Bounce with me.
It’s no secret that the future people of Japan can magically transform the simplest of geometric concepts into adorable, marketable characters. Give them a circle, an eyeball and a smile and they will give you millions of loyal fans and twice as many confused parents. They know style
like we know fat.
So is it any wonder that one of the best PSP games to hit our shores comes floating over from theirs? Despite a tepid showing in its native country, LocoRoco is an instantly appealing game to those of us still trying to figure out why we ever said anything nice about our dust-collecting PSPs. It’s cute, stylish and fun, a unique game that gets past its myriad hang-ups by squeezing its slippery frame into a comfy, quirky niche.
A form-fitting description of LocoRoco
isn't so easy. The title characters are peaceful little blobs of goop who find their blissful existence jeopardized by the evil Moja, who want nothing more than to chew on their smiling faces. That certainly wouldn’t help merchandise sales, so the developers have tasked you with saving them.
But not by inhabiting their amorphous bodies. Instead, you play as the world itself, the landscape over which the LocoRoco travel. By tilting from side to side, you help the LocoRoco roll, bounce, shrink and expand, ultimately surviving the Moja onslaught and reclaiming their absurdly pleasant universe. In other words, it’s a platformer in which you play as the platform.
It strays about as far from that genre’s well-trodden path as you can without falling off, however. You begin each level with a single Locoroco. Gobbling up bright orange fruits will make it grow, but at the touch of a button you can split the growing blob into its numerous pieces (or conversely, suck all the small bits back into a big blob.)
If that sounds a little complicated, be happy the control isn’t. The entire scheme is relegated to the L and R triggers, which are used to tilt the world left and right or pressed together to make the LocoRoco jump. The only other button you will ever use is Circle to either split or combine LocoRoco, leading to some of the most elegant, basic control since Pong.
The actual gameplay is a fair bit tougher than that. Each of the game’s 40 levels is a slippery, curvy affair punctuated by wild drops, steep cliffs and precarious ledges. A surprisingly accurate physics system lends a real sense of speed and gravity to the mercurial LocoRoco, as they careen down slopes, flip into the air and squeeze through cracks just like singing balls of goo should. It’s instantly appealing.
Of course, the floating, dreadlocked Moja aren’t thrilled that you’re helping their prey escape and will attack the LocoRoco by nibbling off a piece at a time. Your only defense is to jump into them in a sort of awkward bonk maneuver, which doesn’t always work as it should. The paucity of enemy types doesn’t help. Other than the Moja, you’ll only encounter a smattering of easily beaten foes, and each world is capped by the same final level scenario in which you must defeat one or two giant Moja by, of course, awkwardly bonking them.
Simply navigating through each level from start to finish isn’t very hard, ratherthe real challenge is found in item collection. Even if their kid sisters just barge through the game, seasoned gamers obsessed with collection completion can spend hours exploring the nooks and crannies of the large, creative levels. In addition to the Loco-multiplying fruit, you’re asked to collect hundreds of flying pink Pickories and rescue three elusive Mui-Mui on each level. These can be quite tough to find, often hidden behind breakable walls or hard-to-reach ledges, and there’s a definite joy to be found in fully scouring a world.
Accomplishing such feats unlocks parts used in the Loco House, a separate dollhouse mode. It’s cute but ultimately unsatisfying, especially compared to the unlockable Level Editor. Two actual mini-games can be unlocked as well. One of these is a twist on the old supermarket game where you try to snag prizes using a metal claw on a chain, only here the prizes are more parts for the House. The other features a Chuppa, a strange bird that lets you blows a solo LocoRoco around a dangerous level, collecting goodies along the way. Both games are fine in five minute bursts, but don’t carry much long-term play value.
And in a sense, neither does LocoRoco. While the levels are thoroughly stylish and attractive, they also re-use gameplay segments. You’ll often play through two eerily similar sequences on two totally separate levels. They tend to repeat, too; the first time you are swallowed by a giant beast and asked to escape its pink, fleshy esophagus, it’s a weird kick. The fourth time, however, feels like an awkward design shortcut. The final version of LocoRoco simply feels like a longer version of the demo (which, incidentally, you can share with other via wireless download).
The developers missed a perfect opportunity to remedy this when they decided to include six different kinds of LocoRoco, but didn’t imbue them with different abilities. The kooky red LocoRoco has the exact same bounce as the goofy green one, and both are identical to the smiling original yellow one.
However, what they lack in unique abilities they make up for in distinct vocal chops. LocoRoco
’s audio is deeply integrated into the experience, particularly in the odd, childish tunes incessantly sung by the title characters. Some are catchy while others are slightly grating; chances are you’ll either love them regardless or grow to hate them. Either way, it’s hard to argue against the brilliant gimmick of giving each type of LocoRoco its own voice, effectively leading to six different versions of every song in the game. Plus, spliltting a big LocoRoco into its smaller parts actually changes the song in mid-stream, as the single pieces begin to chant previously unheard background harmonies. Audio geeks can’t help but dig it.
And while some will take issue with the game’s limited gameplay vision, none can fault the stunning visual design. Playing LocoRoco is like watching a season’s worth of an interior design show, featuring gorgeous colors and inspired patterns. The fluid movement of the LocoRoco is never hampered by a hiccup, and the game’s load times are thankfully brief.
So is the overall game, but it’s a pretty trip. Oozing bizarre style out of every pore, this is proof that creative design doesn’t require fancy DVD players or burly graphics cards. It’s perfectly suited for the PSP, with gameplay and graphics that actually take advantage of the 16:9 aspect ratio and great screen. Though it doesn’t roll quite far enough, LocoRoco is certainly a song worth singing.