There's a good reason why Katamari Damacy was such a critical and commercial success in 2004: It is different. The success of Katamari Damacy is evidence that a growing body of gamers are dissatisfied with increasingly conventional game design and genre stagnation. The truth is, we see very little of the potential scope of our current game systems, and mostly we play the same games over and over again, with different titles and skins. Katamari Damacy destroyed all of this, from the moment its Yellow Submarine meets Monty Python styled opening animation sprang to life on my television. The gameplay centers on rolling stuff up – from the smallest debris in a dirty playroom to the largest stuff in the world. The satisfaction of the gameplay, combined with the unique visual style and some of the catchiest in-game music ever written, was immense, and Katamari Damacy gained a large worldwide following. Recognized by mainstream magazines such as Time, featured in the keynote address at E3 2005, and receiving a load of accolades from gamers and game journalists alike, Katamari Damacy earned a sequel, and catapulted its creator, Keita Takahashi, into the elite echelons of gaming visionaries.
Creating a sequel to Katamari Damacy must have been at the same time an incredibly daunting task and a very easy thing to do. On the one hand, the gameplay is still fresh and hasn't been copied by anyone else in the industry, so just offering new levels and new items to roll up into your Katamari (the big ball that glues everything together) would have carried a normal sequel.
In general, this is exactly what We Love Katamari (We *LOVE* Katamari) is: the first game but more of it. In this respect, it's ironic how even the most innovative titles participate in the most staid traditions of the industry. You still play as the Prince, son of the enigmatic King of All Cosmos. The premise this time around is that the prince wanders Earth meeting with fans of the original Katamari Damacy. These fans request favors from the King of All Cosmos, who sense the Prince out to roll up the appropriate Katamari. Inevitably, the fans are ultimately unimpressed with the Prince's work, and they offer the resulting balls of stuff to the King of All Cosmos so he can make them into stars, planets and satellites.
The gameplay within each level is mostly the same as in the first game: You begin with a bare Katamari rolling up the smallest things around you, and keep rolling until you hit the desired size or the time limit. Bigger is better, and before the end of the game you'll be rolling up planets and stars on a universal scale. The gameplay is still incredibly enjoyable, using both analog joysticks to direct the ball. The camera zooms out slowly as your Katamari increases size, and before you know it you'll be rolling up the pesky mice, people, vehicles, and Godzillas that had previously caused you so much grief.
The whole process of building your Katamari until you can overcome things that were previously insurmountable obstacles hits that same basic need to develop and grow in a game environment that is satisfied by RPGs and any kind of skill or power development. The gameplay mechanics feel fluid and flexible, in a way similar to the Ape Escape series, which also makes use of innovative dual-joystick controls. This kind of dual-joystick control is also being experimented with in Neversoft's Tony Hawk's American Wasteland, which features dual-joystick control for the BMX bike portions of the game.
In other levels, different goals have been added; some of these are familiar variants from the first series (collect the largest bear or cow) and others are location specific (e.g. rolling up a snowman head at a ski resort). The big gameplay innovation this time out is a cooperative multiplayer mode that is unlike anything I've ever played before. You can play the entire game cooperatively with a friend, and in doing so the game changes radically. Both players control the Katamari at the same time, basically taking the role of one of the joysticks. This requires an intense level of cooperation and communication as you try to negotiate the Katamari through complex environments and under a time limit. Getting together on special moves, or even simply rotating the camera around the ball, requires clear communication and forethought. A strategy must be worked out, and at the height of cooperative play, two people work as one, and all communication becomes unnecessary: Each mind precognates the other and an ethereal circuit connects four thumbs in perfect choreography.
The Versus mode also returns and is much more robust than its previous incarnation. This mode is still not the best part of the game, though. Versus challenges also appear at various times on different missions, such as rolling up the snowman's head: Each player competes to roll the bigger snowball, which will become the snowman's body. The smaller ball becomes the snowman's head and that player is insulted by the King of All Cosmos.
To further up the ante this time out, We Love Katamari features a totally new visual style for the menus and animated cut scenes. Although the game world looks mostly the same (with a bit more detail and color), these menus and cut scenes look like watercolored illustrations. It is unlike any other game ever created, and it shows off the great potential of non-photorealistic graphics in a way few games choose to explore.
The audio in We Love Katamari is also absolutely perfect. A whole new lineup of original songs accompany every aspect of the game. Just walking around the "Select Meadow" where one chooses missions creates a totally killer drumbeat. Add a second player and their movement creates a bass line accompaniment. During each mission, the music varies from jazzy lounge songs to experimental blip tracks with hot vocals. These are some of the best songs ever created for a videogame, without a doubt, and they make this Katamari soundtrack another must-have.
But for all that is good in We Love Katamari, I have to recognize that not everyone will be as thoroughly into it as I am. That makes me sad for those people. What makes me even sadder is that the experience is still such a short one. Although the replayability is much better this time out thanks to the multiplayer feature (it's more fun to replay levels together than alone), Katamari is easy to finish in a day. It can be finished well within two days, and after that there's not much to do except replay. But I also have to say that the brevity here doesn't make me bitter: We Love Katamari is priced at a lower level than standard games ($29.99 at release in the US), and its brevity probably increases its appeal to certain gamers who couldn't stand more than the 10-15 hours they'll get here.
The story here could also do much more in fitting with the other unique qualities. The meta-sequel quality of the main missions is really unique and interesting, but the whole father-son relationship story told in the cut scenes is bland. The artwork is wonderful, and the story has its clever qualities, but in the end it is not as interesting as the truly bizarre plot of the first Katamari Damacy.
Overall, We Love Katamari is a beautiful thing. It is without a doubt a great accomplishment and compliments its predecessor while completely outdoing it. Fans of the original should find plenty to love here, and newcomers will be even more impressed. Neither of the Katamari games should be missed by any discriminating gamer, and these are also games that your friend who hates games just might play with you. Although I'm not giving it a perfect score, We Love Katamari is an absolute must-play. Get it now.