Being a games reviewer can you make you cynical. No, actually it can make you very cynical. For every gem you get to play from start to finish there’s several bland, uninspiring affairs that also require your attention. So when every now and again you get the chance to play an absolute gem, something very special, all professionalism seems to escape you and pure, unadulterated fanboyism consumes you like airborne mutaba. The gaming industry may be obscure, it may be a commercially driven big-budget license machine, but it can still sometimes produce a title that amazes, entertains and enriches. Just like Katamari Damashii.
With one of our founding members recently uprooting and relocating to the spiritual home of gaming, Japan, it seems only appropriate that we here at Ferrago also broaden our gaming horizons and what better way to start than with possibly the greatest import game currently available. First person shooters, football titles and racing sims may be more the vogue nowadays, but if you're the sort that refuses to branch out and try something new then I sincerely hope that Katamari Damashii is enough to tempt you to try something different, and if there’s an adjective to describe Katamari Damashii, it’s "different".
Plot is often superfluous in the greatest titles and Katamari Damashii is no exception. Seeing as all of the text is in Japanese the story is somewhat tricky to fathom, but for the record it seems to run as follows. A cosmic King of some description accidentally destroyed the starry sky, when drunk of course, and you, his son the Prince, are tasked with replacing it. How can such a feat be achieved? By rolling around and collecting inanimate (and sometimes animate) objects of course. Like you even had to ask!
Obscure? Terrifyingly so. In fact, it's this kind of plot that reinforces the wacky stereotype of the Japanese, but if such a warped psyche is prerequisite for the production of such an almighty title, then it can only be applauded. Originally designed as a game to encourage Japanese school children to pick up litter, Katamari Damashii is a game in which you roll some sort of sticky otherworldy ball around assorted terrestrial locations gathering objects. You think it sounds dull? Don't believe it. Whilst initially you'll only be large enough to gather drawing pins, coins, batteries and erasers, by the end of the game your ball will be of such gargantuan proportions that you’ll actually be picking up the level itself.
The control scheme is wonderfully simple yet perfectly adequate. Your ball is manoeuvred using the two analogue sticks in a manner not dissimilar to controlling the two caterpillar tracks on a tank (or so I understand). Both sticks forward will move you forward, both back will send you into reverse and both to one side will roll you sideways in that direction. By the same logic, forward on the left and back on the right will turn you right and so on. It takes a little getting used to for sure but soon becomes second nature and you'll be wondering what that large leather-bound wheel in the front of your car is all about. There are a couple of extra moves, such as a quick 180 reverse and sprint, and whilst none of them are vital they add an additional depth that is welcome.
The objects that you can pick up are relative to the size of your ball. For instance, when you start a level you may only be able to pick up staplers, pens, Lego bricks and mice, but once you've grown a bit you'll be picking up plant pots, TV's, dogs and melons. It's immensely satisfying to progress from collecting fist size objects to larger stuff like people, cars, elephants and vending machines all within the space of one level. The closing level of the game is perhaps the most enjoyable level I've ever played in any game. Ever. I'm not joking. You begin collecting sunflowers, shoes, cats and the like. Then you get a little bigger and start picking up fences, swordfish, and bushes. Before you know it you're onto sumo wrestlers, baseball teams, lorries, huts, totem poles, cement mixers... I really could go on. By the end of the 30-minute level you’re collecting oil tankers, giant squid, skyscrapers, bridges – even the islands that constitute the levels themselves! This all happens within a space of a single level and at such a subtle pace that you barely notice that you're growing. The move from shovels to windmills is so brilliantly balanced that the feeling of subtly accumulating power in invigorating, intoxicating and very exciting.
There are two basic level types within the game. The first simply places a time limit on you in which time you simply have to get your ball as large as possible, offering plenty of opportunities to go back and beat your best width. You're also awarded bonus recognition for collecting as many items of a certain type as possible, such as crabs, cows or twins. The second type presents you with goals where you need to attain a certain size within a set time limit. Such levels can get very exciting as with a minute to go you realise that you're finally able to pick up that collection of market stalls or tractors you ran into on the other side of the level, items big enough to boost you to that golden breadth you're aiming for. Some levels also task you with more specialist goals, like approximating when you've reached 10 metres in size or avoiding all of the cow-coloured traffic cones. The language barrier can prove a little confusing at first, but seeing as the game is so amazingly fun you're unlikely to resent the odd retry.
If this description is leaving you feeling somewhat cold, then trust me when I say that Katamari Damashii really is far more than the sum of its parts. It's not just the concept, nor the gameplay alone that succeeds in pulling the player in. Katamari Damashii is a game of such joy and such beauty that it’s the experience as much as the game itself that is so memorable. "Joy" and "beauty" may sound rather coy, and they're certainly not words normally used to describe video games, but both are absolutely apt when describing Katamari Damashii. The whole title is crafted with a level of wonder, love and passion that I've previously never seen outside of a Nintendo game. The soundtrack is absolutely magical (yes, I did say "magical") and is nearly worth the purchase price alone, especially when the sound test is unlocked once you've beaten all of the levels. Not only is the in-level music catchy, memorable and varied but even the menu music is so good that you may well find that much of the time you listen for a while before you start playing - no joke. Also, the intro sequence is the single best introduction to a game that I have ever experienced. How many games do you own where you are guaranteed to sit through the opening movie every single time you play? Further more, how many games do you ever boot up just to watch the intro sequence? I've done that more than once with Katamari Damashii.
As if the majestic musical score is not enough, the cartoonish stylised graphics are bold, colourful and imaginative. Each object is rendered with a wonderful precision and is nearly always instantly recognisable. Every object remains as crisp once attached to your ball and at any time you can peer through the multiple layers of objects you're rolling around and recognise deeply buried items. Pick up an angular or long object and it will affect the roll of your ball, so if you plan on picking up an especially long row of rulers, or even picket fences or lampposts, it pays to try and space them evenly around the ball making it easier to maintain momentum. Ball control is all the more important since whilst you'll only bounce off some larger items or walls, moving objects like mice, cows or cars will shunt you out of the way, causing you to drop some of your stuff and lose a bit of width.
Is this really a faultless title? No, of course not. I concede that there are times when you'll find yourself caught between some of the scenery and it can be a real struggle to gain the momentum needed to escape. Then again, when a title is as joyous as this it really isn't a problem; if you waste valuable time being snagged on some scenery, simply start again and experience the fun all over. The main criticism levelled at this game from many quarters is simply the shortness of it all, and it's true. The main levels can all be beaten in a couple of sittings and it's certainly saddening to see the final credits roll. Fortunately, not only is there an additional three levels to be unlocked (all of which will take a lot of practise to access) but there is also the added incentive of collecting not only as many of the thousands of objects strewn throughout the game as possible, but also the hidden prizes that can be used to decorate the Prince. Detailed records are available to see what items you’ve already gathered and more importantly, what you’re yet to pick up. Of course, such totality will not be to the taste of all but such features are a welcome addition and help to expand what is a disappointingly short title.
I understand that gamers operate on a limited budget, and when shelling out £40 on a game value for money is important. It can be tempting to go for a 100-hour epic RPG, or perhaps a multiplayer sports title to entertain you and a few chums for months on end. But consider this – would you prefer a lifetime of mediocrity or a moment of ecstasy? Katamari Damashii may be short, but the possibly limited time it will spend in your PS2 is worth more than weeks and weeks some other titles may spend there. As import titles go it's relatively import friendly and a US release is scheduled for September. Whilst there's no word yet on a PAL release, if there’s any justice in this world Namco will do the right thing and bestow the wonders of Katamari Damashii upon us humble Europeans. If I have tempted you, and you have the means, import Katamari Damashii as soon as you possibly can. Not only can it be picked up for the same price as a PAL release at RRP (including postage), but you'll feel all warm and smug in the knowledge that you've just bought one of the greatest video games ever made.
Highest Ferrago score ever? -Ed