video games

The Katamari Itch

A few weeks ago, I came across an interesting little project that turns a webpage into a game of Katamari. It takes any page (preferably one with a lot of text) and adds a ball that can be rolled around on the page using the mouse. Whenever it runs over a piece of text, it picks the text up off the page, creating a bigger and bigger ball. Although I appreciated the novelty of the idea and the cleverness of execution, I was mostly struck with nostalgia. I insisted on showing the “Katamari Hack” to all of my friends and telling them about my chance encounter with the game just over 5 years ago.

During my junior year of high school, Hurricane Rita threatened to hit Houston, which caused panic. Suddenly, everyone was talking about “evacuating” (being the simple term for “leaving” or even just “vacating”), and my mom and I left for Austin, where my sisters went to school. Family friends also came along, and that totaled 3 somewhat bored boys. I technically should have been reading “All The King’s Men” for AP English, but I was not nearly so motivated. Instead, my sister’s boyfriend brought over his Playstation 2 and games to my sisters’ apartment, and we were no longer just vacating. We were vacationing.

Although we had a library of games, we quickly became addicted to “Katamari Damacy.” Roughly, the game was about rolling a giant ball around, having items stick to the ball, having the ball, and picking up more stuff. Between us, the game was on pretty much continuously for those 3ish days, and although we switched off playing, everyone else was still in the room, watching, unable to pull ourselves away.

Since then, I haven’t played it at all or even thought about it much, until I came across the “browser version” above. Since then, I have thought about it quite a bit, and since my friend George happens to have a PS2 here, I finally found a copy at the library and sat down this evening to play it again. About an hour and a half later, I was convinced that it was as good as ever.

It’s simple. There are two controls (the two analog sticks), and those let you roll your Katamari around in a world. You start out small, picking up candies, then pick up bigger and bigger things as the ball grows. You, however, can’t just start out picking up cars. When you’re small, large objects are obstacles, but these soon become new targets for your Katamari.

It’s quirky. The plot of the game is that your dad, the King of All Cosmos, got drunk and destroys all of the stars. You, a little prince, have to roll these Katamari to form new stars because, as we all know, stars are formed out of thumb tacks, batteries, flowers, fences, people, memory cards, and maybe even buildings. In addition to the very strange dialog, the plot is driven in 2-line cut scenes of two children discussing the events of the game. The game is goofy. Thank goodness it’s also hilarious.

It’s catchy. The Katamari Hack has a snippet of the music, and the rest is similar. And the gameplay itself is addictive. The game doesn’t really become anymore complicated over time, but it’s always so satisfying to explore environments and grow that Katamari.

And I think it’s that last part that really hooked me in. It’s a casual game, but there’s great cleverness in its design to make it work. For example, the levels are laid ou to path you through different areas. Your starting area has many bite-sized pieces to grab, but it also has larger obstacles or animals that can ram into you and make pieces fall off of your Katamari. As your Katamari grows, you realize that you can now get over a certain wall, or that you can roll up the pieces that were blocking a new area. Or something that was previously a ramp becomes another piece to be attached to your Katamari.

Over the course of 10 minutes, the Katamari grows quickly, and that really gives you a sense of accomplishment. My personal history in gaming is largely focused around the western-style (DnD inspired) computer RPG, where character development happens over maybe 100 hours, and the satisfying improvement in a character’s abilities stretches over weeks of playing. Katamari does that in minutes. With a starting Katamari, mice can run into your Katamari and wreck havoc upon you, but maybe 2 minutes later, they become fodder for your Katamari as you roll them up with ease. That’s what triumph feels like.

I was sad to read in researching right before this post that they actually had made a poorly-executed iPhone version of the game called “I Love Katamari.” The iPhone really does seem like the right venue for it: the¬†accelerometer¬†works as well as the analog sticks, and it’s a casual game that can be played in short spurts.

In any case, I have to return the game to the library tomorrow. The one-day checkout is probably for the best since perhaps the game may not have the staying power I imagine. I think I’m happier with the belief that the game is timeless and endlessly amusing anyways.

(PS: Since I’m talking about gaming, if you played Portal, you should check out the trailers for Portal 2 where they show off new mechanics. It looks awesome, if really hard.)

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