Question: What do you get when you combine a mega-market superstore, pushy customers, tons of game play twists and a bowtie-sporting gerbil named Gerry?

Answer: The best casual game of 2006 – so far.

From the opening strains of Shopmania, you know you’re in for a very different casual game experience. During its intro cartoon, an obnoxious announcer barks about “$pendmoore,” a local department store looking to lure in customers willing to buy anything – a great way to subtly lampoon our materialistic culture. But to focus on that is to miss the point.

Essentially, Shopmania is a love story. Admittedly one between a hapless shop-happy guy named Lewis and his ailing pet gerbil, Gerry. Having spent all his money at the mega-store, hapless Lewis decides that a job at $pendmoore is his only hope.

Even if you’re not chuckling yet, good luck keeping a straight face while playing Shopmania. This crazy plot is laid out through some of the best animation, sound and voice work I’ve seen in a casual game, all leading up to poor Lewis’ first day on the job.

As he manages the store registers, Lewis tries to fit as many items as he can into customer’s carts. Each cart has a number of square spaces, and products must be arranged to optimize the use of that grid. As items (anything from xylophones to boomerangs) roll in front of Lewis, he can rotate and place them in an open space in the cart.

In a twist vaguely reminiscent of a classic episode of I Love Lucy, items must be used quickly, since you can lose if more than three slide past you and off of the end of the conveyor belt. You can also lose if you let customers wait too long, so you don’t have much time for strategizing.

Much of the fun in Shopmania comes from the game of Chicken you need to play. You’ll often find yourself seeing how long you can wait before a customer storms off, hoping a marble comes down the conveyor belt in time to fill their cart. Naturally, variations exist. Shoppers will occasionally request a certain item, and more cash is given for making them happy. $pendmoore rewards you with a bonus for for filling a cart full or with items of the same color. In one of the game’s sillier turns, Gerry helps out, scrunching up his body to fill gaps in a customers’ cart.

You can also “bribe” customers ready to leave the store with a piece of candy, or use one of the game’s power-ups to thwart their departure. As the levels get tougher, you’ll need to put an added focus on these nuances. But even when you don’t positively need them, they’re still a lot of fun to play with.

Shopmania is all about grabbing as much money as possible, as Lewis attempts to sell enough to reach his quota (or his “Super Quota” for bonus points) before his customers run out. Once he’s got the cash, he can move on to the next level.

It’s all based on a formula that works by constantly twisting the basic premise. Just when you’ve mastered candy, for instance, you gain control of cart size. Suddenly, you’re given larger shopping carts to fill and different customers to appease. Then, you’re on to a different level, filling carts with luxury items instead of toys. Shopmania continues to be engaging by mixing it up whenever the player gets a little too comfortable.

What’s most impressive is that all these facets are introduced in such a way that the game is never too difficult. While you may have to replay a level several times, the gameplay, great graphics and silly sound effects (just try not shouting “Spennnddddd More!” along with the game when you beat your Super Quota) make it a treat, not a burden.

What surprised me most about the title, however, wasn’t its clever gameplay or cute graphics, but that with its jibes at this consumer-driven era, Shopmania may actually make you think. While having a message behind a game may be nothing new, it’s not common to find gameplay this strong so well superimposed over said message. That makes this one of the best casual games ever.

Just don’t go anti-materialism yet … you have a game to buy first.