Review of We Love Katamari

It's been a while since I last posted anything substantial, so I thought I'd share a review I wrote of the PS2 game We Love Katamari. It's about a year old. And long! :p

It's been two days since I last played We Love Katamari, and I'm already experiencing withdrawal symptoms. The theme song has been playing through my head constantly, and my hands ache for the touch of a virtual katamari. In my whole life, I've probably played the game for less than three hours, but We Love Katamari has still managed to leave its blocky, rainbow-colored mark imprinted on my brain.

First off, We Love Katamari is actually the sequel to the original Katamari Damacy, with much of the same graphics and gameplay. Katamari Damacy introduced the central idea of rolling a sticky katamari around to pick up miscellaneous objects and increase in size, beginning with a ball a few centimeters across and growing until you can pick up cars and buildings. The story in that game was that the King of All Cosmos had gotten drunk and destroyed all the stars in the universe, so he sends you, his son, to collect the raw materials for new stars. In a self-referential turn, the sequel We Love Katamari has it that the game Katamari Damacy is now so popular that now you have to appease your many fans by fulfilling their unusual katamari-related requests.

As you may have guessed, We Love Katamari is a very unusual game. The original game concept is very unique, and surprisingly fun. The blocky graphics and choppy, bright animation goes in a direction opposite the current trend in video games toward increasing graphical realism. The music, or at least the theme song, is annoying at first but really sticks in your head after a while. In fact, the whole game is kind of annoying at first. The first time I played it, I was quickly ready to move onto something more traditional. But now I can't get enough! I can assure you that I'd rather be playing We Love Katamari than any other game at this moment.

Okay, so let me start to get into the actual gameplay. Katamari is a very physical game. I have never played a video game that felt more like a real physical environment than this one. In fact, playing We Love Katamari feels a lot more real to me than does driving an actual car. The analog controls and the slight vibration when you bump over some obstacle, as well as the very dense spatial layout of the game world, all work together to produce a feeling of embodiment. It is a feeling I've missed in my life as a student, using my eyes always, but never reaching out and touching my surroundings and feeling them push back. (Actually, I am lucky to be training in Aikido, which unfortunately is only a few hours per week of concentrated tactile awareness.) For me, We Love Katamari brings back some of the feeling of integration with space, of rolling over and feeling the ground, using my hands to build with blocks and bricks.

At first, the game seems to involve little strategy, but in fact it is much deeper than it appears. When your katamari is small, you are restricted in what you can roll up. Bigger objects bounce you off, slowing you down and serving as obstacles. Later on, you may have accumulated a large enough clump to come back and pick up those former obstacles. Part of the game is about knowing what kinds of objects you can safely pick up and when, and then plotting the most efficient course through the area. Often your task will involve growing as large as possible in the shortest amount of time. Of course, in order to do all that, you must be coordinated enough to stick to your intended path, something which I am still working on. As I develop more confidence in my skill with the controls, I can keep my head up and look ahead for good routes to take in the future, and maybe attempt to get an idea of the layout of the entire space. However, the pace of the game is gradual enough that most of this knowledge will come intuitively just by playing over and over again.

One of the most interesting aspects of We Love Katamari is the continually changing scale. What at first might have been an obstacle to be avoided becomes a goody to by grabbed up. A house that once was your entire world is swallowed up in a few seconds as you roll through the neighborhood. I would guess that that was part of what made the original Katamari Damacy so appealing and interesting. It is very rare to see a game that has such a gradual but radical transformation of your playing space, but Katamari Damacy is a game that tells a story of the growth from a tiny ball picking up paperclips on top of a desk to a humongous, city-destroying monster. And all that without cutscenes in between!

Now We Love Katamari is not quite so epic. Many missions have you remain smaller than a house, depending on the strange desires of your rather ungrateful fans. This sequel provides more variety and structure into your tasks, only providing you with new missions once you have completed earlier ones. However, it is still fairly open-ended as there are usually a few different missions you may choose to attempt, and much of the game is spent playing on previous stages.

There are many incentives to replay an older area. For one thing, while the space stays the same every time you play, the individual objectives are switched around. (It is kind of like Super Mario 64, where each world has a number of different tasks to complete, which then give access to new worlds.) Also, there is a constant push to exceed the requirements of the task, because your spoiled fans express thinly veiled disappointment at the unimpressive size of your katamari or speed of your performance. The only way to gain total approval is to find the perfect, most efficient route through the space. Your pleased fans will give you presents of accessories with which to customize your character's appearance. This brings up another incentive for replaying: collection. The game keeps track of every single type of object you've picked up and allows you to browse through your collection and see pictures and amusing descriptions for each one. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of objects to find. So obsessive people might find themselves spending way too much time on this game.

I will now analyze We Love Katamari using Richard Garfield's framework. The game is mainly single-player, but there is also a two-player mode where you may compete with a friend in a race to complete the given objective first. Since both players are rolling around in the same space, there is some direct conflict between you and your opponent. The objects that you pick up are objects that your opponent doesn't get to pick up. Also, you may bump into or even roll up the other player directly. There is also a mode which involves two players, but they both work together to control one katamari. It is essentially a single-player mode with team dynamics.

Luck is an important part of the game even though all the play areas are the exact same every time, simply because much of the game is played while not knowing the complete location of every object. The outcome depends on whether you went here or there, if you took a plentiful route or not, and until you spend a long time replaying the mission to find the best paths, much of your success will depend on luck. On the other hand, skill is still important. The layouts are not so restrictive as to only allow a few effective routes; they are designed to let someone with a good practical understanding of the game do well on the first few tries. It does take some practice to get to that skill level though.

Part of the appeal of We Love Katamari is that the game heuristics are so clear. It is easy to tell how well you're doing - just see how big your katamari has grown, in qualitative or quantitative terms, as the diameter of the clump is displayed in meters besides being apparent on screen. As for what to do next, well just head for the nearest small object in range. You get immediate feedback on your actions as you roll up some object and hear a satisfying bloop and feel a buzz from the controller. Also, the heuristics do deepen as you gain more experience. You may learn that keeping your momentum going is more important than grabbing something just a little too far to the side, or start constructing plans beyond randomly wandering around and looking for goodies. However, assessing the game state becomes more complicated as well, since not only the size of your katamari but your position and configuration of the space around you also must be taken into account.

The length of a mission is usually only about five or ten minutes, since there is usually some time constraint involved in the task. This makes the game good for casual play when you want a quick diversion. However, the overall lifetime of the game can be quite long, especially when you take into account the collecting aspect and the competitive play mode. Also, the short length of missions means that a significant fraction of the time is spent as downtime, reading the inane dialogue preceding a mission or afterward. In the actual play of the game, however, there is practically no downtime at all.

There are other elements in Richard Garfield's framework, but they are not particularly interesting when applied to We Love Katamari, so I won't bother mentioning them.


The Fisix Engine

The Fisix Engine has been released! If you haven't heard of it before, it's a physics engine for Flash that lets you easily make games with ragdoll physics. It's not completely done yet, but you can still download it and try it out.

The cool thing about it is that it is so professionally done. It even has an API documentation page where you can browse through descriptions of all its packages and classes, just like Java does! The downside is that it is only for ActionScript 3.0, which is not completely done yet, and not integrated into Flash 8. You have to download some separate programs to get it all working, which is something I haven't gotten around to doing yet. And of course Flash programs you make with AS3 will not work for people who don't have the latest version of Flash Player.

That said, it is worth looking into, especially as AS3 becomes more widespread. I've registered on the forums, and have already made a few posts. I think it will be fun. :)

That reminds me, I still haven't gotten around to posting on the Tale of Tales forum. :/ Maybe I'll think of a good game design topic to post there. Sometime.