Such was the circumstance when Pikmin was revealed to the world near the launch of the GameCube in late 2001. It was promoted as the system's "must-have" launch title, a role in which any of the famed creator's previous titles would have soared. Unfortunately, Pikmin isn't a game I'd classify as a cornerstone in any sense of the word, which is what Nintendo desperately needed at that point in time. It's not particularly good at parties... in fact, it isn't a multi-player game at all. Fair enough, you may say, Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda were both single-player affairs, and both did remarkably well as console-pushers despite that omission. Personally, I'd call it a gamble to claim Pikmin is even partially fun to watch if you're not the one holding the controller... and that's really its downfall. I can remember watching the screen for hours in an arcade prior to the release of the NES as player after player fell to the might of the original, coin-op Super Mario Brothers. My best friends and I would gather around the television almost religiously to watch each other attempt to finish off Ganon in The Legend of Zelda. I can't see any sort of community involvement whatsoever around Pikmin, which could be noted as the ultimate cause of its demise as the GameCube's savior. Every bit of the Miyamoto-trademarked addictive gameplay, uncensored originality and effortless simplicity is here in full force, but the game never took off because of the way it was marketed. As an understated, unheralded underground success released a year or two after the first-wave launch titles, this game would have taken the gaming world by storm. As the central focus of a next-gen console, it was horribly misplaced and, along with Nintendo itself, quickly lost in the shuffle.
Which is a shame, because this is a really enjoyable little package. It tackles a number of cliches that have plagued the gaming scene for years, gathers several completely unrelated genres and produces a game that you've never seen anything even remotely like. It successfully proves that higher framerates, larger numbers of polygons and faster processors haven't completely eliminated the kind of light hearted, inexplicably believable experience that used to fill every game on the old NES and Atari. Sure, there's something to be said for a game that takes players several hundred hours to complete and raises the bar in terms of believability, depth, button assignment and customization. There's also something to be said for a game that can take you out of your own world and into something much more mindlessly innocent with the press of a button. I've often wondered what happened to games like Dig Dug, Pac Man and Donkey Kong, which are still every bit as entertaining today alongside epic creations like Metal Gear Solid 2, Halo and Knights of the Old Republic as they were on the date of their release. Pikmin proves they haven't become extinct yet. There still exists such a thing as simplicity in modern video games, it's just much more difficult to see.
In the same vein as most of Miyamoto's other games, the backstory and introductions in Pikmin are kept brief. You portray Olimar, the captain of a spaceship that could've jumped straight out of an episode of Flash Gordon, who has crash landed on a planet very similar to Earth. On its descent into the planet's atmosphere, his ship has lost several integral parts, which you must now collect. The one catch? Olimar doesn't breathe oxygen, and his life-support systems will expire in thirty game days. And, just like that, you're thrown into the game. There's a legitimate element of surprise factored into your daily explorations, as there's honestly no way of predicting what (or who) you'll run into around that next corner. Even your initial discovery of the small creatures known as Pikmin are a refreshing surprise. It's funny how, after watching countless cars erupt into fiery explosions and central characters die under dramatic circumstances, pulling a little red man from the ground by the top of his head can still come as a shock.
This isn't the best looking game on the market, nor does it need to be. The real magic of Pikmin is in its simplicity, which is something that's wisely protected by keeping the game's environments understated and clean. It is a little disconcerting to see how flat some of the textures are upon close inspection, but since the majority of the game is played from a distant overhead perspective, this is a minor qualm at best. The Pikmin, Olimar and the enemies, however, skirt this issue as they're all composed of flat colors with little noticeable detailing at all. And though that sounds like a blatant red flag, it's done consistently enough to ward off any presumptions that this might have been done as a last second method of cutting corners. This is a title that appears exactly as it was meant to, with the tiny, brightly colored creatures appearing eerily at home amongst the familiar, photorealistic blades of grass, twigs and soil. It's funny, the graphics of Pikmin fluctuate so easily between distinct realism and blatant oversimplification that the lines themselves start to blur. It becomes the meeting point between detail and simplicity, with an end product that's all the more believable because of that. In addition, the number of independently moving characters on-screen at any one moment is incredible, with the possibility of one hundred Pikmin and several dozen enemies all marching along to their own drummer at any given moment. The little guys each seem to have a personality of their own, with some constantly falling behind or tripping over their own feet while others are easily distracted by the lure of a nearby enemy or tuft of grass.
Upon his discovery of the Pikmin, Olimar also discovers their undying need to follow his direction. Unless he tells them otherwise, nearby Pikmin will follow our central character around the world, aimlessly. They'll put their lives on the line to defend him from much larger adversaries. They'll build bridges for him, or carry enormous objects with the proportionate strength of an ant if it'll aid his journeys. That the game's writers chose not to elaborate on these tiny creatures' undying love for the title's main character makes it all the more interesting and open for interpretation. Do they follow him because he appears trustworthy or helpless? Does his spacesuit emit some sort of hallucinogen or mind control, rendering them his unwilling slave? You're never told, and it's yet another aspect of the game that forces the player to put down their controller and actually think about what in the hell (s)he's actually doing.
The little creatures come in three different colors / races, each with obvious strengths and weaknesses to further separate them from the pack. The first Pikmin you'll discover, the red, are fireproof little warriors. They're the strongest fighters, and are much more abundant than the others due to their early discovery... the "workers" of the tribe. Beyond that, you'll discover the yellow guys, who have the ability to carry and detonate bombs, for easy destruction of the multiple walls that will eventually get in your way. They're also much lighter than the others, and by holding down and then releasing the "A" button, you can throw them for a great distance... a big advantage when you're trying to clear some water or a wide gap. Finally, the blue Pikmin are the undersea adventurers. Their gills allow them to breathe underwater, and... not much else. But that's great enough of an advantage as it is.
Control of the flock is deceptively easy. When you physically uproot Pikmin from the ground or summon them from the enormous, flower-resembling spaceship in which they reside, (which doubles as their home after dark, when the planet's nocturnal hunters would otherwise make an easy meal of the tiny creatures) the little men are immediately at attention. They'll follow you, blindly, wherever you go and will follow your instruction without question. Through the use of the "C" stick, the player gives his herd a direction. For instance, if the materials for building a bridge lie just ahead of you, you'd press the "C" stick upwards, a fruity little Pied Piper-style melody would play, and the Pikmin would slowly wander ahead of you. When they encounter said materials, they automatically set about their task, building the bridge with no regard for their own safety or the world around them. This method is also employed when you'd like to attack an enemy, pick up an item for transportation back to the ship's landing site or perform any other task. Of course, Olimar doesn't necessarily need to instruct the Pikmin to do something. If they happen across something to do while following you across the open field, they'll start working on their own. This can lead to some sticky situations, as attempts to rush past an enemy while he isn't looking will often lead to an all-out war, with several of your Pikmin leaving the formation to fight. By pressing the "B" button, you effectively order these little soldiers to be "at ease." Ever the anal-retentives, they'll organize themselves by color in tiny, flower-headed cliques, but will not follow Olimar around the world any longer.
Precision is, naturally, an impossibility when you're dealing with large numbers of these guys. Though they do vaguely follow a similar path as Olimar, the rule is that you'll generally lose a couple stragglers every time you cross a bridge or come across any other potentially dangerous situation. Whether they fall into the river and drown, attempt to run through a fountain of fire or stupidly assault the largest enemy in the forest on their lonesome, you WILL lose Pikmin in the field on a regular basis, which becomes a point of agony as the game progresses. It's strange to imagine, but after spending the time to create, uproot and command these little creatures, you develop a sort of parental attachment to them, which eventually becomes the real attraction as the hours go on. It's truly disturbing to watch a large forest creature devour a handful of them in one fell swoop, and that's an emotion I don't usually get from playing a video game.
It's this element of survival, mixed with the brief, thirty day timeframe (a game day lasts about half an hour) and a series of mind-teasing, difficult puzzles that really gives Pikmin its substantial appeal. There's a definite Lemmings vibe to some of the levels, both with their simplicity and their nerve-wracking addictive nature. You'll spend hours upon hours trying to sort your way through a particularly difficult puzzle, only to discover the answer was right in front of your face the whole time. Everything is arranged to follow a blatant learning curve, but it never really seems to get in the way or detract from the overall picture.
As I said before, Pikmin would've made a great second or third year addition to the GameCube's lineup. It's a much deeper game than the simplified graphics of the front cover would lead you to believe, always there to inspire thought rather than to sate your appetite for gratuitous violence. It straddles the action / adventure, strategy and puzzle genres, and stands head and shoulders above the leading titles in each category today. It's a deceptively addicting little package, and though it lacks a bit in length and replay value, it's more than worth the current asking price. There's a very solid concept here, which I hope to see fleshed out a little further in the forthcoming sequel.
Overall Score: 8.2