Difficult to explain. That's Pikmin all over for us. Not in the sense that it's overly complicated or in any way perplexing - it's a wonderful teacher, and you're never left lagging behind the rest of the class - but more in the sense that it's difficult to explain to people with no frame of reference. Perfect example: standing at the bar last night, we found ourselves chatting to a random blonde lady (having correctly predicted that having turned up after us, with breasts, she would be served first), who asked us what we'd been doing that afternoon. Given the alcohol, our choice of words probably wasn't spectacularly clever, but "The last thing I did before coming here was celebrate my little yellow flower people fwapping their petals against electric fences," probably ruined our chances of being asked anything else and left her questioning our sexuality.
However, frankly, nice though she was, we'd probably take another evening playing Pikmin 2 over a similar period of time in her company. Although, in fact, the joy of Pikmin is that we could almost certainly combine the two; besides Tetris, rhythm-action and singing titles, there aren't too many other games that manage to strike such a universally appreciable chord with virtually anybody who sets eyes on them.
Before we start delving into the root cause of that appeal, it's probably worth reminding everyone what the original Pikmin was like. Simple, elegant, and supremely polished, it was a strategy game of sorts which saw you - as marooned space captain Olimar - directing swathes of waist-high, plant-like creatures called Pikmin to try and help you find the missing parts of your battered ship. You'd whistle to call them to you and they'd follow you around like Lemmings so you could direct them to attack the indigenous creatures, hack down walls to reach new areas, and bring spaceship parts back to base. You could also grow your ranks of Pikmin workers very easily by having them take down plants and creatures and return them to their peculiar pod-homes-on-stilts, which would then spit out Pikmin seeds which Olimar could pluck to bring them to life and swell the ranks. There were different sorts of Pikmin with particular abilities, and each of the game's levels was filled with ingenious challenges that encouraged forethought and lateral thinking.
To give the game structure, there was also a day/night cycle at work, and you had to get all your Pikmin back in their pod by the end of the day or else the bigger nocturnal creatures would come out and gobble them all up. And you couldn't mess about either, because you only had 30 days in which to gather up the parts of your ship, something that contributed to our two main criticisms of the game - that it was over far too quickly, and that it fostered an unwanted sense of being under pressure in certain gamers, including this reviewer.
Pikmin 2 solves both of those problems. The story sees Olimar returning to the Pikmin homeworld to try and rustle up $10,000 worth of treasure - items like bottle tops, crushed coke cans, discarded Game & Watch units, and other quirky and often Nintendo-inspired treats - in order to help pay off a loan that's crippled the company that employs him. This initially had us worrying about renewed time constraints, but actually you can take as long as you want to try and gather the dough, even though you still have to work within the bounds of the day/night cycle. In other words, there's less pressure overall, but the game retains its neat and sometimes-exacting structure. As for the length of the game - there's so much to do and uncover here for a single player that you could probably finish the original several times over in the time it takes to reach the end sequence.
But the fact that Pikmin 2 is a dramatic improvement owes just as much to the other changes and many additions that Nintendo has incorporated as it does to curing the original's ills. There are new breeds of Pikmin to command, subterranean dungeons to explore, a new two-character dynamic that allows you to multitask, and a pair of two-player modes, both of which are surprisingly absorbing. And although they might not capture everyone's attention, we certainly found that the new Piklopedia and Treasures sub-sections swallowed up a surprising amount of our time; Olimar's accounts of creatures and treasure items, and indeed the rest of the dialogue in the game, has been translated from Japanese with a loving hand, and it shows.
The most obvious change for returning fans is the addition of a second playable character, Louie, a fairly dim colleague of Olimar's. You can switch control and focus between the two characters at any time by pressing the Y button, and both are capable of doing all the usual Pikmin things - whistling to summon them (B), throwing them to reach higher areas of tackle enemies in the face or on the back (A), directing them to swarm in a particular direction (C-stick), and dismissing control of them so they regroup in little same-coloured regiments (X). The fact that you now have two characters means that, with a little practice and, again, forward thinking, you can achieve a lot more than you used to be able to during the course of the day. And, naturally, it lets Nintendo up the ante in terms of puzzling level design.
Likewise the addition of new breeds of Pikmin. The old red, yellow and blue types are back - red being fire resistant, yellow electricity, and blue water - and this time they're joined by purple and white versions. Purple Pikmin are much bulkier than regular breeds, and count for ten regular Pikmin when it comes to lifting objects or knocking things down, while the white strain are actually poisonous, which allows them to roam through noxious gases and destroy poisonous obstructions, and kill anything that tries to eat them. They'll be dead as a result, but they'll do some damage on the way. The more versatile white Pikmin are also capable of locating hidden treasure; pretty soon after they land, Olimar and Louie get hold of a metal detector-style device that allows them to find valuable treasure with a bit more ease, and sometimes a strong signal means it's time for the white Pikmin to dig.
Then there are the underground dungeons. Pikmin 2 is split into four vast areas, each of which has plenty to progressively explore as you gather more Pikmin and unlock their inherent abilities, but there are also now little rocky holes dotted around, each of which is the opening to a particular dungeon-style affair. Inside a dungeon, you'll find a few self-contained levels full of different creatures and generally a couple of treasure pieces each, and the idea is to overcome the various obstacles, retrieve the treasure, and descend until you find a geyser to propel you back to the surface. You'll also generally meet a boss monster on the final floor, and these often require a fair bit of strategic thinking on the fly to overcome.
The dungeons are particularly challenging though because in each case you can only use the Pikmin you take with you. There's no way to grow any more until you get back to the surface. In other words, you can't afford to be wasteful, and you'll have to think before you try anything. Fortunately, the day/night time constraints don't apply here, so you can at least take your time, safe in the knowledge that when you emerge you won't have run the clock down to nightfall and wasted your time. Although...you can only take your time to a certain extent - you'll want to act relatively fast, because certain creatures will try and pinch your treasure if you decide to dillydally, and they'll drag it irretrievably into a flowery hole in the ground.
Which, it seems safe to say, means you're going to have to redo bits if you want to gather enough cash to pay off that $10,000 debt and see everything. But you won't mind. In fact, despite only featuring four play areas (populated with some 20 or so dungeons in total), you rarely find yourself bored by the familiar scenery, and there's always something new to do. You'll see treasure in places you can't reach, and you'll want to find out how to get there. You'll discover spices which improve certain attributes for a limited period of time, and you'll want to experiment with them. You'll crack your brain on some of the puzzle logic, and you'll derive tremendous satisfaction when they finally succumb to your mighty horde. And so on.
You'll also stave off boredom because the game is relentlessly and giddily gorgeous. Each area represents a particular season, filled with lovely lighting effects, beautifully drawn environments, flora and fauna, and amusing animations, and each of them - the whole game in fact - has this pervading attention to detail about it. Even the menus and title screens have been polished until they glow, and that's to say nothing of the countless chuckle-inducing treasures to be uncovered, and the constant thrill of watching the little Pikmin scamper around Olimar and Louie's ankles. Bless them.
In fact, we don't often mention it, but if you have the hardware then it's well worth tracking down an American version in order to play the game in progressive scan mode. PAL gamers get a 60Hz mode (much appreciated) and, while we're dealing with technical issues, surround sound, but the NTSC version has the edge in this area. Your girlfriend or wife will suddenly appreciate the cash you spent on that plasma screen, rather than using it as a stick to beat you with whenever you mention money.
Pikmin 2 is, all things considered, one of the best ways reasons for lone gamers to dig out the GameCube again; it offers the same gloriously different style of gameplay that its predecessor did, and builds on it in countless ways. And, better still, it even gives you good cause to dust off that second control pad too thanks to a pair of multiplayer modes that, while not quite perfect, are far more impressive than we had any particular right to expect. Particularly the versus mode - after all, Pikmin may be a strategy game, but it's not really obviously comparable to any of the PC's multiplayer heavyweights.
Not that that's stopped Nintendo. The split-screen versus mode is quite ingenious - two players start off on opposite sides of the same small map with ranks of same-coloured Pikmin (since we're not puzzling, it does make sense just to have one group of all-purpose plant people), and the idea is to gather four yellow marbles strewn around the map, or steal your opponent's marble, which is located beneath his or her Pikmin spawn point. This is made all the more difficult by ranks of creatures swarming all over the map, and the roulette system - take a cherry back to base and you can spin a roulette wheel for power-ups and bonuses, perhaps gaining 5 or 10 more Pikmin, dumping a particular creature on your enemy's base with devastating consequences, or summoning your prize marble back home.
There's a surprising amount of strategy to it. Do you waste time building up your forces and clearing a path through the swathes of creatures? Do you take advantage of the eggs full of yellow goop, which transform your Pikmin into flowery Pikmin who can move that much faster? Do you try and go for the enemy marble, or just gather the yellow ones? Do you keep a small force back at base to fend off invaders? Unlike the single-player game, you only have one character to play with here, so there's an element of risk in whatever you choose to do.
It's not quite as brilliant as it could be - the camera doesn't always show you what you need to see in the tight confines of the ten versus maps - but on the whole it's far more than filler. Oh, and for some reason it doesn't seem to matter that you can always see what your opponent's doing. It just adds to the fun. Particularly when you rush into their base with a bunch of speedy flower Pikmin and grab the marble and they're so wrapped up in their own problems they don't notice until it's too late...
The rather more obvious co-operative mode, meanwhile, initially disappoints, but soon tempts you back in. First of all, you have to unlock it by collecting a particular item of treasure - uncovered several hours into the game, which is arguably a bit silly in itself - but what's more annoying is that you can't play the regular single-player game with two players. Instead you're limited to a number of co-op-specific challenge maps. Fortunately, these quickly turn out to be nicely thought out affairs; the idea is to retrieve various bits of treasure and find a hidden key, all against the clock, and it'll have you bellowing at your mate, your girlfriend, whoever, in no time. Just as it'll have you cheering when you win.
Buy it for peat's sake
There's certainly a lot of cheering to be done on the whole. In fact, there are only a couple of other things we'd take issue with - the way some Pikmin occasionally get snagged behind walls in tight areas, and the way the camera ever-so-occasionally conspires to throw you off. That's it really. Otherwise, just about anybody can pick up and play Pikmin 2 and enjoy it, and that even counts for people who don't get on with strategy games. It is, as we tried to tell the blonde at the bar, universally appealing - because it's easy on the eye, taxes the brain just enough, and keeps you entertained no matter who you are. Blooming brilliant.