Do you know what the RTS genre has been missing? Dopey-looking living carrots. Enter the saviour of the RTS, Pikmin.
Now, I joke, to be clear, but the GameCube wasn't exactly the destination console for the genre as it was. No, to get people - kids - interested in its mechanics, a game would have to look at the genre from another angle entirely, and space gardening is perhaps as strange an angle as you could get away with.
What on Earth is this, then?
We find ourselves in a spot of bother when Pikmin starts, our spaceship having been struck by an asteroid and sent hurtling into the dirt below. Luckily for us, we're still alive, albeit stranded on an alien planet. We need to fix our ship - which is somehow still salvageable - and get out of here.
As is told to us via screen obscuring text dumps in the form of Captain Olimar's diary. Not a little dialogue window at the bottom of the screen, not a voice over, nothing like that. Giant paragraphs, front and centre.
After bumbling around with the controls, I find myself staring at the star of this show, a Pikmin, a sentient seed of some sort who seems only too happy to help us out. Maybe it thinks we're God or something. I don't know, but eventually, I faff about with the buttons and get him following me with some kind of purpose.
But what purpose? What do we do with you, little fella?
We're gonna need a few extra pair of hands for this obstacle. Climbing and jumping are too challenging for us, so farming Pikmin to push and move things out of the way is the order of the day. If I were a Pikmin, where would I be hiding?
Scattered around the area are flowers containing giant buttons or something. The Pikmin know what to do with them, even if I don't, and it soon becomes obvious what they're good for.
As my army/cult grows, they're able to carry bigger things and become more useful as a unit. I can finally push a cardboard box out of the way and see what lies behind it.
Once the Pikmin are following you, you can use the C-stick to nudge them in the right direction, and they'll usually know what to do if they find something, be it something to attack with what appear to be vicious headbutts or something to push or carry, like this box.
How indeed... I think we've worked out the core gameplay of Pikmin. Let's put it to the test. Farm some Pikmin, get their attention, march them over to the thing, let them do the thing. Yes, that's it.
During their almost agonizingly long journey carrying my engine, I was able to mess around with the camera, which I never quite got to grips with despite having some centering and zoom control.
Well, that wasn't so bad. One day, one spaceship part. I can see why space farming found a space on the 1001 list. Let's give it another level, though, to see if things pick up.
Day 2 in 'The Forest of Hope' introduces us to the local wildlife, with bugs that will happily eat the Pikmin if they venture too close. The Pikmin are, however, absolutely fearless, and will charge at and mob whatever is nearby, should you point them in that direction.
If you can manage it, you can multitask by using different groups of Pikmin for different things, but I found the easiest way to do things was to take one big mob, walk over to the first thing, deal with it, usually there's something to carry back to the Onion at that point, so some of the Pikmin will automatically do that, thinning your group for you to concentrate on the next thing, then the thing after that, and maybe one more if you've got the Pikmin left over. When you run out, go back to base, pick them all up and then head back out into the wild.
Captain Olimar also has a health bar to worry about, but he does appear able to attack back with what is normally his 'pick up and fling Pikmin' button. Hurling Pikmin up to unreachable places for them to do their thing is something you'll come across from time to time.
Further Fun Times
I was slowly getting more used to the controls but wasn't having the greatest of times with Pikmin. I wasn't amazed by it, nor was I looking forward to the next spaceship part, or the next puzzle to navigate or whatever.
What I was enjoying, just a little, was how mindlessly dopey the Pikmin were, and how devoted they were to the cause. So obviously, I made an army and threw it at the biggest enemy I could find.
Capable of such destruction, my views were picking up for Pikmin, and finding another colour of critter, this time yellow, with big ears, meant my options would open up. What could the yellow Pikmin do that the red Pikmin couldn't?
Unfortunately, with only one yellow Pikmin in my ranks, I couldn't find out today. The nights are fierce around these parts, and our only way to avoid trouble is to... fly away and stay off the ground until sunrise. Huh. I thought our ship was... Nevermind. What does day 3 bring?
So different coloured button things sprout different coloured Pikmin. That much is obvious. What isn't obvious is where those buttons go. You'd think that the yellow things would always and only enter the yellow Onion, but no. They'll go wherever the Pikmin carrying them take it, and it is the colour of the Pikmin that determine where they go. If they go in the wrong Onion, they sprout the wrong colour.
So, when you're armed with close to a hundred red Pikmin, and one yellow Pikmin, how do you get the one yellow Pikmin to pick up the one yellow button you need to grow a few more yellow Pikmin? How do you easily split the Pikmin up, delegating tasks to different colours?
You don't. Well, you can. You can tell them to stop and group up, then walk over to the ones you want, grab their attention and carry on, leaving the rest behind. But if you get the attention of the ones you want, and happen to walk into the ones you don't, the ones you walked into will follow you as well.
So maybe don't walk into the Pikmin? Good shout. Ah, shout! We could use our call button, and only the Pikmin in a very visual and easy to see range will come to you. Yes, that's a bit more manageable... in certain situations. More often than not, there were stragglers caught in the radius who came along with me. How many stragglers you can live with is up to you, I suppose. I'd prefer to keep things nice and simple, but it wasn't happening, and the more I tried to make it happen, the further the sun travelled across the sky.
While trying to find where to go - because bashing a hundred Pikmin heads against rock walls wasn't working - I managed to find out whether these guys could swim or not.
I chose to emulate Pikmin, but there is a copy around here somewhere, should I want to fire it up on original hardware. The problem is that I don't think I want to.
It's not a bad game. It's a little fiddly, but it's nice to look at and certainly is different. The Pikmin are charmingly stupid, but also wonderfully smart. It's a shame that has to be told to us, rather than shown off in a cutscene or two, though.
The premise is simple, the gameplay grows bit by bit, and I suspect it's got some devious puzzles buried in the later stages to really get you thinking. But I just wouldn't know, and I'm not sure I ever will. Do I care enough about a bunch of seedlings helping to rebuild a spaceship? Do I want to know if there's more of a plot than that?
I think Pikmin can be left alone for a while until I figure that out. Maybe the sequel will rekindle any interest when that comes around. Yes, apparently Pikmin 2 is fit for this 1001 list as well. How much can we learn about gardening in preparation for that one?
To show off the power of the GameCube, a tech demo, Super Mario 128, had 128 Mario models running around the place. There wasn't a game in that, but a hundred silly-looking seeds carrying spaceship parts...? Now, that's a game.
Pikmin, developed by Nintendo EAD, first released in 2001.
Version played, Nintendo GameCube, 2001, via emulation.