Namco has a hit on its hands


It’s not often that I review games that I can’t pronounce; but on a recent visit to Namco’s corporate offices in Tokyo, I could not get my lips around the name “Katamari Damashii.”

Perhaps the problem was that the name is in kanji, which I can’t read. Whatever the problem, Namco corporate communications team leader Shin Hasuya spent most of the day trying to get me to remember the name after he heard me bungle the pronunciation with no lesser persons than Manabu Ishii, Namco’s group leader of corporate communications, Keiji Tanaka, the managing director of Namco, and Kyushiro Takagi, president and CEO of the company.

Other people are not having the same problem — judging by the sales. Between March 15 and 22, Namco sold 32,000 copies of the game, placing it at the No. 10 slot of top-selling games in Japan, just behind Nintendo’s latest Pokemon games.

I may not be able to pronounce the name “Katamari Damashii,” or read its instruction booklet, but that did not stop me from playing the game.

“Katamari Damashii” ranges from innovative to just plain weird. Its back story, for instance, is plenty odd. When some cosmic king gets drunk and knocks stars out of the sky, he sends a prince to Earth to gather gigantic balls of garbage that can be turned into new stars and constellations.

And so the prince comes to Earth with a sticky ball that he rolls around, picking up more and more garbage, larger and larger objects. This is the meat of the game — you roll the little ball through various 3-D settings, starting out small and getting bigger and bigger.

The basic controls are just about right. You use both the right and left analog thumb pads on the PlayStation 2 controller. Push both pads forward, and the prince rolls his ball forward. Pull both pads back and the ball rolls back. Left pad down, right pad forward rolls you to the left.

It’s the same basic control scheme that they use for tank games, except “Katamari Damashii” has no fire button. You can, however, dash and jump using the shoulder buttons.

This is where one of the game’s flaws comes out — camera angle problems. As you roll your ball around the various 3-D settings, walls, bushes, and cars often get between you and the ball, and you cannot see where you are going. Sometimes you blindly roll into traps and sometimes unfriendly objects hit you during these confusing moments. It’s never fatal, but it is frustrating.

As you begin “Katamari Damashii,” you have a small ball that can only pick up matchsticks, Lego bricks and other tiny objects. Using your thumb pads, you lead the prince through a house and a garden picking up items and growing your ball. As your ball passes certain metric milestones, you will be able to pick up bigger objects — cherries, silverware, garbage cans, bottles of soy sauce and shoes.

With each new level, you are assigned a goal such as to grow the ball to one circumferential meter. There are catches to this. First off, the levels are timed. If you do not reach your target before your time runs out, the cosmic king reams you.

Running into walls or other obstacles jars your ball and makes stuff fall off. Remember when I mentioned the camera angle problems? This is where they become a real nuisance. You lose bulk with every collision, and collisions are unavoidable when something is blocking the camera.

“Katamari Damashii” also includes moving enemies. At first you must avoid mice, then cats, then cows, then cars. If they hit you, your ball loses some of its bulk.

Sometimes enemy objects come gunning for you. Pick up dog food, and dogs may attack. You also lose bulk when objects in your ball try to escape. Pick up birds, and they may knock things off your ball as they flap wings. This is clever stuff; and it only gets more clever as the ball grows ever bigger.

That said, “Katamari Damashii” is not perfect. The graphics are simple, with toylike humans, cats that look like they were carved from milk cartons and somewhat dull colors. The music is jazzy Japanese — that will likely be changed if the game comes to the West. The game play is wonderful but redundant. This is a game that gets five stars for innovation but only four highly respectful stars for execution.

With “Katamari Damashii,” Namco proves once again why it has remained one of the most respected names in gaming.