Release Date: September 6, 2006
Barring the release of a sleeper classic in the next three months, LocoRoco will likely be my pick for handheld game of the year. I typically hesitate to begin a review with such a bold statement (especially in early September), but LocoRoco is a bold game and certainly deserves the praise. Without the help of 3D graphics or an identifiable main character, LocoRoco redefines the platform genre, taking a simplistic approach that eliminates use of the d-pad. Like Katamari Damacy before it, LocoRoco charms its way into your heart, then delivers a seriously enjoyable experience to seal the deal.
Unlike most platform games, LocoRoco does not task the player with controlling a character, human or otherwise. Instead, you control the environment. This concept has been explored before in titles like Super Monkey Ball, but not in a 2D side-scrolling environment. Controlling the world does not require the d-pad, analog stick, or even the face buttons; nearly everything is mapped to the left and right shoulder buttons. Holding down the left shoulder button tilts the world to the left, while holding the right button does just the opposite. So what's the point? Let me tell you a bit about the LocoRoco.
The LocoRoco are a simple race of blob-like creatures, and according to the instruction booklet, "all they want to do is have fun." Apparently, their idea of fun is smiling, singing, and rolling around. Wait, that's fun for humans too! The key difference worth noting (besides the circular shape) is that the LocoRoco can combine into a much larger being. Most levels start with just a single LocoRoco on-screen, with 19 red berries scattered throughout, many of which are hidden from plain view. Eating a berry causes your LocoRoco to expand, though a single press of the circle button will separate your larger creature into its individual parts. Holding down the button causes them to combine once more.
Like most platformers, the basic premise is to navigate to the end of the level. LocoRoco doesn't deviate too much in this respect, but it is the navigation that makes the game a distinct entry in the genre. As noted, the shoulder buttons tilt the environment, making your circular LocoRoco roll about. Holding and releasing both buttons at once makes the LocoRoco jump, which is necessary for reaching platforms and bounding over rocky terrain. Enemies are not as prevalent in LocoRoco as in many other platformers, but if you see a Moja coming your way, be sure to jump right at it to knock it out. Otherwise, it may pluck a LocoRoco from your being, which you can only get back by ramming it immediately.
LocoRoco features 40 distinct levels, each vibrantly displayed in varying color schemes and with unique details. Pickories takes the place of coins or gems or whatever your favorite platform pick-up is. Collecting 100 of them does not give you an extra life, nor does it have any sort of immediate benefit. Instead, the collected pickories are added to your total and can be spent in the unlocked mini-games. The lack of a life-bar or any real danger is one of the more refreshing aspects of the game. Sure, you can technically lose if you roll your last LocoRoco into a burr or are attacked, but it is thankfully very difficult to do.
Forty levels sounds like a fairly significant amount, but most will be able speed through the game in about six hours. A word of warning: Savor the experience. Each level has several hidden areas, many of which are not immediately visible. Roll around a bit and look for secret entrances. The reward can often be more than just additional pickories, as each level contains three hidden Mui Mui. The Mui Mui have more of a human shape and must be collected to unlock the mini-games in LocoRoco. Luckily, any level can be played at any time, so don't worry if you miss some along the way.
Getting from the start to the finish is not a particularly difficult endeavor, especially with the general lack of ever-present danger. However, it's not always smooth-rolling in the world of LocoRoco, which is why you are given the ability to combine and separate via the circle button. Rolling large is preferred, as you will roll faster, jump higher, and keep everyone together. Still, there are many occasions on which you'll have to break into pieces if you want to advance. Many of the levels have tight tunnels, while others have gusts of wind that will guide your crew to a new locale. It's an interesting technique, but if you are rolling solo, make sure to keep everyone on-screen. If your LocoRoco roll too far away, a Moja may eat 'em up after a few seconds.
What drives the experience is the visual and audio presentation. The game looks like a cartoon for toddlers, but don't let that lead you astray – the game simply oozes personality. Everything in the game, be it LocoRoco, enemy, or environment, is made up of simple shapes and singular colors. Nothing is hyper-detailed; it's almost like the game was made from construction paper cut-outs, but it's unlikely that the game could have worked this well on the Game Boy Advance or even the Nintendo DS. The visuals are sharply rendered with zero slowdown or pixelation, and the wider screen gives you a much better view of what you might be rolling towards.
As much as I love the visuals (quite a bit), I have to give serious props to the original music and bizarre vocals. LocoRoco uses a created language for all speech and songs (sample lyric: "Kokoreccho pie-nto-ra ma-nima-ni ungarafoccha-ra de-ra"). Though it may sound like gibberish, each word supposedly means something, which will hopefully be revealed at some point. Each of the six types of LocoRoco (yellow, pink, blue, red, black, and green) has its own facial expressions and unique tone of voice. All six of the LocoRoco have their own original song as well, which they sing at the end of the level and at certain points to impress the sun, clouds, or plants. It is hilarious and ridiculously adorable at the same time.
LocoRoco has three mini-games, two of which are unlockable by collecting the Mui Mui found in the levels. Mui Mui Crane is immediately accessible and resembles the standard crane game found in your local arcade. Instead of stuffed animals, you will be grabbing at building pieces and LocoRoco for your Loco House. The Chuppa Chuppa mini-game is definitely more interesting but also seriously frustrating. In it, you must launch LocoRoco about while avoiding cleverly placed burrs. I must have played it 20 or more times before finally completing it. Sadly, I was only rewarded with a piece for the Loco House.
The third mini-game is the Loco Editor, which allows you to create your level and send it to a friend via an ad-hoc connection. It sounds like a great concept but is ultimately uninteresting, as the created levels are nowhere near as interactive as the pre-made ones already in the game. The Loco House meets a similar fate. Pieces collected in the levels and mini-games can be put into a house for the LocoRoco, who will hang around and, well, emote. It's not quite Animal Crossing – not even close, really. The only other wireless option is the ability to send a demo level to a friend. Any kind of multiplayer mode would have been nice. I can imagine racing a friend to the end of the level, or battling through an obstacle course ... there are so many possibilities, none of which are present in LocoRoco.
LocoRoco is a stunning achievement in modern gaming. It is entirely in 2D and uses only three buttons, but it is one of the best games available on the PSP. Most shocking of all is the fact that it came from Sony, the same company that shunned 2D games on their console systems. Granted, the silly visuals and joyous songs would all be for naught if the gameplay didn't match up; such is not the case, luckily. Eighteen months after its launch, the PSP finally has a fantastic original franchise not named Lumines. Pick it up, sing along, and enjoy the first great game of the fall.