Now, I'm no video games journalastic historianist, but I seem to remember that the very first Katamari Damacy game was something of a slow burn. In my own circle, it was the very definition of a word of mouth sensation. I had no idea what it was, but I had heard from a gradually growing number of people that it was awesome and amazing and weird and totally addictive and all those other things that it is. I think the thing that finally sold me was hearing about how "Japanese" it was. Well OK then, I guess I'll have to check it out, I said to my dog, who I don't think I had at the time and who I am now retconning into my narrative.
My dog and I found the game for a super low price and we instantly won over by the simple box art and design. Two seconds and it already looked like nothing we had seen before. A few minutes into playing it and we were both eternally lost to its bizarre charms. And by "we" and I mean me and my dog. Seriously, the thought of her playing a video game is so cute and is now distracting my thoughts.
I was personally drawn in more by the soundtrack than the game itself, and I don't think I'm alone there. To say it was a breath of fresh-air would be lazy and boring, so let's call it a bottle of absinthe to a chronic alcoholic with nothing left to live for. I couldn't get enough and I didn't want to hear about anything else until I had consumed it all. Every new installment of the series was a new fix. Sure, it may have never been quite as magical and deleterious as the first time, and I always needed a little more, and I went blind, but I still welcomed them all like an old friend returning with a new bottle of sweet, sweet poison.
Which brings us to the newest title, Katamari Forever, released in the west today/soon/recently, and its accompanying two disc soundtrack (available at CDJapan, Play-Asia, Amazon.jp etc). Since there are 36 tracks on the soundtrack, I'm just going to stick to the real stand outs. Also, since you're reading this, I'm assuming you're already at least passingly familiar with the previous soundtracks. If you're not, here's the short version: While you can't really stick a single genre description onto it, the music of Katamari is always playful, fun and poppy. Sure, some tracks are a bit more rock, some jazzy and swinging, some orchestrated and some purely electro. What they all have in common is a human quality. These aren't cold, factory generated sound-beds meant to melt into the background or give emo boys an adrenaline rush. These are proper songs that just happen to be in a video game. Which is why we are talking about it here in the first place.
Katamari Forever (Katamari Damacy Tribute) OST
Columbia Music Entertainment
Naturally, much of what fills up Forever's audio space are simply recontextualized versions of the old songs we know and love. The swinging jazz becomes an orchestra. The electro rock becomes acoustic folk. The big band mayhem becomes funky hip-hop or whatever. Pretty standard stuff. Newcomers won't know the difference and long time fans will find the reworking to be a welcome refresher. But none of them are earth-shattering, and in the worst cases they actually sap the original songs of their unique spirit. Let's not dwell on the missteps.
There are a few bright candles in the dark. Buaffalo Daughter's "Galactic S-O-U-L" is the most refreshing thing to hit the soundtrack since the original. Sounding like nothing yet included, it is a very dark, funky and bare-bones track, like James Brown stumbled into a hip British dance club full of spies. It sound like nothing Katamari has ever seen.
I was skeptical of a revision to "Cherry Blossom Color Season," since even my black heart was filled with blood by those frickin' adorable singing kids. I was immediately pleased to hear Beautiful Hummingbird's light and natsukashii folk version.
YMCK bring their usual obsessive attention to detail and 8-bit swing to "A Crimson Rose and a Gin Tonic." It's a prefect example of the "oh yeah, here they are being amazing, as usual *yawn*" problem that hangs over much of the soundtrack. The "Everlasting Love" and Your Are Smart" mash-up, retitled "Everlasting Love + You" and sing by Leah Dizon is definitely one for the hardcore fans. The two songs work perfectly together, but unfortunately Dizon's dead-pan, lifeless delivery nearly ruins the entire affair, despite its pumping dance beat and hard-hitting synths. This is made up for with the proper "Everlasting Love" remix from Atom. It's a twisted-up drum 'n' bass take on the pop-rock song, full of odd time signatures and some pretty heavy bass hits.
The end of the collection contains most of the techno and dance mixes. "The Moon and The Prince (and LEOPALDON MIX)" is an excellent early '90s techno/rap throwback, complete with the requisite drum loops, hockey arena synths and silly angry-guy rapping. SEXY-SYNTHESIZER does a passable job of applying an retro-arcade/chip-tune filter over "Katamari on the Swing," with heavy use of Pac-Man and Galaga samples. Finally, Hardfloor delivers some deep prog house/techno with its two remixes of "Nana-Nan Damacy." Neither has much to do with the original song, aside from a brief sample, but they are sure to keep your ball rolling.
Perhaps it's no surprise that much of the Katamari music seems to exist in its own universe. Each song is a galaxy swirling through a sparkling void, picking up bits here and leaving other bits over there. If you are unfamiliar with its physics, this universe may seem like a strange and wonderful new cosmos to explore. After you've spent a considerable amount of time there, however, the wanderlust starts to kick in again and what was previously dazzling to the ears seems a but dull and overdone. But only a bit. I mean, it's still an entire universe we're talking about here.
In a way, it's all a little like the age-old dilemma. Once something unique and special to you and your small circle of friends becomes something much bigger, shared with the world at large and inevitably misunderstood by everyone but you, that initial glamor is quick to fade. Katamari's shark may have jumped the royal rainbow soon after its original's closing credits, but for those of us who were wadded up into its irresistible heart, we continue to chase the nanaa, na na na na naa, naa, naa, naa dream.