How Singing Animals and Smooth Jazz Kept the Katamari Damacy Franchise Rolling

by on June 7, 2013

When you ask most gamers what comes to mind when you mention ‘Katamari Damacy’, they’re probably going to respond with a wistful ‘na naaaa, na na na na na na na…’. They simply can’t help it. It’s instinct. In fact, most tracks in Katamari Damacy are pretty memorable if you’ve played through the game at least once. Whether it’s because the tracks are catchy or because you had no idea a duck could manage to crack a high C#, Katamari in general is a unique experience and this most certainly transfers over to its fantastic, if not eclectic, soundtrack. A game heavily based on quirkiness and the unexpected, the tunes that accompany your systematic in-game destruction have played a large part in the continued success of the Katamari Damacy franchise.

Let’s take a quick look at the first game in the series, simply titled ‘Katamari Damacy’ (塊魂 or ‘clump spirit’), released 2004. Almost 10 years ago now, this game was released amid fears that the Western market wasn’t ready for a game as quirky as Katamari Damacy. Were the grunting robots too much? Singing ducks–we’ve gotta tone that down, right? For this reason, Katamari Damacy skipped being released in PAL areas and was only deployed in North America, whom could apparently handle the crazy jandal.

The reaction was explosive. The game went on to sell out nationwide and attract a bevy of awards for great game design and artistic direction, for appealing to younger generations, and for just generally being an innovator in its genre. The soundtrack that accompanied the game, composed mainly by Yu Miyake, did not go unnoticed and also bagged a nomination for ‘Outstanding Achievement in Original Musical Composition’ at the 2005 Interactive Achievement awards, as well as being awarded ‘Soundtrack of the Year’ in 2004 by both IGN and GameSpot.

So, it won a few awards at some website and got a nomination. How did this soundtrack go on to contribute to making Katamari a household name and keeping the series rolling, though?

Well, that’s pretty easy to answer: because there are very few examples in the game industry that have had as much success trampling over soundtrack rules and norms as Katamari Damacy has. If we tried to define the music of the game in one genre, it would simply be impossible. Katamari Damacy’s soundtrack is a mix of samba, j-pop (Japanese pop), zoo animal wailing, jazz and electronic music–and while it seems a ridiculous idea to have such a diverse line-up, it excelled in combination with the quirky image that Katamari Damacy was going for. The following track is a great example of the tone that went on to become synonymous with Katamari games– a distinctive style (in this case, mambo) combined with random percussion, shouting, general confusion and a brass solo.

The Katamari franchise had managed to create a weirdly exciting fusion between old musical values and new ideas, being received so well in Japan that the soundtrack rose to #191 on the Japanese Oricon charts. However, with all successful games comes the potential for sequels–and this was the fate to befall the Katamari series.

But, the music didn’t slow down. It didn’t degenerate, instead managing to innovate and recycle even the oldest tunes that players remembered from the first game. A great way to show how Katamari stayed relevant is the progress from Katamari Damacy’s track ‘Gin and Tonic and Red, Red Roses’ to the ‘A Crimson Rose and Gin Tonic (YMCK 8-Bit Remix)’ track that accompanied the Katamari Forever game, released almost 5 years later.

Just appreciate for a moment that the medley of famous Katamari themes (‘Sunbaked Savanna’) included in the immediate sequel We Love Katamari was sung by John the Dog, Bigmouth the Duck, Yuuhi the Crow, Pe the Goat, Booby the Pig, Sexy the Cat and Nyuu the Cow. Leave that critically acclaimed orchestra at home–we’ve got barn animals.

This ridiculous quirkiness, almost beyond belief, and the tounge-in-cheek humor that accompanies the Katamari soundtracks, is a big part in why people will happily hum that frustratingly catchy ‘na naaaaa na na na na na na’ when they’re reminded of the game–a prime example of success of planting a catchy, memorable tune, associating (and even promoting) the game with it and having people sing the damn thing years later.