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'Katamari Damacy' Gets the Costume Ball Rolling

It's "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" meets "Super Mario Brothers."

The hit Japanese video game "Katamari Damacy" is taking the United States by storm so completely that American fans have begun dressing up as the game's goofy characters.

"People will spend copious amounts of time and money working on a costume, only to have no one recognize what character they're dressed as," said Amy Lee, Webmaster of the site Amy's Highly Experimental Convention Pics.

"But with 'Katamari Damacy,' there's no way anyone can miss the giant heads and ball of junk, even if you've never played the game," she added. "Katamari cosplay [costume play] always seems to be a big hit."

In Namco's video game, the player's green, cylinder-headed main character, the Prince, puts the universe back together after his father, the King of All Cosmos, wrecks it during a drinking binge.

He rolls around a Katamari, a sticky "soul ball," gathering up small objects first, and then later people, cars, buildings and even whole neighborhoods as the ball swells in size.

(Curious readers can play a greatly simplified Japanese Flash-based online version of the game here.)

Devoted American fans pay homage by dressing up as the game's characters and rolling beach balls around, picking up paper clips and other bric-a-brac.

"For the most part, the Katamaris I've seen have been props," Lee said. "People will often glue, tie, tape or sew objects onto a Katamari, but I haven't seen any that actually pick up objects, in person."

"I have seen a video online of some guys rolling a big wad of double-stick tape," she added, "which sort of had the desired effect."

Costume play, or dressing up in costume as your favorite character from a movie, video game or TV show, has become increasingly popular with extremely devout fans, with whole conventions held just for cosplayers to strut their stuff in their favorite get-ups.

"We didn't wear the costumes outside of the convention, due to the fact that it's nearly impossible to see out of them," explained Lee after a recent get-together. "I didn't want to accidently wander off into traffic and get hit by a car."

One of the biggest cult hits in the history of video games, "Katamari Damacy" has sold more than 300,000 units in the U.S. since it was released for the Sony PlayStation 2 platform in Sept. 2004, according to Gamespot.com — and has reached 500,000 units sold in Japan.

A sequel, and in some ways also a prequel, "We ♥ Katamari," was released in North America in Sept. 2005. A version for Sony's handheld PlayStation Portable, "Me and My Katamari," involving a regally induced tsunami and its aftereffects, will hit stores on March 21.

Those are not colossal numbers in the context of the entire video-gaming market, but very large sales for a "E-for-Everyone"-rated game developed on a much smaller budget than would normally be found on the top end of the market.

Many video games have followers who dress up as characters, but gaming experts say a surge in the popularity of Japanese games and movies has really gotten the movement among "Katamari" fans, er, rolling.

"'Katamari Damacy' has gotten so popular because of both the growing Japanese influence into mainstream America and gaming, and the pure absurdity of the game," said Logan Frederick, administrator of GameSource.biz.

"While anime and manga [two popular forms of Japanese cartoons] have become increasingly popular in America, more people around the world are aware of the craziness and fun that their entertainment provides," Frederick continued. "'Katamari' is the epitome of that, featuring an easy game to enjoy and kooky characters who wear clothing a bit too tight."

Frederick, like Lee, said many costume players are trying to design a Katamari ball that will actually pick things up as it rolls along.

"Most of these are obviously for show when people simply pile stuff together and declare it a Katamari," he said. "However, some of these may be actual, functioning Katamari rip-offs, like this Play-Doh Katamari."

Others in the gaming business say the attraction to playing "Katamari" dress-up is simply an expression of fans' infatuation with the zany, trippy quirks of the game — a craziness that lead designer Keita Takahashi had intended all along.

"Fans don't like 'Katamari,' they love 'Katamari,'" said Brian Ashcraft, an associate editor in Japan for Kotaku, Gawker Media's video-game blog. "Dressing up is merely an extension of that."

"The same goes for people who bake Katamari-shaped cakes or make little 'Katamari' knick-knacks," he explained. "They're expressing their appreciation towards the game."

"I live in Japan," Ashcraft added, "so cosplay, while not normal, isn't something totally out of left field."

However, many younger fans of the game said that dressing up as the characters seemed more than just a little kooky to them.

"No offense, but I would run around school in my underwear before I would do that," said Connor Chancellor, an eighth-grader at Discovery Middle School in Alexandria, Minn.

Other young fans said that, while still extremely skeptical, they knew that Katamari cosplay is a growing phenomenon.

"Cosplay is very popular all over the world, and there are many conventions that you can dress up for," eighth-grader Garrett Bjelland noted.

The costume players are aware how out of this world their art seems to ordinary folks, and say they know how to keep their peculiar passion in its place.

"Our interaction with the non-con-going public was limited, which means that while we looked pretty strange, it's nothing out of the ordinary at an anime convention," said Lee of her group's convention appearances as the Prince and his multi-colored cousins.

"The only semi-negative comment I heard — from someone who had never played the game — was that the costumes were 'creepy,'" she said. "But I guess I can agree — the costumes are a little unsettling."

Still, Lee said her cosplay buddies know that if they stick to appropriate settings, it's all in good fun.

"I don't think we've worried about people making fun of us," she said. "A strange costume is naturally going to draw some attention — good and bad."

"Would I wear the costume out to go grocery shopping?" Lee asked rhetorically. "Probably not — wouldn't want to get my head stuck in the automatic doors — but at a convention you blend in with all the other cosplayers, so chances are you're not going to be ridiculed."

So go ahead and snicker: If "Katamari Damacy" and its sequels get any more popular, you or someone you know might be dressing up in a funny costume and pushing a giant ball of masking tape around the town square.