Some say video games can drive people to violence. Others say games can be used to teach. But so far only one game is inspiring fans to knit hats, touch up Leonardo Da Vinci paintings and bake cakes: "Katamari Damacy."
A critical sensation overshadowed and greatly outsold by the likes of "Halo 2" and "Grand Theft Auto" last year, it's a game that game makers love to discuss, one that has ignited unusual fan celebration across the Internet. And its sequel, "We Love Katamari," hits stores this week.
It's also the product of an unconventional creator who initially wanted nothing to do with making a follow-up.
With graphics as colorful as a fistful of crayons, last September's original game put players in control of a microscopic green prince tasked with rolling a sticky sphere called a Katamari across tabletops, beaches and other simplified real-world locales. Thumbtacks and seashells clung to the rolling sphere, eventually making the Katamari big enough to snag cats, dogs, criminals, superheroes, stadiums and, ultimately, islands, rainbows and clouds.
"It's a game that makes you happy while you're playing it," said fan Kirsten Bole, a musician and Web designer in Vancouver, British Columbia. "There's something sort of Zen-like and soothing about rolling around and picking up stuff."
The game embedded itself in the player's subconscious. "There's a tendency when you play the game for a long time to look around and imagine rolling things around you when you're on the street," Bole said.
"Katamari Damacy," which translates roughly to "clump of souls," was the brainchild of Keita Takahashi, 30, a Japanese sculptor who took a job a few years back at Namco, the company famous for iconic titles such as "Pac-Man" and "Tekken." Through a translator, Takahashi told MTV News that he was initially unexcited about his prospects at Namco. "Coming up with 'Katamari Damacy' was a way of avoiding projects I didn't want to work on," he said.
Takahashi played games as a child but drifted from them. He found much to dislike with current games, which took themselves oh so seriously. So Takahashi crafted "Katamari" to make people laugh. He applied an absurd story of the diminutive prince and the grumpy King of All Cosmos, who, as Takahashi puts it, "gets drunk one evening and destroys all the stars in the universe." Rolling the Katamari would create replacements for the stars.
The game didn't just look and play strangely. It sounded odd as well. Yu Miyake, who oversaw the game's music, drew inspiration from his colleague's zest for the unusual. One song of the game's quirky soundtrack simply featured Miyake humming.
None of this made the game a likely hit in America. In fact, "Katamari Damacy" has only sold about 269,000 copies in the U.S. since its launch last September, according to the NPD Group, which tracks industry sales. That's a far cry from the millions racked up by Madden, Mario and Master Chief. But it fared better here than it did in Japan and was a sensation with American critics.
It also developed a cult following like few games released this decade, as the eclectic results of a Katamari Google search will attest.
Fan sites began tracking Katamari glass sculptures and Katamari costume parties, paper dolls and Play-Doh sets. At the suggestion of her husband, Bole drew the Prince rolling up the dinnerware of Leonardo Da Vinci's last supper and posted it on her blog.
In January fan Xiola Azuthra started knitting and selling hats styled after the Katamari (another fan bought one and presented it to Takahashi as a gift). The first hat fetched about $130 on eBay. But with each one taking about six hours to make, Azuthra still has 65 people on her waiting list (check it out at www.mad-teaparty.net).
Kris Garland, an artist in Seattle, decided to bake a Katamari cake. "I was thinking in terms of structure rather than taste," she said, noting that the spherical shape of a Katamari posed a baking challenge. Garland decided to bake two hemispheres, merge them, ice the spongy sphere and apply cupcake tops for the Katamari's signature bumps. She wound up with a five-pound cake and posted the photos online (at Flickr.com). "We were eating cake for like two weeks," she said. "Everyone I knew was like, 'Oh no, no more cake.' "
The game didn't just become a cult favorite. Its creator, Takahashi, became an industry darling, enrapturing audiences of game developers with talks about how he defied industry trends.
Suddenly celebrated for his originality, Takahashi would soon have to tackle the possibly contradictory idea of doing a sequel. He told his bosses at Namco several times that he wouldn't do one. "But it came to a point where the company was willing to release a sequel without me," he said. He discovered that the company's planned sequel seemed more like a re-release, primarily swapping Christmas graphics into the original game. "That went against everything I wanted to do with Katamari," he said. So he agreed to get involved.
This week's sequel goes beyond rolling up Christmas trees. The prince takes rolling assignment from in-game fans; he cleans up messy bedrooms, rolls up fish underwater and rolls Katamaris that are set on fire. The game also adds multiplayer: Two players can team up, each using a controller to jointly roll a single Katamari.
Takehashi hopes, of course, that his sequel can reach beyond cult-favorite status. "I realize that a lot of these sports games that big companies like EA make are very enjoyable," he said. But he hopes people will play games, like his, that allow players to do things they couldn't do in the real world. "If you want to play a sports game, why not go outside and play sports?"