Media Game theory – Great balls of stars



The Katamari game series puts the cosmos in your hands

You’ve made up your mind. It is time to see what the fuss is about. You are ready to explore the gaming landscape. These might be your first steps in this new arena, or you might be returning to the gaming world after a lengthy detour into the realm of work and family obligations.

Though curious about the world of gaming, you do not want to become addicted. You are what trade publications refer to as a “casual gamer,” and you are part of an emerging demographic. In the United States alone, there are more than 82 million people like you. As you become more confident with your gaming skills, you’re looking for greater challenges. Your home computer is connected to the internet, and you might have used it to play on-line versions of poker, hearts, and sudoku. You’ve considered buying a gaming console, but are not prepared to sink $400 into an Xbox 360. Where do you start?

The magical Katamari universe would be without stars if not for your skill with a game controller.

During the coming months, this column will explore games of potential interest to new and casual gamers. Some titles are designed for home gaming consoles such as the Xbox, some are optimized for personal computers and others have been designed to work across multiple platforms (a process referred to as “porting” within the game industry).

From first-person shooters and micro-management games to role-playing and real-time strategy titles, each column will focus on a game that stands out as a landmark example of its genre. Some of these titles will be new releases and others will be established classics.

This month’s column explores a quirky Japanese import that combines aspects of the puzzle genre with fast-based game play. The brain-child of Japanese designer Keita Takahashi, Katamari Damacy was released in the United States in September 2004. A sequel, We Love Katamari, hit the shelves two months ago. Both titles are available only for the Sony Playstation 2. A third version of the game, Me and My Katamari, will be released on the Playstation Portable within the next three months.

The game’s premise is deceptively simple. One morning, after drinking far too much, the King of the Cosmos wakes up and realizes that he has destroyed all of the stars in the known universe. As his son (“the Prince”), your job is to rebuild the missing constellations by rolling objects into a gigantic ball called a katamari. During the opening levels of the game, you collect small objects such as batteries, crayons, rice cakes, and Mah Jong tiles. As your katamari becomes bigger, you move on to chairs, stoves, and household pets. Soon, you are collecting ferris wheels, traffic lights, and even the Eiffel Tower, in a quest to build the biggest katamari the world has ever seen. As the game progresses, the King of the Cosmos creates new stars by hurling your clumps of objects into the heavens.

Both titles feature a split-screen multiplayer mode in which players compete to build the largest katamari. We Love Katamari also offers an innovative cooperative mode that requires players to work together, with each controlling a different side of the ball.

That’s all there is to it. At a time when most new games are increasingly complex and narrative driven, the fast-paced and straight-forward game-play of the Katamari series harkens back to simpler titles such as Pac Man and Tetris.

Simplicity does not mean a lack of imagination. The art direction for both titles combines the cuteness of Hello Kitty with the surrealist whimsy of Magritte, and the cluttered complexity of Richard Scarry’s picture books. The musical score is equally bewitching and has spawned three soundtrack albums, dozens of ring tones, and even a punk-rock cover version.

Some game theorists claim that all video games can be boiled down to two categories: those that emphasize twitchy reflexes and those that require strategic problem-solving. The Katamari games are most clearly situated within the twitch category, with each new level requiring quicker reaction time. However, the game also encourages rapid problem-solving.

Good-natured and quirky, the Katamari series is well-suited for family gaming and cross-generation play. Less experienced gamers will enjoy its simplicity and even hardcore players will find it hard to resist its charms. New copies retail for approximately $25, and used copies can be borrowed for much less at most video-rental stores.

By Aaron Delwiche

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