I’ve seen countless reviews refer to this as a Nintendo take on real time strategy. Now I’ve never owned any type of strategy game, so here’s my take on it: Pikmin is a game where you move loads of ant-like creatures into, around and over things. This is all that happens, there are no mini-games or extra gameplay features; it could hardly be simpler. And maybe this is the problem.
You see, Pikmin does what it wants to very well, but it becomes clear at the halfway point that it doesn’t really want to do all that much. There is no real plot to push things forward during the game. The basic story that is only really properly explained in the manual is that Captain Olimar has crash-landed his ship on a strange planet, sending its 30 machine parts flying around the surrounding area. He soon discovers Pikmin, insect creatures which can be planted and plucked from the ground, who will follow him unconditionally and obey his every order. He must round up his machine parts with the help of the Pikmin.
As opposed to the overbearing amount of stats and items you would find in a normal RTS, Pikmin only asks you to remember the colours red, yellow and blue. They are the three varieties of Pikmin, and they all have different skills you’ll have to utilise, which are as follows:
The red Pikmin have big pointy noses which make them the strongest attacker, and the hardest working builder/destroyer. You will met the red Pikmin first.
Yellow Pikmin have big ears which means that they can be thrown higher distances than the other two types of Pikmin. They can also pick up bomb rocks and use them on obstacles such as walls.
the Blue Pikmin have big mouths and therefore are the only ones that can go in the water. They are the last type you’ll meet.
You’ll have mastered the ‘system’ by the time the first level is done. You can grow as many Pikmin as you like, but you can only take with you a hundred at a time. The A button allows you to throw individual Pikmin to places, B uses your whistle which calls any nearby idle Pikmin back into your group, while X separates your Pikmin into their three types. You cannot control the Pikmin directly, but you can herd them in any direction you like using the C-stick.
Pikmin are grown by taking pellets or dead enemies back to the ship area of each level. Pellets may be huge and require 10 Pikmin to carry them, or they may be tiny and only need one. Fighting enemies is usually a simple case of running towards them and thrusting your Pikmin towards them randomly. Occasionally you may wish to employ strategies such as throwing Pikmin on their back but outside of a couple of boss fights, combat isn’t something to worry about. What about knocking down walls or building bridges? Well once again it’s just a case of hurling your Pikmin at the problem. For the most part this is all you do.
But no need to worry, it’s not nearly as limited as it sounds. There are some minor puzzles that provide small rewards, mostly through multi-tasking your Pikmin and getting several things at once. And once you’ve got to grips with how the Pikmin will interact with the environment and how enemies behave, you can come up with your own tricks to get more things done.
But you’re constantly in a hurry. Much to my annoyance, you have only thirty days to collect the thirty parts, each day consisting of about ten minutes. If you reach the end of a day and don’t have the part (Or if you thought you could do better anyway) you can start the day again. I don’t see the point in this. As a rule, I hate time limits in games, and this is no exception. Because of the decreasing amount of time I have to do everything, I’m constantly flustered and I’m never really free to enjoy the better aspects of the game. When you want things done quickly you tend to storm in literally throwing your Pikmin at the source of the problem be it enemy beetle, wooden wall or unrolled bridge. Occasionally, you get to think a little bit and use funny little strategies such as circling an enemy with one group of Pikmin making it confused, while another group makes of with the machine part it was guarding while its distracted.
There are enough clever moments like that in the game for you to appreciate the solid implementation of what are actually pretty limited play mechanics. And generally plodding through the more basic parts of the game are still enjoyable, managing several groups of Pikmin and running around overseeing them all, gives you a real sense of achievement. It may be frustrating replaying the days when you screw up, but getting a perfect day where you may get as many as four machine parts is tremendously satisfying.
The fact that it’s so simple makes it very easy to pick up, but also very hard to get stuck. Not that I like getting stuck in games, but Pikmin lacks a sense of drama. Perhaps it’s due to the lack of any story or character set pieces or interaction with anything other than similar-looking enemies and certain parts of the environment. Whatever the problem is, it all comes down to this: Pikmin just isn’t exciting enough. It’s a very easy game where there’s usually only one answer: throw Pikmin at it, and so doing the same thing over and over again for thirty days (Even though Nintendo does find fresh ways to present obstacles and puzzles) makes for something that most people would probably appreciate as a rental.
There is a lot of charm to take pleasure from though. The Pikmin themselves, unwavering ant slaves that do your bidding, are adorable. When I showed my friends this game, I ran a load of Pikmin into the water and zoomed in on them drowning with their saddening screams, and I showed a lone Pikmin going to attack an enemy before getting eaten. They found this immensely upsetting. It’s even worse for you the one who grew this victim. Losing a load of Pikmin in an enemy battle is almost heartbreaking. One other thing I liked were the diaries Captain Olimar wrote at the end of each day. Brimming with geeky excitement about his achievements and discoveries, they are very charismatic and make the proceedings in between diary entries feel less faceless.
The world in which the action takes place is gorgeous. Photo realistic forest and beach based environments with a slight watercolour painting edge to them, they are stunning. The water effects in particular are some of the best I’ve seen, and the softer, subtler effects like patches of grass and shifting shadows as the day moves on complete the picture perfectly. Despite the fact that there are often several enemies, 100 Pikmin, and various active environmental (Bubbling streams, jets of fire) features on-screen at once there isn’t a hint of slowdown, the game moves like lightning and due to the limited field of vision allowed within the screen, there is no pop up or fogging either.
Sound-wise things are less ideal. The sound effects and mildly cute Pikmin voice samples are just fine, and thankfully arenít repeated enough to become annoying. The music, however, is inexplicably bad. Awkward ‘experimental’ folk guitar melodies they are intensely annoying and just plain UGLY to listen to. Luckily it’s played quite quietly. I do quite like the game’s title theme, although I find it hard to believe it came out as a CD single in Japan and sold millions.
The game only lasts for a few hours (30 days, each ten minutes, makes for five hours, although you may want to spend longer rehearsing days). So for those of you who aren’t wildly interested in the idea of Pikmin then this should be a rental. Personally, I’m glad that I own it, and I do come back to it sometimes. But after all the hype I was disappointed at what felt like a lead-in for a more elaborate sequel, it’s just too basic and too easy. Pikmin remains, however, very unique and as a simple piece of entertainment, it is successful on many levels.