itself—it won't be able to pick up larger objects until it puts on some girth itself, and certain objects like dogs and cars will actually collide with the katamari and cause some things to fall off of it.
The stages are vast and ample playgrounds of building interiors, parks and mini-cities that are strewn with every object imaginable. At first, the modestly sized katamari will only be able to pick up small things such as strawberries, weeds, and batteries. As the katamari increases in size, however, an ingenious graphic metamorphosis takes place which changes the entire perspective: the katamari becomes larger, and everything else in the environment smaller. People are suddenly not that intimidating, and can actually be rolled up, squealing, into the katamari along with trees, fences, and eventually roads, buildings and even the clouds themselves.
A big part of Katamari Damacy's charm is that it gives the player such child-like freedom—the freedom to wreak havoc in a way that comes across as innocent, like the mischievous two-year-old who paints on the wall with Mom's lipstick. Nothing goes splat, dies, or bleeds. In fact, at least one of the folks sings a carefree little ditty as he gets rolled up into the ball. And while other people do occasionally let out the odd scream, an upbeat soundtrack, which features lyrics like "let's roll up to be a single star in the sky," reassures that everything is actually just peachy.
It comes as a big surprise that the dialogue in Katamari Damacy is every bit as compelling as its gameplay—and not because it's campy and Engrishy (Mister Mosquito comes to mind), but because it's intelligent and subtle and completely twisted. The King uses the royal "we" and speaks with a kind of poetic madness: "What a nice katamari. Kind of bratty. Kind of shy." He addresses the Prince in a way that borders on verbal abuse, and is no doubt heaping all sorts of neuroses onto the child: "We can believe in you for 10 minutes," he says as a way of announcing the stage's time limit. He constantly berates the Prince: he's too short; his katamari is too small and not perfectly shaped.
Not to imply that Katamari Damacy was a frustration-free experience. The control isn't completely intuitive; my instinct was to pull the left analog stick to the left to turn left, for example, when in fact it's "up" on the right analog stick. There's also a point where the katamari becomes extremely unwieldy. When the katamari's big enough to roll over cars, but not quite big enough to start picking up small buildings, it difficult to discern which objects are safe to roll over, and which ones the katamari will simply crash into, losing some of its circumference in the process. Finally, I did actually become completely stuck at one point—wedged into a crevasse between two buildings and unable to build up any momentum to free myself.
However, the fact that I was frustrated for only a small fraction of the game bears witness to its great strength. Katamari Damacy may not have the flashiest graphics or the most intuitive controls, but what it does have is something far more important: the ability to evoke a sense of wonder within me as I experience the work of such creative and inspired minds.
As I look ahead at the new releases for the next month and a half, I see three MMORPGs, three games set in Vietnam (and another five about World War II), 20 license-based games and 29 sequels. Needless to say, I'm far more excited by the ridiculousness of watching a lop-sided ball of junk made of houses, cars, welcome mats, sushi pieces and little girls, with a totem pole jutting out of one side and a herd of cows stuck to the other, rise up into outer space to transform into a star.