Saturday, December 27, 2008

beautiful katamari, and why games can't always be art

In 2004, Namco’s Katamari Damacy was a breath of fresh air. While short, it was truly original in concept – it was ridiculous to play, and was nearly as fun a spectator sport as it was a game. It had catchy, hummable and quirky music, it was oddly but sharply written, and it had an undeniable sense of style that eschewed realism in favor of an immediately identifiable art style and an unbelievable sense of scale. I believe that my many superlatives accurately sum up how I felt about this game.

So does any of that stuff equal art? I don’t know, and I’m not much for the “what is art” debate, but the fact of the matter is that it was and is a standout example of creativity and design, and it had and continues to have appeal even to those who don’t play games.

The bad thing about Katamari was its success – that weird Japanese game that so few American retailers wanted to stock ended up becoming a sleeper hit because of its low price ($20 as a new release, in a time when new releases normally fetched $50) and word-of-mouth reputation. As will occasionally happen with a brand-new intellectual property, Katamari did well, and Namco wanted sequels.

Enter Beautiful Katamari, the third home console iteration of the series. It’s still a blast to play. It still catches the eyes of newcomers to the series. It’s still got all of the ingredients I listed so enthusiastically in my opening graph, and it’s in crisp and clear HD. This is precisely the problem – Beautiful Katamari is the fourth of five games released using the same formula for success, the same ingredients. Once the most original thing gaming had seen in years, Katamari has grown familiar, repetitive, stale.

Imagine if Da Vinci had painted the Mona Lisa, and then to follow it up he painted the Mona Lisa as a Blonde, the Mona Lisa as a Redhead and the Mona Lisa with a Moustache. They might all have the same smile and vague mystique, but it would seem somehow… less impressive, yes? This is the route Katamari has taken – the endless stream of sequels has managed to dilute what once made the original game so special, and has actually diminished the impact made by the first game. Katamari Damacy was a title that bucked sequel-itis, chose style over photorealistic graphics, and invented a whole new genre in the process. Anyone being introduced to the games today would still see something special - their innate strengths remain intact, just as the next Burnout game will still be pretty fun - but it is just another series in an ocean of series, being updated periodically until it ceases to be profitable.

Series creator Keita Takahashi jumped ship after the second game in the series, perhaps knowing that this was the course his creation would run. Takahashi maintains a Bill Watterson-esque stance on merchandising and the commercialization of his projects, offering only a limited run of official (stylish) Katamari shirts - with him went most of the games' higher aspirations. His latest project, upcoming Playstation 3 title Noby Noby Boy, looks to maintain a similar creative vibe, and it's definitely one to watch.

Beautiful Katamari changes that attitude drastically - you can find some $20-30 worth of extra maps and unlockables on the Xbox marketplace for download, many of which were available when the game was released, meaning it could just as easily have been included on the disc when it shipped. It's a philosophy Takahashi would not have been on board with, and the amount of content offered is not equal to the price for which it is offered.

Like all things commercial, games aren’t always given the opportunity to be art. Games are Big Business – these things often have development budgets which eclipse those of major motion pictures, the big dumb summer blockbusters, and unless you desperately want your studio to close you need to recoup those costs. It's unfortunate that business has dictated Katamari's path, but that doesn't mean they're bad games. Beautiful Katamari is the least of the console Katamaris - even its most original gameplay ideas were cribbed from earlier entries in the series - but it's still a decent buy, and I've seen it for $20 or less in bargain bins around town. You could do worse, but the series doesn't represent what it once did, and that's just a little disappointing.