This review originally appeared in E105, Christmas 2001.
Described by one casual observer as simply “barking”, Shigeru Miyamoto’s latest tour de force is, indeed, a little on the esoteric side. Having crash-landed on a familiar yet decidedly alien world, the game’s tiny hero is tasked with locating the 30 scattered pieces of his crippled ship before continuing on his journey. However, the diminutive astronaut isn’t big enough to remove obstacles or carry the ship parts, and so has to rely on the assistance of Pikmin, bizarre bipedal vegetable characters only too happy to to do the spaceman’s bidding.
Having located the first red Pikmin ship, a single Pikmin creature is ejected which rapidly grows to maturity. Once plucked from the ground, it can be used to cut down flowers and then carry the resultant ‘puck’ back to the Pikmin vessel-cum-dispenser. The puck is beamed on board, and two new Pikmin are produced which can then be used to cut more flowers to generate more Pikmin, and so on.
Once the two other craft have been located, your army of followers expands to include yellow and blue Pikmin. The yellow ones are able to throw bombs which are ‘laid’ by ghostly flying insectoids, while the blue are immune to the perils of water.
And so the astronaut’s quest is split between the three Pikmin types, using yellows to destroy solid walls, blues to traverse ponds and reds as your workaday grunts. But Pikmin are even more adept than that; when put to task they’re able to move boxes, extend branches, and – when employed en masse – dispatch the larger inhabitants of this curiously rustic landscape, the carcasses of which yield greater numbers of Pikmin.
Like Populous and its ilk, managing your massed Pikmin (you can have up to 100 in action at any one time) is where much of the empowered enjoyment lies. As Steven Poole puts it this issue, “God games create their own overarching pseudo-narrative entirely out of the gradual acquisition and proper dispensation of power.” Indeed.
Having minions to do your bidding has its own potent appeal; but conversely, controlling so many of them at once can also prove to be a chore. When crossing a narrow walkway, or trying to move up a ramp, you’ll often lose Pikmin over the edge, or get them stuck in nooks and crannies. Later on, flying creatures come to carry them away or blow them into the ground, whereupon you have to break off your mission in order to exhume the little fellows.
Pikmin is ostensibly a puzzle game, in that rebuilding your spaceship isn’t just a case of locating sections and carrying them home. Often you’ll need to destroy obstacles, construct bridges and defeat large creatures which have inadvertently swallowed the parts. Ultimately, successful retrieval of the hardware relies on the correct deployment of all three Pikmin species. In actuality, none of the puzzles are that tricky, and most of them can be overcome by, literally, throwing Pikmin at the problem. Success is predicated on the adage of safety – and strength – in numbers.
Graphically, Pikmin is quite splendid, with exquisitely textured and lit landscapes and utterly realistic water. Even when you have 100 semi-intelligent Pikmin scurrying around, there’s never a hint of slowdown or glitching. The only real downside is that the quest is short and, barring a few cast-iron enemies, surprisingly easy: a couple of evenings hard play should see it off, and while it’s an enjoyable experience, replaying the same four areas doesn’t hold enormous appeal.
Pikmin is undoubtedly suffused with that old Miyamoto magic but, although addictive, it leaves one feeling oddly underwhelmed. It’s a beautiful and engrossing game, but has the feel of a technical demo writ large. The game is played out at the same languid pace, and lacks a sense of drama. Having said that, a larger, more varied Pikmin 2 would certainly be most welcome.