Somewhere, there's a dizzy parallel universe where there's no Radio One. No Capital Gold. No Magic FM. Where the soundtrack to everyday life throbs with manic day-glo doo-wop pop thrills and the words you hear have never been heard by mortal ears. It's a world where the smiling bubble offspring of Jeff Minter's perverted Corona dreams have to pass their fizzical by warbling joyous high pitched odes to MDMA and the wonders of surging serotonin. These amorphous blobs grin themselves to death for the love of plants. It's a happy, albeit brief existence.
Back in the real world (where the sun still shines and a little wavy pink baldy smiley man bobs from side to side on my desk), Sony has approximated this spherical servitude in the most effortlessly cheerful manner possible with one of the most perfect examples of handheld gaming ever made. Please welcome LocoRoco into your lives.
While diving for pearls among retro's cavernous past, Tsutomo Kouno has emerged with a grin every bit as wide as the lonely rolling LocoRoco you'll cherish throughout the game. Like an inspired collision of Mercury, Sonic, Katamari and Yoshi's Universal Gravitation, it feels equal part puzzle and platform game, but fresher, funnier and more satisfying than words could ever make it sound.
Like some of the best gaming concepts, it's remarkably simple, incredibly easy to pick up, but devilishly tough to master. The premise is to tilt, roll and jump a cute little blob around 40 twisty-turny 2D environments from left to right and reach the goal intact, and doing so is as simple as pressing the left or right shoulder button in order to tilt the environment 30 degrees or so in the required direction. Holding down both buttons at the same time charges up a jump of increasing power that kicks in as soon as you let go of either.
On your happy, bouncy travels, you can coax more LocoRoco into play by collecting little red buds, or seeking out hidden ones that germinate when you roll over them. Either way another smiley sphere joins you and within seconds you'll build up a smiling throng of them, all rolling around like little grinning blobs of mercury - and just like Archer Maclean's quirky puzzler, you can command them to "joooooooin!" by holding down the circle button. But as squishy as the LocoRoco are, sometimes you need to split them up into their constituent parts (again by holding down circle) in order to squeeze through the many narrow fissures you'll encounter. You've essentially got the choice of splitting up completely by holding down the circle button, or subdividing into only a few 'teams' by holding circle for a shorter time, allowing you to potentially navigate several courses at once if you prefer.
Normally, when you enter one of these narrow channels you're uncontrollably sucked along at speeds which would make Sonic's face wobble. At criss-crossing, looping rollercoaster velocity you barely have time to consider your actions before you're unceremoniously dumped somewhere else in the environment and tasked with gathering up more LocoRoco before you reach the goal. In all there are 20 of them tucked away, but at least half of them are in hard-to-reach places often lurking behind Sonic-style invisible walls or at the summit of hugely challenging jump and tilt sequences that can take enormous skill to pull off.
Tied in with this optional gathering of the LocoRoco tribes are the collection of hundreds of little pink morsels (the name of which isn't clear) that litter the landscapes. And not only that, there are three MuiMui pals trapped on every level, and rescuing them with a song (yes, your LocoRoco enjoy engaging in some of the most hilarious vocal interludes known to man) rewards you with one of the 144 'items' hidden away across the game's 40 levels. Sometimes, though, you'll have to round up a set number of LocoRoco in order to deliver your song with enough velocity for them to wake up - but when you do, the results of some of them will surely pass on into gaming legend.
As you work your way through all five worlds, you'll gradually meet (and unlock) five other different types of LocoRoco, each with their own distinct look and type of song to sing. In this game, the replay value isn't so much motivated by merely finding hidden MuiMui and beating your previous totals, but actually finding out what each of the different characters' songs are when they awaken certain things. One day someone will get around to transcribing the 'lyrics' and be able to engage in drunken singalongs. It may well be Tom's duty to mankind.
But it's not all happy happy singsong joy joy for the LocoRoco, with the nefarious Moja Corps ("the evil outer space creatures") laying in wait to capture and injure your poor, defenceless blobs. Mostly they take the form of mean-looking spiky types that lurk strategically where you're likely to need to jump. Inevitably, bouncing into one of them punctures your happy throng and sends a yelping LocoRoco spinning off in agony - but the good news is if you get to the injured soul quickly, you can rescue it from certain doom.
What's the story?
Elsewhere, enemies you'll come across include nasty spider-type ink blobs that snatch their prey if you don't launch into them at full-pelt first, and even fake buds that take great pleasure in eating unsuspecting LocoRoco that pass by. As happy a game as it looks, there's a seething mass of hate bubbling away under the surface - but it's your duty to use skill and patience to roll with it. Take your time. Don't let anybody get in your way. [This is all too much for me to take - Ed].
One of the most charming aspects of the game is the beautiful and unique visual style. Not only are the squishy, rolling smiley faces among the most instantly likeable videogame characters ever, the pastel shades and ever-changing scenery give it a look and feel unlike anything we've seen before. Using a scalable 2D engine, Sony has designed a wonderfully attractive set of colourful environments that zoom in and out to accomodate what you need to see at any one time. Whether depicting flower-strewn meadows, the inside of someone's stomach, an icy waste or the intricate branches of a tree, it's never less than stunning, and a truly brilliant realisation of how to take 2D gaming into uncharted territory.
At times it might feel like the game's at risk of being a little repetitive, but then Sony throws entirely different obstacles in your path: pressure pads, rope swings, water-filled levels, sticky surfaces, trampolenes, wobbling platforms that throw you off if you don't counterbalance in time...you name it. While it's easy enough to romp through the game, uncovering the game's secrets is an entirely different matter - shades of Mario, for sure.
Noel's house party
Outside of the main game, there's admittedly not an awful lot to see and do, but it's not a deal breaker by any means. If you fancy fiddling around tirelessly with all manner of odd bits and pieces that you've collected on your journies, then you can place them somewhere in your very own 'LocoRoco house'. All this appears to amount to is a sort of bizarre 'design your own level' play pen for your LocoRoco to independently bounce around in (to the music of your choice). By placing certain props and platforms in their path, you can set off chain reactions and sit back and watch them happily interact with your creation. It's fun to watch, and sort of mindlessly amusing when you've got some time to devote to it, but hardly in the same league as actually playing the main game. The ability to subsequently exchange them wirelessly with a friend will no doubt offer a certain cult appeal to the really devoted - at a push.
Various mini games can be found elsewhere once you've mined the game fully, but, again, aren't much more than minor curiosities. Available by default, MuiMui Crane is like one of those simple cuddly toy games at fairgrounds where a metallic arm dives in and grabs one (if you're lucky), and this operates on the same principle - except you're trying to extract MuiMui for reasons that aren't all that obvious. Meanwhile, the unlockable Chuppa Chuppa is another short-lived affair where you must fire LocoRoco around a thorn-filled level using the long-beaked Chuppa, with the idea to launch it around for as long as possible without hitting a thorn. Neither will occupy anyone for too long, so don't get too excited. This isn't a game flush with too many useful hidden extras.
Aside from experimental unlocks and silly novelties, the LocoRoco experience is one of undiluted fun. If the tilting, blob moving puzzle-platforming doesn't warm your heart, then the catalogue of alarmingly addictive psychotic J-Pop tunes will have you dancing around the living room. Bound together by bite-sized playability, endless secrets and the most charming 2D visuals ever conceived, LocoRoco is the perfect distilation of everything a handheld game should be. It's the sort of quirkily original PSP title that we've been screaming for - buy it and smile all summer long.