Version tested: Wii
"In the last seven years, there's been nothing like it," I wrote in my review of New Play Control! Pikmin a couple of months back. I eulogised the surreal strategy adventure's charm, still-striking originality, perfect balance and faultless new pointer control - but gave it the mildly disappointing score of 7. On this occasion at least, there was method to my madness.
"Only, of course, there has: its sequel," I wrote. "And this presents us with the biggest problem by far with this release. Pikmin 2 is also due a New Play Control! reissue this year, and it's a better game in every respect. It's longer and more sophisticated, with more varied Pikmin and enemy types; it has co-operative and competitive multiplayer; it has randomised caves with finite Pikmin numbers, ideal for the game's challenge mode; it has no time limit. It represents much better value, and we're hard-pressed not to recommend you hold off and buy that instead."
The happy day has come: you don't need to hold off any longer (well, not any longer than a week - it's out on Friday 24th). And I don't need to qualify my statements any more, or temper my love of Pikmin with a stingy score. Pikmin 2 is back, and in the last five years, there's been nothing like it.
The foundations of Shigeru Miyamoto's gardening-inspired sort-of-strategy sequel are identical to the first game; refer back to the New Play Control! Pikmin review for a study of those, and of the impact of the new Wii control scheme. For those who don't want to click away, here's the précis: inch-high spaceman cultivates and commands an army of ant-like flower-people to do his bidding in backyard landscapes.
They collect and harvest stuff, fight all manner of wondrous and bizarre creatures, overcome obstacles, die pathetically in a manner that makes grown men cry and are adorable. The game is beautifully designed within a short span and rather clumsy time limit, the pointer controls are a perfect fit for it, and the music and atmosphere are reminiscent of the dreamlike lullaby weirdness of 1970s preschool childrens' TV.
In Pikmin 2 Captain Olimar returns from his adventures to discover that his employers, an intergalactic shipping firm, are going bust. He's dispatched with clueless dogsbody Louie to return to the Pikmin planet and bring back "treasure" (batteries, crushed cans, fruit and vegetables, Nintendo memorabilia) with which to pay off the company's debt.
It's a silly plot - albeit nicely exploited for gentle laughs by a witty script in a superb translation (as ever with Nintendo). But it has two salient consequences for gameplay. One, the pressure is off - Olimar's not running out of oxygen, so although play is still broken up into days, there's no hard time limit and you can take as long as you like to complete the game. Thus there are no changes to Pikmin 2's save structure for this new Wii version, because this time, it doesn't need them. (In fact, controls aside, there are no changes to the game at all.)
Two, you now have two spacemen on the ground, Olimar and Louie, who can be switched between at will in single-player. Each can command a separate Pikmin squad, which makes multi-tasking considerably easier than it was in the first game, a boon when things gets busy. Louie's presence also paves the way for the game's two multiplayer modes, Battle and Challenge (the latter needs to be unlocked in the single-player campaign).
Other than that, you get two new flavours of Pikmin: the chunky purple sprouts, who land with an earth-shaking thud and have the strength (and weight) of ten plant-men; and the sickly, eerie-looking white Pikmin, who can withstand poison and dig up hidden treasures. Cultivation of these types is limited, since they can't be grown from raw materials, only converted five at a time in certain flowers, which adds an interesting new dynamic to population management. With some small adjustments to the abilities of the original red, yellow and blue trio, the new Pikmin open out the game without overwhelming you with choice or disturbing its fine balance.
None of the above is what really makes Pikmin 2 outshine its predecessor, however. More important is the increased density and length of the game, with some 200 items to find versus Pikmin's 30. More important still is the way much of this abundance of content is delivered: in dungeon crawls.
When your game is already an unclassifiable blend of RTS and action-adventure, throwing in the level-plumbing, loot, and no-turning-back risk and reward of a dungeon-crawling RPG is either genius or madness. I'm going with the former. Pikmin 2's caves suspend the passage of the time, allow only a finite number of Pikmin (you can choose how many, but whatever you lose can't be replaced until you emerge), and descend through a series of one-way levels before culminating in a boss fight.
They're a total success, giving the Pikmin template more variety, greater focus, more condensed and crafted level design, more shiny rewards, and restoring a sense of urgency without introducing the stressful constraints of the first game. They heighten that weird microcosmic atmosphere too, with the lilting tunes of above ground taking a turn for moody radiophonic experiments below.
Finally, they make for a neat competitive/co-operative two-player mode in Challenge as you seek to complete caves in the fastest time, losing the least Pikmin, working with and against a friend. Battle mode isn't quite as fun - the race to move marbles to bases works well enough as a design, but it's a forced attempt at softening the brutal dynamics of competitive RTS for Pikmin's family-friendly world. It doesn't sit right. Both modes suffer from tight split-screen presentation too, which can be awkward when tracking large crowds of scurrying Pikmin.
They're not to be sneezed at, all the same, and contribute more than a little to Pikmin 2 being a delight to rediscover. It's expansive, compulsive and overloaded with thoughtful and beguiling details, from Olimar's encyclopaedic log entries on every specimen and artefact in the world to the game's insane menagerie of tactically interesting enemies.
It's so good, there's been no need to change it. As well as the pointer works, it's probably not justification enough of this reissue for Pikmin 2 veterans who still own their GameCube copies. For those who've never experienced this true original, however, or for those who want to be reunited with it, New Play Control! Pikmin 2 comes highly recommended.
8 / 10