We Love Katamari
For all the world, it's not a sequel.
"It came to a point where the company was willing to release a sequel without me," Keita Takahashi has said of his reluctance to make this game. History will show that he then got on board and didn't make one anyway. We Love Katamari is an anti-sequel. It doesn't really continue or escalate (on the latter point - we rolled up the world last time, so how could it?); it manipulates itself under the guise of celebration and repopulation.
We Love Katamari is literally about how much we all loved Katamari. Having identified the King of All Cosmos as one of the first game's crowning achievements, Takahashi and his team have channelled the game's popularity into the man with the suspicious bulge, using his fascination with, well, our fascination to their advantage, presenting subtle refinements as tasks dreamt up by fans of the original game that the King now feels obligated to act upon. Albeit only after he's been paid some sycophantic compliment and dispatched the long-suffering prince in his stead. Genius. So what does the King conclude we liked about the first game? "Our magnificent chin."
Running into and alongside the original game rather than beyond it, We Love Katamari is likely to appeal to virtually everybody - good news for those of us in Europe who never got to play the first game, and cause enough to quickly re-establish the basics, much as the game does. Using two analog sticks to roll around (probably the best use of two sticks since the invention of fire) in a manner that you could probably compare to caterpillar tracks on each side of a tank, you navigate a deliberately blocky stylised world where literally anything of the right size can stick to your ball, called a katamari. As your katamari grows, you can roll up larger objects, and their individual shapes and sizes are reflected in the ball's own shape and mass, both of which are reflected in its dynamic movement. Pick up a pencil and the katamari will bobble up on each end; pick up a ton-weight and it'll roll slowly until it reaches the peak and then fast as it descends. For pencil, later you roll up the post office. For ton-weight, later you roll Alaska.
The one way that We Love Katamari does escalate is obviously in the King's involvement. He's an even chattier sod now. As he continually remarks upon and mocks things (complaining that he can't talk during loading pauses, for example), the light-hearted banter comes across like a friend (with verbal diarrhea) who's watching you play, and the developer nurtures that sensation of being in merry company with vibrant colours and levels peppered with cute jokes and little winks and nods. Yet for all the King's pomposity, the funky sound effects, the bright and merry palette and the elastic soundtrack (complete with a capella reworkings of old themes to continue the theme of not fixing what isn't broken), it's never a game you'd call brash, noisy or random - the real character is in the little details, like the way objects brighten up as they hit your katamari, trumpets play little tunes as they join your collective, and the way that the King complains if you roll off the starting point before he's finished talking. Through this mixture of commentary and subtlety, it's a homely game that still manages to be a deliciously individual experience.
Of course this time you can actually get a second player involved co-operatively in certain cases, but this isn't as big a deal as it might seem. The real hooks are still in the single-player game. Mission goals have been refined - rolling a piddly man over picnics and takeaway until he's blubbery enough to roll over the local sumo, or keeping a flaming katamari alight by rolling over combustible objects and then presenting the result as a campfire. As have gameplay conditions - rolling around the bottom of a lake, which affects the pace and movement of the katamari as you'd expect (and laughs in the face of my old theory about water never doing much good for games that made their name on dry land); collecting fireflies in pitch-black; or tearing around an island race circuit at higher speed than usual until you're not just rolling up fellow racers but the buildings and grandstands themselves.
These changes work in tandem with a reward structure that presents tangible gains (whether simply amusing, like a giraffe head hat or a King mask, or practical like a camera that lets you store up to three pictures of your favourite scenes) and replay incentives (higher scores are one thing, but bigger katamari are a more exciting reflection of greater achievements; and the prince's cousins who lurk around each level offer greater motivation to scour the levels again) so that the whole feels greater and more interesting than it did before. There's even a "roll up the sun" level, where you motor around a starscape collecting your own katamari in the hope of being big enough to gather up the sun at the end. Those who imported the first game can import katamari constellations from that savegame - and while that probably won't be true of the PAL version for obvious reasons, it's indicative of the sort of logic and fun that informs the game design throughout.
It does fall down slightly from time to time. The camera can be a touch restrictive and frustrating when your view's obscured, there are a few glitches here and there, and the controls are initially unwieldy for the unpractised. But in general these flaws can be forgiven - whether it's because you love the game's concept, its aesthetic, its music, its comedy, its simplicity, its spectacle, or any combination of elements.
Thing is, succeeding Katamari Damacy was never going to be an easy task partly because of that. The problem with a universally loved game is that there are so many reasons why it's loved. That's why it needed Keita Takahashi and why, however much it pained him, we're glad he agreed to do it. He's recognised that sequels to this kind of game are more likely than any to fall foul of the law of diminishing returns. We Love Katamari is distinct enough without breaking itself, and turns loving itself into a way for us to continue loving it - in the process eking about as much out of its successes as the core concept's likely to support. He hasn't made a sequel - he's made a different kind of follow-up. Given his achievements first time around, that shouldn't come as any surprise. Takahashi-san, I wanna hold your chin!