Unlimited fun in a limited package
Some games catch your eye because the name bring up associations; a game with 194x in its title will usually be World War II-themed, and seeing the word 'speed' in a title usually signifies a racing game. But what on earth is Katamari Damacy about then? The title is in Japanese (yes, it's being released like that outside of Japan), but to those of us who don't speak the language that is exactly why it stands out. Well, I'm glad to say that the theme of this game is as original as its title.
So what is a katamari? I can't think of a better question to kick-start an explanation of the what the gameplay is like in this game. Simply put, a katamari is a ball, and you're a little guy pushing that ball around. Less simply put... the ball you're pushing around is almost magically magnetic, picking up objects that it rolls over as long as they're small enough (relative to the ball). Picking up objects causes your katamari to grow in size, allowing you to pick up bigger objects. That's pretty much the central idea in this game. Still sounds fairly simple I guess. Its simplicity is also where the real genius lies here, because this is one of those "easy to pick up, hard to put down"-titles.
There is a background story, but it's just as silly as it is original. All the stars in the sky have been lost, and it's your job to fill the sky back up. Rolling ever bigger katamari's of course. Hey, I said it was silly. It's the King of All Cosmos who orders you, the Prince, to fulfill this task. Don't think of this King as a calm and wise ruler, because I kept seeing a Space Guru or Intergalactic Hippy in him during some of the cutscenes. The story is just so "out there", you really have to see it for yourself.
Once you start playing though, you'll instantly forget about the storyline. After you play around with the controls for a little bit (and it takes less than 5 minutes to learn them.... a bit longer to master them), you're thrown into the game, ready to build (or roll) your first katamari. Most levels require you to reach a certain size within a certain amount of time, and at first you're a tiny little Prince rolling a tiny little ball around. You'll start out by rolling over (and thus picking up) stuff like erasers and pens, when you are thrown into a level that looks like a Micro Machines racetrack... running across a table and rolling up ramps. Later on though, your katamari will have become so big that you'll be able to roll over and pick up entire trees and houses with your extraterrestrial wrecking ball.
Controlling your ball isn't as straighforward as it seems. Ages ago I used to love playing Marble Madness, controlling a small marble as you tried to reach your goal by steering through a obstacle-filled course, up and down ramps and off ledges. But at least the marble was a perfect sphere! Your katamari won't stay that way for long, I can assure you. Imagine rolling over a pen, which then sticks to your katamari. You keep rolling, but then the pen hits the floor again, causing your katamari to change its course. As you pick up more and more objects, your katamari becomes more spherical again, and thus easier to control, but this process will keep repeating itself as you pick up more and more oddly-shaped objects.
The graphics are nothing special, which is fairly common for a puzzle or skill-based game I guess. Katamari Damacy's look is cartoonesque, but don't think of the cell-shading techniques we've seen so much over the past year or so (XIII this is not). The intro movie looks like a cartoon made for really young children (I'm talking about dancing and singing animals here) and the game itself it equally colorful. If you're looking for next gen-graphics, don't look here, but if you're into fun and addictive gameplay, keep reading. Katamari Damacy's fairly simply graphics fit the game perfectly though, and a game as fun as this one doesn't need jaw-dropping graphics to succeed in entertaining the gamer.
Hands up everyone who can remember the first tune from Tetris on the gameboy. One of those tunes that just stuck with you... and Katamari Damacy has plenty of those. Cheerful music for a cheerful game, the kind you start humming along to after a short while. The sound effects all around you, because almost everything you assimilate with your katamari will sound different (you'll be able to roll over people later on too.... and you can hear them scream while you're happily humming along to the game's tunes).
This game is incredibly fun to play. There's a fairly limited amount of strategy involved too, because a bigger katamari can't always access smaller areas, but most of the time you're just happily rolling your ball along without ever feeling bored, not even for a second. The only problem is that it's all over way too quickly. It took me only two days to complete it, and I was taking it slowly. I'm sure that if you pick it up again after a few days or weeks, you'll be hooked again in no time at all, playing all the way through it for a second, third and fourth time. I just can't help wishing there were more levels, or a different campaign/story, to play. There's a multiplayer duel mode, where you compete for the biggest Katamari in a certain amount of time, but the biggest appeal here is in the single player mode, which is too short. Still, while it lasts, you'll keep playing.... and you're gonna be smiling and having a fun time doing so.