It’s hard to believe it was exactly a decade ago that Katamari Damacy was released in the U.S. The quirky little puzzle game from Japan wasn’t expected to be much of a hit. After all, it was considered too weird, too Japanese, and too out of the realm of what typical American gamers liked to play, which back in 2004 was Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (I guess times haven’t changed). But Namco took a gamble with the game and released it on September 22, 2004 with a modest $19.99 price tag. Critics ate it up. Despite how weird the story was, there was a clever, endearing quality to the game that made it an instant classic. Ten years later and it’s still considered one of the best titles on the Playstation 2. Not bad for some silly game about rolling stars.
In Katamari Damacy you play a tiny prince whose father, the King of Cosmos, burdens you with a daunting task: to recreate the solar system that was destroyed during one of the King’s hallucinatory binges. The prince is given a katamari, which is like a magical ball that attracts objects like a magnet by rolling it around. On earth, the prince must use the katamari to roll objects, people, and even buildings in an attempt to recreate stars. By the end of the game, the katamari is so big you can roll up skyscrapers, mountains, and even clouds. It sounds weird and childish, but words cannot describe the pure bliss of rolling a katamari ball down a busy street of people and watching all the people wiggle as they stick to it. What the game lacked in story it made up for in fun, endearing gameplay, hilarious dialogue, and an awesome soundtrack.
In fact, when I look back on Katamari Damacy I mainly think about its soundtrack. In 2004, the power of video game music was no anomaly, but the idea that a game’s soundtrack could be the focal point of the game itself was a bit of a radical notion back then. As much as people might say the music of Final Fantasy 7 or Metal Gear Solid was great, no one would say the music defined the game itself, and yet that’s exactly how I would define Katamari Damacy. Without its soundtrack the game would have never been elevated beyond its “cute puzzler” status. The music added something else. It made a statement. It heightened the quality of the game by showing that it was the type of game that needed to be experienced rather than merely played. That was something that could only be shown through music.
Largely composed by Yuu Miyake, the music spanned genres, from jazz to electro Jpop to even hip-hop. Completely original and recorded specifically for the game, all the songs were tied into the Katamari theme, from rolling stars to the cosmos. And, of course, who could forget the official Katamari Damacy theme? But it wasn’t the mere presence of the music that made it so special, it was the type of music they used.
Just listen to “Gin & Tonic & Red Red Roses,” a catchy little jazz number that plays in one of the earlier levels. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the soundtrack, but it’s the type of song that’s unusual for a video game. Same with the poppy rap of “The Moon and the Prince.” Even “Angel Flavor’s Present” is bizarre with its sporadic digitized chorus of “ahhs” that climaxes into a fuzzy mob of electro glitches and laser beams. This isn’t exactly standard Jpop here.
The music borrowed heavily from the Shibuya-kei music scene of the ’90s, an indie scene popularized by bands like Pizzicato Five and Takako Minekawa. During a time when mainstream Jpop was dominated by people like Utada Hikaru (Kingdom Hearts), it was unusual for a game to use music that was considered a bit more underground. But according to creator Keita Takahashi, the decision to feature music by largely indie artists was innocuous. “I thought it would be fun to sing along while playing the game, which is why we decided to use vocal music,” Takahashi told Edge. “But we didn’t have much money, so we looked for artists who weren’t on a major label, more like B-grade musicians, to make the music.”
A hasty financial decision turned out to be a huge plus for the game. For most people, the entire Japanese indie music scene was a mystery. But after the game’s release, suddenly there was knowledge and a renowned interest in “Katamari Damacy music.” How often have you heard of games that ignited entire genres? Katamari was like a musical gateway drug into the expansive world of independent music. And game makers knew this when they created the sequel, We Love Katamari. The soundtrack was pretty much like a “who’s who” of Japanese indie artists that featured singers like Kahimi Karie to even beatboxer and Björk collaborator Dokaka.
Maybe it’s a tad hyperbolic to say Katamari Damacy changed the face of video game music, but I do feel like Katamari Damacy helped change how music is approached and chosen in games. There’s really no other game I can think of that has a soundtrack that’s equally as important as the game itself, that both stand on equal footing. Sometimes I feel like games like LittleBigPlanet try to recapture that spirit, but Katamari makes the mistake of being accidentally brilliant. That’s not something that can be easily recreated–not even ten years later.