Absurdist Japanese curio? Doubtless. Sole occupant of the stick ’em up genre? The game is almost beyond imitation. Unflinching condemnation of humanity’s rampant consumerism? Perhaps. Autobiographical study of what it is to live under the watch of an alcoholic father figure whom you can never please? We’d have to roll creator Keita Takahashi on to the shrink’s couch to find out. Roadmap to a future of game design in which an idea precludes its sequels by reaching its full potential by the time the final credits, quite literally, roll? If only.
There are many ways to articulate Katamari Damacy, PS2’s most eccentric release. The most straightforward is to state its simple, unchanging rules: roll an adhesive ball around the world. As you stick small objects to its surface, so its size increases and so you are able to collect larger objects. Repeat until your ball is large enough to become a star.
But while this explains the game’s core process, it does nothing to express its absurd wonder, the delight that comes from combining a sachet of soy sauce with a mousetrap, an encyclopedia, a mobile phone, a bonsai tree and a salmon into a giant sticky ball. So maybe this ludicrous game is best described as a plain joyful celebration of human inventiveness, a playpen in which the world and everything in it is a collectible just waiting to be gathered for pure enjoyment’s sake.
In truth, Katamari Damacy is all of these things and a great many more, a game still ripe for dissection, its lessons and idiosyncratic values largely ignored by the gaming world around it despite offering some of the most biting commentary and delicious solutions to its ongoing problems.
You play as an alien prince, a diminutive green spaceman with stick arms, eastern eyes and an antenna protruding from his head. Despite your royal lineage, your profession is that of a garbage collector, tasked with cleaning up humanity’s mess by rolling up the world’s debris with the titular sticky katamari ball under the watchful, disapproving eye of your two-planet-tall father, the King of All Cosmos. After a drunken night out, the king explains in his broken yet authoritative stoner patois that he accidentally knocked the stars from the sky. Your job, then, is to transform mankind’s mess into something beautiful by firing the katamari and the everyday objects that are now stuck to it into space, where it can light up the heavens.
That the mission begins in a Tokyo bedsit is notable. Stuffed with the clutter that any modest living space breeds, the room provides a safe, bordered playpen in which to learn the game’s basics, while appealing to every Tokyoite’s sense of urban claustrophobia. Here is a chance, the game proposes, to rid yourself of the paper clips, safety pins, sticky tape, mahjong pieces, leftover sushi, discarded sweet wrappers and empty bottles of soda that invade our tiny worlds. As you roll over each item it sticks to the ball with a satisfying bubble-wrap pop of pleasure that sees the object immediately gain the katamari’s adhesive properties, thereby able to stick yet more objects to its surface.