Review by Richo Rosai

"They don't ask you to love them..."

Pikmin 2 has a lot to live up to. Its predecessor, Pikmin, was one of those beautiful, typifying moments for Nintendo when they released a genre-bending new franchise that really lived up to their name. Pikmin was my favorite first-wave software title on the GameCube, and even in a post-Wind Waker world it remains at the top of my list. So Pikmin 2 is faced with the realistically obvious but easier-said-than-done task of any sequel—the task of proving itself better than the previous installment, and since its announcement I myself have been prepared to be a particularly harsh critic. And while I can't say it quite lives up to my admittedly high (perhaps unrealistic) expectations, I'm happy to report that Pikmin 2 is an outstanding title in its own right, and a helluva solid step for the latest fledgling name from the Nintendo stable.

For those unfamiliar with the first Pikmin game, the gameplay consists of leading a large group of tiny humanoid plant-people called pikmin across a vast and dangerous landscape. The pikmin's strengths and weaknesses vary depending on their colors, and the goal is to strategically utilize a combination of 100 Pikmin to defeat as many enemies and accomplish as many goals as possible in a day (15 minutes of game time). As a simple example, 60 strong red pikmin could spend the day building a bridge while 30 amphibious blue pikmin carry items across a lake and an elite group of 10 yellow bomber pikmin follow the player on an explosive campaign to clear the enemies out of the way for the next day's adventure. Those enemies have strengths and weaknesses as well, and charging in clumsily with a throng of kamikaze pikmin will often lead to disaster. It is, on the other hand, entirely possible to go through the entire game without losing a single pikmin with careful planning and observation. By forcing him to make the best use of time and resources and constantly think ahead, Pikmin challenges the player in a delightful way that few console games do.

During our hero Captain Olimar's absence (for the uninitiated, he was absent for the events of the previous game), his employer the Hokotate Intergalactic Delivery company has gone under, accruing a massive debt. Nintendo's attempt to justify the sequel story-wise is absurdly cute and innocent, making one grin in spite of oneself. It turns out that pieces of rubbish like bottle caps are treasures of sorts on Olimar's planet, and he's sent back to the decidedly Earth-like planet of the Pikmin to collect enough of these items to clear the company's debt and save it from ruination. So rather than fighting to repair Olimar's ship as in the last game, here the player is chipping away at this 10,000 poko debt.

Although the setup is comparable to the predecessor's, there are several not-so-subtle changes in Pikmin 2's gameplay that make it a considerably different experience. The first and most glaring is the lack of a formal time limit in the game. The player is free to—as Olimar's ship the Dolphin puts it—“Take your time”. This was particularly distressing to me as a Pikmin fan. Wasn't the main challenge of the first game to finish in as few days as possible? Why would I want to play Doom in God mode? But I was eventually humbled for my lack of faith in two ways.

Firstly, the focus of Pikmin 2's gameplay has leaned away from strategy and over towards action. Instead of the main maps hiding the bulk of the game's treasure in themselves, they now serve as “overworlds” containing entrances to many “levels”. These levels take the form of deep caves with multiple floors. While in the caves, time doesn't pass and pikmin can't be acquired. So the challenge is to progress from floor B1 downwards, clearing the caves of enemies and collecting treasure. All current progress and treasure must be forfeited in order to resurface, so taking a 50-pikmin massacre and going back to refortify the ranks isn't an option. At the bottom of each cave is a boss creature holding an important treasure and a geyser that will blast the party back up to the ground. This new pikmin-restricted and combat-based formula freshens the game, making it more than just the standard “expansion pack” sequel. However, when it comes to this aspect the player is bound to prefer Pikmin or Pikmin 2, and although I happen to be of the former camp I suspect that many if not most will prefer the sequel.

Secondly, the game allows the player to feel the effects of taking too long in the form of distressing communications from back home. At one point the president of the company writes that he has had to resort to living under a bridge with a gang of stray animals. It was pondering this that I realized that the lack of a time limit itself was not really a big factor, since the real “speed-run” challenge in the first game was a self-imposed one anyway.

There are two other important additions to the gameplay soup: the purple and white pikmin. More than just a superficial ploy, they take the color-based strategy of the game into new dimensions. For example, purple pikmin can lift 10 times as much as any other pikmin but are slow and clumsy, and white pikmin, while tiny and delicate, are the only pikmin immune to certain kinds of poisons. These new pikmin are limited in number so it's usually wise to only bring a few of each, although this will vary depending on the player's personal style. In any case, the expansion of the pikmin variations is an ingenious (if predictable) move that makes the gameplay that much more compelling.

The presentation is elegant and raises the bar once more. The subtle beauty of the trademark “naked Gouraud” that Nintendo does so well belies how technically impressive Pikmin 2 really is. Even with 100 pikmin darting around, the frame-rate never even hiccups. The charming, non-threatening and decidedly asexual design of the Pikmin lend to that classic Nintendo feel that always forces those so inclined to check their affected sense of manliness at the door (sorry, ladies). And for those of us who gave up on that long ago it offers the chance to sit back and smile, laugh, and even cry (well maybe not, but almost). The music and sound fit perfectly as well. The pikmin's personalities have been upgraded slightly, and they'll now hum little tunes while they march and sigh when they get bored. These little details never get old, and I can't overstate how endearing it makes the little guys. And from the merry rhythmic exploration music to the suspenseful underground theme to the exciting boss fight number, the soundtrack is topnotch if forgettable.

So in the end, Pikmin 2 manages to greatly innovate while still pleasing stubborn fans like myself. And with two-player VS. and cooperative modes, a challenge mode featuring no fewer than 30 multi-floored stages, and at least one unlockable character, the bang/buck ratio is way, way up there. Most reasonable gamers will likely consider Pikmin 2 to be a huge improvement over the previous game, and with good cause. This is most definitely a must-buy masterpiece, but forgive this old hard-head for insisting that they couldn't quite topple the classic.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 08/02/04, Updated 08/02/04

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