The last time I was really into video games was during the XBox/PS2/Gamecube era, maybe stretching into the first couple years of the Wii. After that I didn’t really have the time – today’s blockbuster games are just so dense and involved, they’re not really for the “pick it up every few weeks” gamer like myself. There was another problem I noticed back then, which was that game development felt so stale – everything was a FPS or a sequel. There was just no money to be made in something original. I get that, of course – the movie industry operates the same way these days. But occasionally something gets through the cracks. I remember hearing about Katamari Damacy back when it was released; all I really remembered was that it was from Japan and it was weird. So weird in fact that Namco priced the game at $19.99 just to encourage people to try it.
The ploy wound up working. Katamari Damacy sold in fairly large numbers and wound up becoming a minor cultural phenomenon. If you’re not familiar with the game, here’s the gist: you play as The Prince of the Cosmos, a tiny hammer-shaped man-thing who rolls around a giant ball which absorbs everything it touches, so long as those things are sufficiently small enough in relation to the ball. As you continue the ball grows bigger and bigger, allowing you to pick up bigger objects, until you either run out of time or reach the goal of the level, at which point the King of the Cosmos takes the ball (now called a Katamari) and chucks it into the sky. Got it? While the game itself isn’t very long – you can beat it in a few hours if you’re good – the real fun comes in replaying the various levels, mapping out new paths or trying new techniques in order to ramp up your score. It is the kind of game where you often find yourself lamenting, “if only I had 10 more seconds…”
That said, I think the first thing people pick up on is the strangeness of the in-game world. There’s a pretty distinct “Earth through the eyes of an alien” feeling to this whole thing. These virtual cities are quite robust and full of action but you never really get a good feel of what exactly is going on inside. The people move around with no rhyme or reason; all you really know about them is they make strange noises when you run them over with a ball. Every locale is defined not by its purpose but rather by what objects you find inside. Everything you see is easily identifiable but the game’s blocky graphic structure reduces most things to funny-looking shapes.
Similarly, the music has this feeling of trying to replicate something the composers have never heard; there’s a very tangible strangeness to all of it, even when the songs are trying to be straightforward. A good example is the loungey “Que Sera Sera”, which sounds fine in the background, but gets weird when you listen closely – perhaps it’s the singer, who is clearly straining to hide his accent, or maybe it’s the lyric choices (“I wanna wad you up into my life”). Or it could be something more subtle, like the drummer who seems to be on a different planet, as though he’s playing the drum charts backwards. “Lonely Rolling Star” is the album’s shot at saccharine J-Pop, but it winds up so crystalline and glossy that it’s almost surreal; everything about it is so pitch perfect, it’s either incredibly happy or impossibly bittersweet. “The Moon and the Prince” tries breakbeat hip-hop and it manages to be funky despite having no real flow to it whatsoever. The main theme (“Katamari on the Rocks”) is so bombastic and explosive that it overwhelms anything happening in the game.
In fact the game almost seems secondary, since the music is so great. While I’m sure there are a lot of good video game soundtracks out there, this is one of the few that I think really stands out on its own. Not only one of the best video game soundtracks I’ve ever heard, but also one of my favorite albums, full stop. The music on here is just so colorful and evocative; it is one of those albums that manages to be deeply strange without sounding like it’s trying to be. I mean maybe those Applespeak instrumentals (“Fugue #5555”, “WANDA WANDA”) are a bit self-consciously odd, but the rest feels like it just can’t help it. There’s just this sense of giddiness that pervades through the whole thing, leading a pretty acoustic track to suddenly transform into a circus march (“The Wonderful Star’s Walk is Wonderful”). And some of it is just indescribably gorgeous – “Angel’s Flavor’s Present” always manages to make me feel incredibly emotional and nostalgic, while “Cherry Blossom Color Season” does what I thought was impossible – it makes a children’s choir actually sound good, instead of cloying and irritating as they usually do. If I had one complaint about the album it’s “Katamari of Love”, which is one of those big dumb power ballads that you often hear playing over the credits. Not only is it obnoxious, it doesn’t really fit on the album at all. In fact you could probably get rid of everything after “Cherry Blossom”, since the rest is just assorted odds n’ ends, and besides you’re still left with 66 minutes of almost uniformly great material.
Amazingly enough the music all seems to be done by a handful of Namco composers, particularly Yu Miyake who is responsible for about half of this. Practically no outside names, in fact barely any credits at all for these guys outside of the Katamari games. Strange, considering how brilliant this is. That said you do get that “lightning in a bottle” sense from it, and really the whole Katamari series in general. Ironically, a game that once stood as such a symbol of innovation and uniqueness wound up becoming a victim of the same sort of sequelitis and stagnation that’s plagued the video game industry for decades. I thought the first sequel, We Love Katamari, was a better game than the original in just about every way except the soundtrack, which was still quite good. I bought the 3rd and 4th Katamari games and they were fine but didn’t add anything new, outside of the scope of the final level (on the 3rd you roll up the entire planet, on the 4th I think you can get the entire galaxy). By this point the soundtracks were mostly just generic J-pop and remixes of songs from the original; sometimes alright but it clearly lacked that spark, or whatever it was that made this first one so intriguing. Oh well. For the record it seems most of the crew who made this album jumped ship, though what they are doing now I have no clue. I wonder if they’re aware of what a cult phenomenon this album became.