Saturday, November 3, 2007

Beautiful Katamari vs. Katamari Damacy and We Love Katamari - A Comparitive Review

Once upon a time in a barren wasteland of generic beat-em-ups and poorly controlling first person shooters and yearly sequels of sports franchises there was born a game called Katamari Damacy. It gained an obsessive cult following as fans were attracted to the sublime game play and the charming world it presented. Its designer, Keita Takahashi, responded to the praise with a game titled We Love Katamari which was built around the fan response to the first game. At the end of We Love Katamari, though, he said that it was the end. Katamari was fun but he couldn't live trapped by his creation's success, releasing more and more generic follow ups until they reached We Are Sick Of Katamari. The development team was disbanded and there would be no more Katamari. But the idea would not die. The publisher revived the concept for the new generation of console systems and Beautiful Katamari was born. Takahashi did not return, however, and development went forward without him.

The idea behind all of these games is that there is a small ball called a Katamari. When the Katamari touches something smaller than it then that object sticks to it and becomes part of the Katamari. As the Katamari is rolled it collects objects becoming larger and larger; you go from picking up paper clips to getting pencils to cats to televisions to people to cars to houses to mountains. When the Katamari is large enough it can be transformed to a heavenly body to replace one that is missing in the sky (for reasons that are different in each game). It's simple but engaging; there's a feeling of peace that builds as you clear away clutter and bring everything together that you just don't get when playing most games.

There's a fallacy that some people hold that a game must be challenging to be good. They think that if a game doesn't make you sweat then it can't be any good. The reason for this line of thought is that there are a lot of games that aren't very good because they are so easy. The problem with this line of thinking is that it doesn't connect with what makes a game fun. There's different answers for every given game and sometimes it will be the challenge to overcome but in Katamari Damacy it was the collecting that was fun and this is why Beautiful Katamari fails.

Beautiful Katamari plays like someone made it to be Katamari on hard mode. It was a complaint from people who did not like the earlier games that they were too easy. It's a fair complaint since in Katamari Damacy I know of people only failing on two levels while the rest they manage to build up with time left over. Beautiful Katamari tightens up the time limits and makes most of the stages more difficult and this is a bad thing. You can no longer poke around the level and see the cute gags that were seeded into each environment. They give you a type of object that you're supposed to collect which gives you a focus that the game didn't need and since the world is seeded with those types of objects you'd have to really work to fail that goal. The result is that Beautiful Katamari is not a relaxing game to play.

In addition Beautiful Katamari effectively eliminates the special challenge stages (there are two left, one that is unlocked after ending the game) so the only thing you do is roll as fast as you can. Katamari Damaci was about rolling and building up with about a quarter of the game being diversions while We Love Katamari featured many variations on the theme and this makes Beautiful Katamari feel like a huge step backward.

That's not the only area they went backward on. While the environments are more seamless than they have been in Beautiful Katamari they are also much more limited than they were before. Katamari Damacy featured effectively three major environments which were changed and scaled depending on the stage. We Love Katamari expanded that greatly (I'm not certain of the exact number but it was closer to a dozen environments that were more limited in scope). Beautiful Katamari has three basic starting areas that link to two towns that are a short roll away from each other when you hit the 3-meter mark. There's more variation than in Katamari Damcy when you're smaller than 1-meter but the variation becomes less and less as you grow and so the whole world feels smaller.

Guiding you in this is the all powerful and extremely whimsical (in every sense of the word) King of All Cosmos who in previous games would offer comments on your performance as you play or comment on the objects you have collected. He must have gone on lithium for Beautiful Katamari since his manic energy is almost completely missing. It's a small complaint but it is one more missing element that was charming in the original games.

But they've added a highly promoted online multiplayer! Which is a feature which I highly doubt any Katamari lover was looking for. Katamari isn't about competition and the previous multiplayer modes felt like after thoughts. It's another sign that they were looking for a more aggressive Katamari.

Beautiful Katamari is like Katamari Damacy filtered through a bad funhouse mirror. There's still some of that charm but it's warped by the efforts to update the game. I don't need the game to be identical, I found We Love Katamari to be a great extension of the themes of Katamari Damacy, but this was a weak effort. Unless you're a crazed Katamari fan I'd recommend sticking to the Playstation 2 games.