Namco’s Katamari series has become mythic in its oddity. The series spiced up the Playstation 2’s already eclectic library while delving into a joyous fever dream of gameplay innovation. But for a series that sat proudly on the throne of Japanese weirdness, Katamari has slowed its rolling considerably, and begun to gather moss. Even with a bottomless reserve of charm, Katamari has reached a roadblock, one that appeared not through fan or critical reception, but by its own fundamental design. Katamari has hit a wall that it cannot roll over.
Katamari Damacy’s origins date back to the early 2000’s, where a simple school project became an official production that drew influences from games like Pac-Man. With a budget that was ten times smaller than the typical Namco title, the bizarre little snowball simulator became a cult hit. Weird and surreal, Katamari Damacy earned a steady fandom in Japan after launch, but its Western release shocked the gaming world. It was a game so shamelessly Japanese that no one expected it to even be localized for Western audiences. But Katamari did hit the West, and when it did, it hit the ground rolling
Namco took advantage of the cult following and created a number of sequels, including the superb We Love Katamari. It seemed that this weird-as-all-hell series was here to stay, but enthusiasm for the series waned as the seventh generation dawned. The Xbox 360-exclusive Beautiful Katamari did little to further the series creatively, while some sub-standard installments on handhelds and mobile devices drove the nails deeper into the series’ coffin. After a 2009 re-release on PS3 under Katamari Forever and the Vita game Touch My Katamari in 2011, the series fell silent. There’s been no news since.
The Katamari series has always been the oddball in the Western gaming ecosystem. It refuses to accommodate Western tastes, with constant references to Japanese customs, lore and pop culture. Katamari succeeded financially and critically with a unique mechanic and an emphasis on constant growth. The progression from marble-sized mouse trap to skyscraper-devouring wrecking ball has always been buttery-smooth and almost hypnotic. Each game builds to a memorable conclusion that sees you swallowing entire cities and – eventually – whole land masses.
But the series itself is unable to grow in that same organic manner. Where else can Katamari go? The final levels of Katamari Damacy and We Love Katamari both see the player rolling up icebergs, tornados, and even gods themselves. Beautiful Katamari had us rolling up entire planets. By the time the seventh generation took off, the series simply ran out of steam. Namco reached for the stars and grabbed them, but now…where is there left to go? Swallowing galaxies to make stars seems a little redundant. How can a series push past this barrier of its own design?
That’s the oddest question to ask regarding a series that’s so avant-garde in its ambitions, but it describes the core issue when creating a series that’s completely defined by scale. There eventually comes a point where there’s no way to get bigger – not without sacrificing coherence and gameplay flow. The Katamari series’ problem is such a strange case, where the very goal of the game makes progression past a certain point unfeasible. As great and goofy as the series is, it’s reached a stage where its size is more of a hindrance than a strength.