The other day I was thinning my game collection a bit when I came across Katamari Forever collecting dust, but I couldn't get rid of it. I hadn't thought much about the series in a while, but nostalgia somehow stayed my hand. That's the power of Namco Bandai's quirky series.
But this is also a series that hasn't adapted well to change, and the absence of major innovation in recent years is evidence enough that Namco Bandai has been struggling over what to do with the brand since creator Keita Takahashi left to pursue other projects. The Vita's cheekily dubbed Touch My Katamari attempts to inject some interest into the franchise with touch controls and a morphing katamari conceit, but unfortunately it all kind of feels like a shallow afterthought.
As the always-entertaining King of All Cosmos explains in Touch My Katamari's tutorial stage, now the player has the ability to shape their katamari, the series' signature physics-defying ball constructed by rolling up objects of various sizes (paper clips, people, eventually entire continents etc) scattered around levels. A tiny katamari can only pick up small items, but bigger objects can be absorbed as the snowball effect causes the ball to swell, and now you can also change the width of the katamari by either stretching it lengthwise or pinching it together vertically, like a giant cheese wheel made of random items. The slight strategy here is that a short, squat katamari is slower but can roll over whole rows of items at once; a more vertically-oriented ball rolls faster but its narrow range makes it harder to pick things up.
Unless you're a complete newcomer to the series, this is the most fun activity Touch My Katamari will offer you. Suddenly you have a choice, small though it may be, over how to tackle a set of yard tools or loose onigiri. The Vita's rear touch panel seems to work best for this, and when you have to shrink your katamari's girth on the fly to roll down a narrow alleyway, the effect can be pretty satisfying.
The problem is that like every Katamari title since 2004's Damacy and 2005's We Love Katarmari, Touch My Katamari (the sixth game in the series!) is too much of the same old thing. There's no major incentive in the design to use your morphing abilities for anything other than creating an experience that's potentially a little more convenient.
Instead you have the exact same remix of levels - how big can you make your Katamari? Eight metres? Twelve? Two hundred? And just what craaazy themed item will the King make you fetch next? - the series has been using for half a decade. But Touch My Katamari is still capable of entertaining after all these years, especially when making use of the streamlined combo touch-and-traditional control scheme. Still, unless you're new to games or have been living under a rock, you've played this before.
To help pad out Touch's very short campaign, there are some bonus items and activities. After you beat the game you're given access to modes like Katamari Ride, which has the Prince speeding along at double time (though you're generally given less time per level) which makes the four or so hours you just spent feel absolutely pokey; you can also unlock infinite rolling, though without the challenge from limitation it somehow feels less fun.
For some perversely silly reason, Namco Bandai also decided that the King should be fully polygonal this time around, and you can buy some ridiculous new outfits for him. That signature Katamari wackiness is very much present in these threads, which is nice.
Don't be fooled, though - this doesn't forgive that in Touch the King's uncanny valley face is an unholy terror that should never have been, nor does it excuse the irritatingly stupid "Japan makes Rage comics" art style and demeanor that plagues the campaign's needless cutscenes. I won't say Touch My Karamari is trying too hard, but it skirts that line and it doesn't have much soul.
Despite the morphing gameplay, some great J-Pop dance tracks and goofy-if-pointless unlockables, Touch doesn't do much with the Katamari name. Supplemental activities (there's a shop or hub for everything from music to an online social ranking system) aren't enough - if there were modes or even levels that were specially designed to challenge your skill with changing the shape of your katamari, that'd be one thing. Giving us the same old Katamari and telling us to mold balls in different shapes just because now you can doesn't really cut it.
But Touch My Katamari is still a decent series entry, and if you don't know the franchise there's some enjoyment to be found, though the authenticity and soul of Takahashi's Katamari games remains lost.