Review: It's an animal house
Once dubbed too Japanese for western gamers, Katamari Damacy became one of the PlayStation 2's biggest cult phenomenons in 2004. Helped by a budget price and word of mouth, Katamari Damacy simply grew into a massive hit far beyond Namco's expectations. It's sequel, We Love Katamari, was a great follow up to that game, and though it was great it wasn't quite the success. Now the trilogy is complete with Me & My Katamari, the first (and last) portable version of Namco's classic. This PSP edition comes dangerously close to being a cash-in sequel that is the complete antithesis of why Katamari Damacy became so big, but it's hard to resist the charm, addictive gameplay, and general madness which is here in spades. It's not the best of the trio, and definitely not the place for new players to cut their teeth, but it does give Katamari fans one last game to enjoy before the King and Prince sail off into the sunset.
Bored of taking people, buildings, pets, trees, and Jumboman action figures and making them into stars in the sky, the King of All Cosmos has moved into a new trade; island creating. Dozens of animals in the world are without homes, and naturally they look to the King and his bite-sized son the Prince for shelter. So once again, the Prince is set out with his trusty Katamari with one goal in mind ? creating as big a Katamari as possible by rolling up everything in sight. Unlike the PS2 versions, there's no 'sub-stories' between stages, so everything is focused on island creating ? and there are quite a few stages to do so. The Prince even has his own island, which you can name yourself, and this is where the action takes place.
Me & My Katamari's gameplay harkens back to the original game in the sense of function. The core stages are familiar; you're dropped in a level, with a time limit and a size requirement, and off you go rolling up stuff in the trademark strategic fashion. Depending on how well you perform, you're given a score, and the higher it is, the more pleased your 'client' is. Get it really high and you'll unlock the Eternal stage for infinite rolling. Early on the requirements are less demanding, but in later stages there's actually multiple tiers; finish the size requirement in a stage and you progress to another with the existing Katamari and a brand new objective. The special stages are as unique as ever, ranging from collecting certain things, to a treasure hunt in a landfill, to gathering energy so a gorilla can launch his shuttle to space, to a 'test' that makes you collect particular groups of things within a time limit. Finally there's also a local LAN multiplayer option, but it's just a simple 'who has the biggest Katamari' deal. But there is a network ranking table on your island that keeps rankings.
Nothing has changed from either Katamari Damacy or We Love Katamari; it plays the same. At the beginning you're in possession of a small Katamari and can only roll up certain things of similar size. But as the Katamari grows, so does its capacity and quite transparently, the Katamari becomes more destructive, and bigger things can be collected. Eventually, people become your objects. Then cars. Then homes. Then skyscrapers. Then the clouds, islands, volcanoes, almost everything. Sure the concept of rolling stuff up sounds dumb on the surface but there's so much strategy involved. Ramming into things too large for you can result in dropping items, and planning is needed to get past most levels, rolling round to pick small stuff up and then targeting the bigger prizes. It's such a difficult thing to explain in writing, as the whole game seems boring on the surface, but when given time to explore and understand its concepts, Me & My Katamari, like its predecessors, becomes genius; it's the sort of gameplay that Nintendo strives for - simple and addictive. And weird of course.
The move to PSP has many raising their eyebrows; after all, what made Katamari Damacy so good was its elegant, simple dual-analog control scheme. And of course, PSP happens to lack the 2nd analog stick to pull that off. So in lieu of that, Me & My Katamari does the next best thing and borrows the Nintendo 64-styled setup, using the left stick to move the Prince around, and the 4 face buttons serve as the Katamari movement controls. There's a definite learning curve, but it doesn't take too long to grasp it as the game is designed with this weakness in mind. You can do everything possible in the PS2 games, just using a different, slightly less intuitive method. It doesn't perfectly replicate the dual-analog, as there's moments of total unresponsiveness and sluggishness, but it's not utterly broken either. Things like wacky camera angles and getting stuck easy exist, but these issues were in the first 2 games as well.
The real bummer is repetition. Not the gameplay, mind you ? after all this is the exact same style of play shown off 2 years ago when the original game hit, but in terms of level design and objectives. There's just not that many areas to explore and they show up constantly, making the game very predictable and thus even less difficult than previously seen ? and Katamari Damacy has never been known for grueling challenge. There's different seasons which mix up item locations and obstacles, but when you get down to brass tacks, most stages are the exact same thing again and again. And that's no fun. Sure there's always the idea of making a bigger Katamari than the last, or hunt down presents and cousins (of which there's multiple in almost every level), but it's clear that this time around, Team Katamari didn't spend enough time making original, unique stages and instead rehash the same ones again and again.
But hey, this is still Katamari Damacy, and it's still pretty brilliant and there's still no other game like it unless you count the equally strange Loco Roco that'll be on PSP by year's end. The King is a bit subdued this time around but still weird and amusing; after all, the Prince enters each stage after being launched into the King's gigantic crotch. Yes, it's a bit disturbing. Once you get a handle on the controls the magic is there and there's that great feeling of using your brain to solve the stages and ultimately take revenge on those big things that got in your way before. In those later stages that require some 500 meter Katamari's, there's that feeling of wiping the earth away like a natural disaster. Especially when the ultimate revenge is for the taking; rolling up the King himself. And sure, the levels repeat, but get through them and you'll be rewarded at the end by unlocking 2D Katamari, designed in homage to Super Mario Bros. After that, it's playable any time in the Memorial section and it's a really good 'mini game that plays during the credits' thrown in bonus.
As always, Me & My Katamari's graphics are perhaps not technologically stunning, but instead are as wacky as the game itself. Each stage is littered with all sorts of unusual items to collect, an any living things are clearly inspired by Legos. Like in the past, the visuals are impressive in that each stage starts small and a bit restrictive, but eventually, and transparently, grows as you do and in time it's possible to completely dwarf the entire world. It was impressive the first time around and it still is today. Unfortunately there is some slowdown here and there, especially when the Katamari gets to epic proportions. All of the soundtrack is recycled from the first 2 games, which is good in that these are some classic, amazing tunes, and bad because there's nothing new. Even the 'new' intro theme (Katamari on the Funk) is merely a remix of a song that appeared in PSP launch game Ridge Racer. The trademark record scratch voice of the King is here, as is the always delightful sounds of rolling things up. Roll up a phone, it rings. Roll up a microphone and it speaks. Roll up a girl and she'll squeal. Roll up a building and all the people inside will scream in terror. Etc. Good stuff.