Of all the GameCube titles on offer at the recent Nintendo Show in London, the one that caught my eye was Pikmin. Designed by the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto, at first sight it looks like just another zany kids game with its brightly coloured graphics and cartoonish characters. But dig a little deeper and you find one of the console's most innovative and downright fun games.
Move Any Mountain
Having crash-landed on an alien planet it's up to you to guide an odd looking little spaceman around the area gathering up the missing parts of his damaged rocket ship. This is accomplished by using bizarre plant-like creatures known as Pikmin. Individually they are quite weak, but if you gather enough of them together in one place you can move mountains.
The result is essentially an action-strategy game in which you travel around a series of locations, with your ever-growing horde of Pikmin trailing along behind you like a flock of birds or a swarm of army ants. When you encounter an enemy or something you want to pick up or break down, you simply tap away at a button on your joypad and your character picks up the nearest Pikmin and lobs it at the object in question.
The interface and control system is designed to be as simple as possible and fits the GameCube's joypad perfectly, allowing you to pick-up-and-play with a minimum of fuss. One button grabs and throws the nearest Pikmin, another will gather together Pikmin who have strayed from your main party, while a pair of buttons allows you to rotate or zoom the camera view, although this is rarely necessary. It's a lesson in simplicity and ease-of-use which other developers could learn a lot from.
Sowing The Seeds
The gameplay is equally straightforward, and ultimately the aim is simply to gather enough Pikmin to overcome any opposition on the map and carry a piece of your space ship. This is accomplished by collecting the round tokens which can be found scattered around the world and carrying them back to your base, where they are turned into seeds.
These seeds rapidly grow into more new Pikmin, which appear with their heads buried in the ground. All you have to do is return to your base occasionally to uproot the creatures and add them to the mob following you around. To add some tension to matters this is done against a time limit; you must complete your mission before the sun goes down, as the planet and its wildlife is apparently rather hostile at night. Not to mention the fact that the beta build we played had a tendency to crash at the end of the day if you didn't complete your task in time.
They might look rather goofy, but Pikmin are a versatile lot and can be used to assault giant insects, carry corpses and other objects back to your base, and destroy barriers by repeatedly headbutting them until they collapse. It's all very cutesy on the face of it, but the gameplay underlying everything is deep enough to keep you involved in the game, while the utterly surreal world which Miyamoto and his team have developed creates a constant sense of wonder as you explore it.
Our only worry at this stage is that the missions may get repetitive, as the lengthy queue forming behind us meant that we were only able to complete the first mission before giving up our place to another drooling journalist. But given Nintendo's track record we expect that there will enough variety and new features throughout the game to maintain the player's interest.
Assuming that our faith is not misplaced, Pikmin may just turn out to be the killer app for the GameCube, for this writer at least. You can keep your Italian-American plumbers, space-faring foxes and jet-ski racers - give me a crop of little primary coloured plants led by a guy in a bubble helmet any day...
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