I was so hyped on this game as a teenager. I was hyped enough that I imported an American copy (the game having never received a European PAL release), figuring I would find some way to make it work on my humble European PS2. Unfortunately, I never did, and before long I would find myself at university with no game consoles and a whole new type of regional lock-out to ponder.
It might seem quirked-up and wacky but it’s an obviously pure game at its core, and so it’s the type of concept that feels really far away – stemming entirely from a unique control scheme and trying to figure everything out from there. The game wonders how it would feel to roll an incredibly awkwardly shaped ball made out of corn cobs and street lamps, and tries to express that through a controller. This, of course, means that there is an “intentionality gap” the size of a star – we know what we must do, we must build a beautiful katamari, but in the meantime my weird-shaped ball is getting stuck on the geometry, I can’t quite get it up a given slope or get it to fit into a specific spot, I can’t master the dash move that requires some back and forth wiggling on the sticks. In a world that has broadly decided to agree that the left stick moves your guy and the right stick looks around, this can feel totally alien and frustrating at times.
But this gap is the game. If we can free ourselves from “a game is a series of interesting decisions”-type fundamentalism for a moment, what a joy it is to struggle with our stupid little ball! It is actually deeply enjoyable to have to maneuver objects in games like this – it’s fun to have to build up speed to clear a ramp, or to slickly pivot around to roll up all the little yencoins/macarons/people, or to wiggle and push and strain to clear an obstacle into new territory full of fresh food for the ball.
Even the levels theirselves almost seem to confirm this – rarely having the sense of “flow” that we’re told makes good level design, usually a heavy dusting of random objects in an environment that is barely abstract at all. A few gates keep you out of certain areas until you’re a given size, but these often seem more like a technical contrivance than a hidden hand of guidance. This game is not about the levels, or even about the side mission objectives of gathering up birds, or crabs, or twins.
This game is about rolling a weird ball around. That’s it. Everything else stems from that.