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There have been many weird and wonderful games released throughout the years over in Japan, and 99% of them never see North American shores. Fortunately for gamers on this side of the ocean, Namco’s Katamari Damacy was one of the select few that did make it over to the United States. For that, members of the gaming public should be eternally grateful, because Katamari Damacy ignited a gaming phenomenon that resulted in multiple sequels and even more knockoffs.
For those somehow unfamiliar with this series -- and shame on you, if you fall into that category -- the basic concept is that you play as a small prince who is pushing around a ball (called the katamari) that collects objects of equal or lesser size. Essentially the task in each level, with some variants, is to collect enough stuff in rooms, on city streets or around the world to reach a target size in a limited amount of time. Players use the twin analog sticks on the PlayStation 2 Dual Shock controller to move the katamari in different directions, while different buttons allow the Prince to jump and look around. In this game, physics can be your friend or your enemy, as the katamari will react differently and realistically depending upon its size and shape.
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In the original Katamari Damacy, the Prince is tasked with recreating the stars and constellations that his father, the “King of All Cosmos,” trashed one night in a dazed stupor, while in the PS2 sequel, the King and the Prince team up to field requests from fans of their original work. You see, the first game was such a surprise success (given that it was essentially a low-budget product) that the development team decided to play off Katamari’s fandom when it came time to forge We Love Katamari. It’s a quirky bit of inside humor, and it’s that kind of thing that epitomizes what this series is all about.
Word has it that the team behind Katamari Damacy had four simple goals in mind for the project. They wanted to make a game that was unique, easy to understand, fun to play, and funny. They succeeded on all four points. The simple control scheme, as outlined above, takes no more than five minutes to pick up, and the simple act of rolling things up never gets old. The game has an offbeat sensibility to it in the combination of odd personalities (in particular, the flamboyant and aloof king) featured throughout, as well as some of the completely off the wall things and people you can roll up and the crazy sound effects some of them make when you do. The only proper way to describe it is delightfully bizarre.
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Of course, there is a little more to it than just rolling a ball around collecting things. Some levels require other tasks, like collecting certain objects, and some end once a certain creature or object is successfully rolled up. Also, each level in Katamari Damacy contains a hidden present for the Prince, while in the sequels, a missing cousin can also be tracked down, picked up and used in multiplayer. In spite of that, however, the game never loses the simple charm that makes it so darn addictive.
Music is another essential element to the success of the Katamari games. The original game’s musical score won numerous Soundtrack of the Year honors in the gaming media, and given its unique blend of styles (J-pop, jazz, mambo, and even an old-school crooner that sounds like Tom Jones), it isn’t difficult to see why. We Love Katamari continued the trend, with several new songs joining some remixed old favorites. They are definitely catchy, and there’s a great variety in the song selection, making this the rare collection of video game tunes that fans (including this reviewer) will actually want to listen to on their iPods or CD players well after they’re done playing.
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Katamari Damacy was the game that laid the groundwork, standing out at the time as one of the most innovative and novel games ever made. We Love Katamari represented the series at its peak, refining the core gameplay while adding new types of challenges, new play modes (including co-op), a back-story for the King and the Prince, a bonus level and more. Two additional sequels, Me and My Katamari for the PSP and Beautiful Katamari for the Xbox 360, and while they are both solid games, they failed to live up to the high standard of simple fun and originality set by the PS2 games. All four current Katamari titles are worth playing, but gamers especially owe it to themselves to try out the one that started it all, Katamari Damacy, and the one that perfected the formula, We Love Katamari.