It was love at first sight. We do love Katamari; in fact, we loved Namco's Katamari Damacy from the moment we set eyes on it. Our initial burst of enthusiasm for the bonkers concept, which made us giddy like teenagers and curled something in the pits of our stomachs with excitement as the arrival date of our import gaming care package loomed, settled into a contented and affectionate long-term relationship in which the spark never died. Katamari never ceased to surprise us during the courtship, and even when we'd seen all of its best tricks - even when we'd let out those little moans of pleasure at discovering that thing it could do where it let you roll up entire islands - familiarity never bred contempt, and we were happy to come back to Katamari on a regular basis for more of the same comfortable, psychedelic madness.
The majority of you reading this, sadly, won't have had the chance to love Katamari like we do. We have a habit of picking great but underappreciated games and banging on about them until our readers actually go and buy them - ICO being a prime example. That's not some badge of honour - we feel it's our duty. But Katamari Damacy is a more tragic case than most. When we banged on about Katamari Damacy, it wasn't our readers who needed convincing - it was Namco and the rest of the European publishing industry, who passed over the game with a sneer. Too niche. Too quirky. Too hard to market. Too Japanese.
So if you're a well-behaved Euro-consumer who hasn't attracted the ire of our corporate overlords at Sony for importing or, god forbid, chipping, you've probably never played Katamari Damacy. You're missing out. The game used an incredibly simple but totally new concept - you roll around a ball collecting objects that start out very small (thumbtacks, matches, pieces of sushi, sweets), gradually growing your "katamari" and picking up larger and larger objects (flowerpots, cats, bicycles, humans, cars, houses...) until you're eventually huge enough to pluck whales and oil tankers from the ocean and stars out of the sky. In order to let you do this seamlessly, without load delays or anything daft like that when you pass certain size thresholds, the game used a stylised art style where everything looked almost as if it was made of Lego, adding to the surreal feeling of the whole affair. Top it off with the fantastic plot - which saw the hilarious Cosmo King getting drunk and knocking the stars out of the sky, and sending the tiny Prince down to earth to roll up things to make new ones - and one of the best game soundtracks we've ever heard, and you had a pretty impressive package.
Your Last Roll-oh.
We Love Katamari isn't spectacularly different, and that needs to be made clear straight away. Much of the core gameplay is pretty similar. Katamari Damacy had a basic hook - collecting things by rolling over them - which simply worked, and as such, didn't need to change very much in the sequel. Instead, creator Keita Takahashi and his team have focused on expanding the range of different types of mission you can get in the game - letting their imaginations run wild on the possibilities of the game mechanic, and creating a game that feels much more confident and creative as a result.
The basic idea behind the game is grin-inducingly silly; after the events of Katamari Damacy, the Cosmo King has become a major celebrity on earth, and everyone really loves him (hence the Japanese name, Minna Daisuki Katamari Damashii, which translates more accurately as "Everyone Loves Katamari Damacy") - to the extent that they keep petitioning him to help them out with things. Unfortunately, he's incredibly lazy, and can't be bothered doing anything - but when they stroke his ego, he relents and, while he's still lazy, he sends the Prince out to do whatever's needed.
This allows for a much wider range of missions than we saw in the previous game, with a far more varied set of goals and winning conditions. As a simple example, an early mission sees you tasked with tidying up a boy's room by picking up the 100 items of junk lying around; others will see you creating a giant snowball to serve as the head of a huge snowman some people are building (and true to life, simply rolling the ball around on the snow does make it larger, although picking up things is still vital), keeping a burning katamari alight by picking up flammable objects and then using it to light a bonfire, or, in one of my favourite missions, rolling around a sumo wrestler picking up food which he absorbs and grows, until he's big enough to roll over and "defeat" another sumo wrestler waiting for him in part of the level.
Other missions are even more surreal. You'll find yourself rescuing Earth from a meteor strike by picking up the nations of the world (a task you may recall from the end credits of Katamari Damacy, if you played it) and then picking up the meteor before it hits; running around underwater, or hovering in the skies above the islands picking up clouds to stop it from raining. Many missions involve growing to a certain size in order to "defeat" something, so you have to use your judgement to say when you're large enough; quite a lot of them aren't timed, or have no fail condition, but you'll keep repeating them to do them faster or get a bigger Katamari.
I'll have some of what they're rollin'
The payoff as you progress is better, too. You gradually populate a world with the people you've helped, the objects you've won and the "cousins" - small, freaky, prince-like creatures who can be found on some levels and whom you can play with once you've found them - that you've collected, and you can walk around all these and interact with them to find new parts of the game. Later on, you can give a shot to "rolling up the sun" - a game where you have to roll up all the previous Katamari you've created and try to create one large enough to roll up the sun itself, which is one game mode we don't recommend combining with hallucinogens of any description. But best of all, this time around the short cut-scenes tell the tragic and emotional story of the Cosmo King's young life and the birth of the Prince. It takes a certain taste for surrealist humour, but these - along with so much else about the game - reduced us to tears of laughter on occasion.
The mechanics of the game aren't perfect; some levels are slightly frustrating because you can build your katamari to a good size and then get lost looking for the thing you have to defeat, leading to the timer running out on you, while other later levels seem to buck the difficulty curve entirely by simply being far too easy. Levels where you have to pick up a specific type of object - the larger, the better, but even the smallest will do - can be frustrating when you build up to a certain size and then accidentally pick up a tiny object of that type, ending the level abruptly on you.
These are minor niggles, however. The game retains its beautifully abstract styling and adds a level of creativity that even the first Katamari Damacy didn't touch. The soundtrack, believe it or not, is even better than the first - repeating many of the themes and even re-recording some of the songs, but building on it with a wider range of vocal styles and even some excellent classical music in places. Plus, the addition of Rolling Up The Sun and the levels where the challenge is to do the best you can rather than simply meeting an objective and moving on to the next level gives the game much-needed longevity, as does the much improved two-player mode - which sees you and a friend having to cooperate to move the Katamari around the level, which is an exercise in teamwork rather than competition, but can admittedly be an exercise in frustration if you're not on the same wavelength.
Katamari Do Your Best
In other words, we love We Love Katamari. We expect that some will criticise it because it's about rolling around and picking things up again, but once you scratch the surface of this amazing game, it's clear that imagination has run wild to an extent that makes the first game look restrained. We Love Katamari is consistently surprising and full of unexpected delights even for players who squeezed the last drops out of the first game; it takes the concept that we loved so much and asks "I wonder what else we can do with this" with a huge cheeky grin on its face and a pocket full of Class-A drugs, Party Rings and bathroom cleaning products.
In short, it's brilliant - and even if you've never played the original Katamari Damacy, it's accessible and hugely enjoyable, with a learning curve that'll be kind to beginners while still providing plenty of entertainment to veterans of the Prince's rolling expeditions. To play it is to understand the slightly arrogant title - and hopefully, this time around, European gamers will also get a chance to love Katamari.