Strategy with plants?
Nintendo has a lot of licenses under its belt already, each with a rich history stemming back to previous generations. The next Mario or Zelda game always gets its fair share of hype. However, the big N isn't about to let that be all. Enter Pikmin, a new license from Nintendo that intends to bring RTS gaming to the Gamecube.
The world of Pikmin is, in a world, beautiful. The environments are lush, as well as being rich in texture. The graphics of the things like grass and rock look very realistic, demonstrating the jump from the N64 extremely well. Water looks and effects are also very good, with ripples, splashes and light reflections. Nintendo have also taken care to make sure that the environments vary enough to remain interesting.
Even better is that these worlds aren't just nice looking lifeless pits. Each area is beautifully animated with care to breathe life into them, truly creating immersive areas that are a joy to explore. Grass sways in the wind and water ripples. Everything acts in a natural way too, so belief isn't simply knocked out of the way.
The colouring style also suits the game very well. The areas that are primarily grassy or rocky take on a rather earthy tone to match up. Water tend to look pretty clear and glossy. The area done at night is dark, although not dark enough as to make play difficult.
Of course, this is only half of things, and Pikmin offers up a rather colourful cast to compliment the gameplay. Olimar himself takes on the form of a rather small spaceman, and he fits in very well. His character model looks pretty good and is well animated too. He runs, whistles and throws, and all of these action look very natural.
Enemies have also received the same level of care. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes and all are brimming with life. These creatures blink, look around and run convincingly. These aren't just generic blobs on the field. They are like real creatures that exist in this habitat.
The real stars of the show are the pikmin - the little plant-like creatures that assist Olimar in this quest. Each Pikmin has little detail on their bodies, although their limbs and faces are well defined. Each pikmin also has a bud or flower on their heads, that sways around based on their movements and environment.
What may be most surprising is that the game never suffers from a single point of slowdown. You could have up to 100 Pikmin on the screen at once all working together to complete objectives and the game still chugs along at a steady pace.
Pikmin serves up a collection of rather soothing melodies that hum along in the background while you play. Each track is well suited to the wild nature theme that runs through the game, and does appear to be of a high quality.
Unfortunately, I cannot call anything in there atmospheric or memorable. The tracks suit things, yes, but that is as far as anything goes. Nothing terrible but nothing amazing either.
Sound effects have been managed well. The shifting of large boxes or the splashes of water all sound realistic enough and are both plentiful and well timed. Even better are the myriad of cries that come from Pikmin and monsters alike. This element at least works hard enough to compliment the gameplay.
Olimar is off in space taking a vacation when his ship, the S.S. Dolphin (a reference to the Gamecube's indevelopment codename?), is struck by a meteor. Olimar is forced to make an emergency landing on a nearby planet, but his ship breaks up on entry and becomes incapable of leaving.
Olimar is in trouble, as thirty parts of the ship have been lost and are scattered around the nearby region. Even worse is that the atmosphere is poisonous to Olimar and his life support system will only function for thirty days.
Thankfully, Olimar comes across a half plant half animal creature called Pikmin. These creatures are strange but have useful abilities and appear willing to help Olimar out. With their help Olimar hopes to recover the ship parts and escape the planet.
Nothing massive but a good start. Unfortunately, anyone expecting any more might be a little disappointed. There isn't really any character development or plot twists or anything.
That said, the game does offer some insight into our spaceman star Olimar. At the end of each game day we get treated to a journal entry, as a record of Olimar's journey during his stay. It provides some good information, but even with that it will still fall short of a full story experience.
But that's not what you play this game for.
The objective of the game is to retrieve the scattered ship parts before the thirty day limit expires using the loyal Pikmin to aid you. The game plays out in a RTS format (real time strategy) where game action continues to flow while orders are given to the army of Pikmin.
There are three types of Pikmin to make use of, each with their own unqiue traits and abilities. Red Pikmin are the first found, and they have better combat power than the others and are resistant to fire (fire proof plants?). Yellow Pikmin are found next and are capable of throwing bombs rocks around and can be thrown higher than others. Blue Pikmin are the last to be found and are the only Pikmin who can safely enter water.
But how does one get Pikmin? Each species has one Pikmin waiting to be plucked from the ground in their relevant areas. After that each species of Pikmin has their own UFO-styled ship in the form of an onion. This is where the Pikmin are stored when not active in the field. In addition, ordering Pikmin to drag pellets or fallen enemies back to an onion produces more Pikmin sprouts of that colour.
The onion that receives the pellet or fallen enemy depends on the Pikmin carrying the item. Whichever colour has the most Pikmin carrying the item determines who gets it. Different pellets and enemies have different Pikmin seed values. In addition, bringing pellets back to the same coloured onion gives off more seeds than usual. In addition to progressing through the story you have to dedicate time to building up your army.
Of course, it is possible to lose the entire lot of a certain colour. If this happens then the onion will auto-release a new Pikmin, so the game is forgiving in that sense, although rebuilding the horde from a single Pikmin will certainly take some of your precious time away.
However, Pikmin don't always stay the same. If you hold off plucking Pikmin from the ground then the leaf on their heads will change into a bud and then a full grown flower. In addition players may come across nectar that Pikmin can consume and causes the leaf to instantly become a flower. These upgraded Pikmin move faster and are stronger, making them more effective at working.
There's a balance between upgrading the Pikmin and having a large enough army to work with, and it works very well. Of course, it also puts a bigger emphasis on keeping them alive. Losing flower Pikmin is a bigger hit than losing leaf Pikmin.
While there is no limit to the number of Pikmin a player can create they are limited by the number that can be on the field at once. Only 100 Pikmin can be in play at any given time. Any new Pikmin created while this limit is met are stored in the onions. Existing Pikmin must be ordered into an onion before any new ones can be called out. When calling out new Pikmin the game automatically orders them coming out by their power level. Flower Pikmin appear first, followed by bud and then leaf.
An RTS setup might sound complicated, but Pikmin instead offers a very user friendly interface that works extremely well. Players direct Olimar around with the analogue stick. Pikmin can be thrown by Olimar and he can whistle for Pikmin to join his ranks. Pikmin can also be dismissed and ordered into groups according to colour with a button press. The C-Stick can be used to shift Pikmin around as well.
When Pikmin are idle (either by throwing them or dismissing them with a button press) they will move to the nearest item to take action (like knocking down a barrier or attempting to move an object). There's no need to pick an action from a complex menu or anything, which is excellent.
So you have to find your ship parts and get them back to the ship. However, it's not as simple as going to them and getting them carried back. The environment poses various problems for you to get past.
Obstacles tend to stand in your way, such as rock barriers or boxes. Pikmin must be ordered to remove these obstacles from your path. Some obstacles have a minimum number of Pikmin needed to remove them (like the aforementioned box that will need a certain number of Pikmin before it can be shifted). In addition, the time taken depends on the number of Pikmin working on it. Players can go over the minimum and doing so will help you to progress faster.
Some obstacles will require use of the special traits they have too. One ship part may be sat on a high ledge that red and blue can't reach. Another might be along a flame-filled passage that yellow and blue can't survive carrying something through. Clever use and management of a Pikmin army is key.
But static objects aren't the only threats, as the world of Pikmin is filled with predators that will gladly chomp and crush your army (and even Olimar himself) if given half a chance. The enemy encounters aren't excessive, but work well in combination with the areas obstacles to keep the player working.
Attacking enemies tends to involve throwing Pikmin at them, where they latch on and start working on their health. As with normal obstacles, the more Pikmin attacking the faster an enemy will be defeated. In terms of attacking enemies there isn't a great variety, although the way enemies approach you is definitely varied, so it is all kept very interesting.
Once you've got something to drag back to the ships you have a new problem of ensuring the path back is clear. Pikmin will pick their own paths based on what routes back to the ships are open, but it won't always be the path you took to get there, meaning there might be other traps and threats still active.
While not entirely needed, the game also rewards the ability to multi-task. Despite the 100 Pikmin limit it is perfectly possible to have your army split up and handling different tasks at the same time. Doing so can help make the most of your time.
Speaking of which, time is limited in Pikmin. The game gives you thirty game days to rebuild your ship, which amounts to about thirteen minutes each. The planet surface becomes far too dangerous at night, so Olimar and the Pikmin retreat to the skies at night for safety.
Olimar and any Pikmin following him will all return to the ships automatically at the end of each day. In addition, any Pikmin planted in the ground will remain safe there and will be there on the next game day. Any Pikmin that were left idle will be devoured by the predators that become active though, so you have to be aware of what every member of your army is doing when night is coming.
When you've tired of the single player story mode then you might want to try your hand at Challenge Mode. The goal of this mode is simply to create as many new Pikmin as you can in one game day. You can pick from any of the areas from story mode, although some of the things are changed about to make it feel fresh.
This modes is simply a test of high scoring, with emphasis entirely on dragging items back to the relevant onions to make new Pikmin. It's a nice addition to the game.
However, Pikmin does have one glaring flaw, which is that it is far too short. There are a mere five stages to play through, and while there is no question that these stages are well designed, varied and immersive, this does mean that the game itself doesn't last as long as one would hope from a Gamecube title. Challenge Mode tries to add some lifespan, but even this doesn't last long either.
Pikmin is a very clever take on the RTS genre that offers a strong challenge while being very accessible. It's a very unique experience and very fun. However, be prepared for its lifespan, as it likely won't last you as long as other highly rated titles.
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