It's hard to talk about Katamari Damacy (kat-a-mar-e da-mah-she) in a way that makes any sense. It's profoundly simple, extremely addictive, and gleefully psychotic in its own weird way; it's the kind of game where if you stop and think about the cartoony onscreen action, you realize that you're committing incredible atrocities at an extraordinary rate... but you haven't noticed until now.|
Katamari Damacy may be, of all your available options, the most fun you'll have destroying Japan. As a little yellow-green alien about a centimeter tall, your job is to push a large sticky ball of matter across Earth, capturing anything smaller than it that it touches. The more stuff that sticks to your ball, the larger your ball will get, and the larger the stuff you can grab with it.
You control your ball with both analogue sticks, pressing them in the direction you want to go or in opposite directions to turn suddenly. It's very easy to pick up, but as your ball gets bigger and the streets get smaller, steering becomes harder and certain paths get locked off.
In early levels, you're stuck rolling over pieces of gum and lost coins, while frantically dodging such dangers as remote-controlled cars or angry mice. Get a little bit bigger, and you can roll over those mice and add them to the ball, but now the family dog or cat might be a problem. The cycle then repeats itself, until you live in fear of giant squids but can pick up the contents of a small town. People who see you will scream and run, until you run them down and crush them under your ball of doom.
Katamari Damacy is about building yourself up to be the rolling terror of a square-block kid's-cartoon Japan, where your thundering ball of miscellaneous junk gathers up all who are foolish enough to get in its path. The later a level you're on, the larger you must build the ball; on one stage, you have twenty-five minutes to roll over a small city, transforming your ball from a meter in diameter to a three-hundred-meter juggernaut, capable of absorbing buildings, fishing boats, sperm whales, and small islands into its immensity. If somebody were to make a game based on the old horror movie The Blob which let you play as the titular monster, this is the best way it could've turned out.
You're doing all of this basically because your father's a dick. Your character is the Prince of the Cosmos, charged with gathering matter to help reignite stars after the King shattered them all in a drunken rampage. The king needs a "katamari damacy" (translation: "clump of souls") of a certain size to build each new star, so you go to Earth with a fresh katamari and increase its size by rolling over everything in your path.
Then, when you reach the size the King needs, he'll take your squirming ball of objects, people, animals, and buildings and throw it into the night sky, where it'll erupt into a cosmic ball of flame.
Yeah, Katamari Damacy's kind of weird. It's one of those bizarre Japanese games that almost never gets translated; from the graphics to the subject matter to the bright cartoony graphics, this has "niche game" written all over it. The average American audience is going to flip out over the sheer oddity of the little story cutscenes that end each level, or the freaky little girl who welcomes each constellation back to the sky.
The Japan you're destroying is a strange and angular place; people are built like the little men in a Lego kit, while animals look like wooden carvings and cars resemble children's toys. It's a nice summer day when you arrive in town, with concerts and circuses in town. You can grab up entire soccer teams, bands of street buskers, trained acrobats, wrestling matches, deep-sea divers, swim teams, and sumo wrestlers; near the furthest extent of your growth, you can pick a fight with giant monsters and huge robots.
Near the other end of the scale, you'll begin the game dodging angry mice as you gobble up sticks of gum or lost coins, trying frantically to get big enough to defend yourself. Whenever you slam into a wall, or something slams into you, your most recent acquisitions unstick from the katamari and go flying. There's sort of an unspoken arms race going on here, as you try to grow large enough to grab everything without getting crushed underfoot... and if you're big enough, you can literally grab everything.
The police will try to stop you, of course, but their bullets are as nothing before the might of your katamari. Sadly, I haven't seen any sight of the infamous Japanese Defense Force, and have not yet had the chance to crush their missile pods and sadly inadequate anti-Godzilla weapons under the weight of my enormous katamari. All of that comes next year, I'm sure.
Later levels add additional complications to the mix; you may have to grow from one meter to three hundred within twenty-five minutes, grab a certain number of specific objects such as fish or women, or pick up the largest item within a "family" of them without accidentally getting one of the smaller ones (i.e. getting big enough to roll over a full-grown bear without picking up a cub or a teddy bear).
This isn't the prettiest game out there, but it's well-animated, with great sound, and it never slows down. Considering the sheer amount of data your PS2 has to process, since it literally keeps track of every single item within each enormous level (a later stage sends you careening across what would appear to be the entire Japanese archipelago), the graphics couldn't be much better without either slowing the game down or being unbelievably grotesque. This wouldn't be the same game if the people you were using as star fuel were at all realistic; it'd go from a hilarious cartoon to a dark story of worldwide destruction.
Instead, you've got a pastel-colored wonderland that grows as you do, accompanied by a jazzy J-pop soundtrack. As you travel from the floorboards of a small home to ravage the countryside, there's a real sense of growth and accomplishment with each new level, and each new stage in your katamari's development.
You can also take on your friends in multiplayer action, by hitting L1 at the main menu screen. In small arenas, two players are each given a katamari, a roomful of objects to grab, and three minutes to face off. You can even grab each other, or if you're both too big for that, turn the game into a panicked version of bumper cars.
Katamari Damacy isn't going to be for everyone. It looks kidlike and child-safe, but only so long as you don't give too much thought to what you're doing and you don't get beyond the first few stages. This is the kind of game that unleashes people's inner conquerors; I showed this to several friends, all of whom became nearly frantic with their sudden need to roll people over. When the katamari finally got big enough for a kid to stick to it, there was a maniac glee in the room that I can't really describe without using metaphors that involve psychotic disorders.
If you like destroying Japan, and just about everyone does, Katamari Damacy is simple enough to play for hours, with enough challenge and replay value to keep you coming back for more. It'll arrive in American stores, almost totally unchanged from the Japanese version, later this month.
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