Twinkle, Twinkle

Namco’s fantastically childlike video game has sophisticated overtones.

Imagine that your father is the King of All Cosmos. And after a night of extreme partying, he swipes all the stars from the sky, admitting the morning after, “That’s right. I broke the sky. But it felt good.” He then enlists you, the prince, to fix it by rolling a sticky katamari ball through the buildings and cities to collect everything—thumbtacks, street signs, giant squid—in your path. Once your collection satisfies the king, he hurls the katamari into the blackness to become a star.

Katamari Damacy (which roughly translates to “clump of souls”) was designed, originally as a student project, by Keita Takahashi. Takahashi said he was bored with the derivative graphic realism of current video games and wanted to create an experience so “out there and stylish” that it would stand apart from all others. Gamers and designers agree: there’s never been anything like it.

The first video game to be awarded the Japan Industrial Design Innovation Award for Good Design, Katamari Damacy was so popular that, after hundreds of e-mail requests from North America, Namco released an English version last September. The sequel—featuring classrooms and edible confectionery environments—is expected out this spring.

“The game will pave the way for others of its kind within the market, games that lack combat mechanics or complicated controller schemes and games that accommodate casual rather than hard-core play,” says Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (2003) coauthor Katie Salen. Simplicity is part of the appeal. Whereas most game play relies on complex button-and-joystick combinations for combat or destruction, Katamari Damacy uses only the joysticks. The somewhat primitive graphics are a charming lesson in scale and spatial relationships. You begin with a katamari that measures less than an inch and grows as you play. “Can I fit through the bathroom door to collect the toilet?” you wonder. “Can I collect the stadium yet, or do I have to roll up more cars and skyscrapers first?”

It’s also a comment on consumerism. “There’s an awful lot of stuff on Earth,” the king observes. And when we have 42 kinds of toothpaste to choose from, who can disagree?

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