Xander Markham is an aspiring writer who has previously produced work for Destructoid and Gamasutra as well as maintaining his own blog covering games, television and movies. For more of Xander’s work, check out his blog: http://xandermarkham.blogspot.co.uk/
Pikmin 3 was one of the few parts of Nintendo’s conference at this year’s E3 to be well received, so the long-delayed release of the series’ second game on the Wii could prove a canny publicity manoeuvre, perhaps enough to salvage disillusioned fans’ enthusiasm for the Wii U while filling a gap in its predecessor’s increasingly barren release schedule. Funnily enough, the game proves equally well-timed in terms of storyline, with Olimar returning to the Pikmin planet (never explicitly named as Earth, despite the obvious similarities) with companion captain Louie in order to help save his freight company from going broke due to predatory debtors. Somehow, the game’s charm is only enhanced by its vision of a recession able to be reversed by a hunt for fruit and assorted amusingly named tidbits. Between this and last year’s Boom Street, Nintendo seem to be on a single-handed mission to make the financial crisis fun. In that context, the coin-oriented gameplay of New Super Mario Bros 2 seems pure wish fulfilment.
Moving on from its amusing timeliness, the game is an excellent fit for the Wii. Little King’s Story was an excellent game, but its refusal to use the remote’s pointer – dishearteningly abandoned from the Wii U’s main controller – looks a strange decision in light of the speed and ease it brings to commanding your army of carrot people around the undergrowth. A little twitchy when responding to a tilted controller, perhaps, but boding well for the Wii U iteration.
Less effective is the removal of the time limit from the Gamecube original, requiring players to reach the end within thirty in-game days. The restriction added the need for the player to take risks in order to achieve their goals within each precious day. While this made the game fairly short by the standards of the time, with the thirty days comprising roughly seven hours of gameplay, the threat of a ticking clock added to the otherwise lukewarm difficulty, forcing players to strategize and adapt to new situations on the spot. Without it, the sequel feels lethargic, lacking an impotus for the player to face new threats and unknown environments without being fully armed with maximum-strength troops and ample reconnaissance beforehand. The original game’s weak enemies had greater shock value when the player was often forced to confront them either on the first or second encounter, rather than making repeated journeys to survey the battlefield, assess weak points and return with a full-strength battalion. The addition of powerful purple pikmin and a spray with the ability to multiply attack damage makes these encounters little more than a formality.
The ability to command two captains at once, theoretically doubling up your productivity whilst reducing legwork, is an intuitive addition, one further developed for the Wii U sequel (where four captains will be on hand, and able to assist each other navigate obstacles), but again feels like it would have been better suited to the first game’s time restrictions. This is a game which practically demands you waste time, so a mechanic helping players conquer multiple tasks at once is welcome, but hardly required. There’s a great deal of treasure to collect, but with no restrictions on how long the player takes to do it, the system’s strategic potential is barely touched upon. Each day still lasts roughly fifteen minutes and any pikmin left unherded by sundown will still be devoured by the most adorable predators ever seen, but this is nothing more than a minor inconvenience now there’s no reason to leave any pikmin without a protective captain on-hand.
The game’s other notable addition is the presence of caves, essentially a succession of obstacle rooms, where the player has no access to new pikmin and no warning of what is to come (other than symbols indicating the types of pikmin required, such as red to defeat fire enemies, yellow for electric, and so forth) once the challenge has been accepted. These underground sections are an uncomfortable fit for a series which counts exploration of lush environments among its key delights: while each cave has a distinct visual style, finding vast subterranean rooms designed like a child’s train set, to give one example, shatter the game’s conceit of exploring the earth from the point-of-view of a microscopic adventurer. When the game offers a more realistic, no-frills representation of an underground environment, the colourful visuals of the outside world are missed. It’s a no-win situation, especially since they are not challenging enough to be worth the sacrifices.
The decision to halt the passage of time when inside the caves proves another poor choice: had the fifteen-minute limit remained, forcing the player to surface in time for sunset or lose their pikmin, the additional challenge could have made these thrilling tests of the player’s aptitude for adaptive strategy. What’s left is further proof of how removing an unpopular gameplay mechanic does not always lead to a better experience: few claimed to enjoy the original game’s time limit (despite it being quite generous), but the formula loses spark without it. Fortunately, the original game got so much right that even the loss of such a subtly crucial ingredient does not prevent the sequel from being consistently entertaining. It’s full of those little moments of joy that Nintendo have made such a speciality, such as the transmissions from friends and family back on Hocotate (Olimar’s home planet) or the exquisite names for each new ‘treasure’, giving the same charming spin to everyday objects as the game affords its garden-like world. A slight shame, then, that the environments are so similar to those from the first Pikmin, and actually fewer in number.
The new competitive multiplayer mode, an elaborate variation on ‘capture the flag’, show the game at its manic best, forcing players to juggle the need to rapidly build up an army, protect their marble (flag), navigate dangerous surroundings and sabotage the enemy. Despite the temptation to lead your troops into a full-force confrontation with the other player at the first available opportunity, it’s usually wiser to do so when faced with a losing position and no choice but to try and slow your competitor down. Leading the charge into a massive pikmin skirmish against a friend is every bit as thrilling as it sounds, but winning the game requires a more restrained, strategic command, especially with AI-controlled monsters waiting to gobble up the remains of your squadron. (There’s a sadistic pleasure in intercepting an enemy pikmin carrying a treasure back to base, only to bash its head in and take the bounty for yourself). Though the limited co-operative option is less interesting, cross every finger for Nintendo to retain these modes and take them online in the Wii U sequel. Pikmin 2‘s single-player may not live up to its flawlessly balanced predecessor, but as a multiplayer game it shows levels of inspiration with the potential to topple Mario Kart as Nintendo’s premier competitive experience.