Every time I hit the Power switch, I'm reminded of why it is that Sony's cult platformer has won so many hearts. Quite simply, no game is as unfailingly happy to see me as LocoRoco, and I really can't help but beam a smile straight back at it.
The first thing that hits me is the music, and it hits hard. The playground pop nonsense sung with impossibly cute and ineffably bouncy gusto by a small choir of LocoRoco (the loveable blob creatures of the title) is, ironically, the most overwhelming and forceful statement of aesthetic intent I'm likely to hear this year. And it's so catchy that it might just be the only game audio I'll remember hearing from this year too.
That said, I actually approached the game with some cynicism, having played the demo and off-handedly disregarding it as attractive but frustrating collect-'em-up folly for Ghibli-mad grown-up geeks who go weak at the knees and bleary in the eyes at such unabashedly cutesy sights and saccharine J-pop sounds. And in truth it is, but my disinterest and disregard was premature.
For starters, that soundtrack is far more diverse than its apparently super-otaku flavor might have you believe, with notably Gallic, Germanic, American, and Hispanic influences all making cameos as players progress through the varied levels and control the different colored LocoRoco as they sing along—each in its own native tongue and semi-recognisable dialect. The tunes and vocal melodies may be unapologetically repetitive and probably unbearable to anyone sitting nearby, but what better excuse for donning headphones to immerse myself in a soundtrack that's joyful, atmospheric, poignant and reproduced with such clarity that I notice the short intakes of breath before each crazy lyric is sung.
Complementing these special sounds are the impeccable, pin sharp visuals. One of the few PSP titles I've played not to suffer from excessive ghosting, LocoRoco's remarkable alien worlds are at once bold, gelatinous, slippery, sticky and bouncy, yet all totally coherent throughout play. Overall, the presentational vibrancy surpasses anything seen on a handheld system, with perfect sound effects palpably expanding the game's already joyful musicality, and the wonderful backdrops recalling Yoshi's Island in their ability to set the tone for each level whilst dreamily suggesting a beautiful world beyond the 2D plain.
Fittingly, the control system is simple enough for anyone to enjoy such a luscious game world: L to roll left (that is, tilt the level to the left), R to roll right, L+R to jump (and bump-attack enemies in doing so) and Circle to merge my accumulated LocoRoco into one big blob or to divide my big blob into many LocoRoco (for the game's basic puzzle elements). The shoulder button controls and emphasis on physics owe much to pinball (an influence the game explicitly references in certain flipper and bumper areas), which is to say the game is similarly limited and occasionally frustrating, but also exudes the same physicality and absorption—as becomes clear when I catch myself tilting my head in sync with the level, again. The game's Sonic-esque reliance on momentum will only frustrate slightly for the 2 minutes it takes to master and accept the concept, after which the game is all about enjoying the ride, accruing and managing my LocoRoco and finding the many secrets tucked away in the sumptuous lands I visit.
Certainly, the collect 'em up aspect looms very large in LocoRoco, providing the crux of its most satisfying gameplay through the discovery of burrows and inlets where pick-ups are hidden. Yet it also provides a foothold for frustration, chiefly that of being unexpectedly or unavoidably moved on from an area that I have yet to fully explore and will not be able to return to, which is not sufficiently safeguarded against in the level designs. Missing one-chance-only pickups and getting helplessly split up from your other LocoRoco (something I think would be addressed and perhaps even made into gameplay in a sequel) also make the grade as grating annoyances. And the loss of hard-won LocoRoco through hazards aggravates more than it should, since there is often not enough time to retrieve a wayward LocoRoco (or five) that has broken off before it vanishes; one of the game's few flagrant errors of judgement.
But if frustration arises occasionally, satisfaction is abundant in finding those hidden nooks and crannies, in stopping to watch my LocoRoco split up and awaken a sleeping creature with their singing and gambolling, or in simply exploring an area that I know other gamers will have flown right passed. And while they are a bugbear for completists, some of the game's most entertaining moments come from watching the hypnotic, Sonic-like rollercoasters that whisk your little army of blobs from one part of a level to another in ever more elaborate ways, and listening with glee as they break the level's song down into overlapping choral chants and melodies.
Mechanically, it's not quite as subversive or original as the presentation and some of its over zealous supporters might have you believe, but the chutzpah with which LocoRoco interprets the platform game's basic tenets is entirely its own and, again like the original Sonic The Hedgehog, it is a hugely invigorating and memorably stylish entry into a genre still awaiting fresh ideas. Bouncing around a giant blomange for several minutes trying to reach a pick up that I don't even really care about is not the most edifying game experience I'll have in 2006, but this trippy and surreal waterslide is pulled off with such self-assured finesse that, as those over zealous supporters know only too well, it really is hard not to love.