"The idea of rolling a ball around a level has been done before, and better. But I donít recall a single time where Iíve rolled around a stage, constantly growing larger until the stage I thought I knew took on a whole new form without ever truly changing. It sounds like the dream game, and it almost was. With so much quirkiness and innovation, Katamari Damacy seemed destined to be a sleeper hit for Namco."
The King of the Cosmos is a big dork. I say this not because I hate him, or because Iím bitter, but because itís a simple fact. One night, out of pure boredom, he went flying around space bumping into stars. For him it was a glorious experience, but the people of Earth missed the stars the next morning, and even the king himself began to think perhaps his joy ride wasnít the best idea heíd ever conceived. With that said, he is the king, and he has better things to do than right this horrible wrong. And since youíre his son, well, the task falls to you. At his command, youíll roll a sticky ball around Earth, gathering junk until you have a large enough object that the King of the Cosmos can propel it to the atmosphere to serve as a star. Then youíll do it again, and again. And again. If that sounds like fun, you might just like Katamari Damacy.
Pronounced Ďkat-UH-mar-ee da-ma-SHE,í this Namco-published title is one of the oddest games Iíve played in the last few months. Or years. The idea of rolling a ball around a level has been done before, and better. But I donít recall a single time where Iíve rolled around a stage, constantly growing larger until the stage I thought I knew took on a whole new form without ever truly changing. It sounds like the dream game, and it almost was. With so much quirkiness and innovation, Katamari Damacy seemed destined to be a sleeper hit for Namco.
Then it fell victim to some very ho-hum flaws.
As Iíve already said, the goal of the game is to roll a sticky ball around a stage so that you can collect debris. When you begin a stage, youíll be very small in size. Mice frequently appear as giants. Even dominoes might be too much for your sphere to snag, and so youíll spend your time grabbing small fruits and thumbtacks and anything else diminutive enough to fall victim to your clutches. Though the process starts out slow, itís good fun to explore such super-sized environments.
While you explore, youíll have to avoid level hazards. These are not of the fatal variety. The worst you have to fear is a collision, whether it be with a rampaging mouse or a stationary wall you didnít quite avoid. Such bumps will cause you to lose some of your mass, which is upsetting because every area comes with a time limit. The system is for the most part quite fair, but itís here that the gameís problems also appear.
The first of these is the control scheme. Though Namco claims that the game features Ďgameplay mechanics of mesmerizing simplicity and absurdity,í the truth is quite the opposite thanks to the dual-stick setup. Instead of just rolling around with the left stick (as would make sense) and controlling the camera with the other (more on the camera in a moment), you must use both sticks in tandem. Now, I know most people donít give a damn what the controls are like, but here it really does matter. Even rolling straight forward becomes a chore as youíre forced to push forward both sticks at the same time. And what if you pass up a tantalizing piece of fruit you wanted to add? Well, now itís time to roll backward and hope you guess at its location properly. Alternately, you can slowly rotate your hero around his ball of junk until the fruit comes into view, then take another pass.
Because of the timer, such struggles with control quickly grow frustrating. Your time is best spent rolling toward large groups of items, not wrestling with your viewpoint so that you can try and snag an errant goodie. Compounding the problem is sometimes-faulty hit detection. Rather frequently, Iíve rolled toward an object and watched my character pass over its edge without effect. Itís frustrating, to say the least.
And so is the camera. Most levels start out providing you with a good perspective. But as your ball grows in size, the level shrinks around you. Giant mice become little specks on the screen, then vanish from sight altogether as theyíre replaced by trees, then buildings, then whole islands (in the final areas). The change to your environment is often handled rather nicely, but there are those situations in between that are enough to make a person consider throwing the controller. Particularly in urban settings, the camera often gets hung up on walls and corners. Because you canít adapt the camera at all (action is always viewed from behind the Prince of the Cosmos that is under your control), you must take several seconds to rotate things so you can figure out where you are.
Itís also possible to get stuck, and sometimes it may take a full minute or two just to break loose. Such flaws are perhaps inevitable in a game that is constantly changing, but that doesnít mean theyíre any less irritating.
Fortunately, even when youíre ready to scream at the game, half your face will be twisted into a smile that makes you look just a bit maniacal. The game has an amazing sense of style. Much of this it owes to its sound, which tackles you the minute the game begins loading. There are lots of Japanese songs and a few in English, and theyíre always so bizarre and Ďhappyí that last night I even caught myself humming one of the tunes to myself. That hasnít happened to me with a next-generation title since I donít know when. Itís not that thereís a huge variety on the soundtrack, but whatís here is really quite good.
Visuals, while not so spectacular, are still commendable. The game has a cel-shaded look, in general, and this is actually quite welcome. All the objects look cartoonish, even zany. People are blocky with limited frames of animation, but somehow that adds to the charm. So does the presence of space monsters, giant beasts, elephants, and everything else that populates this bizarre twist on reality. Rolling down the street through a bunch of cash registers, then past an alligator and on to an elephant pen, youíll be so busy laughing that you wonít even notice none of the game makes much sense. And like I said, it does help lessen some of the impact of the wretched controls and camera.
Unfortunately, thereís one other flaw that definitely deserves mention: Katamari Damacy is just too short. Eight or so hours in, youíll be watching the credits roll as you listen to a final song and read the loony subtitles. If the game were $50, youíd be right to think Namco was guilty of perpetrating a scam. Fortunately, it was released as a budget title. The $20 price tag feels just perfect for a game this unique. If youíre willing to look at the warts in favor of the beauty beneath, it definitely comes recommended.
Staff review by Jason Venter (October 06, 2004)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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