I've liked a number of PSP games; I'd even say that a few of the currently available PSP titles are essential purchases. Of these essential games, though, there isn't a standout handheld classic - something that seems a perfect fit for the system. It's been eighteen months since the PSP launched in Japan, but finally Sony's handheld has a game that doesn't feel shoehorned into the UMD drive. LocoRoco is a classic.
The basic concept couldn't be simpler: guide some coloured blobs across the screen. The controls are equally basic, with the left and right shoulder buttons tilting the world, while holding the two together and releasing makes your blobs jump. As your blob moves along it can collect other tiny LocoRoco blobs from red plants sprouting out of the ground, which in turn grows your main blob. The giant blob can be split into individual LocoRocos by a single button-press, and this allows the little cuties to fall into places that are otherwise unreachable.
Other than making it to the end of the level with as many of the twenty LocoRoco blobs that you can find (which isn't always that easy to do), each level has a number of other collectable items that are hidden away. Lots of the items you collect don't seem to have an obvious purpose (or in fact a name), but hunting them out is always enjoyable. At times your LocoRoco need to sing a lovely little song in order to wake sleeping characters, but unless your group is made up of enough little blobs the music won't be loud enough. Assuming you're rolling with the required number of LocoRocos, you simply sit still and they'll start to sing a song - and what wonderful songs they are.
As far as in-game music goes, these tunes are among the catchiest and wee you're ever likely to hear. The fact that your LocoRocos can be seen singing makes it all the more entertaining. Even during general play you can see their mouths moving in time with the music. As you progress through the game you'll gain new LocoRocos, each of whom have their own distinct sound. While I personally have a fondness for the original yellow blobs you start the game with, everyone is bound to have their own favourite colour.
Presented entirely in 2D, the game might be rather too simple looking for some, but anyone with even half a heart should be able to appreciate the beauty of the game. I'm not one to start spewing flowery nonsense about how games are art, but I dare say that I haven't seen a more striking looking game on any system. The levels are full of colour and despite being simple, seem to be alive, with quirky enemy designs and some truly imaginative platforming sections.
The 40 levels don't pose much of a challenge or last that long, with a hefty chunk of that time spent simply watching your LocoRocos being carried along by the wind, but even watching them is great fun. With modern games offering increasingly more complex characters to play with in an effort to get the player to connect with the main character, it's amazing that within a few minutes I had developed a bond with the coloured blobs. If you miss a plant that is home to a LocoRoco and subsequently fall down a cliff, you feel genuinely sad for the friend you had to leave behind - its joyous face never getting a chance to see the light of day.
After the first few levels you'll wonder if the game is going to become a little repetitive, but it doesn't. New ideas are introduced regularly, and the environments and enemies show an equal amount of variety. Enemies share the same simple design as the LocoRocos, but their irregular shapes work in stark contrast to the loveable round blobs. At times the almost relentlessly cute game can even become rather dark, with a real sense of evil echoing through the level design. The enemies don't actually cause too many problems, but this won't stop your cursing when one of your blobs is sucked away by one of the brutes.
The secret sections within the levels initially seem so randomly laid out that you wonder how you'll ever find them all, but after a few levels you'll have learnt how to spot them. With your first run through the game unlikely to result in all the LocoRocos being found, let alone the MuiMui (strange grey people that live in holey houses) and all the LocoRoco house pieces, you'll want to replay each level until you have them all. The rewards for hunting down every last item aren't all that great, but when you're quite happy watching the title screen for five minutes, playing the game again is reward in itself.
A number of mini-games can be unlocked, but none of them are really worth playing for long periods, and the LocoRoco house mode seems to be something that will appeal to a select group of people - not me. If you're into creating virtual homes for your game characters, the items you collect during the game can be used to furnish the home, and you'll have to place things in a set way in order to get the LocoRoco to move into certain sections. A couple of throwaway features complete what the game has to offer, with a rather unexpected photo mode allowing you to take in-game snaps, and the obligatory demo sharing that PSP game developers love to include lets you send demo to a friend's PSP.
You could breeze through the game in a few short hours, but it really doesn't matter. Those few hours will be some of the most joyous of your gaming life. Even the stiffest of reserved Brits will struggle to refrain from a sneaky foot movement in time with the music - a cheeky grin slapped all over their face as the LocoRocos start a song for the umpteenth time. As far as PSP titles go, there is nothing that comes close to being so wonderfully suited to the platform, with every part of its design simply working how you'd want it to. The handheld has plenty of good games that are held back by mediocre controls. LocoRoco has no such leash around its neck.