I’ve abandoned this topic for far too long. Oops! Today, in search of inspiration, I’ve identified a couple of my more recent games that stood out from the crowd simply by being… different.
Newer but Nonstandard (Katamari Damacy, Mario Party series)
Target #1: Katamari Damacy (PlayStation 2, 2004)
If you live under a rock (OK, OK, or if you’re just not a console gamer), then you may not have heard of Katamari Damacy. This game was written by a sculptor and released at a value price point for the PlayStation 2. Gameplay and story are both simple: You control the noble Prince, son of the King of All Cosmos. The King accidentally broke all of the stars, so you must roll a “Katamari” around, picking up things that are close or smaller in size, and eventually launch this clump of junk into the sky as a new star. Larger objects cause you to bounce off, possibly dropping some stuff. People and animals will, at times, even attack you from behind! (Woe unto them when your Katamri grows…) Variations occur at times: pick up lots of one type of object, or pick up only one but as big as possible… And on top of that, the game is controlled almost solely via the two joysticks on the analog PS2 controller. It doesn’t sound like much, but trust me… it gets addictive!
- Simple gameplay that’s done well can make a game great. There’s not a lot of story, ultra-academic theme or analysis, fancy cut scenes, or anything here — just a good, fun, game.
- Everything in this game is just.. weird, kitschy, and it sticks in your head. I won’t even link to a video or the theme song. AHH! Just mentioning the theme song got it stuck in my head…
- My thing about leavers is that I swore, when starting this series, to find something with every game that I wouldn’t reproduce. With Katamari Damacy, I have nothing substantive that I’d change — really, the game is an experience, and I worry that changing even one element could pull down the whole house of cards. However, I wouldn’t personally implement a menu system for the common tasks (saving, quitting, etc) that required navigating across a couple screens by literally walking around. That’s just me. I don’t even hate it in this game, but I’m bound by my own past decisions here…
Target #2: Mario Party series (8 installments, Nintendo 64/GameCube/Wii, 1999-2007 and counting)
(Image from Mario Party 4)
It’s difficult to talk about just one of these games. Of course, that’s probably largely because I was often drunk while playing them. Nintendo took a board game to the 4-player console with this series. Players compete to earn the most “stars” by the end of a game. The game consists of running circuits of a board (by dice roll, even), with random chance influencing the outcome almost as much as skill at minigames that take place every round (or when players land on certain special squares). The minigames are short and simple, with controls displayed onscreen and most games over within 1-2 minutes. The sheer quantity of chance allows even novice players to feel as though they have a chance at winning, and “bonus stars” awarded at the end of a game (for, say, landing on the most “happening” squares durin gthe game) help even the score. Games further divide into free-for-all, 1-vs-3, 2-vs-2, and other special types of games (“everybody wins something,” etc). The franchise began on the venerable Nintendo 64 cartridge-based platform, and has extended through last month’s release of Mario Party 8 on the Wii (making great use of the motion-control Wiimote).
- I never really enjoyed playing a 4-player game on a console until this game came out. It helps level player skill imbalances (and you can add a handicap to boost the REALLY challenged players), and it usually avoids the 4-way split screen (so tiny on TVs of the 90s). While the series has moved away from it’s extremely “screw-your-neighbor” style roots of the earlier titles, it’s still great fun for a room full of people.
- Focus on minigames: My friends and I have been known to flip over to “minigames only” mode and play the same minigame for hours on end. It just never gets old pushing your friends into oncoming snowballs. Even at the expense of winning. Again, I make no guarantees as to how much ethanol may have impacted these decisions.
- A “standard” 20-round game is JUST a little bit too long to typically keep a room entertained. And a 15-round game is not quite long enough to feel fair. Balance is a killer.