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Crazy Cute 

Game On

Inside every grown-up is a toddler waiting to come out.

Once you get the new game, "LocoRoco," in your hands, that inner tot bounds out filled with glee and bubbly drool. Sticky fingers reach for the PSP, and giggles erupt as a fleshy ball of orange with two eyes and a smile starts rolling across the fruit-flavored world like a raindrop down a seesaw.

Cute? Painfully so. Interesting? What else do you call a game that combines Japanese Pachinko machine dynamics with marble-maze physics and makes the whole thing look like a baby toy?

"LocoRoco" arrives on the scene driven by two steady winds of change in the game business. One is the gusty success of weird Japanese games. For fans on the North American side of the Pacific, Japanese culture has long provided a source of international pleasure. Maybe our Asian friends get a kick out of the Western obsession with guns, dogs and BBQ, but we certainly enjoy their funny way of telling stories, their fastidious graphical style and their whimsical take on pop music.

The other happy trend in gaming is the flowing current of innovation. Despite what the sales charts might indicate, game developers like to think of themselves as auteurs and expressive artists. No one really wants to make the next "Madden" clone or "Doom" derivative. So you don't have to look too hard or far to find exciting flights of imagination drifting in the sea of look-alike products.

Put these two waves together and you get "LocoRoco" - a title as weird and cuddly as a Teletubby and as successfully different as anything released this year.

If you can imagine a smiling ball of mercury rolling through a nursery-rhyme acid trip, you'll be well on your way to capturing the delightful mix of odd and baby-cute. The game's play centers on tilting the abstract Loco world to the left and right, goading the rolling blob toward objectives and through the levels. A quick tap of the buttons causes the blob to hop and another to split the gelatinous Loco into droplets that are perfect for squeezing through small tubes and cracks

The simple game play and fleshy graphics embrace you like your grandma's flabby arms and provide some of the most soothing play packaged as a game. And that's a good thing. With so many games based on the battle of good and evil, it's nice to take a turn where the contest rages between cute and cuddly. Even the game's not-so-nice enemies are more a cheerful nuisance than any real threat

Perhaps worried that the game would come off too much like a plush digital toy, the designers have packed in several fun-extending features. A timed mode, for example, lets you race for the fastest route through each level. Game or toy, "LocoRoco" gives players a chance to explore their soft side.

Who's It For: Anyone old enough to hold a PSP will giggle at the roly-poly graphics and nursery-school music. But don't let the birthday-cake colors and sweetness mislead you. "LocoRoco" easily sits as one of the best games for the platform.

If You Like This, Try That: In many respects, "LocoRoco" picks up on the trail blazed by "Katamari Damcy." Bright colors, silly sounds and compulsive game play reveal the family resemblance between two games that deserve a place in any collection.

Best Part: When poor Loco gets eaten by a giant frog, players must navigate the amphibian's smooshy, gooey gastrointestinal tract.

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David Thomas

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