As a sequel to arguably the most original videogame to come along in the past decade, “Beautiful Katamari” has a relatively simple task: bring the franchise into the hi-def, surround-sound, online age without screwing anything up. That’s what it accomplishes, and nothing more. Longtime fans and newcomers to the franchise will thoroughly enjoy the new levels and the competent, if not exactly deep, online play options. But the lack of anything truly new demonstrates it’s time for a sequel to shake things up at least half as much as the original “Katamari Damacy” did three years ago.
Describing “Katamari” to anyone who hasn’t played it is a difficult task, since it’s so fundamentally different from other videogames. There’s no shooting, no enemies, no destinations to reach, and not even any buttons to push. Players use the two analog sticks on a controller to steer a sticky ball that’s being pushed by an alien prince. The ball picks up everything it rolls over and grows in size in the process. A typical level could see the ball start off rolling up thumbtacks and end devouring elephants.
“Beautiful Katamari” follows the exact same formula, but kicks it up a notch. As the first installment on a next-gen platform, it features dazzlingly bright graphics, which fit perfectly into the franchise’s Crayola-esque palette. Surround-sound lets players hear amusing sound effects, like braying animals and cops futilely firing their guns.
The biggest improvement in “Beautiful Katamari,” however, is the scope. While the final level of the last game, “We Love Katamari,” had players rolling up mountains and the Great Wall of China, this one goes much further. By the end, players will be rolling up major cities, continents and, finally, entire planets. It’s truly trippy — in the best sense of the word — to start off the size of a shoe and end up bigger than Jupiter.
It also continues the insane, yet uniquely Japanese, plot of its predecessors. The prince is sent to roll up items on Earth by his father, the King of All Cosmos, who in “Beautiful Katamari” accidentally ripped a hole in space with a tennis ball and needs his son to roll up new planets in order to fix his mistake. Despite his penchant for wearing tights and shooting rainbows out of his mouth, the king is a stern taskmaster. Even when players succeed at a mission, he asks “Is this all you want out of life? Mediocrity?” Fail at a level and the king says, “We get it. It’s a slacker thing. What’s next? Videostore clerk? Screenwriter?”
But “Beautiful Katamari” is short on new ideas. Many levels, in fact, are just identical maps populated with different items. The J-Pop soundtrack, while still peppy, has some of the same songs already used in “We Love Katamari.” On- or offline competitive play is a welcome addition, but it would be much better if there were more than just a handful of maps from which to choose.
Now that it has online capabilities, the “Katamari” games are screaming for the kind of customization and sharing options Microsoft put into “Halo 3.” If they were given the tools, players would undoubtedly design an endless array of amazing maps with crazy items to roll up, from replicas of real places to new worlds populated only with whales, scotch tape and hamburgers.
Perhaps the King of All Cosmos put it best in one of his classic expressions of faint praise at the end of one level: “Well, it’s not hideous. Wish you’d tried harder.”