Version tested: Wii
Nintendo's New Play Control! series will reissue some of the company's GameCube games for the Wii with tweaks to the game design here and there, and controls re-engineered to take advantage of the Wii remote. They're neither straight re-releases nor complete remakes, and they might seem a curious move when you consider that any of the originals can be picked up on the cheap and played on the backwards-compatible Wii if you have a GameCube controller.
You can justifiably call them a cynical attempt to plug the machine's release schedule with high-margin filler. You can just as easily rejoice at the restoration of some terrific (and actually, not so easy to find) games from an overlooked but very creative period in the history of one of the world's great videogame makers. Or you might welcome the introduction of those games to a huge new audience that missed them first time around - an audience that isn't interested in digging around in bargain bins, or manipulating strange purple controllers. At least, unlike last year's Wii version of Animal Crossing, they're honestly presented as embellished ports rather than new releases.
New Play Control! is just business, of course, but it's business that bridges the increasingly painful gap between Nintendo's specialised past and everyman present, and goes some way towards rounding out the selection of games on the Wii shelves in the shop. In reviewing these reissues, we're going to judge their quality against new Wii releases, see how they stand up today, and how they've been changed - for better or worse.
First up is Pikmin, Shigeru Miyamoto's surreal gardening-strategy-adventure from 2001 - a very early GameCube release. Nintendo fans at the time were baffled and heartbroken by their guru's seeming disinterest in a substantial new Mario or Zelda in favour of small-scale experiments like Pikmin and Luigi's Mansion. Over seven years on, with Super Mario Galaxy and Zelda: Twilight Princess relatively fresh in the memory, it's easier to appreciate these games for what they are, rather than what they aren't.
And Pikmin is, in its bizarre way, still the most successful realisation of multi-tasking, real-time strategy gameplay there has ever been on a console. Players take control of Captain Olimar, an inch-high spaceman stranded like Gulliver on a strange planet that looks oddly like an unkempt back yard, only populated with the strangest creatures imaginable: lumbering, strawberry-bodied Bulborbs; translucent fire-breathing Blowhogs; ethereal, floating Honeywisps. And Pikmin.
Pikmin turn out to be a willing army of minuscule, colour-coded, flower-topped plant-men who live in onion-shaped helicopter tripods. Olimar can grow them, pluck them from the ground, throw them about, and command up to one hundred of them at a time to do his bidding: combat with other creatures, harvesting of materials, construction and demolition work - and most importantly, salvage. He needs their help to fetch and carry 25 missing parts of his spaceship in thirty "days" (about 15 minutes each) before his air supply runs out.
The point-and-click (or rather, point-and-throw) interface for assigning Pikmin to tasks makes the game an obvious candidate for a Wii makeover. The cursor is now directed just by pointing the Wii remote - in the GameCube version, both cursor and Olimar's movement were combined on the stick. Naturally, use of the pointer is extremely fast and intuitive. The remainder of the controls - dismiss and divide Pikmin, summon with whistle, throw, cycle between types - are roughly similar.
The only exception is direct command of your squad, who in the GameCube version could be moved around with the C-stick to keep them out of harm's way, or push them into nearby tasks. This is now accomplished by holding down on the d-pad and directing with the pointer. If anything, it's slightly more cumbersome than it was before, but then again the ease of pointer control means you'll be using it less.
The best thing you can say about New Play Control! Pikmin is that you'll have stopped thinking about its selling point within minutes of starting to play. The controls are so lucid and transparent, and the game itself is so absorbing, that your attention immediately goes elsewhere. Getting to grips with the original certainly wasn't this easy. But it's also fair to say that GameCube Pikmin did such a good job within the limitations of the pad - elegant control schemes and their synergy with game design being Miyamoto's chief genius, after all - that the difference between the two versions isn't as great as you might have thought.
Aside from the controls, Pikmin has been left virtually untouched by Nintendo. The controversial thirty-day time-limit remains, meaning it's possible to "fail" the game and have to start again from scratch if you don't find the 25 essential parts within that time. However, there is one important concession - progress (or lack of it) isn't set in stone, as it was in the original. You can now restart from an earlier day if a rampaging Bulborb or careless puddle-drowning causes a genocidal setback to your Pikmin populations, or if you simply feel you didn't make enough progress that day. In reality, that makes it highly unlikely that you'll need to restart.
With the pressure lifted and pointer in hand, Pikmin is a joy to rediscover. Visually it has aged a little, but not at all badly. The environments are plain, but they always were, the game's charm residing in its vast cast of bewitching and exquisitely animated creatures, the stylistic clash between the surreal and the mundane (clockwork space rockets and rusting tin cans), and best of all, the teeming swarms of the Pikmin themselves. Their naturalistic, funny and adorably eager crowd behaviour - from heedless bustle to panic, regimental order to slapstick stumbles - is as unpredictable and magical a sight now as it was in 2001.
The music is superb - a relaxing, soundscape lullaby - and the design is hard to fault, too. The simple characteristics of the three Pikmin types - red are strong, blue survive in water, yellow can use bombs and be thrown higher - balance perfectly against the level designs and the pleasing checks and balances of unit production and management. Pikmin left in the ground grow stronger, but subtract from the total available for use in the field; this can be circumvented with a nectar-feeding evolutionary shortcut; a low population of one type of Pikmin can be corrected by having them harvest more, but that leaves fewer of them available for active duty, and so on.
The game's self-sustaining equilibrium means assembling an optimum Pikmin squad is always interesting, but never threateningly critical. Rarely has a strategy game been so approachable, or so subtle. It's just a shame that it's over far too quickly. This is a short game, and arguably the friendliness of the new save structure gives it even less longevity than it had before.
Pikmin is such a one-off that it's as fresh as a walking, squeaking daisy now; fresh enough to make this reissue an exciting prospect for anyone who's never played it, or remembers it fondly but only vaguely. The structure; the dreamlike, 'In the Night Garden' atmosphere; Olimar's endearingly eloquent log entries; and the inverse wonder of its scale, the exciting sense of discovering new life under the microscope. In the last seven years, there's been nothing like it.
Only, of course, there has: its sequel. 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. That's almost a shame - because in truth, Pikmin is a minor classic, and this is the best version of it.
7 / 10