In spite of the persistent, and occasionally well-deserved negativity towards the modern day gaming industry for its continuous rehash of old ideas, anti-consumer policies and lack of new IPs, I can’t help but remain optimistic about our still fledgling form of entertainment. In the relatively small period of time that developing games has been popular, much less possible, the medium has made enormous strides both internally, through the evolution of fundamental mechanics and interactive narratives, and externally, through the public’s growing acceptance of gaming as a respected medium and legal recognition of game development as an art form. That being said, just as with any other form of art, there are still obviously some issues inherently created by an industry reliant on turning a profit rather than making something of artistic value. Which brings me to today’s topic, the prospect of another entry in the Katamari series spurred on by Bandai Namco’s recent trademark for “Amazing Katamari Damacy.” Although 2004’s Katamari Damacy and its 2005 sequel We Love Katamari are regarded as masterpieces today, winning a bevy of awards, inspiring a cult following and even being among the first selection of video games to be featured at the Museum of Modern Art, the franchise has quickly stagnated after its creator, Keita Takahashi, moved on to other projects. Regardless of Katamari’s future, its past has tremendous value to the industry, demonstrating that basic game design can still foster unique experiences, giving first-hand insight on the game development process and highlighting several concerns with modern game development trends.
In order to truly understand what has happened to this series in the past decade, it’s important to establish just how impressive the original game, Katamari Damacy was, both in terms of its development and its actual content. Although the game received widespread praise among critics at its launch, garnering awards from EGM, Time Magazine, and even GDC, it is more often than not, relegated to “cult classic” status due to its eccentric aesthetics, absurd concept and niche audience. While these factors are absolutely part of the games appeal, I think that simplifying Katamari Damacy as “that one really wacky Japanese game,” doesn’t really do it justice. During his time studying at Namco Digital Hollywood Game Laboratory, Takahashi conceptualized the basic gameplay of the series as his thesis project but impressed his superiors enough to be put in charge of a small team of his own in order to produce the final game. With a budget just shy of a million US dollars (while other Namco titles had budgets ten times that size), a somewhat inexperienced team and limited resources, Takahashi faced an uphill battle to finish the game.
In an interview with Gamespy, he described how he wanted to bring the “silly” aspect back into gaming and believed that the core mechanics of his original project were interesting enough to not be complicated further, despite direct advice from Namco to do so. Takahashi repeatedly stated that the project was driven by four core themes: novelty, accessibility, enjoyment and humor, all of which are expertly done. The game is beautifully simplistic in the vein of old school genre defining games such as Pac-man, the very game that Takahashi claimed to be inspired by. You control the 5cm tall Prince of the cosmos, who is tasked with replacing all the stars in the sky after his father drunkenly destroys them. To do this, he uses a “katamari,” a small sphere that can roll up anything smaller than itself, gradually growing in size and rolling up increasingly large objects in each level until his father is satisfied with it and turns it into a star.
Controls are intuitive and feel very natural, as you control the katamari using both joysticks as if they are the Prince’s arms on the ball. Tilt the two joysticks in the direction you want to move to and in the opposite direction if you want to turn. Additionally, pressing both sticks allows for quick 180 degree turns and shuffling both sticks up and down rapidly provides a short speed boost. With such an easy control scheme, Takahashi was able to draw in audiences that were interested in the games silly concept and visuals but were too apprehensive to play due to more complicated controls. As your katamari grows, it can become slower or lopsided due to various objects that are poking out of it, creating a system where you need to optimize your shape as well as your size in order to move effectively and finish the level in the allotted time. Each level offers a rewarding progression system that actively changes how you play the game as it goes on. Compared to games such as Pokémon and Final Fantasy, that merely convey your character’s progression through numbers (i.e. damage, experience points, health), Katamari Damacy, alters how you interact with the game by visually showing your katamari expand. As it grows, the camera seamlessly continues pulling further and further back, revealing more of the world to you and changing your perspective to better navigate it. It’s a uniquely satisfying feature to enter an area the size of a tennis ball, only to be rolling up cars, people and homes a few minutes later.
While the core mechanics of the Katamari series are some of the most simplistic, yet engaging systems in gaming, my personal favorite aspect of the series, is the absolute insanity of the world it creates. Every part of this game, from the opening cinematic to the closing credits, is meticulously tuned to be as absurd and outlandish as possible. The plot is nonsensical, the character motivations are openly presented solely as a means to get you to roll around a really sticky ball and each environment contains random people and objects that exist for no reason other than to look interesting before they become a part your katamari. Completely unabashed of its intentions, the game creates a world that’s fun simply for fun’s sake. Takahashi doesn’t actually try to provide context for your actions–the King, the Prince and the very plot of the game exist to facilitate the gameplay, and while other video games are capable of doing this, this game isn’t trying to be one of them.
The blocky, cartoonish art style Katamari Damacy, used due to graphical limitations, is a perfect example of how a game can actually be improved by its limitations, adding to the comical tone of the game. Perhaps not inherently “pretty,” the sheer spectacle of what the Prince encounters throughout the game: everything from dancing animals, to mushrooms the size of trees, to giant squids, work to put a smile on even the most jaded player’s face. In addition to the visuals, the sound design is some of the best of the era. The game’s iconic use of record scratches as a substitute for its lack of voice acting, melodic menu music, and satisfying sounds of the katamari add yet another layer to the games splendor. Of course, no mention of Katamari would be complete without giving tribute to Yuu Miyake’s legendary (and award-winning) score. Through a strange mix of j-pop, jazz, salsa, dance and funk music, Miyake creates a soundtrack so ridiculous and upbeat that only a game of such similar descriptions can match it.
Viewed separately, the varying components of Katamari Damacy do not seem to make much sense together on any level. But when combined, it only takes a single level to form the beautifully cohesive madness that Takahashi always desired to let his audience interact with. Even though the game can be criticized for its lack of level variety and relatively short play time, it’s more accurate to compare Katamari Damacy to arcade classics such as Pac-man and Donkey Kong than to the Triple-A titles of the same year such as Half-Life 2 and Halo 2. Naturally this strange premise may not be appealing to everybody, (especially fans of said Triple-A titles), but speeding through cities while engulfing everything in your path into a giant ball to the sound of upbeat j-pop will remain one of my most satisfying experiences in gaming.
Just a year later, Takahashi’s same team used the same engine and assets to create my personal favorite game in the franchise, We Love Katamari. In a scenario that I often compare to the creation of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, the assets and basic concept from an original game are rapidly reapplied to a sequel with more refined direction and often a new spin on its predecessor’s gameplay. While I don’t think We Love Katamari is quite on par in terms of an upgrade as Majora’s, it does do a whole lot to justify its existence, including a self-referential story that, ironically, simultaneously argues against its existence. This game set the gold standard for Takahashi’s original gameplay goal; it is extremely entertaining and infinitely replayable. Minor changes such as allowing you to unlock and play as the Prince’s various cousins in single player mode and the addition of an extra cosmetic item, allowed you to personalize your game character. Additionally, levels were now selected from a more cohesive, side scrolling, hub world compared to the clunky planets in the first game. These small changes make the first game feel incredibly dated by comparison. The real leap forward, however, is the massive update to how each level is approached.
Not only are the levels more varied, intricate and visually distinct in We Love Katamari, but now each level can be replayed with widely varied objectives. While the original game’s levels mostly blend together, due to their similar settings and low amount of mission variety, We Love Katamari makes each level a spectacle in its own right. While the classic “make your katamari as large as possible” and “make your katamari as fast as possible” levels return, new mission goals allow the same area to be played from a totally different perspective. In one stage you’ll be scouring the sea floor, avoiding fish hooks, to roll up as much aquatic life as possible and in the next you’ll be roaming a campsite with a blazing katamari in search of flammable objects to grow your mobile inferno. Even the levels that hearken back to the relaxed, urban style of the first game are more distinct from each other and visually appealing. Additionally, the classic levels’ juxtaposition with levels such as the one in which you roll around a competing sumo wrestler is one of the most surreal things I’ve ever seen. The game culminates in a final level that has the Prince using the moon itself to build a katamari large enough to stop a meteor hurdling towards the Earth, which is kind of pointless considering the Prince just committed mass genocide by rolling up every nation on the planet anyway. Oddly enough, the game treats this as trivial as any other part of its story and promptly returns you to a populated Earth. This continued assertion of inconsequentiality across all of the Katamari series allows the player to maintain the euphoric energy set by the gameplay, visuals, and music without having to concern themselves with the ramifications of what their actions would actually be. While the first game waves this off entirely, the story of the sequel takes an unexpected turn.
Although Takahashi developed the gameplay of the Katamari series long before he had to create a world for it to take place in, along with the fact that he had no intention of doing a sequel in the first place, I think one of the sequel’s most surprising strengths is its premise. In a very on-the-nose and self-mocking manner, the sequel’s story acts as a bit of meta-commentary criticizing creating sequels for no purpose other than financial success. The King of All Cosmos, in all his fourth wall breaking brilliance, is enjoying a life of popularity and admiration after the game Katamari Damacy came out, garnering him and the Prince fans from all walks of life. Throughout the game, new fans come to the Prince, each with different goals the katamari should be used for (making fun of consumer culture’s demand for more and more of the same crap they’ve already experienced). This statement may have been in jest at first, but over time, Takahashi has conceded his disdain for the exploitation of franchises by publishers. In an interview discussing his departure from Namco, he stated:
“I find it quite boring that if a company creates one thing that sells really well then obviously the company is going to work on almost similar types of things to make more profit, I can’t deny the fact that people work on sequels. After all, it’s a business. But at the same time, in the past decade or so, I’ve only seen most companies working on the safe side making more sequels.”
The opposing ideologies between Takashi and his superiors would lead to further conflict down the road, but upon its release, We Love Katamari improved on the original game in every possible way. Unfortunately, the success of the first two games ultimately set it up for failure. Upon completion of We Love Katamari, Takahashi announced he was leaving the Katamari series to start fresh, and create a new IP based on the lessons he had learned from his first two games. Under his lead, Namco had published their most creative game in years but set a dangerous precedent for what could justify a sequel. As it turns out, they weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. The process of creating a continuation of any form of art is difficult enough, as developers must walk the excruciatingly examined,fine line between altering too much and not progressing enough. Without a director with such a clear sense of innovation, Namco became content with simply remaking the same content on different platforms.
And so began the series’ slow fall from relevance. Between 2006 and 2016, a total of ten games bearing the Katamari name were released, to varying degrees of success. As indicated by Metacritic, there has been a noticeable drop in quality as the games’ refusal to adapt becomes increasingly apparent with each reiteration of Takahashi’s once praised game. Console releases such as Beautiful Katamari and Katamari Forever tried to modernize the series, touting bare-bones online components and high definition formats as though they were actually contributing something of value to the franchise or being remotely innovative. Beautiful Katamari suffered from an astoundingly small amount of content while Katamari Forever was, contrastingly, filled to the brim with reused levels and rehashed ideas. As starting points to the series, both games get the job done, but will remain mediocre overall. Meanwhile, Me & My Katamari and Touch My Katamari appeared on the PSP and Vita respectively. Both were not received well compared to their console releases due to hardware constraints and general lack of ambition (though the Vita game did, admittedly, attempt to introduce a new mechanic by using the back touchpad to resize your katamari). Where the series really faltered was attempting to port the series to mobile phones and eventually smart phones. Given the technological limitations of older phones, these were obviously downgrades from the main series and were received even more poorly than the PSP games.
My original contender for “worst game in the series” was originally Katamari Amore due to its atrocious controls, “free” two-minute time attack demo, and the fact that it had the gall to charge four dollars for six levels. Luckily for those developers, Tap My Katamari fumbled its way onto iPhones in January 2016 and somehow managed to be representative of almost everything wrong with mobile gaming and the large publishers who hope they can bleed a franchise dry by slapping its name on an existing clone. Despite the fact that I literally played Tap My Katamari for like two hours, I’m still unconvinced that it’s not a super self-aware parody of every gamer’s worst nightmare when mobile gaming started to become profitable. Games such as these just seem beyond criticism. It’s an infinite clicker/tapper/swiper/presser or whatever unholy name you can think of to describe this type of “game” (if you can call it one.) To add insult to injury, Namco also saw fit to put microtransactions into the game for any masochists who feel like losing money but are too lazy to get up and physically burn it. I can almost see how games like this can be relaxing or satisfying in some sort of capacity, but I’ll openly judge anybody who spends money on this.
With all this being said, the majority of the games made without Takahashi are not “bad” video games, they are simply games that make little to no advancements to a series that was once heralded for its innovation. For any newcomer to the series, several of the recent Katamari games are perfectly serviceable and likely to be considered unique from their perspective. Even I must admit, I enjoy playing some of these sequels for the sake of nostalgia. Sadly, by continuing to support a franchise in this situation, we are negatively impacting the industry as a whole. By simply settling for mediocrity, we are not only encouraging larger corporations to continuously get away with releasing games with the bare minimum of improvements but discouraging future developers from innovating out of fear that their new idea won’t find an audience.
With the continuing advancement of information and communication technologies, the public discourse on gaming has become more open and complex than ever. Without exception: at some point, at some time, every conceivable opinion has, is, or will be disputed by multiple sides who all firmly believe they are solely on the right. The question of whether or not the current trend of remakes, reboots and sequels are ultimately bad for an industry may never be definitively answered. Regardless, we must accept that if big franchises like Call of Duty and Madden can be collectively criticized for refusing to evolve, all games must be objectively judged with the same level of scrutiny. Even if they are games we love.