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Ryan Blog

Moshi Moshi Domo Moshi

You'll undoubtedly hear more from me about this come Monday, but I'd like to get this off my chest right now: Katamari Damacy is one of the most refreshingly enjoyable video games I have played in years. Absolutely every aspect of the game's execution works in concert to create an experience that just evokes a sublime state. There's nothing pulse-pounding or jaw-dropping or even really intellectually challenging about it. But the happy music plays, and you roll the world up into a big ball, and the King of All Cosmos smiles down on you like a proud father, and it just makes you want to giggle with joy. It's just a satisfying experience. I've tried to explain why it's so good to people, but it's like a dream--it makes sense in the moment, but trying to articulate it to another person after the fact is a fool's errand. I have found that the best way to get people's attention is just to play it in the office, and watch as a crowd just sort of naturally coalesces. Understand that, in a work environment as saturated with gaming as this one--TVs on all the editors desks, cabinets filled with consoles, a private arcade not twenty steps away from where I sit--it takes something rather special to inspire people to stop and take notice.

There's a few months to go, but I still will not hesitate calling Katamari Damacy one of my favorite games this year. Top 5, easy. For this very reason, it makes me sad to think how many people will actually buy a copy of Katamari Damacy. While I have bottomless respect for Namco for choosing to stick with the original Japanese title for the US release, it doesn't really draw in the casual gamer. I'm all but sure that the game will garner a devout cult following, which it deserves, but I have to wonder if it will be enough to inspire Namco to take risks like this in the future. So, here's my proposal: Namco is bringing Katamari Damacy out in the states for $20. This is, as far as I'm concerned, an out-and-out steal. I would happily pay double that price for the game. Following that logic, I plan on buying two copies of the game, and encourage you to do the same. Keep one sealed for collector purposes, give one to a friend or relative, whatever. Just consider it a $20 contribution towards a future filled with a broader selection of games with distinct personality and a fresh perspective. The 2003 GameSpot award for Best Game No One Played went to Amplitude, a game I reviewed, and I really don't want to be two for two.

As I've been playing Katamari for review over the past few days, I'm reminded of two other landmark games in my personal gaming history--the first is Acclaim's No One Can Stop Mr. Domino!, the second was Titus' Incredible Crisis. I consider all three of these games to be cut from the same cloth, though if you were to bullet-point the hard facts about these games, they wouldn't really have that much in common. It makes me wonder what the Japanese perspective on these games is. Do they even consider these games particularly strange at all? Does the thread that links them all together for me even exist in Japan? How much of my own appreciation of these games comes from cross-cultural misinterpretations?

The New Old Skool

I was actually really incredulous when I saw a little corner of Capcom's E3 booth filled with cell phone game stuff. This was back in 2001 I think, and I remember thinking that it was really weird, and a phenomenal waste of booth space, like Microsoft selling blank floppies and inkjet cartridges from its booth. My perspective honestly didn't change much for a good three years or so--I viewed mobile gaming as a bastard offspring of real gaming, and its sole purposes were to cajole cell phone subscribers into buying newer handsets and to bilk them out of a few extra bucks in airtime charges.

Like cameras on cell phones (which I still regard as highly suspect) it was a gimmick at best, a flat-out con at worst. Flash forward to earlier this year, when GameSpot acquired WGR, and I still considered Snake to be the zenith of mobile gaming. I understood that it was an aspect of gaming that needed to be covered, but my personal interest in it was nil. To be fair, the total of my real hands-on experience with mobile gaming at the time had come from reviewing N-Gage games, which are really a weird subset unto themselves, with their own unique quirks. Anyways mobile gaming just wasn't on my radar.

But then we incorporated the WGR staff into our own, and I had the site's chief mobile cheerleader Steve Palley sitting right next to me. This dude's enthusiasm for mobile gaming was almost frightening, and even though we kinda stonewalled him at first, he never stopped singing the praises of mobile gaming--or, more importantly the potential of mobile gaming. There must have been some sort of divine celestial alignment when all this was going down, because it just so happened that Steve and his myriad of flip phones joined us right when, as a review writer, I really didn't have anything better to do. So, I figured, what the hell. I'll try my hand at writing a mobile review. I originally viewed it as a good creative writing assignment. Playing bad games certainly isn't fun, but the experience can often be redeemed by writing a clever, condemning review. I still consider my first few reviews valid, but after taking on more mobile assignments, and becoming more and more steeped in the particulars of the mobile gaming scene, something clicked for me. I got it. I didn't just understand that mobile games were important, I understood why. It was the most cathartic perspective shift in respects to gaming that I've experienced in years.

So, here's the thing. "Real" gaming has existed in roughly the same format for a long, long time now. Conventions have been well-established, and it's a big business now, with million-dollar cross-promotional ad campaigns and celebrity endorsements and billions and billions of dollars in potential revenue on the line. The games themselves have become incredibly elaborate productions requiring the collaborative efforts of dozens of people over several years, and costing millions of dollars. A far cry from game production in the late 70s and early 80s, when video games were first legitimately getting their foothold in popular culture. Games were made by very small teams, or even just one person. The now-monolithic publisher Activision, which was originally comprised of disgruntled Atari employees, was built on the auteur model, and if you look at the credits for 2600 games like Pitfall! or River Raid, you will see just one name. A single person's vision could be realized with relative ease, and it could make for a commercially viable product, too. Can you imagine just one person conceiving and creating an Xbox game that people would want to pay money for?

But this model is actually still quite plausible for a mobile game. As a rough rule of thumb, most current-generation mobile games don't exceed 200k in size, which means that 2D graphics are almost a necessity. The fact that phone carriers currently have total control over distribution kind of sucks, as any monopoly does, but it also takes a lot of post-production burden off the developer. With a Verizon or a T-Mobile handling distribution, all the developer needs to do is wait for their cut of the money. Everyone cocks their head all weird when they hear that id Software alumni John Romero, or EA and 3DO founder Trip Hawkins, or former Nintendo Europe director David Gosen have run off to make mobile games. I used to think they were just going for the quick buck, and perhaps that's true, but I believe these people have realized the potential of mobile games. The stakes aren't as high, and as such, it's a lot easier to take risks.

Granted, the mobile gaming scene is currently riddled with bad licensed games and electronic parlor games and ports of classic games, but what I'm talking about here is potential. Let me be clear and say that I don't think mobile gaming is quite there yet. Actually, it's pretty far from being "there", and there are a lot of pitfalls that could botch the whole thing before it gets anywhere near "there". But this is a burgeoning market, one that is growing rapidly, and most importantly, one that has not had all of its rules written yet. It's our own personal Wild West, and there's the potential for something unique and legitimately great to come out of it.