I wanted to play this for years, and it’s finally available on PC. If you’ve been living under a rock since 2004, this is the one where you roll up objects into a big ball.

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And run into big poles, coming to a screeching halt

Your first question is undoubtedly, what’s a katamari?  Or a damacy, for that matter? The game’s title is 塊魂, better transliterated Katamari Tamashī. A katamari is a cluster, lump, or agglomeration; a tamashī is a spirit or soul. So, the spirit of agglomeration. Curiously, both words are native Japanese. If you read the words as Chinese they’d be kuài hún, which mean the same thing but are unrelated. Note the 鬼 guǐ ‘ghost’ grapheme in both characters which gives the title a nice visual pun. As the Chinese suggests, it’s a phonetic in the first word, a radical in the second.

(I should add: tamashī is what you’ll find in the dictionary, but the D in Damacy is not a mistake; it’s what’s actually pronounced, as this is a compound. It’s a sandhi thing.)

Curiously, 塊 seems to be a less common rendering of katamari; my two dictionaries list 固まリ instead. I assume 塊 was chosen for the visual pun. (Edit: Alert reader Yiuel Raumbesirc tells me that both renderings are used, and 塊 is used when the meaning is ‘an accumulation of stuff’.)

So, how’s the game? Most reviewers have said it’s delightful. And it is, though I’d say only about 80% so. The 20% is due to the strict time limits for each level, which probably mean that you’ll frustratingly fail a few levels before getting them. It’d be nice if you could have a Wimp Mode where you get 50% more time.

Oh, and in the “dumb things” department: the (relatively short) tutorial comes before you can change graphics settings. So you have to play it in windowed mode. Once you get to your home planet, go to the settings and you can play in full screen at high resolution.

Something that takes getting used to is the controls. You push the katamari around with two keys– WASD and IJKL.  This is slightly awkward, but that’s the point, really– it’s supposed to be awkward to roll this growing pile around a house, neighborhood, and eventually world. The ball also has momentum, so it’s sometimes a struggle to control it. Plus the camera only shows you the forward path; you can slowly and clumsily shift the camera by holding down just W (or just I).  There are supposedly burst and dash modes, but I never got them to work. (Literally: I press the keys and nothing happens.)

More importantly, when you run into things bigger than the ball, you stop and lose one or more items. This can make you curse, but it’s probably what makes this a game and not a walking simulator: you have to learn what you can and can’t pick up.  For most efficient rolling:

  • Learn to avoid what you can’t pick up yet.
  • Also avoid moving objects that are bigger than your ball.
  • Items you can pick up often come in arrays; take advantage of these pre-created paths and clusters.
  • Though the levels are free-form, they’re also graded in terms of object size. It pays to get all the stuff you can in one area before moving on.
  • On the other hand, don’t waste time with objects much smaller than your ball.
  • There are areas you can’t get to until your katamari is a certain size. For best results, be somewhat above that size.
  • You can pick up long thing objects (thermometers, axes, bottles) or flat objects (envelopes, cards) much earlier than more round objects. This seems to build up the ball faster.
  • Steps can stop you short. Sometimes you can get up if you have momentum.

As your ball gets bigger, you can roll over things with ease that used to be obstacles. The animate things cry out or scream as they’re rolled up, which would be disturbing if the art style weren’t so toylike.

The last level gives you a fair amount of time, and the sense of scale is breathtaking. Each map starts you off slightly larger, but you’re still picking up fruit and such things to start. But soon you’re picking up furniture, and then people, and then vehicles, and then buildings, and then entire cities.  It’s exhilarating when everything clicks and you’re constantly rewarded by a change in scale.

Katamari Damacy is a trifle– it took me under 10 hours to play– and maybe slightly overpriced at $30.  But it’s so completely original that I’m happy I got it over everything else on my wishlist. (Plus I’m having fun replaying levels to try to get a bigger katamari.)

The game has a lovely soundtrack, too– mostly bouncy J-Pop, but at least one bossa nova number.  (Bossa would be a good translation of katamari.)

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There’s a bonkers story to go along with the bonkers mechanic. The King of All Cosmos, in a drunken bender, has knocked all the stars and the moon out of the sky.  You are his son, far tinier but with the same odd taste in headgear, and you’re tasked with making katamaris which will become stars to replace the ones that were lost.

The main humor here is that King is a terrible father; he’s constantly berating you for your size and the smallness of your katamaris (if you merely make it the size he specified). On the other hand, he does give you presents, which he invariably loses, so you have to gather them up where they fell to earth.

He speaks in record scratches, which is amusing for about ten seconds; fortunately you can rush through his dialog with space bar, and skip it entirely with tab.

Credit where it’s due department: the game was designed by Keita Takahashi. There are several Katamari Damacy games, so perhaps we’ll see more of them released later.

One more note: an interesting design trick. Objects become more saturated in color as they join your ball. This probably subliminally reinforces your rolling, but also means that your ball stands out against the background.  (The world is still mighty colorful despite the subtle desaturation.)

Edit: I might be done, after about 28 hours. I replayed the whole game, then replayed individual levels to get better scores. Anyway, main point: it’s even more fun on a replay, since you know what you’re doing and what to avoid.

One extra control you’ll end up appreciating: press W + K to rotate the ball fast.

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