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Katamari Damacy, 3-D Pac-Man

Katamari Damacy is the game du jour among my circle of friends and, well, everywhere it seems like. There are KD handmade knit hats, costumes, reenactments in Playdoh, paper figures,
iPod socks, homemade plush dolls, and lots of photos on Flickr.

I finally got the chance to play it the other day at my friend David’s house. The game play is fairly simple. You use the two analog joysticks on the controller โ€” KD is for PS/2 only โ€” to steer a sticky ball (the katamari) around the game board (usually a house or a town), picking up objects as you go. As your ball accrues more and more things, it gets bigger and you’re able to pick up larger objects. The goal on each board is to get your ball bigger than a certain diameter within the allotted time period. After you get the controls down (it’s a bit like operating a backhoe), it’s the simplest game in the world to play. Lots of fun too.

As we played, we talked about the game and why it’s inspired so much devotion in its fans. My favorite aspect of the game is the crazy storyline. The sarcastic King of All Cosmos, the faux Japenglish translations…the game dialogue is hilarious. Games tend to take themselves too seriously these days; Katamari Damacy doesn’t. I also liked the telescoping sense of scale as your katamari grows larger. Smaller objects disappear from view and if you get really big, you dwarf houses, towns, and can eventually start picking up entire islands. Reminded me of Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten film…the scale may change, but the basic structure remains. David said he likes the collecting aspect of the game. He’s a compulsive collector of things and the game ties right into that for him.

But as we kept talking and I watched David play for the first time after I got stuck at level 5 or 6, I realized what I didn’t like about the game and what keeps it from being really fantastic. Whimsical storyline aside, Katamari Damacy is essentially a 3-D version of Pac-Man and possesses a similar level of complexity (when compared to Grand Theft Auto or a MMORPG). You move around a maze, eating things, and occasionally getting power-ups (i.e. growing larger) so that you can eat things you couldn’t eat before.

And like Pac-Man, there are patterns. On repeat plays, the boards are the same, objects always appear in the same spots, and once you learn the correct way to go, it’s pretty easy to clear each board in the same general manner you did the last time. In the end, there’s very little that’s complex or open-ended about the game play, which is going to limit its repeatability for many. It wouldn’t be too difficult to add some complexity to the game without making it any more difficult to play at a novice level (making it a bit like chess โ€” easy to play, tough to play well, and nearly impossible to master). The basic rolling-around game play and the kookiness of the story make Katamari Damacy great fun, but I’m hoping KD 2 ups the ante complexity-wise so it’s still as maddening and crack-like at play #200 as it was a play #1.