In the nascent days before Xbox Live Arcade and the Playstation Network, console games had virtually no “indie scene.” Because of a variety of obstacles to overcome—budgets, distribution, and marketing to name a few—the quirky, small budget games didn’t have a fighting chance to make a big splash in the console market. The closest thing the video game industry has seen in recent years to an “indie” making it big, the Good Will Hunting or Blair Witch Project of games, is Katamari Damacy.
In a pre-Nintendo Wii age where the emphasis in game development was focused squarely on eye-popping graphics, complex controls, billions of customizable options, and in-depth stories, an obtuse Manga-ish budget title that involved rolling a cornucopia of objects into a giant ball of trash seemed unlikely competition for the Grand Theft Auto and Madden Footballs of the world. Yet, the oddly named Katamari Damacy (which literally means “spirit clump” in Japanese) became a verified sleeper hit for the Playstation 2 in 2004. The success of Katamari was a good story for the game industry because it proved that a lo-fi offbeat title could be more fun and successful than many of the big flashy triple-A titles.
Flash forward to 2007, and the once little and charming Katamari is now a full-fledged franchise.
As is the case with many sleeper hits, the charm that once made the original fun and interesting has worn thin now that the second and third sequels have come around. Beautiful Katamari, the franchise’s first appearance on the Xbox 360 platform after the sequel We Love Katamari appeared on the PS2 in 2005 and Me and My Katamari appeared earlier this year on PSP, is evidence of this erosion of charm.
You might guess that for its first appearance on a “next-gen” system, Katamari might see a reinvention or reworking of its previous incarnations. Not so. Not only are the gameplay, characters and dialogue basically unchanged, they’re worse. Keeping the pattern of plots so ethereal they’re almost nonexistant, in Beautiful Katamari, The King of All Cosmos accidentally destroys the solar system because of a particularly well-hit tennis shot that creates a black hole that sucks planets and stars inside of it.
The King + a tennis racket = bad news.
The King then sends his son, the Prince, to Earth to gather enough material with which to reconstruct the galaxy. To gather the stuff, the Prince pushes his katamari (a magical sticky ball) around various locations and tries to make it large enough to serve as a replacement planet. At first, the katamari can only pick up small items such as thumbtacks, candy, and frogs. As it accumulates a shell of objects, its overall size grows, allowing it to pick up increasingly larger items like soccer balls, stereos, dogs, children, trucks, buildings, mountains, sports stadiums, and eventually entire landmasses.
The core mechanics of Katamari are still undeniably fun, but still, it’s disappointing that the only real variation Namco made in the game was asking players to collect more of one particular kind of object, like things that are cold or expensive. A level where you have to make a katamari over 10,000 degrees by rolling up warm objects such as toast and baked chicken shows a spark of innovation, but most of the game is old hat. To make matters worse, the katamari is more difficult to control. The spin move, performed by shaking the control sticks in alternating directions, has been rendered nearly useless and everything else isn’t quite as sharp. Throw in a wonky camera and a hiccuping frame rate, and Beautiful Katamari has a host of serious problems.
I want to live on the planet made out of those.
Even the game’s quirky humor has jumped the proverbial shark. The writers’ increasingly self-conscious snarky wackiness has turned the King of the Cosmos into a blathering idiot. He’s like an third-person speaking, late-era Robin Williams. This is a problem to the point that the game is nearly ruined by the King’s nonstop dialogue, which you’ll find yourself rapidly pressing the A button to skip through.
The game’s strong points are the graphics, which look crisp and colorful, especially when playing in high-definition, and the music, which harkens back to the original’s wonderfully weird Japanese tunes. The billards minigame you play after you fail an objective is also a fun diversion, and the online modes are a nice bonus.
Beautiful Katamari isn’t a total waste, it’s just a huge disappointment considering it costs twice as much as the original and plays worse. Newcomers to the series may enjoy it, but it’s hard to recommend Beautiful Katamari to anyone else.