It started when I was younger. Titles for home videogame consoles have long hovered around the fifty dollar mark. At the time of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, it was annoying because I had to scrimp and save allowance or else bug my parents for any and all games. But fortunately, gaming paraphernalia was still considered a niche market at the time, seen primarily as toys for kids. As such, the "must have" titles were few and far between, and I didn't really have to bother my parents outside of birthdays and Christmas all that often. It also helped that there weren't four major consoles to support, as is the case now. I can't imagine what it must be like to be a videogame-crazy kid these days, especially during the rush of quality games that descends in the months leading to the holiday season. I would guess that it's frustrating as hell.
A couple of things happened late during the era of the first PlayStation. First, I became more financially independent, and was able to increase my gaming budget. Second, gaming started to come into its own as a medium. More people were playing games, and developers started taking chances on more varied concepts. Subsequently, a wider variety of games was available. Suddenly a whole new world was opened up to me. Certainly I still played the hits, so to speak, but I also became aware of that sector of gaming that operates on the fringe. There are titles out there that don't subscribe to any longstanding game design theories, and are so nebulous and abstract in their creation that they bring something brand new to the table.
Alas, as the industry becomes more mainstream and the costs of development increase with each new hardware cycle, it seems like game creators are beginning to try to follow proven formulas out of fear of poor returns. For every creative game with an original concept, there's at least four that represent the nth generation of any particular successful series. The industry has almost come full circle in that respect, with small developers getting absorbed into the behemoth conglomerates that want to release the annual update to an ancient franchise. We're starting to have less of those gem in the rough games, as the cost for producing any console game becomes more and more astronomical.
When a game like Katamari Damacy comes along, then, I have to play it. At that point, it almost doesn't matter whether or not I even like it. It only matters that I use the power of my dollar to encourage the industry to take a chance. At heart, Katamari Damacy is a puzzle game. You, knee-high to a grasshopper, begin every level with a small, sticky ball known as the katamari. Then using only the analog sticks on the controller, you roll the ball around. Anything smaller than the ball sticks to it, making it bigger. Try to run into something bigger than the ball and you'll bounce off it, and potentially lose some of the detritus you've amassed. The idea is to make the ball surpass a particular size within a time limit. That's the entire game, and it's remarkably fun.
The sense of scale contributes to what makes the experience so enjoyable. At first, you'll find it difficult to snag a thumbtack or a roll of sushi. You'll hate the cat or the errant pedestrian that comes out of nowhere and knock things off your katamari. But then comes a point at which you are controlling something of such mass that you know that you'd be able to tackle those previous annoyances. And so you hunt them down, and they become part of the ball, wiggling and yelping all the while. Then the scale continues, and you are rolling up buildings, stadiums, anything that strikes your fancy.
The physics in Katamari Damacy is implemented with a high degree of polish. For example, if you roll over a pencil, you now have something long and sharp protruding out of your ball. This affects the roll, and makes steering much more difficult until you're able to even things out. The katamari is subject to inertia, and you'll find it more difficult to manage the larger it gets. But throughout the entire experience, the gameplay remains fun.
To be sure, Katamari Damacy is an attempt to bring the surreal sensibilities that founded gaming to begin with into the current console generation. By that measure, it's a blinding success. At $20, Namco seems to be beckoning mainstream gamers to take a chance on something different. I sincerely hope that they do. Such a move might serve as a signal to developers that some of us don't necessarily need another sequel or movie tie-in. Simulations have their place in gaming, as they allow us to experience something in real life that we would otherwise have to dedicate our existences to. But bizarre games that have little connection to reality are far more escapist, and have the potential to entertain parts of our minds we didn't know existed.
20 October 2004