So let me get this straight… I’m supposed to be shepherding a bunch of walking flowers who get eaten by almost anything – including other plants – around a strange planet inhabited by giant bugs and spiders that wear shoes and have four legs so that the company I work for doesn’t go broke? And people thought The Sims was weird…
That’s the concept behind Pikmin 2 for the GameCube, sequel to the first Pikmin game and the nicest, sweetest, happiest real time strategy game you could ever hope to meet. Now before all you hardcore RTS fans skip to another review, hold on a minute – this game might surprise you.
In the first Pikmin, you were Olimar, a space captain whose ship crashed. You had 30 days to put it together again, alone on a strange planet. Fortunately, these little native creatures – or are they plants? Hard to tell – want to help you. They look a little bit like colorful mice with big ears and plants growing out of their heads, but somehow they remind Olimar of pikpik carrots, a favorite food of his, so he calls them Pikmin. The Pikmin are color-coded, with each color having a special ability; they also have varying levels of strength, based on the size of the flower on the top of their head. You know what they say – it’s not the size of your flower… anyway, Pikmin proves that wrong. The Pikmin with flowers fully blooming out of their skulls are the strongest, fastest ones. The Pikmin and Olimar must work together to repair his ship, and Olimar must also watch out for his workers, protect them from bugs, grow more of them when he’s running low, and get them all back to their homes before nightfall.
In Pikmin 2, you are Olimar once again, this time bailing out your troubled employer who is on the verge of bankruptcy. You must return to the planet of the Pikmin (wasn’t that a 1950s horror flick?) to find treasures like bottle caps and lipsticks. No, I’m not kidding – it’s like a sci-fi version of The Borrowers. This time you get a human (sort of) helper, too – Louie, the braintrust responsible for helping the company go bankrupt. You also get 5 types of Pikmin rather than the original 3. And that’s not all that’s changed, either.
The first game was pretty good and definitely creative. The second game is much, much better than the first. The game was always visually distinctive, with a nice, quirky animated look. The look is the same, but with more details added in. To the fire-resistant red Pikmin, water-resistant blue Pikmin, and electricity-resistant and bomb-throwing yellow Pikmin, we add the poisonous (and poison-resistant) white Pikmin and the purple sumo wrestler Pikmin (I’m not kidding). The distinct Pikmin varieties, particularly in the new colors, are great fun to look at. The treasure objects are fun to try to identify; the enemies (usually bugs) even have their own style – a four-legged spider in shoes, no less. There’s also an encyclopedia feature with close-ups on all the creatures with details – you can even throw carrots at them to see what they do – as well as a computer with an odd-looking remote component that follows you around in the caves.
Yes, another addition to the sequel is the cave levels. There are caves in the various areas of the planet, each cave with several internal floors or layers to it. Time stops when you’re in the caves, but you’re also stopped from creating any more Pikmin – whatever you bring in is whatever you have, minus those eaten by bugs. The caves are a welcome addition to the levels, with new challenges, new treasures to find, and new bosses. They are also potentially the most frustrating part of the game. Some of the challenges can be very tricky until you get the hang of them, and you can expend quite a few Pikmin doing so. That’s fine – hazards of the game and all that – except that you might lose most of your Pikmin on level 3, only to discover that you can’t defeat the boss on level 6 without Pikmin of a certain variety – all of whom died on level 3. If you leave the cave without defeating the boss, you basically have to do the whole thing over again, so be prepared before entering those caves, and a game guide would definitely help you keep your sanity.
Time stops in the caves, thankfully, so you don’t have to try to track the sun’s progress from miles underground. You are still held to the sunrise/sunset time limit – your Pikmin have to be inside at sunset or they get eaten – but probably the best change from #1 to #2 is that the 30 day limit is gone! You certainly need to keep making progress towards paying off your company’s debt, but that limit, which was the biggest problem in the first game, has disappeared. The game is also appreciably longer than the first one, which allows more time for exploration and experimentation – the key element in the fun of Pikmin.
You can now switch between your two characters, Olimar and Louie. While there are some moments in the game where this is essential and other moments where it’s helpful, it’s still possible to get through large sections of the game using only one character, and when you’re doing that, the other one’s just tagging along. There are also two player versus and cooperative challenge modes, just to keep things interesting. All in all, the gameplay is significantly expanded, both in style and length – a great improvement, since one of the biggest problems with the first game was its length.
The controls are easy to manage and pretty intuitive, although there is still some difficulty in summoning just one group of Pikmin. You can sort them out into their different colors easily enough, but you’re calling them to you with the whistle on top of your head, which isn’t always the most accurate device. You’ll inevitably end up with a couple Pikmin of a color you don’t need or didn’t want, and will need to decide whether to sacrifice those Pikmin or try to split them up again – it starts to feel like doing your laundry: “separate whites from colors…” It’s also occasionally frustrating to find yourself running low on key varieties of Pikmin – especially the ones who come from flowers, rather than onions, so you can’t just grow more of them whenever you like.
On the surface, it seems easy to dismiss Pikmin 2 as a kids’ game, too simple or cutesy for “real” gamers. On the other hand, sometimes the simple games are the best. For the typical gamer looking for something a little more unique, or for the novice gamer (maybe a girlfriend?) looking for something a little less blood-and-guts, Pikmin 2 just might be the way to go.