You can summarise how Katamari Damacy plays in a simple and unremarkable sentence: you roll a sticky ball around, picking up objects to make the ball bigger, which in turn allows it to pick up even larger objects. But to sum up Katamari’s playfulness needs several hundred words of postscript. For a game to swell so sweetly and remain so affecting based purely on its tone and art direction – surely Katamari Damacy has done little but hypnotise a jaded audience into overlooking the shallowness and repetition that fuels it? No. It simply taps an oft-unacknowledged strength of videogames, that of sheer aesthetic joy, and its straightforward rules of play allow its other elements room to breathe deeply. Games where style counts for so much of the substance are regularly scoured with criticism, but that’s only because it’s so irregular for a game to feel so unfettered, buoyant and benevolent with it. If videogames are ever medicine, then Katamari Damacy will always manage to keep the doctor away.
It’s a game that’s very much alive, a Pinocchio that dances into life the moment its strings are cut and the PS2 switched on. A looping, a cappella rendition of the game’s theme tune accompanies the appearance of the Namco logo and a save slot selected not with a pointer but with a katamari ball itself. From there, you’re launched into an intravenous fizzy drink of an attract sequence: ducks sing, pandas dance, volcanoes spew rainbows, and a suppository-headed giant plays the guitar, and the incessantly catchy Naaaa na-na-na of the game’s signature chorus begins to hook you right to the bone. Not so much an introduction as an induction, nothing is made clear during this technicolour AV assault, apart establishing Katamari’s philosophy – it doesn’t have to make any sense for it be entertaining.
The scattily charming King of All Cosmos has been on a careless drunken bender, and knocked the stars from the sky. And it’s down to you, the diminutive and hard-working Prince, to replace them, by rolling adhesive katamari balls around a series of domestic, suburban and urban locations, to form increasingly large bundles of objects that’ll replace the contents of the night sky. Beginning with erasers, batteries and drawing pins, fodder for the katamari evolves ultimately to the point that the tower blocks of whole cities, dwarfed by the Prince’s astral wrecking ball, are scooped up like bowling pins into the shovel a JCB.
This incredible sensation of scale is just part of the fascination behind the process. As is a lawless but inarguably ideal soundtrack composed of delightful pop tunes and cute instrumentals. Another is the audio feedback – dozens and dozens of artefacts are absorbed into the katamari with a series of pleasing pops, like stamping on damp bubble wrap; once people, vehicles and animals become victims, each adds its own stylised sound effect to the cacophony of destruction-cum-creation. Visually, it’s a game that’s full of reality, but little realism, the recognisable contents of its world rendered with minimal texture but maximum character. Returning to an area that was once filled with hazards, now plump enough to suck them all up with a cackle, is the ultimate revenge; watching a playground full of schoolchildren and teachers scatter in exaggerated, pantomime terror as the katamari looms towards them is guilty amusement indeed.
As with any worthwhile fairytale construction, there’s a murky heart to Katamari Damacy. Like gaming’s most successfully child-like creations – Chibi Robo, say – it contains more stress and darkness than first appears. The Prince is, effectively, a rampant destroyer of worlds, however candy-coated the destruction. And few things are as chilling as failing to meet the target size of a given stage and suffering the wrath of a pissed-off King of All Cosmos. None of that stops Katamari Damcy being fun as all hell, of course, but it’s difficult not to want to savour it as a straightforwardly colourful lesson in how little things can become very big things, in your head as much as on the screen.
In terms of less tenuous impact, though, Katamari Damacy is the kind of experience that does more than encourage fringe demographics to pick up a joypad; it also engages parts of them that most other software can’t reach. Many games can coax players into dressing up like a certain character and posing with a cardboard sword, change their avatar in a forum profile to show their affection, or even brand their skin with a tattoo. But very, very few can singularly inspire them to make tea cosies, cakes, replica katamaris, elaborate re-enactments, phone pouches, woolly hats and dolls.
This article was first published in Edge Presents: The 100 Best Videogames in July 2007.