The lights are on
When inserting Katamari Damacy into your PS2, the first thing you hear is the laid-back tune in the video below. I was sold from that point forward, and then the intro hits you like a ton of bricks. There is a crane carrying a turtle, clovers descending from on high, and pandas dancing around mushrooms. That’s when I knew I was in for a treat. Katamari Damacy is a rare game, one that is so deeply and specifically weird, and also self-aware and playful about how weird it is. It came out almost ten years ago now, so sometimes I forget how much I loved it back when I played it. A song from the game will pop into my head, and it will all rush back to me. The King of All Cosmos, the pure fun of the one-of-a-kind gameplay, and the eclectic, phenomenal music – all of it was fantastic, and I’m here to remind you why.
The King of All Cosmos
This is in my opinion one of the greatest and most underrated video game characters of all time. A flamboyant giant who refers to himself in the royal “we” and talks in DJ record scratches, The King of All Cosmos partied too hard and wiped out all the stars in the sky. He has incredible lines throughout the whole game, with an aloof yet eloquent speaking style. He apologizes for taking out all the stars, but he also genuinely enjoyed it. He says, verbatim: “We felt the beauty of all things, and felt love for all. Did you see? We smiled a genuine smile. Did you see? The stars splintering in perfect beauty. So many there used to be, almost a nuisance. Now there is nothing but darkness. Hee... 'Tis but a dream... Hee... But a beautiful one.” He’s like an 18th century poet who may have dipped into new-age pharmaceuticals.
This all happens in the opening minutes, and leaves you, the prince, to clean up the mess by rolling up objects so big that they become stars (a sensible plan, clearly). Every time you finish a level, the King extends a rainbow from his mouth and sucks up the prince, which is disturbing and hilarious. Afterwards, he will judge how well you did in the level at rolling stuff up. If you don’t do well, he will actually make fun of you and tease you for doing a bad job, which is an interesting ploy as it really made me want to do well each level. In many ways, the King of All Cosmos carries the game, because he is the embodiment of the bizarreness that is Katamari Damacy. Whoever came up with the character deserves a round of applause.
Rolling Up Stuff Into A Ball Is Really A Lot Of Fun
It’s easy to only talk about how weird a game Katamari Damacy is, but doing so belies the fact that playing it is really enjoyable. I’m not sure why, and I’m not sure how creator and lead developer Keita Takahashi found this out, but rolling up stuff onto a ball to progressively make it a bigger ball is surprisingly fun. It is really satisfying to progress from rolling up erasers in a domicile and then rolling up birds outside and then later getting big enough that you can roll that house you were first in.
Part of it is also the controls, which are very intuitive yet completely original. Moving both sticks in any direction makes the prince move forward, and moving sticks in opposite directions makes him turn. There are a few slightly deeper mechanics like moving both sticks really fast and letting go to dash, which makes it an easy control scheme to pick up that leaves room for the player to improve his/her ability as the game goes on.
Inexplicable, Great Level Design
Katamari has standard levels where you are inside or outside a house rolling up toothbrushes and glue and clementines and magnets. But then it also has levels that hit you out of left field. At one point, the King says there is not enough grace in the sky, so he makes you roll up only swans. In order to make the constellation Cancer, he has you collect a lot of crabs.
One time, the King decides to create a constellation and forgets to add a bear, so you have to find and roll up the biggest bear possible. One might expect there to be a bear hidden inside the level. Just the opposite: There are bears all over. The goal is to avoid all the small bears yet still get big enough to roll up a big bear. It’s so random and so dumb. And that’s kind of amazing, because few games these days are willing to include complete non-sequitors and make whole levels out of them just because it’d be funny and ridiculous. I applaud the free spirit of the developers.
Bizarre Cubist Custcenes
All of the cutscenes in Katamari Damacy feature this creepy aloof family where everyone has a lot of right angles and one girl “feels the cosmos.” Then the family goes to the space station and the kids meet up with their father who is an astronaut, and he cannot launch his mission to the moon because the moon is missing. It’s obviously a clichéd video game story as old as time. Who hasn’t heard a story about a space launch not being possible because the moon is missing? Come on, Katamari, be original!
I do not understand why they chose this style for the cutscenes, or why they chose this random family to be the focal point of the cutscenes. I frankly don’t really care. I just like how these snippets serve as a constant reminder that this game is super weird in case anyone had forgotten halfway through.
Katamari Damacy gets points in my heart for not only having one of the best video game soundtracks of all time, but having one of the most original and eclectic soundtracks of all time. Listen to this song that includes a Japanese children’s choir. It’s full of innocence and happiness.
Then there’s this lovely, jazzy elevator tune that inspired visual descriptions from multiple YouTube users which were posted as video annotations.
There is a song that could be considered swing music, there is this hypnotically catchy electronic track, and there are a tremendous group of great remixes to the main theme. The entire soundtrack is fully of lovely, catchy tunes that are all inspired, one-of-a-kind pieces.
The Superb Ending
Spoiler warning for a game that came out ten years ago: The ending to Katamari Damacy is great. The final level tasks you with rolling up the moon, and it’s a phenomenal final stage. You start with a one-meter-tall Katamari rolling up potted plants and briefcases, then keep going until you start rolling up bikes, then cars, then trees, then houses. Eventually you get so big that you begin rolling up skyscrapers, entire cities, and finally the very landmasses where those cities used to be. If you’ve never played Katamari Damacy, watch this:
The seamless progression from having a Katamari that’s tiny to one that’s enormous is impressive to watch, and more to the point, it’s fun to play. Then after the King thanks you for making the moon, the game rewards you with a cutscene filled with celebration, dancing, flying, and mushrooms (there are a lot of mushrooms).
This fever-dream sequence is accompanied by a manic, wonderfully energetic version of the opening theme. The credits arrive afterward, accompanied by a bombastic, heartfelt, overly serious Japanese ballad encouraging more free love. During these credits, you can control the Prince on top of the Earth and roll up every country that exists. It’s all kind of baffling, and I personally can’t help but love every part of it. No other game I have played has been so equally joyous, playful, and strange all at the same time. There have been other Katamari games, but the first one will be remembered for its pure originality. It’s made me smile out of surprise, out of amusement, and out of genuine joy. I can’t ask for more.
Email the author Shin Hieftje, or follow on Game Informer.