Why ‘Katamari Damacy’ might be gaming’s purest expression of comedy through play

Katamari Damacy really put the 'Play' in 'PlayStation' unlike anything else – before or since

Out of all the console names that exist in the world, I think that PlayStation might rank the highest. It’s simple, and evocative. There is no concept more joyful than the idea of play, and a whole console dedicated to it? That’s the dream right there. The PlayStation 2, in particular, has a catalogue full of obscure and wonderful oddities, ranging from the mysterious and often frustrating Drakengard to Gitaroo Man, a rhythm game filled to the brim with different musical genres. But none define the ‘play’ in PlayStation in quite the same way as Katamari Damacy.

Katamari is a weird game. To a mainstream audience, it might be a hard pitch. In it, the King of All Cosmos accidentally destroys all of the stars and Earth’s moon, and he sends his 5cm tall son, the Prince, to fix it with a katamari: a spiky orb that kind of resembles those balls you put in your tumble dryer that I’m still uncertain of the purpose of. Katamari is the Japanese word for ‘clump’ or ‘clod’, and damashii (translated as Damacy) means ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’. So, essentially, you take on the role of the ‘clump spirit’.

The Prince then rolls around the Katamari and just collects… well, everything. As the Prince, you are small. So small, in fact, that you start by rolling up small things (like batteries, or bits of food) and as you increase in size you start to pick up bigger things (like people or cars) and you eventually even get the chance to swallow up buildings. Everything you collect is clumped together to reform the stars. It’s ridiculous, and all of this is set to Shibuya-kei music, a microgenre that is meant to sound like elevator music – or music you’d hear in a shopping mall – creating a quaint, eclectic tone not seen in many other games.

And that’s the whole game! You just roll things up, with some levels offering specific challenges, and no real story at play, other than the moments where your father, the King of All Cosmos, berates you for not doing a good enough job in a tongue-in-cheek tone, and a few cutscenes involving two children that notice the stars are missing. That’s the lot of it. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Katamari Damacy. Credit: Bandai Namco
Katamari Damacy. Credit: Bandai Namco

I love a serious, gritty game with the highest fidelity graphics you’ve ever seen from time to time just like anyone else, but I also love purely silly experiences that you can just laugh at the obscenity of. Everything about Katamari is silly; the descriptions of all the things you can pick up in the world, the sound effects that play when something falls off your Katamari, the fact that you’re literally just a tiny little guy that can roll a massive clump of miscellaneous objects countless times bigger than him.

In my time with the game, I’ve often found myself laughing at the way things bounce around, or laughing just out of surprise at the things I can pick up. Comedy through play is rare in games, and even rarer is a game that successfully pulls it off. Katamari does so, though, because it doesn’t care about logic or reason; it just cares about providing you an entertaining experience through an interactive medium.

It’s impossible to say the game is a smooth experience: the controls are not perfect, there’s certainly an amount of jankiness to them. But it’s so rare for a game to let you just lean into absurdity, and in such a playful way, too.

Katamari Damacy. Credit: Bandai Namco
Katamari Damacy. Credit: Bandai Namco

One thing I remember about my childhood is how much fun destruction without consequence is: there was nothing better than smashing apart a LEGO construction I had built to make something new, or tearing down the sand kingdom I built at the beach when we were about to head home. It’s, in my opinion, a massively underappreciated aspect of playing as a child. Children are chaotic, they love to cause trouble, and it’s best for everyone that they get to do so in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone. That’s what I think Katamari echoes so brilliantly.

Many games can often be described as power fantasies (for better or worse) and Katamari is no different, it just sits in a very specific niche. It celebrates chaos and encourages it, no matter how it might affect its polygonal inhabitants. Katamari came out at a time when games were viewed as more akin to toys than serious pieces of art, and Katamari celebrates the fact that it really is a toybox of sorts – and one that is never a bore to play in.

Those polygonal inhabitants in particular contribute to that feeling that the game is a toybox: there’s a blockiness to everyone and everything in the world of Katamari, one that makes everything almost seem like cheap plastic toys, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was purposeful. To the King of All Cosmos, Earth might as well be his and the Prince’s playground, littered with the toys of fruit stands and boats and erasers.

Katamari Damacy. Credit: Bandai Namco
Katamari Damacy. Credit: Bandai Namco

It’s impossible to say what Sony’s larger intentions with the PlayStation were when it took on the project themselves. The console, of course, originally started as a collaboration with Nintendo, and then once that fell through Sony decided to get into the console market itself. The name PlayStation certainly would have been befitting of Nintendo, though the company did produce toys before getting into the video games market, creating an even bigger link between the idea of ‘toy’ and ‘game’. In another universe, Katamari Damacy would fit perfectly on the Nintendo PlayStation, just as perfectly as it does on the Sony PlayStation 2.

‘Play’ truly feels like it was a priority of the game, one that you see in Nintendo’s games as well. That priority doesn’t apply so much to a lot of the PS2’s library, as only really Nintendo were making first-party titles at the time, so Katamari almost feels like the main pedestal from which the ‘Play’ of PlayStation stands on. There are almost countless classics to be found on the PS2, like Final Fantasy X or Okami, but none ask you to play like Katamari does.

There really aren’t many games like Katamari Damacy, even now in the indie game scene. The closest thing comes from the creator of the series himself Keita Takahashi, with his most recent release Wattam, an equally silly and goofy game. It’s rare to be able to describe a game as almost entirely unique, but Katamari is in almost everything it does, and that’s what makes it a game worth coming back to.

Adults love to experience nostalgic things. It’s why we see so many soft and hard reboots of beloved 80s franchises, and so many modern titles that directly pull from that era to capture something that reminds people of their childhood. But if you want to play a game that does that exact thing on a more conceptual than literal level, you should play Katamari: it’ll invite you to play around and have some fun for a few hours, like how a child might ask you to sit down for a tea party or to mess around with their toy trucks.

When I play the game, I don’t think of any one particular moment from my childhood. I think of all of them. There’s nothing like that in any other game I’ve played, so I’m going to keep playing it until I do.

Oisin Kuhnke is a freelance writer and occasional contributor to NME. You can read the rest of the Remastered column here.

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