#13: Katamari Damacy
The title "Katamari Damacy" is a sort of visual pun in Japanese; the two kanji characters that represent the two words of its title look almost identical when written. The name means "clump soul," but it might as well mean "daddy issues," because that's the subtext written all throughout the game.
Players take the role of the Prince of All Cosmos, an absolutely diminutive little guy who has been tasked with an impossible duty by his reckless, uncaring, dismissive father: Clean up the mess that your father, the King of All Cosmos, has created. The King got drunk and went on a bender, destroying the stars in the night sky, and your mission is to walk around gathering up stuff to fire into space as a replacement for those lost stars.
The King never has anything nice to say to you. He reclines indolently, setting you about your various tasks without any real enthusiasm or sense of understanding what you're doing and how you do it. The King towers before you, dressed in elaborate costumes, including tight velvet pants that leave little about his royal physique to the imagination. Even if you complete a stage successfully, anything short of the best possible results will inevitably result in belittling comments and general disdain. Katamari Damacy isn't literally a game about being emasculated by your father... but that sure is the subtext.
But its weirdly abusive snark is a big part of Katamari's charm, strange as that may sound. It's a game that not only doesn't take itself too seriously (so it's hard to be upsetting about your virtual dad's withering torrent of passive-aggressive insults), it's a game that doesn't take itself seriously, period. The "build a star" concept translates into play mechanics that involve you pushing a sticky ball around and gathering up everything in sight.
"Katamari Damacy was unrepentantly weird, but in a sincere way; you never got the sense that it was straining to be strange. It just was."
Maybe you could say Katamari Damacy is a game about growing up; the tiny Prince begins with a katamari — that's the sticky ball he pushes around — proportioned to his size, and he can only gather items about the size of the ball. Anything larger bounces off. But as the katamari grows in scale, it can collected larger objects. You begin by foraging for toothpicks and mahjong pieces and dice, desperately trying to avoid roving mice who can send your katamari spinning out of control. But soon the clump becomes large enough to gather up those mice... then the cats chasing those mice... then larger objects.
The first time you trap a human being on the katamari becomes one of the game's defining moments. There's nothing special about it — no Achievements or even a special mention from the King (who does occasionally pop in to enthuse about the more notable stuff you're adding to his new stars). But it's a person, right? They emit a warbling voice clip of terror and, like every other living thing that gets trapped on a katamari, squirms to break free until he or she ends up disappearing under further layers of stuff. You're gathering debris to fire into outer space, and it occurs to you: Well, I'm about to blast this person into the sky to burn eternally. It's a weird sensation.
And then it passes, because the scale of the levels continues to grow. You go from having a katamari that couldn't possibly trap a person, to one that can eventually snag one once it grows, to one that can trap people at the outset, to a ball that towers over people. The final level of Katamari consists of pure concentrated delight as your ball of aggregate matter becomes larger and larger, gathering up cars, then trains, then buildings, then entire city blocks, then the hills themselves, and a giant Ultraman-alike fighting a Godzilla clone, then eventually islands and clouds and a rainbow and a giant kraken and...
Well, anyway, it's all ridiculous, yet there's that undercurrent of parental disapproval lurking beneath the surface to keep it real. You're damning millions of people to an eternity in the cold of space, including a Japanese family (the Hoshinos) who watch the Prince's progress on the news before ending up trapped in a katamari themselves. You travel from stage to stage on a "Royal Rainbow" the king vomits toward you, and everything in the world is made of low-polygon boxes. It's really like no other game in the world.
Especially in 2004. Katamari Damacy came out the same fall as gritty, violent, realistic classics like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Half-Life 2, and Halo 2. And yet it stood apart with its gaudy colors and foppish, disapproving King of All Cosmos and gorgeous soundtrack of J-pop, ballads, rock, and even a weird Burt Bacharach-style jazz ditty. Katamari Damacy was unrepentantly weird, but in a sincere way; you never got the sense that it was straining to be strange. It just was. And perhaps more importantly, publisher Namco took a chance on it for a U.S. release and didn't alter anything except the language — a remarkable act of faith in both the game and the audience. It was a welcome reminder that games don't have to be about deep or cinematic experiences. Sometimes it's enough for them to simply be fun. - Jeremy Parish