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Retrospective: Pikmin/Pikmin 2

Revisiting Nintendo's beautiful, bucolic world

This article originally appeared in Nintendo Gamer magazine.

Think about it for second, and the warm reception that greeted Pikmin 3 at Nintendo's E3 press briefing was really quite odd. Here, after all, was a follow-up to a pair of games which sold well - but not spectacularly - in Japan and the US, and met with fairly mediocre sales everywhere else.

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And let's not forget how confused and upset people were when it was first revealed that Shigeru Miyamoto was to begin the (much-maligned) GameCube era with a cutesy, experimental strategy game inspired by his recently cultivated hobby of gardening.

Why all the cheers and applause, then? Why such fervent anticipation for a series that never really seemed to take off as Miyamoto's other works had? Partly it's because its stock has risen over time: with Nintendo often choosing to coast along on the back of proven franchises, it's arguable that since then, the enthusiast crowd hasn't had a fresh home console IP as inventive as Pikmin to get excited about.

PIK UP AND PLAY

And then there's the fact that it's hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about either game. Pikmin is the rare title that seems to touch a nerve with everyone who plays it, capturing the hearts and minds of its audience with its enchanting miniature universe and unusual, compelling ideas. It's a game, in other words, that inspires a level of devotion that spreads beyond mere sales figures. We know people who haven't played either game who were thrilled about the third because they'd heard so many good things from those who had.

As soon as you describe Pikmin as a real-time strategy, you find people switching off. Describe its systems and you'll get looks of bafflement as to what makes it so special. You have to play Pikmin to realise why people love it.

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It's a strategy game, then, but it's wonderfully subtle about it, gradually nudging you towards the multitasking and micro-management of an RTS without ever letting on that's what it's doing. It's almost insidious, really: one minute you're plucking your little carrot-men from the ground, the next you're splitting them into groups, setting them different tasks simultaneously while formulating a plan of action of how to tackle that big enemy behind the wall your primary-coloured troops are busy smashing down with their heads.

And you'll need to juggle at least two jobs at once because - in the first game at least - you're working against the clock. Little Olimar, with his bulbous nose almost poking through his space helmet, has crash-landed on the Pikmin planet, you see, and has to rescue the 25 parts of his ship that have scattered across four environments. Trouble is, the place is poisonous, and his oxygen supply is running low. He has 30 days to escape back to his family on his home planet of Hocotate, otherwise... well, he dies.

It's a surprisingly dark setup for a Nintendo game, but that doesn't really come across to begin with. Instead, you and Olimar share the same curious fascination with this world and its inhabitants. While most games at the time focused on expanding the boundaries of their environments to heighten their sense of scale, Miyamoto - ever the contrarian - instead focused on a tiny world that generated feelings of wonder by making you feel very small in a different way. Everyday items of regular size were giant treasures to be retrieved, and harmless minibeasts were now deadly enemies. The joy of knowledge was enhanced by the addition of an interactive encyclopedia in the second game making such discoveries even more exciting.

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But your first point of contact with this world is the Pikmin, and they're an absolute delight. Miyamoto has talked about the new game giving each one a greater sense of individual personality, but Nintendo managed a convincing illusion with the original. They'll huddle together as you shepherd them past sleeping Bulborbs and greedily slurp up gobs of health-boosting nectar, transforming the leaf on their head to a bud and then a flower (a truly elegant way to show each unit's power meter).

Some stragglers will stumble when sprinting, recovering before bumbling forward adorably to join the rest of the group. That sense of personality makes them more than just troops to command in battle: through these seemingly throwaway animations, you begin to form emotional attachments.

BORN TO DIE

All of which makes their almost inevitable demise all the more heartbreaking. Their death wails are genuinely haunting, tragic high-pitched cries that act as an instant shot of guilt. The little guys' unquestioning loyalty makes you feel as much their protector as their leader, and while it's suggested that by sending them into battle you're helping them to overcome their fears and show they can cope with any predator if they work together, it's always clear that you're getting the best side of the deal here.

Because they will die, and in great numbers. Stomped, munched, crushed... it's sad whichever way they go, but it's particularly troubling to witness them burn - they run around with their leaves aflame, desperate and terrified - or drown. Nature really is brutal at times.

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Of course, the Pikmin are only half of the equation. Because Pikmin has some of the most creative creature designs you'll have seen in a game. The menagerie is a wonderful mix of the recognisable and the utterly alien. Bulborbs - the most common enemies - are like giant, hungry ladybirds spliced with some kind of amphibian. The burrowing Snagret is a terrifying half-bird/half-snake that suddenly emerges from the ground with a piercing shriek. Some almost defy description: boss Beady Long Legs is a cross between a spider and an abstract art installation.

Our favourite is the Armoured Cannon Beetle: chuck a Pikmin at him as he inhales and he'll buck and thrash as he tries to blow it back out, opening up his unbreakable carapace to reveal the vulnerable red-orange flesh beneath. Some are tougher than others, but all are potentially deadly, and the desire to keep your 'Min alive is the reason why witnessing a dozing Bulborb suddenly open its eyes and spin around to face you is one of the most pulse-quickening, nerve-wracking moments in gaming.

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