The recent announcement of Pikmin 3 for the Wii U was enough to get me in the mood to revisit the series for the first time in quite a while. The original game in the series, which, along with Super Smash Bros. Melee, was my first Gamecube game back in 2002 and it proved to be a revelation. A fresh IP from the genius mind of the great Shigeru Miyamoto who was inspired by watching ants working together in his back garden the beautifully presented and original game remains a gem among early Gamecube titles.
Captain Olimar is a 4cm tall spaceman from Planet Hocotate whose ship, the Dolphin is struck by a meteor sending it crashing into a mysterious planet. The Dolphin broke up on re-entry shedding thirty of its vital parts far and wide, worse still the planet’s atmosphere is full of oxygen, a toxic gas to Olimar who has thirty days of life support to find his missing ship parts. Fortunately help is at hand in the form of tiny plant creatures Olimar names Pikmin who seem happy to help him recover the parts and rebuild the Dolphin.
Pikmin is the closest thing Nintendo has produced to an RTS. As Olimar you must guide an army of Pikmin to explore the alien world in search of parts to carry back to the ship while keeping them safe from the various hostile and hungry local creatures who love nothing more than a tasty Pikmin snack. You can build up your army by having Pikmin carry downed meanies and colourful pellets to their Onion. These flying vegetables not only serve as a haven and base for the critters but will convert organic matter into Pikmin sprouts which germinate in the ground waiting to be plucked by Olimar.
Pikmin come in three flavours. The flame-retardant red variety is the strongest, yellows can be thrown higher and carry explosive bomb-rocks and blues can survive in water. Furthermore Pikmin can be upgraded to move faster and fight harder by evolving from leaf to bud to flower by either supping on delicious nectar or leaving them unpicked for a long time. You issue commands by either throwing individuals at targets to attack or grab hold of something or by guiding the whole group with the C stick to swarm and overpower enemies or quickly assign large numbers to combine their strength and pick up objects. A tap of X will dismiss the party sorting them into their colours and leaving them idle while holding B calls Pikmin selected by your expanding cursor to your side with a whistle.
The game is unique in the way it combines an urgent race-against-time with a mellow, relaxing aura. The thirty day time limit is very real and if you fail to recover all the important ship parts by the end of day thirty you will fail the game. In game days last around twenty minutes during which time you have to manage your time wisely to gain as many ship parts as possible before returning your Pikmin safely to their Onions and lifting off to avoid the dangerous nocturnal beasts. This kind of timed game is rare and not always too popular given how stressful they can be and while Pikmin is no exception the concept lends the game a stimulating urgency that juxtaposes its serene tone.
Playing Pikmin is like enjoying a reverent ode to the beauty and terrors of life and nature. As you explore the gorgeous, near photo-realistic landscapes your senses are soothed by a beautiful new age soundtrack that complements the setting perfectly. The environments themselves are packed with immersive detail that paints a very believable world from the eye level of an insect. Dandelions tower above you, tree stumps form vast walls and small puddles are lake vast lakes to your miniature hero and his army. But the most endearing part of the game design is undoubtedly the Pikmin themselves.
It is impossible not to form a strong emotional attachment to the impossibly cute creatures, a fact made all the more powerful when they die, something that cannot be avoided. Pikmin are fragile things that can be eaten, squashed, drowned or burned to death if you’re not careful and you will quickly learn to detest many of the troublesome enemies that want to kill or eat them (especially those damn Wollywogs). The Pikmin display enormous personality thanks in no small part to a wide array of adorable voice cues including high-pitched a cry of ‘Yah!’ when attacking, a sigh of disappointment when they realize they aren’t needed to carry an object and calls of triumph at successfully delivering a part back to the Dolphin but it’s the tragic death weep that will stay with you the most. The tiny creatures are all superbly animated, moving fluidly and independently, some occasionally tripping and falling as you march through the wilderness. One thing you will go out of your way to avoid is leaving any behind at the end of a day because the sight of a single straggler running for his already airborne Onion before being munched is the most heart-breaking thing in any video game ever.
Play is all about exploring and managing your Pikmin to transport ship parts to the Onion as efficiently as possible. To succeed you must clear routes of obstacles including dangerous enemies, sometimes having your Pikmin build bridges or knock down gates. There is some strategy involved in what colours you choose for example a part sitting in a pool of water can only be retrieved by blues, if you have to carry the part past flame jets reds are your best bet and yellows will be needed to reach parts in high places. It’s simple enough and most of the work is in identifying and working out how to negotiate various hazards. Most parts are located in plain sight but some can only be found by defeating boss enemies which must be approached cautiously to keep your vulnerable Pikmin alive and to work out a strategy for defeating them. There’s a lot of satisfaction in successfully opening up a safe path and retrieving two or three ship parts in a single day and taking down an Armoured Canon Beetle without losing any troops is very gratifying. Managing large groups of Pikmin can be a task as they tend to get stuck when trying to pass through small gaps and using the C stick to direct them is tricky. Idle creatures will often jump on a task unbidden and it can be a pain to have to call back wayward Pikmin as they blindly carry off a pellet into the path of ravenous enemies. For the most part the game is a joy to play, simple to understand and pick up but constantly rewarding.
The only factor that really keeps Pikmin from classic status is its short length. If you know what you’re doing you can breeze through and collect all thirty ship parts in a few hours but there’s a challenge mode to keep you occupied and the game is good enough to merit repeat visits to the campaign but the unique concept, beautiful presentation and engaging gameplay merits a lengthier experience, something we were given in the superior sequel.
Design – 9
Gameplay – 8
Graphics – 9
Sound – 9
Longevity – 5
A short-lived but unique garden strategy joy, Pikmin is as delightful today as it ever was. For all its cutesy appeal the game boasts intelligent design, stellar gameplay and a raw presentation of nature. Beautiful.