Every month videogame developer Darius Kazemi reviews outsider videogames — games that are created by people outside the mainstream of videogame development.
According to its official description, Rainbow Ball into Adventure is “A game made by a family!” Available on Xbox Live Indie Games for 80 MSP (about $1), this is a fan tribute to Katamari Damacy programmed by Mike D. Smith, a professional videogame developer. What makes this an outsider videogame is that it was designed mostly by his four kids, who I’m guessing were clustered around the age of 5 when the game was developed. In a sense, very young children are the ultimate outsiders: they’re often not aware enough of conventions or institutions to be terribly affected by them, which can sometimes lead to them creating interesting or unexpected things.
When playing Rainbow Ball we’re presented with child’s drawings as menu screens and story placards; the 3D in-game art itself is a combination of 2D children’s drawings come to life in a Paper Mario or PaRappa style, along with extremely basic solid color blocks, spheres, letters, and numbers. On the most basic level, the gameplay is Katamari Damacy: you controll a ball, and you roll up things that are smaller than you onto your sticky ball. You roll up bigger and bigger items as you gain volume. Each level is themed on either the kinds of objects you’re collecting, or a new rule of some sort.
Rainbow Ball is a joy to play, and probably the main reason for that is the sound design. Much like in Katamari Damacy, every item you roll up makes a unique sound. For example, my favorite level is full of princesses drawn by the kids, dancing around the level — and also a little boy prince here or there. Each princess lets out a high, girlish scream, presumably produced by Smith’s daughters. Since there are scores of princesses dancing around at a very high density, you can hardly roll your ball without generating a cacophony reminiscent of an overstimulated boy band audience. But every so often you roll up a prince, and you hear a little “BLECH!” noise underneath it all, provided by a little boy whose definition of princehood is a negative one: a prince must simply to act in opposition to his princess sisters. It’s moments like these that make me laugh, but also make me remember what it was like to be a little boy, growing up with a younger sister.
At first blush, Rainbow Ball is reminiscent of the much better known Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure, although it predates Ponycorn by about six months. However, the crucial difference between these two games is that Ponycorn delivers most of its childlike content via the logic of the game’s story; Rainbow Ball does not have a story, and although it has its share of kids’ drawings and funny names, it also manages to deliver a childlike experience through play.
In several levels, the implied goal is for the player to do things that only very young kids care about: for example, counting. When I was a small child, I used to love to count out loud as deliberately as possible — usually backwards from 10, counting down to 0 for no real reason other than the joy of counting. Rainbow Ball echoes that memory: there’s a level filled with numbers, and as you collect each glyph, the kids scream “ONE! TWO! THREE!” and so on. Of course, you can collect the numbers in any order you want, but the level is set up to encourage counting in order. When I do collect them out of order, I can almost feel the burning gaze of some child designer yelling, “That’s not how to do it!”
Rainbow Ball is a strange game. While it more or less completely apes the Katamari Damacy formula, at times it feels like a better game than Katamari. One of things that makes Katamari a great game is its sustained sense of childlike wonder: you start the game from a perspective where the whole world looks adult and scary, chided by your terrifying and powerful father, but your imagination takes you places the world can only dream of. Rainbow Ball attains that sense of childlike wonder through stark literalism: here’s a bunch of fantastic creatures and objects that children made up, and we’re going to play some kids’ games while we’re at it. It’s not subtle. But as I mentioned above, Rainbow Ball causes me to reflect on my childhood and on parenthood, which is something that Katamari never really did for me. It’s in these moments of recollection that, in its own way, Rainbow Ball surpasses its videogame idol.
My favorite moment from Katamari Damacy is when you roll up your first cat and you realize that the sound effect is just one of the developers saying, “Meow!” (He doesn’t even bother with a falsetto!) Rainbow Ball is that moment over and over and over again — and I can’t get enough of it.
Darius Kazemi is a Boston-based videogame developer who blogs at Tiny Subversions. He works at Bocoup, where he focuses on HTML5 games and game technology.