Katamari Birthday, Paul

My friend Paul recently marked his fortieth birthday, and today we celebrated the event at his home. Much fun was had and even more good food was eaten. There was air hockey, and pinball, and — thanks to a collaborative effort involving Bill, Rob, and Paul, among others — there was Katamari Damacy, a game I’d never played before despite having owned it for several months now. (The TV’s been dead since December, and I haven’t gotten around to repairing it.)

In case you’ve never heard of it, Katamari Damacy is a silly, strange, and above all exceedingly Japanese game that manages to be disarmingly charming despite its considerable weirdness. The premise almost defies explanation, but the gameplay is mind-bogglingly simple: run around the landscape with a sticky ball, and roll things up into it. When you begin, your ball is tiny, and can only pick up small things — pushpins, paper clips, coins, and so forth. As it grows, though, it can pick up ever-larger items: small animals, people, bicycles, large animals, and, eventually, cars, ships, and buildings.

The controls are equally simple, requiring the use only of both thumbsticks. (This is especially fortunate from my current perspective. Playing did ultimately hurt my wrist, but I can’t say it wasn’t worth it.) Past acquaintance with a tank-piloting game, such as Battlezone or Assault, is surprisingly helpful.

I can’t explain just what’s so insanely entertaining about running around firing nothing, destroying nothing, and in fact doing nothing besides rolling up crudely-modeled objects into a ball. I can only report that it is, in fact, deeply addictive fun. I might still be playing had my wrist not stopped me. Part of the amusement, to be sure, are the indignant squeals and shouts you hear once your ball is big enough to start picking up living things.

Another part is the promise of having your performance cuttingly critiqued, at the completion of every level, by the King Of All Cosmos, surely the most eccentric diety ever to carelessly abuse the Godhead. Think Simon Cowell in an outfit that’s equal parts Liberace, Carnival in Rio, and Mummenschanz, and you’re in the right ballpark.

It’s fun, and all too rare, to experience something that lives up to its billing. Katamari Damacy delivers.

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