katamari damashii (PS2/namco)
a review
by tim rogers
11122004

 


If you're ever in Tokyo, Japan, you're welcome to come stay at my house. I mean this. Just email me a week or so (three days is sufficient, actually) before you stop by. I mentioned something about this in my journal a while back. It's been bringing me and my roommates a bunch of weird foreigners from all over the place for the last couple of weeks. If you come over to stay, chances are you'll bear witness to one or all of the following[1]:

  • Conversation about Japanese linguistics (we also talk up Korean and Tagalog quite a bit; try to keep up -- bring a textbook)
  • Drinking of So Youngs (named after a Korean violinist I once knew, this drink consists of Jinro, Kirin Milk Tea, crushed ice, fine honey, and a teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil, shaken; I, of course, abstain)
  • Drinking of Coca-Cola (it is, in fact, required of all those who stay at my house that they buy us a 1.5-liter bottle of Coca-Cola from the local Maruetsu, usually about 198 yen)
  • The infamous Tim Rogers Coca-Cola-can Theory for Repairing the Japanese Economy (pretty self-explanatory)
  • A murder of some sort
  • Vegetarianism
  • Spicy curry (even Indians are surprised)
  • King of Fighters
  • The collapse of an entire continent into one giant ball, which then proceeds to fester in the middle of the ocean while everyone sits silently on a sofa, depressed

If you come stay at any point after this article is published on this website, I fear, it may be too late for you to be surprised by Namco's Katamari Damashii for PlayStation2. It'll be all over the place in America by then. Brandon has been posting news related to it for months now; there's a chance, however, that you might have missed every one of those updates. There's a chance you're shaking your head right now and calling me a presumptuous asshole because of course you know the game you have it preordered and everything. That's okay. I'm not going to argue with you. I'm just going to say what I know, and what I know is what I've seen: Nearly every guest we've had these last couple of weeks has been completely clueless about the game. They pick up the DVD case, turn it over, and ask what the hell it is. One of us then tells them to put it in. We say it's fun. The guest then puts the game into the PlayStation2. Everyone gathers around the sofa. Chairs are pulled in from the living room. It's like the scene when Morpheus was fighting Neo in "The Matrix," and we're the crew of the . . . Nebuchadnezzar. (I'm surprised I spelled that right. I didn't sleep enough in college.)

The guest is most usually stuck hopelessly three seconds into the game. This hopeless stuckness comes not from the game itself -- it's from the menu. Namely, there are three save files. How to select them, who knows? The game's protagonist, the Prince of the Cosmos, stands before a ball ten times his height (he's only a centimeter tall, mind), and the guy on the sofa gets the idea he has to push that ball into the save files (represented by the letters NA, M, and CO). The question is how. Anyone who's played Namco's Cyber Sled and wished, however remotely, for a home version will be the first to figure it out: you press both analog sticks to the right to move the ball to the right, and you tilt both of them forward to roll the ball forward. Rolling forward collects the letters representative of the save file, and starts the game.

Other PlayStation2 games (hell, some original PlayStation games) have used both analog sticks for control, before. However, Katamari Damashii's grace is that, five minutes after its imminent worldwide release, no gamer will ever again be confused or otherwise disenfranchised when presented with a control scheme that utilizes two analog sticks. Just as Pong warmed gamers up to turning a dial and Space Invaders taught us to press a button, Katamari Damashii makes it seem no more and no less than perfectly natural to use two analog sticks to roll a ball.

Other games have rolled balls before (Marble Madness, Tama), and other games have used two sticks, even if not necessarily PlayStation2 Dual Shock 2 sticks. Virtual On uses two sticks; however, not even the giant robot pilots whose faces we never see understand how the hell, exactly, moving those two sticks fits into the grand scheme of, you know, life. Namco's own Cyber Sled and its spiritual sequel Tokyo Wars, both of them, at their cores, tank games, use the equivalent of a dual-stick setup. However, they're not exactly games that set the world on fire. (I was in Seoul last week and I chanced upon Tokyo Wars for about twenty American cents a credit, so I played it for a solid two hours on three bucks; that's why it's on my mind.) In those games, you have guns, and you're shooting at other vehicles. In Katamari Damashii, you're not shooting at anything. As in pinball, there are no enemies; only targets. You're just rolling a ball. That the game's structure eliminates adversaries is one noble thing; that is has enough character to instantly endear itself to hundreds of thousands of Japanese gamers (love sims, Dragon Quest, and shoddy baseball games aside, they're the toughest gamers in the world to please) is one very mysterious power. People see it, and they want to play it. Then they do play it, and they pick up a functional command at the twin-stick setup within mere seconds. Is this because the twin-stick control scheme is so intuitive that anyone can master it? Or is it the game's character and personality that makes any rational human being fall in love with it, and forgive its quirks long enough to fall in love with it more?

This review will focus on two elements -- first on the nature of the videogame that etches a gameplay element into stone, and second on how a game's character can, under perfect circumstances, endear it to anyone. It will then wax on morals in a strange, if savage turn. Then it will end, and you can go back to your microwave vegan burritos.

**

What did Super Mario Bros. do? It created the side-scrolling platform genre. Yes, that's true. What's important, however, about the side-scrolling platform genre? The genre? The platforms? The side? Or the scrolling? I'm going to say, today, for the sake of argument, that it's the scrolling that makes it so important. Other games had been, until Super Mario Bros, mainly one-screen-at-a-time affairs.

Is that correct? Well, no, it's not, of course. I said I'm saying it for the sake of argument. Konami's Mister Goemon is an example of a side-scrolling platformer that predates Super Mario Bros. by almost two years. The fact, however, is that Mister Goemon sucks. Sure, the screen scrolls. However, the levels have no character. You're jumping (by pressing up on the joystick), and constantly running, and doing little else.

Before beginning production on Super Mario Bros., Shigeru Miyamoto, non-gamer as he is, must have at least grasped the most important fundamental of the scrolling game -- let the player control the scroll. Let the player advance as he sees fit. If you're going to rush him, do it with a time limit. If the player wants to rush himself, however -- well, what then?

This is where the run button came into play. Press the run button and hold it in, and Mario can move at twice his normal speed. The idea of the run button must have been born in Miyamoto's head well before the first sprites were drawn up. Only it wasn't merely a button to press to make the game faster -- it was a challenge thing. Enemies are harder to jump over, from a reflex standpoint, while running. In addition, some jumps can only be made while running. Running jumps are longer, is why.

After Super Mario Bros., a lot of side-scrolling platform games popped up. Most of them had a run button. A lot of them didn't use the run button properly. Takahashi Meijin no Daiboukenjima (Hudson's Super Adventure Island), a veritable jazz-guitarist's three-minute-pop-punk-radio-single of a videogame, is one early platform game in the traditional character-driven sense that doesn't use a run button. At the time Daiboukenjima was released, everybody who played a platform game did it with their finger constantly on the run button. (Sonic the Hedgehog, which also uses no run button, is exempted, because that little blue bastard is always running, and we love him for it, anyway.) Takahashi Meijin, producer of Daiboukenjima, understands very well that there is a difference between running in a platform game for the sake of running and running because it is prudent to run. He sat down with the platform game formula (the platformula, as it were) and a pencil, and set about reducing the fractions: for example, players find themselves running during long stretches of even ground. Why not just eliminate some of those long stretches? If running is to be done, why not give it some dramatic cause and effect? (This is, after all, a videogame, something that must appeal and intrigue visually.) Maybe a boulder is chasing the hero? If this happens, how does the player run? Well, how about this -- what if the player walks in a straight line for an uninterrupted stretch of time, and then he starts to sprint? People, after all (and our protagonist is a person, after all) seldom just bust from zero to top-speed in an instant. They need a little time to warm up.

Takahashi Meijin, the hero of Boukenjima, is always jogging in place when standing still. He needs to eat fruit, constantly, or his fruit meter runs out. If his fruit meter runs out, he dies. Luckily, fruit is everywhere in the game. Keep moving forward, and you're going to find fruit to pick up. Eat fruit, and recharge one bar of your meter. When you finish the stage, you're awarded points based on how many bars you have remaining. You die when you fall in any of numerous pits, or else when you so much as touch an enemy. As has been said, you also die if that fruit meter runs out. There is no numerical time limit. Takahashi Meijin (the producer, not the protagonist) was bright enough to find them silly. Speed, in terms of a game, is best measured in the moments. Well, supposing, that makes it more dexterity than agility. Some schools of martial arts train students to be constantly mindful of opponents. Takahashi Meijin must find them silly, as well. Other schools train students to prepare for one coming fight -- the True Fight -- and to fight it well, when it comes. This is the type of fighting more suited to everyday life, as well as the kind of game design more suited to efficient gaming.

How popular was Daiboukenjima? Well, among the types who, in 1992, were quick and proud to declare themselves "hardcore," the types who played PC Genjin (Bonk's Adventure) instead of Mario (though not just because it exhibits a deep understanding of prudent running), it was a legend, not so much because it had a soundtrack by Yuzo Koshiro as because the title screen doesn't even tell you to press start, nor does it offer you any choices. You press start, and the game begins.

Daiboukenjima 2 was a decent evolution of the first one. Its biggest achievement is that it heaps challenge into the little nooks and crannies where challenge had failed to seep into the first one. Yet the first one is the real accomplishment. It is a pared-down game, with its fruit-meter time-limit, its momentum-based running, and its short stages with emphasis on replaying rather than simple once-over conquering. It is a deep study of its genre, and can be bought for ten dollars online and finished in an afternoon.

It's also the fifth game in its series. Not counting portable outings.

insert credit
we don't count portable outings

By the time it came around, it had honed its formula to a knife-point. Not a hint of waste remains. You can't even ride the stupid dinosaurs anymore. They were useless, anyway.

Katamari Damashii is the first game in its series. I can't say it's the "first game of its kind," because there have been other games like it. There have been hundreds -- thousands, maybe -- of games like it. Let's pretend, for a moment, that this is a family site, and all of the unique things about Katamari Damashii are obscene. Observe as I break it down, then. Katamari Damashii is a videogame in which

1. You avoid enemies.

2. You work to achieve a goal.

3. You fail if you do not achieve that goal within a time limit.

Yeah, sounds like a real gaming revolution, don't it?

What's that, you ask? What am I trying to prove? Fuck, I'm not trying to prove anything.

Yet.

One way to think (uniquely) about Katamari Damashii is that your on-screen avatar is, essentially, the entire world; your goal is to merely pull yourself into the most compact shape possible. You begin the game by rolling a ball ten centimeters in diameter. You pick up thumbtacks, which, when pressed tightly into your ball of gravity, amount to just a few millimeters. You increase a millimeter at a time, until eventually you're able to pick up objects entire centimeters in diameter. Soon, the fifteen-centimeter rats that had been hunting you, pushing you around, and causing you to collide with walls and lose a few tiny pieces of your collage will succumb to the power of your gravity ball. Should you play the game on a hard enough level, you'll be able to pick up even the walls that presented harmful collision hazards to your smaller state. Shit, you'll be able to pick up the whole house, and everything in it. Then again -- is it really important what's in the house when you're so exponentially bigger? Of course not. The size you gain does not take into account the contents of the house, only the size of the house itself.

I wrote, before, of Katamari Damashii, that it plays exactly like one of those wooden labyrinth games, with the metal ball and the little screw-knobs to tilt the playing field, only you can't see the playing field tilting in Katamari Damashii, and this is where it gets its mystique. I don't take this back. That's still how it plays. One stick moves your X-axis, the other your Y-axis. Moving both sticks to the left results in the ball rolling directly to the left. Pushing one stick up and one stick down results in the camera rotating around the ball in the direction of the stick that's being pressed up. This element is the only mystery with regard to the labyrinth analogy -- in a labyrinth game, you don't need to rotate a camera. You're sitting there, hovering over the board. You can see everything at once.

The issue of stops is another thing altogether. A labyrinth has various pits your ball can fall into if you're not careful. Mindful tilting of the playing field can keep you from falling into a hole. The shape of the playing field itself -- the placement of its walls, rather -- can stop your ball, should you choose to do so, strategically. No one plays a "challenge" game of Labyrinth, trying not to touch the walls. No one I know of, anyway. In Katamari Damashii, where the field on which the ball rolls is made up entirely of expendable objects, stopping the ball is tricky. Collisions injure your ball, and make it harder to reach the goal within the time limit.

At any rate, the goal of Labyrinth is to reach the end of the maze as quickly as possible, if at all. The goal of Katamari Damashii is to increase in size. You increase in size by rolling quickly, and by covering as much ground as possible. The playing field aspires to look like the real world; don't let this fool you, however. There is no logic in the placement of most objects in the game. In the world of Katamari Damashii, you can expect to find, for example, twelve rotary-dial telephones arranged in a circle around a tree trunk. One particularly stupid question I heard asked about those phones, once, was "Is that supposed to be a symbol of something?" Of course it's not. The phones are there because they are a certain size. When you're only ten centimeters in diameter, they're bigger than you. Come back when you're a meter big, and they'll stick to you with no effort, and a satisfying "pop" sound. Maybe there are some thumbtacks, or apples, strewn around the telephones. Come by when you're tiny, and you can get the thumbtacks, though not the apples. Come back later, and you can get the apples, though not the phones. Come back later still, and you can get the phones. Or chance upon the place with the phones for the first time when you're already three meters wide, and pick everything up without noticing you're picking up everything. Even the tree.

Every time you reach a certain size landmark, a title card comes up, and when the game returns, the camera has pulled back. We had a huge argument over this one night -- is the camera pulling back, or is the game recalculating the world data during the title card? I say now, after much alcohol-poisoned blood has been shed to prove it, that the camera is merely pulling back. The world isn't being touched. The world has been painstakingly crafted, each object painstakingly placed. There are many paths to take to pick up each item, and each item can be picked up. The entire damned world can be picked up. It just takes time.

Time is everything in Katamari Damashii. Early levels challenge you to, in the same environment as all the other stages, go from ten centimeters to fifty, or a whole meter, on a short time limit. In these levels, time feels short, and you'll have to use your brain to memorize routes where the smaller objects come first, and the larger ones come last. You'll need to be efficient. The second-to-last level has you growing from one meter to thirty in eighteen minutes. The final level requires you to grow from fifty centimeters to three hundred meters in twenty-five minutes.

The problem is that the gameplay has an underlying law that its designers didn't seem to fully understand. I'm sure the damn-near psychotically quick announcement of a sequel is related to a realization of that law. It's the law of acceleration. That law states: the bigger you get, the faster you grow. That first meter is an uphill climb. The next two aren't so bad. The next nine after that kind of fly by. After you're big enough to pick up trees -- your earliest, angriest barrier -- you can grow to skyscraper-sucking girth in no time. Once you start grabbing bay bridges, the game throws Ultraman and Godzilla knockoffs at you as you roll north, picking up icebergs, clouds, hurricanes, tornadoes, and even a rainbow. Soon, you have everything, and it hasn't even been twenty minutes.

I recall something I saw on a Japanese variety show, once. It was a celebrity quiz show. Beat Takeshi was hosting, and Shigesato Itoi was on the panel of celebrity guests. The question was, if you fold a single sheet of newspaper (.5 millimeters) in half fifty times, how thick would it be in the end?

According to the mathematics -- and the answer of Shigesato Itoi -- a newspaper .5 millimeters in thickness, when folded in half fifty times, would be hundreds of thousands of miles tall. It would reach up past the moon.

In other words (a good combinatorics phrase, in cases like this): a newspaper cannot posses the surface area to fold in half fifty times unless it is larger than the earth itself. Go ahead -- try to fold any sheet of paper. It'll end up physically impossible to fold after, at the most, eleven folds. Look at the bulging lump of paper in your hands after that eleventh fold; can you imagine that in just thirty-nine more folds, this thing would grow larger than any distance you could ever possibly travel? Thirty-nine! That's, like, less seconds than there are in a minute! To think that a number of actions less than the number of seconds in a minute separates us from the simple thing we can do and the horrible thing we can never do is remarkable, at least.

Not every person who's ever held a sheet of paper stops to think of how the mundane objects of the everyday living world possess terrific, universe-crushing powers limited only by surface area. The cosmos, however, are deep, and horrible. Galaxies fold over again and again, creating galaxies millions of times bigger than they started.

It takes sometimes eight grueling minutes of Katamari Damashii to assemble that first three meters. The last two hundred and ninety-seven flow in. Which is to say: when I was yet a child in the ways of building universes, I wished for an option to play free mode on any of Katamari Damashii's stages. When I became a man, and assembled those three hundred meters in less than twenty minutes, I took five minutes to assemble six hundred more, and then sat paralyzed in the middle of the ocean, rolling, and fat, and lonely, and horribly depressed and alone. My friends were asleep in the bottom floor of the apartment building they own in Seijogakuenmae in Setagaya. They'd inherited it from their dead parents. They'd also worked a whole day, the three of them, after a night of trance music in Kanagawa, so they went to bed early on that night they had me as their well-showered guest. My friendís friend Ryu played a little Vib Ripple with me that night, and we used a naked picture of his ex-girlfriend, one he'd renamed and resized in Windows so it was the next in his digital camera's series, as a stage for bouncing a rabbit on a trampoline. We talked about the trouble he'd gone through to get the picture there, on his television screen, and reasoned it was worth it. In the end, though, as he finished his beer and resigned to sleep with his girlfriend because lord knows he had work tomorrow morning moving someone else's furniture in a van bound three times from Kawasaki to Yokohama, he decided that I should play Katamari Damashii, both because it was the only other game he had on hand and he therefore could not keep me from it, and because I did not know what it was. "If you beat it, you get, like, something spiritual. Like seeing the sunrise from the top of Mount Fuji, it fills you with enlightenment. I can spoil it for you -- you're going to feel depressed if you beat it. Everyone who's anyone does, man." Ryu might or might not have taken some drugs before he said this. I won't tell on him either way. Either way, hours later, before the sun had shown on the horizon, after wishing I could skip the challenges and "just have fun," I realized with a horrible thud that the stage I had swallowed was every stage. The world I possessed was every world. The game I had played was every game.

Nanmandabu nanmandabu.

Kuwabara kuwabara.

Et cetera et cetera.

How had this game found me? Or had I found it? Had the man who crafted it known it would make me feel this way? Of course he had. What's his name? I don't know. I might meet him some day, and never know I'm meeting him, just like that giant ball picks up that house, not knowing there are people inside.

Nanmandabu nanmandabu.

Kuwabara kuwabara.

Et cetera et cetera.

[next: THE DAMASHII IS DISCUSSED]


 

Publisher
namco

Released on
March 18th, 2004 (JAP)
September 21st, 2004 (US)

This game is perhaps the most innovative this year. Nonetheless, it reminds me of:
Super Adventure Island
Super Adventure Island 2
Super Mario Bros.
Legos
Umjammer Lammy,
Dragon Quest VII
Indian Curry
My livejournal
Sambo Master
Mother 2
Shigesato Itoiís blogís monkey mascot
the insertcredit.com forums
plate tectonics
ďSon of Godzilla"
That one song in Namcoís Mojipittan
Yoshinoya
Birdo in Super Mario Bros. 2
Tama, for Sega Saturn
Marble Madness
Tempura

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