Imagine a game where collection is taken to the extreme. Where global domination is achieved not through the clenched fist or the jackboot, but through the rolling-up of the planet from the minutiae of insects and garden furniture right up to the colossal continents themselves. Imagine a game where bulldozers, men in bear costumes, Giraffes and Baseball stadia get compacted into a ball to create stars in the firmament. And there you have Katamari Damashii.
You're inducted into this genial lunacy through an inspired intro sequence: Ducks sing and Pandas dance under bright, primary rainbows whilst the face of your overlord King Osuma hangs over the background like lord of the universe. It's the Beatle's Yellow Submarine mixed with joyful Japanese surrealism. The soundtrack to all of this gleeful sanatoria? Easy Listening.
The aim of the game is awesomely simple: your little avatar must roll a ball around the levels, sticking small objects to its surface. Pieces of fruit, batteries, matches everyday detritus gets hoovered - up to increase the size of the ball. Once a certain diameter is reached, larger objects can be nobbled. This is all achieved with the analogue sticks: much like a tank's controls, a forward push with both sticks moves you forward, up with one and down with the other pivots you on your axis, and so-on. You have a 180 degree turn (Click-in both sticks) and a speed boost (waggle both sticks in opposing directions) and that's it. There are no combos or timing issues - everything is stripped to core gameplay values, much to the game's credit and benefit.
Levels begin, literally, at grass-level. Your King always pops up to instruct you on your latest quest. He has little relevance in-game apart from setting a size target at the start of the round , and this must be reached before the timer ticks down to zero. Scurrying around the feet of the oblivious humans, you pick up their litter and their lunch until you grow, and begin to show up on their radar. Once you get over a metre in diameter, people themselves become targets. Suddenly, the garden you were exploring at ant height is now a different world, viewed at child height. The scene around you opens up, and you suddenly realise that that monolithic blue barrier you'd spotted is actually a gate. Gain enough mass, and the gate itself can be added to your ball. Larger still, and the house around it is crushed into the pile. The physics of the ball alter subtly wi t h each size increase, and adjustments have to be made to your timing once you're clumping around the level as a behemoth-ball.
If this sounds a bit morally dubious (the player is encouraged to sweep animals and people into the compacted sphere, and their tiny cries for help will bring chuckles to the mouths of even the most cynical gamer), then you'd be right: Katamari Damashii is totally amoral. You appear to be recreating the stars in the heavens by gathering these balls of matter to aid King Osuma, but beyond that there is no other discernable reason for the destruction you cause. This will not stop you getting incredibly excited when you suddenly realise that that once-imposing Elephant in that park you saw a little ways back can now be added to your bundle, or that the horde of Duplo-like school kids aren't going to be able to run away much longer.
Like all great games, this one has a gentle learning curve hiding a tough underlying challenge, has a collecting ethos and never gets boring. As the level expands with your height, it's jaw-dropping to discover that the huge objects that formed platforms, tripwires and general obstacles whilst you were small are now collectable, and that other, much huger fixtures are now the boundaries of your playground. The levels mutate and evolve with your own growth, and the things you collect or leave determine your parameters within that level. This is nothing short of a design masterstroke.
Graphically, the game has charm spilling out from all over the place. The sheer variety of objects scattered among the building-block levels is wondrous. You'll see men rolling down the street in a human ball, cameramen filming open air boxing matches (the little ding!' as you collect the bell from the ring is just one of a million cute touches), herds of miniature cows, dogs wearing crowns...the list is as vast as it is fascinating. What the graphics engine does best is expanding the world with your character. Distance lends perspective, they say, and each change in ball height reveals more of the ecosystem you are in the process of consuming, never tearing the polys, dropping the frame rate or resorting to fogging or abruptly-ending horizons.
Although a fairly short game (four hours or so will see the regular game completed), Katamari extends its life span by offering the chance to expand collections and improve scores. There are a bewildering array of trophy rooms, some showing gifts collected, some showing percentage completions for everything from entire levels to quantities of a specific species gained. The idea is obviously to absorb as much of the universe as possible, and as this universe is a substantial one, expect to be chasing after rogue felines and errant crabs for a long, long time.
To top the bundle off, Katamari has a fantastic soundtrack and unique presentation. Tunes are generally Easy Listening, ballad -type songs, with the odd up-tempo brass number thrown-in and the occasional jazzy lounge standard. Eclectic and bizarre seems to be the idea behind the game: the amoral consumption of the planet, the off-kilter cutscenes (think cheesy 50's American soap opera as played by Lego figures and you're almost there), all with an acid-tinged affability make it utterly unique. Throw-in a perfectly serviceable two-player mode where you compete to see who has the largest balls, and what more could anyone ask for?
Katamari Damashii is a quirky and lovable puzzle-action hybrid that is totally satisfying and wilfully unusual. Despite its glaring eccentricity, it has a stable camera and excellent controls, meaning it's technically polished as well as beautifully and inimitably presented. It's mood music for the eyes; the Mr Ben and Magic Roundabout of the gaming world. The gaming community has been coddled and rewarded for its patience, and been given a whole world to not just to play in, but to gather, collect and consume. One note of caution: please be careful if you're going to try whatever the developers were on when they made this game. In the meantime, enjoy the trip.
Text by Stuart Peake