Version tested: Xbox 360
Katamari Damacy will very probably end up among the best PS2 games ever made. Either way, it is certainly among the best never released here. Its sequel - more of an intelligent remix - did appear, but in limited quantities quickly absorbed by fans. So, for an audience of Xbox 360 owners no doubt struggling to believe their luck at scooping Beautiful Katamari, why are these games so revered?
The answers are many. The simplicity of the original Katamari Damacy concept is the most obvious - so captivatingly gamey! Starting off with a pocket-size adhesive ball, your job is to push it around a room rolling over objects small enough to stick to its surface. As your ball - the titular katamari - gathers more and more objects, it grows in size and the scale of the world subtly adjusts so that things that previously deflected you become trivial enough to stick to the outer layer. The obvious potential - to start off on the carpet and come back later to roll over the house - is later realised, and the joy of watching things you've collected wiggle and squirm as they roll over the top of your creation is magic.
The first game's charm, however, was equally dependent on other elements. It was in the King of All Cosmos, a pompous caricature of infallible theocrats (with a delicious dash of regal syphilitic madness thrown in for good measure), who dispensed your goals; it was in the deliberately angular graphics, and the way objects burst with colour and sound when they joined the katamari; it was in the physicality of every object, and the way the ball's movement characteristics changed depending on the shape of the things stuck to the very outside.
The second game, We Love Katamari, inherited these things, and built upon them lovingly. Presented by a King apparently drunk on the cult success of "his" first game, it reshaped the concept to fit imaginative new circumstances, like rolling fireflies in the dark to light your way, and gently pillaging a garden for flowers as a delicate harmony wafted on the breeze. That We Love Katamari managed to reach similar heights to its predecessor was a testament to the developer's graceful composure as it walked a tightrope of expectation and - on the part of discerning observers - concern that something so measured could be extended at all.
The sheer delicacy of that composition - and the critical failure of Me & My Katamari on the PSP - probably ought to have dissuaded Namco Bandai from attempting anything else, but, perhaps swayed by the knowledge that critical and commercial responses on the first two games were inconsistent, it has returned for another go, albeit without series creator Keita Takahashi, and sadly without much deep understanding of why the first two Katamari games worked so well.
Beautiful Katamari borrows many of the ideas and themes detailed above, aiming to recapture the first two games' infectious sense of fun and humour - and reworking a number of catchy songs with impressive effect in the process - but unfortunately it misses out on one of their most significant, albeit relatively unsung achievements: both games' tremendous coherency, which ferried you unquestioningly along the first game's path of simple escalation, and then again along the second game's alternative journey.
Having punctured the cosmos with an errant tennis ball (whoops) and watched most of the stars and planets drain out of it, the King of All Cosmos stumbles onto the screen in the usual manner, but calamities of space and time appear to have made a fool of him; gone is the brash condescension, replaced with self-consciously comic dialogue that doesn't click the same way, which you quickly decide to skip past. It doesn't help that he seems to have lapsed into doddering senility, blurting the same things repeatedly.
This theme quickly extends to the gameplay. Once the King's out of the way, you begin by building a satellite, rolling over crayons, marbles, coins, mah-jong tiles, bells and dice, until you're of sufficient size to capture workbooks, toy knives, party whistles, mice and shuttlecocks. But soon after you're asked to begin again from around the same starting size, in the same place, but aim a bit bigger. Suddenly worried about a sense of repetition, the developer introduces secondary objectives, like building a ball out of hot objects, to a 10,000-centigrade temperature, carving a path across fried food and hot sauce platters but avoiding champagne.
In doing so though, the game is consumed by its duality - wanting to emphasise the way the world scales up and up, but also wanting you to do more than just build big balls. You are driven to collect flowers, for instance, to rebuild Jupiter, but the level in question is rather devoid of obvious flora and, initially as we played it, set to the music that accompanied a far more measured PS2 level, where you had to collect lions, bears and their furry friends in a zoo while a mixture of animal noises played out the original Katamari theme over the top. As you return to the King for judgement, you worry that you haven't collected enough flowers, only to be told you have.
This inability to focus, match music to tasks, and dream up particularly new, engaging or distinctive scenarios comes to a head as the game ends, far sooner than either of its predecessors, in a level where the King does nothing but talk, in circles, about nothing in particular, while you jab the A button to get rid of his speech boxes so you can see what's going on, only to repeat the same task you faced on the previous level, in the same setting, making tokenistic concessions to the King's occasional whim - like having to collect things rich in "energy", but without any real understanding of what he means - until you can't be bothered to continue and you're invited to pull the plug on the exercise with the X button. As the King says when you do so: "Very important knowing when and how to quit. Perhaps you can teach us."
Both PS2 Katamari titles were quick to mock themselves - in their need for loading screens, in the King's far-better scripting, and elsewhere - and there are shades of this in Beautiful Katamari (surely a level where you have to collect cold objects was deliberately packed with Xbox 360 consoles), but they are overwhelmed by the writers' increasingly self-conscious wackiness and the occasional pop-culture reference, and certainly aren't helped by obvious technical shortcomings, including nose-diving frame-rates, belched transition screens, and music that loops painfully when levels start to ask more of you for longer. You are no longer laughing along with them, but grumbling instead.
Among its better features are Xbox Live leaderboards for comparing the number of recovered princes (hidden around each level) and presents, and the "Everyone's Katamari" screen, which measures the combined size of everybody in the world's katamaris, is a rare moment of inspiration. Elsewhere Live functionality gives us a retread of the PS2 sequel's co-op mode (slightly awkward, again, as two players struggle to coordinate their control of one katamari), and some head-to-head modes that don't really live up to the potential of the idea. Likewise, the decision to release premium levels so quickly after the (very short) main game's release seems at odds with the series' previous respect for the player, and indeed itself.
There are perhaps two welcome, genuinely inventive elements - one of which happens alongside the end-credits, and which I won't spoil - and the other an amusing interactive punishment when you fail a level's objectives. Compare that to how the We Love Katamari built on Katamari Damacy, or rather don't, because you can't.
It would be easy to look back on Beautiful Katamari and claim that it simply suffers at the hands of the law of diminishing returns, and assume that it makes more sense for new players, but an objective evaluation rather rejects this: this is simply a fairly poor Katamari game; sort of addictive, but nowhere near as much fun. Newcomers will enjoy themselves, but not to the same extent as they would should they choose instead to track down Katamari Damacy or We Love Katamari - something that I would urge just about anyone to take up as a matter of urgency.
Atari founder Nolan Bushnell was in the news this week defending his wholesale rejection of modern games as "trash" by pining after games that left you struggling for context and means of comparison. Katamari Damacy was and remains among those games. Beautiful Katamari inherently cannot be, but what it does offer pales for other reasons, namely its lack of coherency, imagination and self-awareness.
6 / 10
Beautiful Katamari is out now exclusively on Xbox 360 in the USA, and doesn't work on PAL consoles. A proper European release has yet to be confirmed. (Update: Ah, the folly of promoting features to the frontpage again - the European release date has now been confirmed, and the game is out to buy right now. Enjoy! Or nearly do.)