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Called LOCOROCO, the globule-filled game is a much-touted, highly anticipated offering. More often than not, a game doesn't live up to the hype that precedes its release. Look at The Matrix (a real money pit) or even last year's disappointing Madden 06. That's not the case with a small game called LocoRoco for Sony's PSP. The hype began with drooling bloggers almost a year ago. Phrases like "sleeper hit" were bandied about constantly. Early game art looked a little like the Nintendo DS' Mario games in their simplicity. LocoRoco" graphics were intentionally childish, reminding me of one of the greatest games ever for the old PlayStation, the rhythm-based Parappa The Rapper with its first grader-like cutout 2D figures.

So what is LocoRoco? First off, it's a simple cartoon-like game. You press the right and left buttons at the top of your PSP to play the game. With the occasional pressing of the 'O' button, that's all you need to play LocoRoco. Believe me, kids won't be able to get enough of it. Adults won't be able to put it down, either.

I know that's a grand statement, especially since I usually don't rave about games, even the ones I really like. But the allure for LocoRoco is manifold. LocoRoco are cute, bulbous, smiley creatures that sing ultra-catchy pop songs. They shake when they move like the element mercury. They're so adorable, you want to hug them—even if you're not predisposed to such emotion. They're also so cute you don't want to see them die, which is why you keep playing: to get them safely to the end of each level without perishing.

NHL 07: Feel like the next Gretzky
image: EA Sports
NHL 07: Feel like the next Gretzky

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    None of this would be worth a plug nickel if the game play weren't so intensely compelling and challenging. Immediately in the first level, you're placed into a strange world full of twists and turns, mountains and hills and moons and suns. You've got to move your LocoRoco up and down these crazy paths. This becomes increasingly difficult because the LocoRoco needs to feed and gets fatter and fatter. To try to get your portly creature up a big hill, you'll find yourself turning and twisting the PSP as if it had a gyroscope inside. But it has no such machine. You just have to be supremely accurate with your pressing of the buttons.

    Hills aren't the only danger in LocoRoco. If he runs into prickly plants or evil inkblot spiders called mojas, he'll come apart like Humpty Dumpty into many tiny LocoRoco. That's when you press the 'O' button, to put Humpty Dumpty, er, LocoRoco back together again. You quest is to find all the LocoRoco in each level, which isn't easy because they're hidden in caves, grottoes or even underneath the ground.

    There's also a beauty to the simple graphics. Often, you'll be shot like a rocket through nooks and crevasses and up high into starry space. You'll feed as you go on flowers and such. But you'll also get fatter and fatter. Yet that's the goal. This is an Adkins Diet Free Zone. So pig out.

    Simple and challenging really is the grail in most video games. It's rare that the two come together, so uncommon it's like a sighting of the mola mola, a huge, strange ocean sun fish in the Atlantic's coastal waters. Such a sighting is a feast for the eyes and a big deal for marine biologists. The release of LocoRoco is also a big deal. It's not only a new debut for Sony (which is often too dependent on its franchises). "It's one of the best games of the year."

    Okami
    Publisher: Capcom
    Developer: Clover Studio

    Ukiyo-e, for the uninitiated among you, means 'pictures of the floating world' in Japanese. It's a name given to a kind of ethereal Japanese woodblock print which gained popularity in Edo (Tokyo) as far back as the early 1600s. In the book, Masterpieces of Japanese Prints, Richard Lane writes that it was from traditional schools of Japanese art that ukiyo-e, "acquired its basic themes, its lovely and harmonious coloring, its sinuous, supple line, and its emphasis on the dramatic relationship between figures."

    OK, this ain't no art class, but ukiyo-e and its celebration of the earthly spirit, the underworld, and the heavens, is part of what makes OKAMI one of the year's best games. Okami, the new action/adventure game from Capcom, is one of the most beautifully rendered games of the 2006. Because of its attention to Japanese myth, ground-breaking game play and graphics reminiscent of Asian ink painting on rice paper, it's in a class by itself.

    In Okami, you're Amaterasu, a sun god who's returned to earth and has taken the form of a snow white wolf. Your mission is to stop the huge and monstrous Orochi, who has unleashed a kind of apocalypse upon the peaceful world of Nippon (Japan). Even as you move through the first level of Okami, you'll marvel at its beauty and shudder at its monsters.

    In Okami, you're no hack-and-slash swordsman, killing willy nilly to progress in the game. What you'll really become early on is a kind of artist of the gods. You'll meet a small god and companion called Issun, a bug who'll teach you how to employ your PlayStation 2 controller's left stick as a brush. You'll be informed that there are 13 gods of the brush, and as you move through these starry worlds, you'll become adept at using the them.

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