When I feel dissociated and insane, KATAMARI DAMACY makes me feel better. The psychedelic tone, the absolute banger soundtrack, the adorable designs… It’s like a spa day for my weary neurons.
In 2021, the pandemic coincided with me living alone for the first time. I was incredibly fortunate to be working remotely, but I also wound up holed away in my apartment for days and days on end. Packing a bowl and blissing out to ”Lonely Rolling Star” seemed like an ideal way to pass the time between human interactions—but there was one major obstacle. KATAMARI DAMACY requires that you beat every level within a certain amount of time before you can unlock “eternal mode,” where there’s no goal or time limit. That was all I wanted. The way forward was clear: I had to get good at KATAMARI DAMACY.
Unfortunately: I suck at video games.
It wasn’t easy, but with some time and effort, I beat all the time trials and unlocked eternal mode! Nothing hits quite like watching that Katamari swell from a piddling 1m to an 800m supermoon of buildings, cars, islands, and screaming civilians.
Beating KATAMARI DAMACY gave me a new level of self-awareness around video games. It’s not like Katamari was the first game I ever played—growing up I played Tekken, Mario, Smash, Pokemon, and a smattering of other platformers and JRPGs. I stopped picking up the controller in high school, after I got this idea in my head somehow that I “suck at video games.” There is a clear cognitive dissonance between this belief and the experience I had with Katamari.
What does it even mean to “suck at video games”? What game would one have to beat in order to prove to themselves and everyone in the world that they didn’t “suck at video games”? Is there perhaps a Japanese developer famous for its notoriously difficult games that recently released its most difficult title to date?
In other words, can I “suck at video games” and beat ELDEN RING? In this essay, I hope to find out. Because (spoiler, unless you read the title) I did beat ELDEN RING.
Struggle giving way to accomplishment is inherent to all FromSoftware games. Hidetaka Miyazaki, director of ELDEN RING and President of FromSoft, puts it plainly: “hardship is what gives meaning to the experience.” When you struggle really hard for something, and then you get it, you feel amazing. Victorious. Powerful. Confident. It’s druglike.
For evidence of just how powerful this emotional response can be, I’d direct you to the ever-widening canon of “DARK SOULS Cured My Depression” sentiment online. Esteemed game critics and anons alike describe profound emotional experiences playing FromSoft games: identifying and changing destructive thought patterns, celebrating small victories when it feels impossible to just be OK, and overcoming the sting of death entirely.
I experienced this amazing feeling playing ELDEN RING… but I also felt it playing KATAMARI DAMACY—a game described by its creator as peaceful, easily accessible, cute, and fun. So, how come getting my Katamari to 1.4m in Make A Star 4 felt like fighting the Godskin Duo in ELDEN RING? Does that mean I suck at video games??
When it comes down to it, struggling to do something makes me feel like I suck. I’m not a fundamentally less valuable human being because I barely cleared Make A Star 1 when I first picked up KATAMARI DAMACY, but feeling like I suck makes me want to give up. Giving up means sticking to the handful of things I begrudgingly admit that I’m good at and assuming I’m bad at everything else, regardless of whether or not I’ve tried.
When I pushed through the struggle long enough to beat KATAMARI DAMACY, I started to wonder… Do I suck at video games? So, because I’m me, the only way to put this twinkling little ember of confidence to the test was to jump into goddamn ELDEN RING.
Not only is ELDEN RING the latest and most popular FromSoft title, it offers something of a compromise on the developer’s notorious difficulty. If a boss battle is giving you grief, you can just hop on your horse and go explore the massive world until you get stronger. Miyazaki acknowledged that if a challenge feels truly impossible it stops being fun, and the open world is a way “for people to feel like victory is an attainable feat.” I played and liked BREATH OF THE WILD, so ELDEN RING felt a little more in my wheelhouse than, say, DARK SOULS 3.
I beat ELDEN RING at level 143 in about 150 hours, and it was so difficult that even I can’t impostor syndrome my way out of it.
It took me three days to beat the Godskin Duo. I spent a whole Saturday just fighting Malenia, who as of this writing I still haven’t beaten. Not counting her, I’d wager I spent an additional 10 to 15 hours on the final four bosses alone. In all, this accounts for one calendar week’s worth of hours of my life playing ELDEN RING: memorizing combos, configuring talisman arrangements, internalizing the rhythms of battles into millisecond thumb reflexes, and scrambling to collect lost runes.
So, how did I manage to beat the damn thing? Whether you “look it up” or use trial and error, and regardless of if you’re a person who wants to spend 150+ hours on a game designed to frustrate you (that’s between you and your therapist), by design nothing in ELDEN RING is actually impossible. Every struggle boils down to a series of move sets built to be memorized and overcome.
And reader… The rewards are sweet.
I love marching around the house calling myself a mighty little Elden Lord! It makes me happy! Even though I don’t participate in the online community elements of the game, I still feel kinship with the other Elden Lords out there. We’re like all the hopeful contenders at the Radahn Festival, charging into battle no matter the cost! Beating the game forced me to identify myself with a different echelon of gamers. I’ve shared with friends that I beat ELDEN RING and elicited the same response again and again: “I could never do that.” Evidently, I did it! I “got gud”! Internalizing that knowledge finally shut up that voice in my head that told me I suck at video games.
Does that make me superior in some way? No. One of these folks absolutely wiped the floor with me at Mario Kart. Another is a Mythic raider in WORLD OF WARCRAFT. Consistently, the only difference between me and the person expressing that they “could never beat a Souls game” was that I had actually attempted to play one.
Struggle is a feeling so universal it’s practically become a meme. It sucks to struggle. There’s a sense not just of striving for something, but of exasperation and exhaustion. You’re not just trying, you’re fucking struggling.
Working through the negative feelings that come with struggle was the hardest part of beating both ELDEN RING and KATAMARI DAMACY. You can’t argue with a video game. It doesn’t matter if you KNOW you weren’t standing close enough to the chariot to get clipped by it. It doesn’t matter if your Katamari was JUST 1cm too small. You’re starting over, and you’ll do it again, and again after that, until you win according to the game’s rules. I don’t have to explain that some people have utterly explosive reactions to being told “no” in this way. (I definitely taught the neighbor’s kid some colorful vocabulary when I fought the Elden Beast.)
But fortunately, players aren’t always bound by the rules.
The current world record for an “Any%” speedrun of ELDEN RING, where glitches bypass huge swaths of the game, clocks in at 20 min 30s. The “glitchless” world record is a mind-melting 59 min, 26s. (For the record, I’ve had to update both of these numbers twice while writing this piece as new speedruns are submitted.) Does speedrunning “count” as “beating” ELDEN RING? I’m certainly not going to suggest otherwise to someone who finished the game in 1/150th the amount of time it took me. And yet, there are people reading this article who would say that my 150+ hour run doesn’t “count” because I played a bleed build. (To them I would say—yeah, but no Moonveil or Mimic Tear!)
There is usually an intended way to play a game, but there is no fundamentally right or wrong way. ELDEN RING’s open world empowers the player to set their own goals, to establish their own rubrics of success. You can spend a whole day trying and failing to beat one boss, but maybe you got to the second phase when you couldn’t before! Maybe you found a new map fragment, or got that last Smithing Stone  you needed. Or even—heaven forbid—you just had fun. That entire Saturday I spent fighting Malenia without beating her didn’t feel like a waste of time because I had fun doing it. It’s a cool fight, and it felt good to take on a big challenge. The hardest part was letting myself feel proud when those end credits rolled, knowing that I hadn’t beaten her… yet. (See? I still can’t quite let it go.)
ELDEN RING successfully convinced me that I don’t suck at video games, but not the way I expected it to. My biggest barrier to entry wasn’t skill. It was my fear of picking up the controller. Once I stopped worrying about “sucking at video games” and started playing games I wanted to play in a way that I found fun, I finally rediscovered that passion for gaming I had as a kid. Ironically, I found myself right back where I started with KATAMARI DAMACY: basking in the afterglow of success, and wondering what else I’m capable of. In that way, my real ELDEN RING was the Katamari I rolled along the way.
So, if you’re reading this in the middle of a string of failed pulls on the Elden Beast, try the Pearldrake Talisman +2 and the Haligdrake Talisman +2. But mastering the Soulslike of your own mind is the mark of a true Elden Lord.