• Pikmin Review - Nintendo Gamecube GC

    There's one very tangible difference between Nintendo and its competitors. It's not that Nintendo is aimed at children whereas Sony and Microsoft products are aimed at adults. That's something of a myth anyway, really. That's all to do with marketing demographics. Sony and Microsoft aggressively pursue those market sectors, whereas Nintendo don't. But that's beside the point. The difference is that Nintendo is a developer itself, whereas Sony and Microsoft aren't, or at least aren't in the same sense. This means that Nintendo games have this unmistakable feel and quality to them.

    You can tell when you're playing a Nintendo game, and it's not because they're invariably cute, colourful and loud. It's just a feeling that you can't put your finger on, yet can't quite escape. Pikmin is no exception.

    What with the glut of first-party releases in the opening few months of the GameCube's life, it's no surprise that Pikmin has been somewhat ignored in favour of big name releases like Luigi's Mansion and Super Smash Brothers: Melee, or even third-party software like Rogue Leader. But this isn't really fair, because Pikmin is quite possibly on of the best games of 2001. And if someone came up to you in the street and asked you if you'd be interested in Shigeru Miyamoto's gardening simulation, you'd just laugh at them. Well, you would, unless you were versed in the art of Pikmin.

    The premise is fairly simple. You control Captain Olimar, a strangle little astronaut fella who has managed to crash his rickety spaceship into a planet that, externally at least, looks remarkably like Earth. Problem is, Olimar is extremely small, so navigating the immediate vicinity of the crash site is tricky. To make matters worse, 30 parts of his ship have been flung around the area by the collision, and Olimar's spacesuit only has 30 days of oxygen remaining. The plan? Find all 30 parts of the spaceship before the oxygen runs out. The method? Small, coloured creatures by the name of Pikmin. Confused yet? It gets worse…

    The major criticism to be levelled at Pikmin is its learning curve. When talking about Pikmin's learning curve, steep just doesn't come close. Hell, even vertical is pushing it. Thanks to a paper-thin manual (God help anyone who tried to play the Japanese version) and a distinct lack of a specific tutorial, saying that it's tricky to work out what to do at first is perhaps the understatement of the century. Essentially, Pikmin is a real-time strategy game, but one that's been tailored specifically for the GameCube, rather than shoe-horned into it, which is refreshing. As Olimar, you lead a merry band of Pikmin around rather like the Pied Piper. You can throw Pikmin at things. Throw them at enemies, and they fight. Throw them at dead enemies or numbered, coloured pellets, and they take them to the Onion (more on this later) for consumption. Throw them at certain types of wall and they knock them down. Throw them at cardboard boxes and they'll push the box around. Throw them at strategically placed piles of wood and they'll build a bridge. Throw them at ship parts you've discovered, and they'll carry them home. While it sounds pretty straightforward, it isn't so in practice. There are, however, other factors that complicate things further…

    Numbers play a big part in the world of Pikmin. It's a fine balancing act. While certain things like the demolishing of walls and building of bridges work no matter how many Pikmin you throw at it, the number working away vastly affects the speed of progress. Fifty Pikmin are going to build that bridge infinitely faster than two. Most other things, however, have a minimum number of required Pikmin. Cardboard boxes, for example, usually require at least 10 Pikmin pushing them before they'll budge. Anything that needs carrying needs a certain a number of Pikmin, ranging from just one (small pellets) to 40-odd (ship parts, generally). This means that you need a healthy supply of Pikmin. The small creatures live in things called Onions (one for each colour - more later). By ordering Pikmin to take pellets (small items with numbers denoting the amount of new Pikmin you'll get) or downed enemies back to the Onion, you get new Pikmin seeds. It's important to keep a good standing army of Pikmin in all colours at all times.

    Ah yes, colours. At the start of the game, you only have red Pikmin. Get some more ship parts, however, and a new level opens up, and eventually, you'll have both yellow and blue Pikmin. Each has special skills which must be utilised, further adding to the strategy element. Red Pikmin are stronger (good for fighting or knocking down walls), and are impervious to fire. Yellow Pikmin can be thrown much higher, and can also be used to carry and throw little explosive bomb rocks, necessary for demolishing certain walls. Finally, blue Pikmin are the only ones that can move in water, making them very, very important. Considering you can only have 100 Pikmin active in the field at any one time (the remainder live in their respective Onion), it becomes important to balance your force, especially when fighting boss creatures. The little enemies are easy enough to dispatch, but a lot of routes and individual ship parts are guarded by a particularly large, nasty creature that, like all good bosses, can only be disposed of in a certain way. This often means using certain types of Pikmin, but be prepared to sacrifice a fair few of the wrong colour along the way to discovering that particularly elusive weakness. And considering some of the more vicious attacks are capable of killing ooh, say, 50 Pikmin at a time (stand up, big metal spider thing), it's no surprise that there are a few foot-meets-TV moments.

    To make things even worse, the game works in absolute real time. When it says 30 days, it means 30 days. In-game, a day equates to roughly 15 minutes in the real world. While it is not absolutely necessary to get all 30 ship parts by the end of a game, it's obviously preferable, and a fair amount of trial and error becomes important. You simply don't have the time to wander around a lot if you save at the end of each day. The best approach is to do some scouting around each level (there are five, each with varying numbers of ship parts guarded by increasingly fiendish puzzles), starting from your previous save at the end of each day until you're confident of how to do everything. Curiously, this approach doesn't get boring, just because of the sheer mental workout. Even the simplest of puzzles presented by the game is incredibly satisfying to solve, but some of the later ones are just plain evil. The Final Trial (the fifth and final level) houses just one, non-essential ship part, guarded by a meticulous mixture of puzzles and you should really feel proud to solve quickly (by this time, it's doubtful you'll have much game time left).

    So, that's Pikmin in a nutshell. Invariably, there's still far more to the game, but the rest you'll just have to work out for yourself. Visually, the game is fantastic. The world is just so tranquil, complete and just beautifully presented that it's very easy to simply get lost in the surroundings. The reflective surfaces and gorgeous water effects are particularly impressive. Sound is spot on too. The cute little bugle Olimar sounds when you use the C-stick to steer Pikmin in a certain direction is a particular highlight. Speaking of the control system, it's marvellous. Short pushes of the control stick move the onscreen cursor (which orbits Olimar), while long pushes move the captain himself, and his Pikmin entourage. The C-stick lets you move Pikmin in a certain direction, while the L and R buttons are used for camera positioning. It's never less than intuitive, and makes working through that initially murderous learning curve a touch easier.

    Criticisms? There are a few. As fiendishly difficult as it is (and, trust me, in place sit really is), the game subscribes to Nintendo's new play time vs. experience doctrine, meaning the whole thing can be done in about 10 hours (that's budgeting for trial and error play style - 30 days takes roughly 7 ˝ hours). The front-end is typically sparse, which is always a little annoying, and, unusually for a Miyamoto game, there's a distinct lack of unlockable extras. The only noticeable one is the Challenge Mode, which asks you to grow as many Pikmin is possible in one day on any of the levels you've played so far. It's fairly addictive, chasing the highest scores possible, but nothing particularly special, and hardly something you're going to waste hours playing.

    At the end of the day, though, Pikmin deserves mass praise for simply making real-time strategy work so damned well on a console. If Halo is the ultimate example of FPS gaming on a console, then Pikmin deserves a similar accolade for RTS. While the pace, structure and general mental workout may not be everyone, give the game some time and you should be pleasantly surprised. Technically, it's a fantastic showcase for what the GameCube do, of course, but most impressive of all is the fact that it's just so original. Not an essentially quality in games, but always an enjoyable one. Give the little guys a chance - you might just have some fun with them.

    A review by Stuart Smith