Roll for fun, roll for glory, roll for the beauty, and roll to watch the people squirm.
Katamari is one of those series I just never got around to, and I don’t really have a good reason why. As I always knew it was a delightfully camp and bizarre series with a vibrant soundtrack and jovial gameplay. Normally, I would have rectified this by checking out a newer title, but the series has been on something of a hiatus, with the last fully new console game being 2007’s Beautiful Katamari. Rather than rectifying this with a new game and assembling a new creative team, Bandai Namco instead thought it best to start from scratch and produced a remaster of the original 2004 title, Katamari Damacy, for modern systems, dubbed Katamari Damacy REROLL.
Katamari Damacy REROLL Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Switch, PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Namco and Monkeycraft Co Ltd.
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Following a vibrant title opening movie, the events of Katamari Damacy begin with the delightfully garish King of All Cosmos as he is fluttering throughout the recess of space in a drunken stupor, spiraling himself through the stars lining the sky. When he comes to, all that remains in the universe is the Earth, and presumably its sun because otherwise the planet should be encompassed in eternal cold and darkness. Recognizing this as one marvelous mess, but not wanting to take responsibility for his actions by creating new stars to populate the sky.
But, being the sort of person who goes on drunken benders like this, the King is above such manual labor. Instead, he enlists his young and ever-so-small son, the Prince of All Cosmos, to take some quirky multi-colored adhesive spheres, known as Katamaris, and use them to roll up… stuff littered across the planet Earth. Which are then converted into stars, repopulating the sky so that, even if an untold amount of destruction was caused on Earth, everything looks as it should from the perspective of the King.
It’s an odd concept, but odd is the name of the game with Katamari Damacy, and that extends even to its gameplay. Which centers around using the dual analog sticks of a controller to move a Katamari forwards, backwards, and turn. No buttons are used outside of menus, and the core mechanics are limited to pretty much just one. Roll around a semi-open 3D environment while steering the Katamari into smaller objects to make the Katamari grow larger, allowing the player to access new environments and roll up bigger obstacles in their path.
What exactly does one do in the levels beyond rolling stuff up? Well, nothing really. However, the player does have one of four different core objectives that switch up from level to level. With the primary and most common variation tasking the player to roll up a Katamari of a set size within a set time limit. This is the pure approach to the game and one that is immediately appealing, as every stage represents a sandbox of stuff to collect, offering the player these multi-path isolated worlds for them to explore. All as they amass more volume and either roll onwards to the next objective or backtrack to gather all the stuff they were too small to get earlier. The stages are simple; they lack any traditional enemies beyond relatively mundane hazards, and by being so relaxed they allow the player to ease into a trance-like state as they engross themselves in the sights and sounds of the game.
The second objective type asks the player to amass a certain object type within a time limit. This encourages the player to be more deliberate in their traversal, as their objective is still to amass greater volume so they may roll up larger objects, but now they need to be more selective about what they do want. It encourages players to pay closer attention to the construction of each level, to scrounge for every last objective object, and to mentally plot a route to obtain as many of them as possible. Or in other words, more of the same, but with a scavenger hunt vibe.
The third style is to avoid a certain object type, as rolling up one of these objects will automatically end the stage, and the player will be gauged on the size of the last object they rolled up. In theory, this encourages the player to take extreme care in what they roll up, to map out a route through a stage, and to test their grasp on the game’s controls and level design. In execution, these levels are lined with things deliberately designed to trip the player up. From moving vehicles that will ram the Katamari into danger or teensy tiny objects imperceptible as much more than vague shapes that are the desired object type. Such as how milk cartons are cows because there’s a picture of a cow on them.
This would not be so bad… if not for the fact that one mistake leads to a full restart, and each stage takes minutes of deliberate and focused play. It is the sort of malarky that emulators and save states are built to circumvent and does not fit in with the design philosophy of the rest of the game, which is lenient so long as you do not outright fail any of the stages, in which case you get a woefully depressing talk from the King of All Cosmos talking about how disappointed he is in the Prince.
As for the fourth level type, it is limited to a single stage where the player must gauge that their Katamari is a specific size. This approach is interesting in how it urges the player to recognize the Katamari size based on how large it is visually and what the player can and cannot roll up. However, the application and fun factor here is limited, as the player is trying to determine something that the game normally tells them outright, and teaches them to learn skills that are not strictly applicable outside of this one level.
Overall, the gameplay stylings here do indicate that the developers were, at least at some point, grasping to give the game a firm objective outside of the spectacle of watching a small thing become a large thing over the course of a few minutes. In the end, they ultimately found the core appeal, refined it, and produced a title that, while not devoid of any blemishes or not-so-good levels, managed to appeal to me, and an especially wide audience that turns this one-off into a full-blown series.
As I played and engrossed myself in what this game had to offer, I mused about how exactly it found its success, however short-lived it may have been, and while I could not name every possible reason, I kept going back to four distinctive levels that Katamari Damacy appealed to me on.
Firstly, Katamari appeals to players on a ‘primal baby and reptilian’ level, as the game is ultimately about rolling around in a playground with a ball, ramming into things, and watching a little thing grow bigger. Its objective is simple, it appeals to a base human desire of controlling something that affects the world around them, and it does not impede or limit the player in the way that many other games do. So long as it looks like your Katamari is big enough to roll something up, it can roll it up. Doesn’t matter if it’s a mahjong piece, a kitty cat, a bicycle, a car, or a gosh darn cloud. So long as it’s a quantifiable and separate thing from the world around it, and you’re big enough, you can roll it up with your Katamari.
It is a game approached from the perspective of a children’s toy designer, and one that manages to capture the thrill and fun of being a child in a playground.
Secondly, Katamari Damacy appeals on what I aptly dubbed a ‘Kawaii Nihon-desu’ level, as this is one of the most unabashedly Japanese games of its era. The stereotypically cute character and world designs, the visual makeup of its world littered with innocuous cultural artifacts, and the soundtrack spans eras of musical artists and genres. But not in a way that feels like the developers were trying to make a game that captured the ‘Japanese spirit.’ Instead, the game feels like a title made by people who lived within this culture and wanted to take what they saw on a daily basis, taking the weird and silly and accentuating it in more subdued and comedic ways that don’t translate to the western audience as much more than ‘weird.’
I find this all so remarkable considering the era this game was made in. An era where, despite Japan still being a dominant force in the market, the majority of titles were being geared towards a worldwide market. If they were deemed too Japanese, they would either not be localized, be given a harder American-flavored localization like the first Yakuza, or be retooled into something more culturally ambiguous, like Capcom’s Devil Kings.
Because of this, Katamari Damacy wasn’t even designed under the pretense that it would be localized, but following a fortunate showing at a trade show where western media encouraged Namco to bring Katamari to the English-speaking audience. Thanks to this chance encounter and encouragement, it was brought over and introduced hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people to cultural minutiae that they might have never known about otherwise.
And even for those who are familiar with the imagery of contemporary Japanese culture, it is still rendered and arranged with enough character and uniqueness to remain interesting in and of itself, and it will only get more interesting as time goes on. For Katamari Damacy is a game set in a particular era and its unique cultural artifacts, remnants, and the presence of certain things will eventually give the title an antiquated and historical bent, the same way all contemporary media eventually does.
Thirdly, Katamari Damacy appeals on a ‘dark and edgy’ level, because despite being so viciously adorable and innocent-looking at a glance, from a certain perspective, the game has a darker undercurrent to it. For Katamari Damacy is also a game about using the excessive materialism born of capitalist culture to form and using it to empower and enlarge a deadly creation that rolls up and robs individuals of their freedom and autonomy. Gradually crushing them into insignificance as they, their neighbors, and their loved ones are rolled up into a ball, enlarging it and allowing greater destruction to come about. With vehicles, buildings, and even landmasses all being used as fuel for this monstrous orb as it carries out its relentless onslaught.
And to what end? For what reason? To appease the divine. To fill their sky with specks of light. To make their world more aesthetically appealing. All you are, all your society amounts to, is a goldarn speck of light for a God! Your significance is defined only by your volume, by the matter you are made of. And compared to a building, compared to a mountain, you are nothing!
Oh, but that is a different ‘you.’ That ‘you’ is a human, a bag of flesh. But in Katamari, that is not the role ‘you’ play. You, the player, are the one who enacts this, the one who so gleefully and childishly consumes all they see, treating this act of relentless and meaningless destruction as a mere game. And the masses, the individuals who run from you with horror and glee, they only encourage you to keep doing this, to keep bringing about destruction, to keep decimating everything they are and ever will be, for they are so baffled by the existence of a deity such as the King of All Cosmos or even his insignificant-by-comparison son, that they cease to view themselves as being worthy of being anything other than playthings for divine. They are in such awe at the spectacle of the divine that they offer themselves as sacrifices!
As such, it is your duty, dear player, to seek out, hunt, and destroy as much as possible! To roll up the weak, the strong, and to continue until nothing remains! For that is the whim of the one true GOD! It is the whims of your KING! Of your FATHER! He is a man of a steel heart and an iron conviction, as cold and robotic as sheet metal. But as I forge the stars for his new sky, he offers me words of praise, and his words only grow loftier as my skills increase. The more stuff I collect… the more people and infrastructure I destroy, the more he praises me. The more he LOVES me. For him, for his affection… they all must perish! Their world must be destroyed! I shall heed your whims, dearest father! I shall roll harder, faster, and more vigorously than ever before, hone my art, and earn your highest honors! For you, my divine father, I will GENOCIDE THE WORLD!!!
Okay, I might have gotten a little carried away there, as a far more reasonable and intended interpretation of Katamari Damacy, and the last of my four identified levels, is the absurdist level. As it is a game born of an eccentric individual who wanted to make a piece of art to explore his creativity, rolling in the ideas and influences of those around them into what is seen today. A jovially silly game on nearly all fronts. It is a game about Space God getting drunk, blowing up some stars, and sending his baby boy to clean up his messes while bad-mouthing him. And how does this tiny baby do this? By taking his dad’s sticky neon candy balls and using them to roll up random stuff he finds around some town.
The world is a vague approximation of real-life early 2000s Japan, but it’s lined with sporadic tidbits of nonsense. Phones lining a sidewalk, giant turnips in the middle of some shopping center, afro dudes riding on an elephant, a line of pineapples that directs the player through a forest and to a beachfront. It’s all done without an internally defined rhyme or reason, but rather because it’s good game design.
The levels, while relatively few in quantity, are clearly and carefully fine-tuned for repeated playthroughs, for players to try something different with passing runs, and for the game to feel fresh despite being so mechanically simplistic. Object placement might seem careless or reckless, but it flows so well, elicits such a constant sense of progression, and was clearly tested and iterated upon until the game was considered fun by players of all skill levels and experiences.
And that carries over, as Katamari Damacy is a game as difficult to understand as its control scheme (which is weird in this era of homogenized control schemes), and most levels have lax requirements. But at the same time, it is a game that experts and wizards (like re:Dreamer developer CaptainCaption) can crack wide open, revealing a milky yolk of mechanics as they zoom through rows of objects and go through minutes-long stages in seconds. It’s a game for 5-year-olds who just want to explore a colorful and stimulating world, and it is a game for speedrunners who want to master its mechanics and get the fastest clear times possible, and I think that is simply incredible!
Its game design is something I came to admire through my cumulative 10 hours with the tile, but I cannot finish this review without gawking at the presentation and brilliant aesthetics of this game. The vibrant colors, the simplicity of the models, and the clarity of the game as a whole. It is a title where every model looks distinct, everything looks clear, and everything is rendered with an effortless crispness that looks excellent in HD resolutions and beyond. By going with a deliberately more ‘dated’ look, the game manages to look timeless.
This was partially a technical consideration, as the game had to fit within the PS2 polygon limit, but by going for such a low polygon look, it is also one of the most delightfully stuffed games of its era. As it features hundreds upon hundreds of little models made by fresh-out-of-school hires at Namco working their skills after being told to ‘just make whatever’ or something to that effect. Old men, ducklings, rotary telephones, cans of tuna, cabbages, the list goes on. It gives the game this coveted sense of wonder in what will come next. Of just what the modelers and designers would think of, how the player can successfully add it to their rolling stuff-wad, and if the player is really keen on seeing everything the game has to offer. There’s even a model viewer for players, and possibly burgeoning designers, to look at and admire how much expression the modelers achieved with so few polygons and such low-resolution textures.
Then there’s the score that ranges from the jovial and upbeat to the more subdued and therapeutic to the trippy and bizarre, going through decades of Japanese musical artists who were cast aside by the ebb of time and flow of their lives, all given a singular vision through the series’ now-legendary sound team. It is a soundtrack I have been enjoying for years before I ever played the game proper, and it fits with and informs the tone of the game far better than I could ever imagine. And it’s more than just music as well. The chirps and clattering noises that come when objects are rolled up, the sound of the Katamari revving up as it goes flying, and even the borderline obnoxious siren that plays during the end of a level. It all meshes into a soundscape that allowed me to lose myself and relax in this cushy and cozy escapist nonsense world.
Katamari Damacy is a simple game that succeeds on just about every level. While definitely not perfect and ultimately a bit lacking in regards to content, the title is a crowning achievement of creativity and expression. A title that came at an important time in video game history and reminded the industry of just what video games could be. And a seminal entry that stands out even in the profoundly robust and formative library of its original system, the PlayStation 2.
The worst thing I could say about it is that it left me pining for more. More levels, more variation, and more spins on its simple-yet-brilliant gameplay concept. Things that were addressed in its various sequels over the years, but until Bandai Namco decides to continue this remaster trend, release a new title, or I get desperate enough to whip out an emulator, I’ll just say that Katamari Damacy is nothing short of amazing.