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Beautiful Katamari

Beautiful Katamari is the biggest gaming irony of the year so far. A series which prides itself on its hideously outrageous personality and new ideas rolls onto Xbox 360 (quite literally) for its fourth instalment, and once again little has changed. Whether this is for better or worse is debatable, but one thing is for sure; if you’ve ever loved Katamari before then have no fear of losing that love. Yet.

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This first ‘next’ generation instalment of the series ultimately plays it safe for the most part; giving us twelve requests from the King of all Cosmos to save the universe from the evil threat that is the black hole, created when the King hit a tennis ball into space and tearing through the vacuum itself. The King’s tennis skills are truly first-rate. Ultimately it’s up to you to save the universe by the only means possible, grabbing a Katamari and start rolling!

Requests are the core of the game, and allow you to roll Katamari on every scale imaginable – this is where you’ll find some of the most satisfying gaming moments money can buy. One request starts you off as a lowly 5cm Katamari who has trouble rolling up objects like cocktail glass’ and ice creams, but within five minutes you’re happily pushing the Katamari down the highway, rolling up the very house that cocktail glass lay within. The game goes several steps higher than this, but those moments are for the player to discover themselves. They’re truly out of this world.

Sticking around…The Katamari series was seen as an original, innovative concept in its early days. Heres a brief look at how the series has progressed over time.

Katamari Damacy hit American shelves in late 2004 to a wave of critical acclaim, including an impressive 9/10 here at Thunderbolt.

We Love Katamari brought the series to Europe in February 2006, four months after its American release. The game also recieved a 9/10.

Me and My Katamari was also released in early 2006 in America, and therefore a few months later in Europe. This was the first game in the series to move away from the PS2, arriving on the PSP to give short bursts of portable fun.The simple gameplay concept however, does become tiring after a few requests in a single session, and I often found myself switching discs within an hour’s play, simply because the game is designed to be played in short bursts. At an attempt to add variety, a handful of the requests require you to pick up specific objects only, for example when creating Saturn your Katamari must consist of ring shaped objects only. It’s a somewhat slack attempt at adding variety but welcome regardless. With a physics engine with so few flaws, it almost seems a waste to focus primarily on the traditional style rolling. There’s potential in this series for some fantastic online and offline mini-games to be created, yet it seems Namco Bandai haven’t realised this or are saving the ideas for a potential spin off or sequel. Downhill races and sport mini games could have been a hit on Xbox Live, whereas the online battle mode seems far from wanted.

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In the four attempts I made to test the online mode, only on one occasion did I see two other players, yet the mode was hampered by connection issues and slowdown. Fortunately, I was able to arrange a few successful matches with a friend. Despite the lag, the experience is somewhat enjoyable in moderation, much like the rest of the game. The online lobbies themselves are full of charm and needless touches which keeps the experience true to itself, such as eating and throwing cookies, giving balloons to other players, playing football and golf and dancing.

It’s a shame that the online battle mode is such a shallow experience, for the developers have taken full advantage of Xbox Live, offering a huge array of leader boards to compare against friends and every other player in the universe. For instance, at the time of writing over 46,000 players have rolled Katamari’s, totalling 44,500,000km in size. Individual requests also have their own leader boards, as do the total cookies earned in online battle mode.

Currently there are four additional levels available for the game on the Marketplace for 200 Microsoft Points apiece, which sees yet another cult game cash in on the micro transaction trend and with the lack of content in the main game, you can’t help but assume they have been ripped straight out the final product before release. These levels are not yet available on the European marketplace, however with the four month delay to the PAL release this is likely just a marketing strategy. Long gone it seems are the days of free additional content.

Criticisms like this, however come hand in hand with the generational step up, and even the most polished of games cannot avoid it. And polished this game is to mirror sheen. Developing a game of this style must have taken some dedication, for each level feels perfectly balanced in the objects available to roll up. For the most part you can roll down a path, picking up everything in sight, however to reach the target size you have to get to know where those elusive stacks of barrels are that almost double your size, or exactly when you’re the right size to begin rolling up entire buildings. It’s this balance and the quest to find all of the cousins and presents which keep you rolling over the same levels over and over again.

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Once again the soundtrack is filled with ridiculously over the top and cheerful Japanese pop, but it wouldn’t be Katamari without it. You’ll frequently find yourself smiling at the catchy melodies and cursing them as they bug you through the day, ringing in your head. Even the most arrogant of music fans won’t be able to resist the charm of the soundtrack to the ninth request, ‘Coolhouse’. Grunge meets J-Pop? Check.

Beautiful Katamari is not a game which you look at from a technical aspect; it’s up there with Shadow of the Colossus, Loco Roco and Lumines as the type of game you admire for the unique artsy experience it gives you, which veils the flaws. Whilst it’s not so unique anymore after four instalments, the charm is still strong and newcomers to Katamari will cherish the game whilst players of Katamari Damacy will look on and play in hope of something a little fresher next time around.

To say the Katamari series is becoming stale is something of an overstatement, it’s still as enjoyable as ever but if the next instalment (if there is one) doesn’t take the series in a new direction both on and offline, then this cult series in great danger of killing itself off by the lack of the one thing it brought a bundle of, originality.

7 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @StuartEdwards.

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