Rolling With the Absurdity: Katamari Damacy Review

Katamari Damacy is a single-player, action puzzle game developed and published by Namco for the PlayStation 2 in 2004 (released in Japan on March 18th, and in North America on Sept 21st).  

In Katamari Damacy, a tiny alien prince is tasked with rebuilding the stars, constellations, and the Moon after his father, The King of All Cosmos, accidentally destroys them in a drunken rampage of pirouettes.  To achieve this goal, The Prince is given a “katamari,” an adhesive ball that can stick smaller objects to itself and grow in size. With the katamari, The Prince is sent to Earth to roll up lots of stuff to amass many katamari large enough to restore the stars in the sky.

This is quite an out-there premise for a game, huh?  Well if you think that is bizarre, you are in for a treat!  Katamari Damacy is notorious for its unique and quirky aesthetic.  From its colorful and stylized visuals to its bopping soundtrack of poppy tunes, Katamari Damacy exudes a personality all its own, and it does not waste any time when it comes to showing off its creativity.

The oddity that is Katamari Damacy‘s intro cut-scene cannot be properly conveyed through text.  It just would not do it justice. Before we continue, I implore you to take a moment to experience it for yourself:

The game’s intro.  I have no idea what is going on here…and it is so beautiful!

This glorious barrage of rainbows, mushrooms, and posing pandas fills the screen as a planet-size, flamboyant being with a cylindrical head flies from scene to scene, filling the clear blue sky with sparkles as he does so, enticing the viewer to exclaim, “What on Earth am I watching!?”  This is how the game BEGINS. And if only gets weirder from here!

Katamari Damacy understands the absurdity of it’s premise and fully embraces it.  It’s main mechanic is rolling things up into a large ball. What can you roll up? Just about anything!  Thumbtacks, soda cans, potted plants, cats, benches, elephants, bulldozers, skyscrapers, giant squid, volcanoes, rainbows, anything!!!

Look and behold!,94769/
These beautiful katamari!

The player controls The Prince as he pushes the katamari around each stage, picking up objects smaller than it to increase its size, allowing it to pick up larger objects and grow even larger.  The control scheme uses the two control sticks of the DualShock controller to maneuver the katamari around. Pushing both sticks forward pushes the katamari forward, pushing the sticks back reverses, and pushing the sticks in opposite directions (one up, one down, or vice versa) turns the katamari left and right.  It is a control system that takes some getting used to, but once it is understood it is very intuitive. There are additional maneuvers that the player can perform, like sprinting forward, doing an about-face, or side stepping, but the controls are simplistic for the most part.

These simplified controls are accompanied by straightforward level objectives.  A multitude of different everyday objects of all shapes and sizes are strewn throughout each of the game’s 22 stages.  Each of these stages takes place in one of three environments: the house, the town, and the world. There are two types of level objectives: Make a Star, where The Prince must roll up enough objects within a time limit to amass a katamari large enough to satisfy The King of All Cosmos’s, and Make a Constellation, where The Prince must roll up as many of a particular object, such as crabs for the constellation Cancer, within a set time limit.  

The King of All Cosmos grading a katamari. He shows what items it is most made of!

At the end of each stage, The King of All Cosmos will judge The Prince’s katamari (typically in a condescending fashion) and the next stage will be unlocked.  Fast times on certain stages can unlock Eternal modes for each of the three environments, allowing the player to roll and roll to their heart’s content without needing to worry about time limits!

There is something inherently satisfying about watching the katamari grow from being smaller than a man’s shoe to being larger than him and his car.  It is the game’s sense of scale and progressively shifting perspective that make the gameplay so fun and rewarding. The Prince may start with a mini katamari smaller than a shoe in the middle of a garden but by following cleverly placed paths of small objects which lead to slightly larger objects and so on, the katamari can return to the same garden area being ten times larger than it was.  As the katamari grows, the player’s view of their environment changes.

One of the final levels in the game fulfills this concept in an incredible way by having the player guide The Prince to take a beach ball sized katamari and roll it until it is larger than a skyscraper, and even further until it is larger than the giant monster attacking said skyscraper.  The satisfaction of rolling up so much stuff and getting larger and larger is where a lot of the fun of Katamari Damacy lies.

Where Katamari begins to lose its fun-factor is when it attempts to restrict the player.  Stages in which The Prince is tasked with rolling up only one of a particular object seem to go against what makes the game feel so welcoming and fun in the first place: rolling up EVERYTHING.  Stages like Make a Constellation: Taurus restrict the players freedom by ending the stage once the katamari makes contact with any object that the game considers a cow. This infuriatingly also includes a small carton of milk that just so happens to have a cow printed on it.  Luckily, these stages only need to be attempted once, and you can proceed to the next stage even if you are unfortunate enough to tap some milk with your katamari, but this doesn’t relieve the sense of disappointment a player can feel after being booted from a stage because they bopped a milk jug.

One of my personal favorite tracks from the game. Give it a listen as you read on ;

From the screenshots and videos you have seen throughout this review, you are probably waiting for me to further address just how bizarre this game is.  Even within the game’s home country of Japan, Katamari Damacy is seen as uniquely creative and odd. While the game’s mechanics and clever level design provide the backbone for the enjoyment of Katamari, it is this nonsensical whimsy that ties the title together and makes it a truly fun experience.

To truly appreciate Katamari Damacy, you have to accept that some things, honestly most things, will not make sense.  The scenarios and environments presented in this game are factually bizarre. A playthrough of Katamari is often accompanied by a string of questions from the player and those who happen to glance at the television, like, “Why are there sentient, miniature Santa’s running around in the backyard?  Why is this backyard also a golf course? And why does this family pay no mind to the tiny alien rolling up all their loose mahjong pieces, spare batteries, and leftover takoyaki into a giant ball!?”

Many attempt to construct a grander meaning to these absurd and seemingly random elements.  As humans, we have a natural urge to understand the world around us. When presented with something that conflicts with our preconceptions, we tend to apply our own logical theories in an endeavor to explain how such an oddity can occur in our ordered world.  While literary analysis of the game can be an interesting exercise, I would argue that such ventures rob Katamari Damacy of its greatest strength: quirky, silly fun.

An example of the game’s silly tone. What a generous father, am I right?

The game’s director, Keita Takahashi, felt inspired to make a game that was unique, simple, fun and enjoyable, and an experience that could only be offered through a video game.  Disappointed by the drudgery of sequels and recycled ideas he saw throughout the gaming industry, he strove to create a game that went against conventions and offered players an original, fun, and comical experience (GameSpy, 2005).  This is the heart of Katamari Damacy. The game was designed with fun and oddity at its core. Attempting to bring concrete logic in to have the game’s narrative “make sense,” or try and attribute its elements with symbolic meanings steals the spotlight away from the charm and personality that the game’s bizarre nature provides.

Katamari Damacy is a quirky, simple, fun game that embraces its oddity and offers an enjoyable and interesting gameplay experience that captures a unique sense of scale I have not seen in any other game.  While it only has three environments to roll through, each one is packed full of wacky and charming sets that leave the player with a joyful feeling. The bizarreness of its style and art compliment these feelings, making the whole experience something that is unique, innovative, and just a really fun time!  I think Takahashi was successful in his mission with Katamari Damacy, and I highly recommend you try it out for yourself!

Katamari Damacy originally released for PlayStation 2.  If you have a PS2 lying around, you can find original copies for a decent price second hand online.

If you have a PlayStation 3, Katamari Damacy can be purchased through the PlayStation Store.

A remaster of the game, Katamari Damacy REROLL, is also going to be releasing on December 7th, 2018 for Nintendo Switch and PC!

Here’s a little more gameplay, this time from the upcoming remaster:

10 minutes of silky smooth gameplay from an early stage in the remaster!

This review is over! Time for me to go back to rolling up the world!
Royal Rainbow!

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