It could be said that the GameCube is the platform that really lets Nintendo's creative guru Shigeru Miyamoto loose, conceptually. Pikmin is a sterling example of exactly how far the man's imagination can stretch, and his ability to design endearing, playable and thoroughly bizarre titles is resplendent throughout. It's obvious that he has a creative 'Midas touch', and Pikmin is full of intriguing ideas and wonderful characters through his influence, but is it actually any good to play?
You assume the role of Captain Olimar - a tubby little fellow with a big nose in a space suit complete with a shining wobbly antenna. Olimar's rocket ship, the Dolphin, has crash-landed on a mysterious planet, scattering parts of it in and around the crash site. Of course, Olimar can't take off and continue his journey home with his ship in the untidy state that it is, and so he sets off in search of the parts in order to repair it. Unfortunately he needs to recover the 30 parts of the ship in only 30 days before his life support system fails, and stops filtering out the poisonous gases in the planet's atmosphere.
And that's where you come in. At first, control of Olimar feels a little strange as you get used to the perspective controls, but the trigger buttons take care of this with three angles of zooming and an orientation correction function. As you start your search around the immediate area, you stumble across a huge red object which promptly springs from the ground at your presence, extending enormous spindly legs which elevate it above the surface. Olimar decides that he's going to dub this an "onion". Then, a tiny sparkle fires from the top of the onion, which gradually floats down and embeds itself in the ground.
While all of this is going on, Olimar relays exactly what he's seeing via a kind of tutorial system, teaching you controls and giving you (or rather, himself) suggestions as to what you might do. Eventually a small leaf pops up from where the sparkling seed landed and Olimar feels compelled to yank it out of the ground. This is the Pikmin's entrance into the game, as a weird red creature with a leaf poking out of its head flies out of the earth with a "Woohoo!" The tiny creature responds to your every whim, following you around like a lost puppy and returning to your side when you use the A button to toss it into the distance.
Dotted about the landscape are several large flowers containing huge pellets, and your new friend takes a particular interest in these as he begins to batter them with the leaf on his head. Eventually the flowers disintegrate and the large pellets drop to the floor. Tossing the Pikmin towards the pellets prompts him to hoist them above his head and carry them back to the onion. These are then absorbed into the vessel and more sprouts spring from the top, and of course more sprouts means more Pikmin.
Eventually you end up with a small but massively humorous army of the little blighters following you about, knocking down flowers and indulging in mass pellet-procreation. It's easy to get distracted at first by the novelty of just wandering around and commanding your Pikmin, which are a hoot to watch; some of them will stumble and trip over as they run after you Maggie Simpson-style, and the tooting noise they make as you usher them towards a target with the C-stick is adorable and chuckle-worthy. In fact, the whole experience starts out overwhelmingly charming, and you would be hard-pressed not to fall in love with the characteristics of the Pikmin as they go about their business.
While you could spend all day playing with your Pikmin, there's the ever-present task of finding your ship parts and getting off the planet. Further exploration of the beautifully textured and detailed landscapes reveals more skills in the Pikmin's armoury, as they set about knocking down huge walls to clear your path, and leaping upon dangerous wildlife to beat them to death with their leaves, emitting a curious, but eminently amusing "Hiiiya! Ya! Ya!" noise as they set upon their foe.
As you traverse the environment and discover unbreakable walls, pools of water that your Pikmin drown in and strange glowing rocks that appear to serve no discernible purpose, you soon start to realise that something is missing. Thankfully, as you find your ship's engine and the Pikmin lug it back to your ship for you, you're able to take off a short distance above the planet and find other sites to land in search of parts. As you feel your way around the new level with your Pikmin, you eventually come across another onion, this one being yellow.
The new yellow onion sprouts, you guessed it, yellow Pikmin. The significance of this is that these Pikmin have different skills to their red-tinted counterparts; they are lighter and can be thrown further, and they can pick up those glowing rocks and use them as bombs for destroying otherwise unbreakable walls. Having a new rank to your Pikmin army opens up the possibility to travel back and forth between levels unlocking new areas that were previously inaccessible. These abilities are further increased with the addition of blue Pikmin, which are able to swim.
Command & Conquer
What starts out as a charming adventure begins to morph into a kind of real-time strategy game as you set about commanding your army of Pikmin to perform various tasks all about the level, and this is by no means easy. Keeping track of all your Pikmin is especially important, as they must be in their respective onions by sundown, and this imposes an enormous stress on the player as they run about the level attacking creatures, locating ship parts and finding extra pellets. And this is perhaps Pikmin's major short-coming - the majority of players do not want to be rushed through a game, and the imposing of the 30-day time limit annoyingly restricts the game to about ten to twelve hours of gameplay, regardless of whether you manage to completely rebuild your ship or not.
It could be argued that imposing the time limit is necessary to disguise the fact that underneath all the charm and stress is a fairly rudimentary Lemmings-style affair which, without the constant threat of time on your back, would turn into a repetitive and massively dull title. As it is, the game starts to become slightly boring by the half-way point anyway, and only the promise of more intriguing and beautiful levels to explore and bizarre creatures and bosses to defeat causes you to press on.
Pikmin is an outstandingly pretty game, and it's the details that really make it stand out. The animation is top-notch, the textures are rich and the level design is outstanding. The sound effects are perfect and the music complements the various scenes admirably. It's a shame, then, that all this detail has to be ignored in order to pelt through the game, keeping your Pikmin in check. Beyond the main game, there's little to make you come back aside from the Challenge mode, in which you have to grow as many Pikmin as possible. This gives you a good chance to revisit and further explore some of the levels, and battle some more of the better designed creatures.
So, is Pikmin any good to play? Undoubtedly yes, but you can't help but want more once you've rushed through it all. I wanted to take it all in at my own pace without sacrificing the life of little Olimar. I wanted to soak up the gorgeous, rich environments, the subtle lighting and shadows as the sun slowly passes through the sky. And I also wanted to toy with my Pikmin as well as getting them to build bridges and knock down walls, but I suppose I'll just have to go back and do it all again. Am I looking forward to that? Well, do Lemmings like cliffs?