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. Rating: 9.0/10

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Square's Final Fantasy series was never meant to be a "series" in the truest sense of the word. Unlike the Metroid or Suikoden franchises, for example, the collection of role-playing games released under the banner of Final Fantasy did not follow a chronological progression. Each game had its own self-contained universe and unique inhabitants, who for the most part were not seen again in subsequent titles. With the release of Final Fantasy VII and VIII (in which the emphasis was on dazzling graphics, full-motion video sequences, and characters with modern language and ways of dress), the already tenuous links that held together the notion of Final Fantasy seemed ready to snap. In the opinions of some people, they already had.

Final Fantasy IX was supposed to be the bridge between the old and the new. It was advertised as a throwback to the pre-FFVII style of Final Fantasy—something that would please old-school gamers while still maintaining Square's reputation as one of the chief blockbuster-makers in the industry. The idea that Final Fantasy IX is a throwback is only superficially true, however. It still has the feel of a modern game. Everything is too polished, too neat and tidy, and too easy to feel truly old-school. Nevertheless, it is a throwback insofar as it borrows a great deal of its ideas from previous games in the series.

The word that best seems to describe Final Fantasy IX is "comfortable." Despite the fact that its characters and kingdoms have new names and appearances, they will instantly seem familiar to those who have played previous titles in the series. It makes me wonder how much longer Square is going to be able to keep performing nose-jobs on the same face and introducing it as something new. Apparently the cartilage hasn't collapsed yet, since Final Fantasy X has already been released at the time of my writing this review, and XI is now not far behind.

In Final Fantasy IX we are introduced to Zidane, who, with his nondescript features and monkey tail, probably qualifies as the strangest looking Final Fantasy hero to date. Nevertheless, he is an easy personality both to understand and to sympathize with—important qualities in a hero that we will be forced to stick with for four discs. The other main characters, however, are uneven in their development. Some, like Princess Garnet and Vivi, a young black mage grappling with the meaning of life, have large sections of the plot devoted to them and as such seem very real to us. Others, such as Freya the dragoon and Amarant, a mercenary, seem interesting but are never given enough "screen time" to fully realize their potential. The rest of the playable characters more or less fall into previously established Final Fantasy stereotypes and thus seem rather one-dimensional. There is Steiner, a general of the Knights of Pluto who ends up rebelling against his former establishment (just like Celes in Final Fantasy III); Quina, an odd genderless creature who uses blue magic learned by eating things (memories of Caitsith from Final Fantasy VII); and Eiko, a spunky child with powerful spell-casting abilities (much like Relm from Final Fantasy III or Palom and Porom from Final Fantasy II).

The story, augmented by numerous subplots and video cutscenes, is executed rather well and does a good job of moving from simple to more complex ideas in the later discs. Unfortunately, the story suffers from too many forced and unbelievable plot twists. The antagonist in the first half of the story is Garnet's mother, Queen Brahne, ruler of the kingdom of Alexandria. Brahne has recently acquired a powerful new technology, which has apparently pushed her already greedy and power-hungry mind over the edge to the point where she is attacking the other kingdoms in a bid to take over the world. From this initial threat, a second more sinister villain emerges who goes by the name of Kuja.

Neither Brahne nor Kuja struck me as particularly effective villains. Brahne would have been more credible had she not also been the mother of Princess Garnet. I found the idea that a sweet, honorable and petite girl could have been raised by an evil green-skinned 500 pound brute of a woman to be utterly unbelievable. Kuja was also disappointing. Not as sympathetic as Golbez, nor as fiendishly wicked as Kefka, nor as cool as Sephiroth. Comparisons to past Final Fantasy villains aside however, Kuja still comes up short. We never really get an insight into his mind, perhaps because there is no real motivation for his destructiveness except an "if I can't have the world, then no one can" attitude.

Final Fantasy IX resurrects the "jobs" system, where each character has a specific classification and learns skills accordingly (i.e. Zidane the thief, Eikos the summoner, Steiner the knight, Freya the dragoon and Amarant the ninja). Certain skills are inherent to the job and can only be learned by that character, while others can be learned by more than one person. The learning of these special spells and skills is done by equipping certain items and gaining enough "AP" from battles to level up the item and learn the skill.

Besides this nod to the older games, the four-person battle system has been brought back with great results. While in battle, characters can go into a trance that makes their speed increase for a short period. As well as attacking and using magic and items, there is a "skill" command used during the fights where specialized techniques like "steal" and "eat" can be used. The presence of moogles, chocobos, airships and Cid (good old Cid, who appears in a slightly different incarnation as the king of Lindblum in this game) ensures a link with other games in the series.

From an aural and visual standpoint, Final Fantasy IX does nothing to diminish Square's awesome reputation in both departments. With the music, Nobuo Uematsu seems to be entering a renaissance of sorts in which we can hear glimpses of the old pre-FFVII style. Nothing sticks out in my mind as much as the 45-second loops from those old games, but many of the melodies in FFIX came pretty close. Part of the reason may be the general trend in video game music which is heading away from simple looped melodic hooks (which he was a master of writing) into more ambient and atmospheric music in the tradition of films (which Final Fantasy IX also has its share of). If this is the case, then Uematsu has certainly stepped up to the challenge.

The graphics are simply gorgeous. Much has been said about the "return to old-school graphics" in FFIX, but I can agree with this only to a point. The style of the graphics could be considered "old-school," since many of the characters appear cartoonish and exaggerated. Yet these are no 16-bit era sprites. The characters' faces are mobile, seamlessly animated, and full of expression. There are also generous smatterings of full-motion video (FMV) in the game, which kill off any further pretences of the game being "old-school." These video sequences are, of course, stunning. We have come to expect nothing less from Square. What really impressed me, though, was that these FMVs acted as smooth transitions from one part of the story to the next. I didn't feel distracted or impatient by watching these mini-movies, because they always seemed to be leading somewhere important and weren't strung out to a self-indulgently long length.

I finished Final Fantasy IX without too much trouble; it was not an overly challenging game, and granted there were some extra little mini-games that I didn't bother to complete which would have added to the game-time. The mini-games include a variation on the popular card game from Final Fantasy VIII, and another challenge involving riding a chocobo and digging for buried treasure. I must admit that the linearity of the game was rather frustrating at times, as was having to click through hefty amounts of dialogue. But I have come to expect both of these things from Final Fantasy.

What it ultimately comes down to is that Final Fantasy IX doesn't offer very much that is new. The game is more than a little formulaic at times, using rehashed bits from other Final Fantasy games and not taking them any further. On the other hand, I'm glad that Square didn't just throw in some poorly thought out new features just for the sake of being different (such as the magic acquisition disaster in FFVIII), and there's no denying that the game is well-crafted and carefully and thoroughly put together so that it can be enjoyed with minimal frustrations. However, I can't help wondering how much Final Fantasy IX really deserves my praise, and whether I should instead be paying homage to the earlier games in the series for providing so much of its inspiration. Rating: 7.0/10

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