Katamari Damacy (pronounced Ka-ta-Ma-ri Da-ma-shee) sounds like the title of a niche role-playing game published by Atlus or Bandai... but it's actually the name of a rather bizarre puzzle game that Namco plans to publish later this month (September 2004).
This won't go down as the "best game ever" -- I know, I've played the import -- but there are numerous reasons why you might want to look into it anyway.
1) The story is flat out nuts. In a drunken stupor, King Cosmos somehow manages to cause the universe to fall apart. Instead of fixing the mess himself, he sends his son out to do it. How do you put stars back together? Well, roughly translated, Katamari Damacy means "ball of souls," so it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the whole point of the game is to amass gigantic balls of junk so that daddy can fuse them into stars and planets.
2) The way the game plays is flat out nuts. The prince chooses a single city for his task, and he starts out each mission in a different part of the city--in a house, in a field, etc. Right away, tiny objects start sticking to him. What players need to do is move the prince around so that a ball of junk forms in front of him. In the beginning, you can only grab tiny things, such as staplers, tea cups, or fruits and veggies. But, as the ball gets larger and larger, its gravitational pull increases, which allows you to pick up heavier and larger objects. In some missions, you'll end up pushing around a whopper of a ball with cars, cows, people, and buildings wrapped up in it (all of them honking, mooing, and yelling their disapproval). What's really nice is that the controls are simple--the game only uses the analog sticks--and the game is easy enough to dive right into, but also challenging enough to make you think about things like, "can I pick up that cow yet?" or "a few more lawn chairs and I'll be able to roll the ball over that fence."
3) The game's graphical style is--yep, you guessed it--flat out nuts. Namco went with a "blocky" art style that makes all of the objects and buildings look like they're children's toys, and then injected a mega-dose of wacky personality. One mission begins at a table where someone is playing Mah-Jongg, and you get to watch the man recoil in horror as the prince starts compiling a ball out of the poor guy's tiles (and later adds the man to the ball too). In another mission, you'll find some hermit crabs wandering around a beach. Sure, you can add them to the ball too, which is funny to begin with, but the real hilarious part is watching the crabs engage in a water fight while you're looking for bigger things to grab. Heck, it's tough not to smile at a game that puts you in the position to save a city from a Godzilla-esque giant monster (by capturing it in the ball), only to then turn around and steal the buildings in the city so that you can complete your ball. Talk about ironic.
4) Just wanted to say that the audio is flat out nuts too. The soundtrack is full of classical, easy listening, and Calypso tunes that 100% do not fit what happens on screen. Imagine if someone re-cut the movie Aliens so that "Hallelujah, it's raining men" played during the scene where the marines are slaughtered in the power converter structure. The audio in Katamari Damacy displays that level of eccentricity. Furthermore, the screams, honks, and animal noises that emanate from the ball are rather unsettling in an amusing sort of way. Fans of quirky, eccentric games from Japan will be glad to know that Namco isn't planning to alter the soundtrack or the box art one bit.
5) Here's the best part. The price. Flat out nuts. $19.99.
Of course, the people most likely to pick up Katamari Damacy are those who enjoy bizarre Japanese puzzle games. But, considering the $19.99 price point, and also considering that more effort went into the game than the typical low budget title, this is one of those games that even "Joe Average Consumer" can feel good about taking a risk on.
The story of how Katamari Damacy made its way to North America is also pretty heartwarming, and is, in fact, the main reason I'll be buying this game upon release even though I already have the Japanese version. Namco hadn't even considered publishing the game in North America until a swell of email and phone calls to their US offices prompted the company to test the waters by passing copies to the media and showing off the game at E3. Media and fan reaction to the game at the show was overwhelmingly positive, and a number of magazine and web site editors contacted Namco to urge them into releasing the game. Namco listened. Thanks to the will of the people, Katamari Damacy is coming stateside. Gotta love that.
Katamari Damacy for the PlayStation 2 ships in North America on September 21, 2004. You may want to pre-order or ask your local store about availability, since games like this historically have had tiny production runs and limited shelf time.
9/3/2004 Frank Provo