Feature: Katamari – the real king of monsters

By Neil Merrett

We Love Katamari on PS2 – released 2006, Namco

Tuesday – April 6, 2006….

What makes a monster? On a wider existential level, the answers are seemingly endless.  In the world of videogames – things aren’t so complex.

Little has changed since the 1980’s arcade hit Rampage, where monsters are apparently either there to be pummeled by gamers, or be used to kick around the human race – building by building, tank by tank.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Yet surely there is more that can be said.

Take Godzilla for example – the trademarked ‘King of the Monsters’.  He is loved the world over – if not for his character and durability – than for sheer size and scale.

There are of course nuances, the character was itself created in 1954 as a much belated allegory of Japan’s scarring by successive atomic bomb blasts almost a decade earlier.  With Japanese media reportedly forbidden from addressing the separate attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima,  the creature was a means of communicating a nation’s trauma and fear at the apocalyptic potential of the atomic age.

Over more than 50 years, there has been some subtle and not so subtle evolutions of the big lizard as a villain, anti-hero, father and a “strangely innocent and tragic” force of nature, who when not saving humanity, is being feared and attacked by them.

Godzilla mostly wanted people to stay out of his way, but the world is often too small and troubled to allow him peace.  It’s these little nuances that have made him an icon.

But for decades, videogames have never really been able to convey the nuance – focusing for the most part on stomping buildings flat. This has changed little from his early side scrolling outings kicking and punching of monsters, spaceships and mountains on a desolate alien world, to 16-bit, one on one beat-em-ups that tried to make up for a lack of scale with some Street Fighter 2-style special moves.

Monster movies at their best to try and capture the complexities of these creatures, but games, with their open world ambitions haven’t really moved beyond the punching and kicking.  Godzilla could be replaced by any sort of character and any sort of setting.

As technologies have been suped up, the character, along with the dozens of giant friends and foes have found some sort of place in the genre of party game-style smash up fighters, accomplished enough in their own right, but what progress has there been?

Now if i’m honest, I had never really worried about the inability of the Playstation Two to try and capture the tormented soul of a giant foam dinosaur until whiling away a few hours on another typically Japanese export – ‘We Love Katamari’.

Based on the simple premise of playing the son of the egotistical deity, The King of All Cosmos, you roll a ball around bedroom floors, zoos, cityscapes and eventually the universe itself, collecting anything smaller than yourself to become part of the ball as its get bigger and bigger.  Often, this will be to sate the whimsys and fetishes of the king, who may require the player to find a certain number of exotic animals, or roll up a snowball as big as possible within a time limit.

Displaying katamari2.jpg

All hail the Katamari!

Yet as you play on, the game’s playing mechanics open up a strange sense of scale and prejudice against all that once stood in your way, from towering pencils right up to cars, pandas on motorcyles and Sushi restaurants.

Cats that’s tormented you at the beginning of a level – easily pushing you around when you begin – can eventually be subsumed into the growing mass of the ball.  As the ball snowballs in size, each marble, traffic cone, household pet, gun toting police officer, vehicle and building can become part of you.

Success is soon measured by the frequency of screams below you, as entire cities become part of your mass.  You race against the clock or another to get bigger and bigger and swallow landmarks and anything else that will make you more powerful, trying to grow as big as possible to impress the ludicrous ‘King of all Cosmos’.

With each playthrough your aim is to get bigger and bigger, beating your previous score measured in mass, with a skilled player eventually able to swallow up replicas of Big Ben and the Whitehouse themselves.  The world is yours.

To the player, you are just the lovable Prince of all Cosmos, rolling around the ball in a carefree manner for fun and sport in one of the most accessible and strangely universal games of the last decade.

But to the game’s denizens you are an unspeakable terror, even with your character wearing a novelty hat.  You are a monster – misunderstood yes, but all powerful and if good enough, King of all Cosmos.  

I love katamari. King of all monster games.

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