The following review is based on the Nintendo GameCube version of the game.
I remember the launch of the Nintendo GameCube very well, and just couldn’t wait to try it out. Graphics far removed from those limited polygons of the Nintendo 64, the polygons that still heavily impressed us at the time. A whole treat of fabulous and diverse looking new games was in store for us in the beginning, including Luigi’s Mansion, Super Smash Bros. Melee and Rogue Squadron II. Even the long overdue change from cartridge format to disc gave us cause to celebrate.
Those games were all well and good, but gamers looking for the signature Nintendo charm might not have been fully impressed with Luigi’s Mansion, especially considering its shortness and the timeless Mario launch titles of previous Nintendo consoles. Super Smash Bros. Melee, as well as other franchise entries like Metroid Prime, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Super Mario Sunshine, were a ways away. With the console fighting to gain ground from the beginning, it would take a gentle nurturing from Nintendo to ensure that the GameCube would be able to fight against the Xbox and the Sony PlayStation 2.
Up stepped Pikmin, a most unusual looking game, originally looked upon as a strange gardening simulator. Founded on the doomed beginnings of the fabled Super Mario 128, when Pikmin was showed to the world during E3 in 2001 gamers saw a low key strategy title that seemed almost quaint. It looked like something that would surely be dismissed as a novelty upon release – a whimsical tech demo and not much else. But with the fabulous Shigeru Miyamoto producing, would such an assumption prove to be folly? Would Pikmin emerge as one of the finest early lights of the underrated GameCube?
The first thing to understand about Pikmin is its unique scenario. From the outset, it all seems very simple: you are Captain Olimar, a spacefaring worker who has his vacation hampered by a stray meteor. Hitting the meteor, Olimar crash lands on a Distant Planet, and his ship, the S.S. Dolphin, is left badly damaged with its vital parts strewn all over the planet.
There’s another problem, of course: the oxygen of the Distant Planet, whether this planet be Earth or somewhere else, is deadly poisonous to Olimar. His spacesuit keeps him provided with an airflow, but he will run out of safe air to breathe with in 30 in-game days, which forces him to hurry up rebuilding his ship. This strange, foreign new planet doesn’t prove to be at all traversable for the diminutive Olimar, and it quickly becomes apparent that he will need help recovering his parts.
Enter the Pikmin: odd looking, plant-like creatures of three varieties who can be cultivated and led by Olimar. These ever helpful Pikmin answer Olimar’s every command and can help him move objects and eliminate threats. With the help of these faithful Pikmin, Captain Olimar must find at least 25 parts of his ship in different areas of the planet within the 30 days that he is provided.
If he succeeds, he will be able to launch his ship again and return home. If he fails, then a lack of breathable air will mean that he’ll be well and truly finished…
A time limit is never an ideal start, either in a game or a follow-up review, but it’s the first thing we must talk about. After all, on how many occasions have time limits broken the deal for potential players of the game? Each of the 30 in-game days (with the exception of the first, tutorial day) in Pikmin lasts roughly 13 minutes. That translates to over six hours total, which really is plenty of time – to draw a comparison with another game unfairly criticised over its time limit, a 3-day cycle of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask with time slowed down gives a lengthy three hours, and still takes the pressure right off. As such, the time limit ‘problem’ of Pikmin can moreorless be discounted immediately.
But I know these concerns that gamers have; that irrational hatred of a clock that really won’t come at all close to affecting them and pulling the rug out from under them. It’s understandable – after all, 25 spaceship pieces in 30 days does sound mighty tough in theory. But after a slow start and an adjustment to the flow of the game, when you spend your time building up a veritable army of Pikmin troops, you stop worrying yourself about the amount of days left. The amount of hours left in the day is a different matter, and is always a pressing issue as the days in Pikmin are particularly and noticeably short. But the flow of time in Pikmin is closer to the Harvest Moon games than it is to Majora’s Mask – brief bursts, plenty of short days to dedicate towards doing one or two different things at a time.
That said, the day can sometimes end a little too quickly, catching you out when you’re in the middle of a part rescue operation. It can be frustrating to take out all of the enemies between the ship and the part, probably losing some Pikmin in the effort, only for the day to end before you can transport the part very far, possibly undoing much of your work. Even if you’ve laid waste to every other living creature on the battlefield, they will return the next day at full health, sometimes in different locations. In the very least, your ship parts do not revert to their default position if your Pikmin begin to move them but don’t get them back to the Dolphin before nightfall. In this way, progress is almost always being made and seldom lost.
Getting the drop on larger enemies like Red Bulborbs is important. If you can’t catch them sleeping, then get a Yellow Pikmin to frag it!
Pikmin is a game unlike any other, one whose mechanics need to be understood fully before the player can really begin their campaigns to bring the Dolphin pieces back. Nintendo dealt with this well, by holding off on the time limit for the first day as the player begins to learn the unique basics of the game. It is a wise decision to allow the player to take their time, and more tips crop up to aid the player throughout the game, mostly courtesy of Olimar at the end of each day. This essentially offers a useful tutorial without being intrusive, and allows the player to educate themselves in the controls and the possible interactions with Pikmin and the game environment – surely the best way of allowing players to engage with your game.
On that note, the controls of the game are fluent, and Olimar responds well to whatever you tell him to do. The same can’t fully be said of his charges, as Olimar’s whistling command can need a few taps before the Pikmin actually listen to him, although that’s more of an AI problem. In relation to controlling the game, I have seen complaints online that the camera in Pikmin is decidedly average and really not up to it, but I disagree with that assessment: although you will have to make slight adjustments at regular intervals, the camera is absolutely fine and never brings the game down. Curiously, however, the C-Stick is not used to control the camera. Instead you can use it to control your group of Pikmin as one, which is even more useful than an analogue camera would have been.
The first day starts auspiciously enough: as you’re left stranded with your damaged ship, you begin to control Olimar as he explores this strange new world. It becomes quickly apparent that Olimar himself is capable of very little: he cannot jump, and his own attack power is negligible. He can dart about the place, and is equipped with a whistle that has a visible area of effect, but that’s about it.
He soon stumbles across a strange craft that he dubs an Onion, alongside a leaf protruding from the ground. When Olimar picks this leaf, a red creature emerges from the soil and takes up its position behind him – Olimar’s first Pikmin. He concludes that Pikmin must live in the Onions, and that by dragging numbered pellets and creature remains back to the Onions, new Pikmin are seeded and grown. The first day is spent mainly reproducing Red Pikmin until Olimar has enough of them to move an object into position and find his first spaceship part. When his Pikmin bring the part back to the Dolphin, the first day ends and Olimar can travel to the first full area.
The gameplay revolves totally around the Pikmin and what Captain Olimar can do with them, which defines Pikmin’s classification as a real time strategy game, or at least a quasi-RTS. You can store seemingly an infinite amount of Pikmin within the three available Onions (one for each variety of Pikmin), but there is a limit of 100 Pikmin in the field, including those not yet plucked from the soil.
The Pikmin can be split into their types based on colour, slight physical differences and most importantly their unique traits. Red Pikmin are the best suited in combat and are also fireproof, but have no other special capabilities. Yellow Pikmin can be thrown higher, which rarely comes into play, and can also pick up and throw Bomb Rocks, making it useful to always have a few on hand. The pick of the triumvirate is the Blue Pikmin, who are able to swim – an absolute necessity in the later areas, where water is very commonly found. Their versatility makes them the Pikmin of choice, and a 100-strong team of mostly Blue and Red Pikmin with a smattering of Yellow Pikmin for Bomb Rock support is the optimal setup.
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown…
Although they rely on you for every little thing, it’s not unfair to say that the programmed AI of the Pikmin is generally poor. This especially comes true when the little blighters are carrying objects – non-swimmers will willingly jump into water that they can’t handle and they will follow a set course regardless of enemies. In general, when there’s a bit of a fracas, they will tend to pick up carcasses and feast on nectar rather than attack assailants that are in the process of crushing their fragile frames into the hard ground.
But that’s just what you have to remember about the Pikmin, and the spirit of the game: they will follow every one of your instructions to the letter, and without question, so make sure never to lose your cool under pressure. I may have been left completely open-mouthed when a Yellow Pikmin threw a Bomb Rock right at me in the middle of a brouhaha, but he only did it because I mistakenly told him to; there’s no Private Pyle Pikmin in this game, at least I’m sure of it.
The short length of the days means that you’ll be hard-pressed to spend that day doing more than one task. This can mean a frustrating forced hiatus on your progress as you take an occasional day out to spawn more Pikmin for yourself, so that you’ll be fully prepared for the next day. It almost feels like an RPG grind at times. Not always a bad thing at all; I know I’m well used to it. But you don’t want to get yourself stuck in a grind when the days are only 13 minutes long.
I did establish earlier that you will end up with plenty of time for the whole playthrough, and that you really needn’t worry about the time limit. But on your first couple of runs, you have no real way of knowing how much time you’ve got to grow Pikmin, and how many of each type you’ll need in the Onions and with you on the field – something that could hinder the less patient gamer. I’ve never felt that a high difficulty curve was a fair thing to beat a game with, but you’ll need to be strategic, prepared and methodical in this game, lest you lose scores of Pikmin in an instant to a small puddle of water or to an enemy’s fiery breath. One wouldn’t consider the game ‘difficult’ but you’ll need to be switched on, because the clock won’t stop for you after the first day and there’s no shortage of work to be done.
With a total of 30 spaceship parts in the game, one might expect an evenly distributed number of parts per area – perhaps 5 parts each in 6 different areas or even 4 parts in 7 areas after the initial two found in the Landing Site. Instead, there are five areas, two of which contain only three parts between them. Although this doesn’t mean a compromise in the size and scale of these areas, it does mean that the bulk of the game is really only spent in three areas of the game, which can feel a little limited. For a game intended to show the powers of the GameCube, a couple more environments shouldn’t have been too unreasonable to expect.
Beyond that, there isn’t a whole lot to do after the main game. At some point during the single player action, however, you’ll unlock Challenge Mode. It’s a fun though not particularly meaty mode where you try to grow as many Pikmin as possible in one area in one day – good for those of us who arbitrarily love to watch numbers go up. That’s it for game modes aside from restarting the main game, but that’s no reason to bash Pikmin – it’s just something to be aware of, even if a bit of a 2-player co-op or a few mini-games would really have helped sustain the short one player game.
Clemency ought to be given to the graphics – they were a far cry ahead of anything the Nintendo 64 was capable of at the time, and they showed us just what the GameCube had in store to match the PlayStation 2 and other competitors. You can have up to 100 Pikmin in the field with you at any given time, and they are all rendered individually. Although the Pikmin themselves have a simple shape, it is a treat to see them all congregate behind their master, grouped by their colour and by whether each has a leaf, bud or flower on their head.
The areas are vibrant and look convincing as an organic garden environment. Some more diversity in the graphics would have been ideal, something that stems from the relative lack of areas in the game, but everything is clear and the colours are wonderfully chosen, particularly among the enemies. The transitions from day to night add highly to the beauty of the game also.
Blue Pikmin are the last fellas you’ll discover, and you’ll be elated to finally do so – Reds are still useful for battling, but Blue Pikmin are by far the most capable.
MUSIC AND SOUND
The soundtrack throws up a mixture of tunes, with some being chirpy, like the Landing Site, and others being more ambient, like the Forest of Hope and the Forest Navel. The soundtrack is composed by Hajime Wakai, known also for his work on Starfox 64, Pokémon Stadium and later The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. There aren’t too many tracks overall, owing to the lack of areas, but they are very well composed – important for a game that will require you to revisit areas. My picks are the Forest of Hope and the End of Day/Journal Entry themes.
The highlights in sound effects come from the Pikmin themselves. They make all kinds of cute noises depending on the situation: they squeak and mew when pulled out of the ground, when thrown towards an enemy, when Olimar calls upon them and when they pick up an object. And, with the game being a love letter to nature, you can expect wonderfully high quality sound effects from the local flora and fauna as well. It all helps wonderfully with the impressive atmosphere of the game, and perhaps lessens the emphasis of the time limit by making Olimar’s 30 days on the Distant Planet seem less foreboding.
PLUSES AND MINUSES
+ All of the Pikmin emerging from their Onions as you request them to do so, each making their own cute little noises as they spring to action.
+ Your ship visibly becomes more repaired as more parts are brought back by your Pikmin. Each part also gets its own description and witty comment from Captain Olimar – in addition to his interesting and informative journal entries at the end of each day.
+ Although you won’t get much of a chance to appreciate them, the day to night transitions are wonderfully tranquil and serene – so long as you don’t have poor Pikmin left out in the cold somewhere.
– Pikmin love to do their own thing even when under your command, which can waste valuable time when travelling in a large group. Some more options to control how the Pikmin conduct themselves when travelling with you would have been perfect.
– It matters little in the grand scheme of things, as you’ll have plenty of time overall anyway, but days could have been just a little longer if even by just a couple of minutes. It can be a little restrictive, especially in terms of multitasking – after all, the enemies regenerate each day, sometimes in different, more aggravating locations.
Words like ‘concept’ (or worse, ‘prototype’) tend to really damn games with faint praise but that’s what I feel Pikmin ends up as, and it’s something I mean in the most positive sense. You can replay the game to try and get all the requisite parts as quickly as possible, which aids that all-important replay value. But once you’ve worked out your own optimal route of doing so, then the only thing that can really change about a playthrough is the placement of the enemies, which is hardly substantial. I think Pikmin could therefore fairly be described as a positive example of a game concept. It’s interesting and unique, but suffers a little from a lack of variety and a time limit on proceedings.
Given that Olimar relies on Pikmin for every inch of progress he makes, and seeing as how Pikmin take precious time to be seeded and grown, with more time necessary to build a proper army, you might assume that citing the time limit as a negative about the game would be futile. After all, a pressurising time limit seems like it would be a concept absolutely basic to the challenge of a game where it’s necessary to build up your own army to increase your chances of winning, and it makes sense in the context of the story. It’s a strategy game, so players need to work out the best strategy in making maximum use of their time and their Pikmin, right? Wouldn’t taking that away make things too easy?
But the GameCube sequel and the upcoming Pikmin 3 (assuming it doesn’t end up timed) both show us that the first game didn’t need to restrict players to 30 days, and that its sequels are all the better for letting the player’s leash off – at least, Pikmin 2 is. But what hurts the original Pikmin the most is its lack of playable areas, as beautiful as they looked at the time and still do today. It’s a good first outing, but give the series time and see how it’ll improve in the future.