On the surface, Pikmin is one of Nintendo’s most adorable creations. A tiny spaceman called Captain Olimar marshals an army of even tinier plant sprites which swarm and scurry around an environment that looks, to him, like an exotic alien planet, but to us like our back yard. Even its inspiration is bucolic: the idea came to Shigeru Miyamoto’s whimsical imagination as he pottered in his own garden.
This sounds relaxing, but the games are anything but. A wholly original spin on real-time strategy, Pikmin combines resource management and combat with exploration and puzzle-solving in a frantic exercise in multitasking, all against the clock. It’s hard and stressful, and even its cuteness is turned against you. The reedy wails emitted by your Pikmin expiring in some ill thought-out ruckus with a Bulborb will prick your guilt and haunt your dreams.
So it’s not surprising that Nintendo might want to put these winsome little creatures to work in something a little more easygoing. Enter Hey! Pikmin, a humble 3DS puzzle-platformer for all ages. It swaps a bird’s-eye view of an open map for a close, side-scrolling camera, and hundreds of Pikmin for a handful. You don’t grow them, only collect them, and they stay with Olimar rather than being dispatched to the four corners of the map – though you can use a stylus tap to fling them to the edges of the screen, or even up into the top screen, to battle or fetch.
Fans haven’t been too impressed with this new direction, and there was some justified concern about the developer Arzest, which made the unloved Yoshi’s New Island. Hey! Pikmin certainly doesn’t give off the feel of a premium Nintendo production. There’s a rough, bitmappy quality to the backdrops; they look old-fashioned and plain. There’s a lack of density in the design, too. This is a game which doesn’t try too hard to divert or surprise you, that doesn’t offer a surfeit of detail or have any ideas to spare. It is always, and only, just enough.
The controls couldn’t be simpler: you use the circle pad to guide Olimar left and right, and the stylus to throw Pikmin with pleasingly snappy accuracy. You can also tap on buttons to summon Pikmin with a whistle, or to use Olimar’s jetpack, which can carry him across gaps. The Pikmin can’t follow you across these gaps, and if thrown across they’ll try to return before you can get to them; but they can be thrown much higher than the very modest altitude the jetpack can reach. This sets up a neat tension between using Olimar and Pikmin to explore the space around you and fetch the everyday items – cans of tuna, bits of costume jewellery, cassette tapes – that Olimar believes to be priceless treasures which will yield the ‘Sparklium’ his crashed ship needs to return home.
Pikmin veterans will find it counter-intuitive how actively they need to use Olimar to solve the game’s riddles, leaving his Pikmin behind; in the strategy games he’s not much more than a mobile command post. It feels particularly odd that he needs to fetch many of the treasures himself, rather than have the Pikmin excavate and transport them. He’s a pretty stolid character to use, to be fair, with his ambling gait and feeble jetpack. It’s much more fun to explore the abilities of the five varieties of Pikmin he encounters and recruits: the classic red, yellow and blue, with their resistances to fire, electricity and water, and the rock and winged varieties from Pikmin 3. (Pikmin 2’s chubby purple Pikmin and haunting, nightmarish white Pikmin don’t feature.)
The game unfolds at a predictable platform-game rhythm: themed Sectors are split into a handful of levels and a boss fight each; each Sector will have one bonus level reached from a secret exit, a couple of minigames and some amiibo-activated extras. To begin with, the levels are highly linear, but deeper into the game they do start to twist and double back into much more interesting shapes, with some cunning interchanges between the main level and a second ‘layer’ accessed through cave entrances. In a faint echo of the strategy games, the Pikmin you collect in each level are deployed back at ‘Pikmin park’ where they can harvest additional Sparklium over time.
And that’s the bones of Hey! Pikmin: a workmanlike puzzle-platformer that is soothing and modestly satisfying to play, without ever challenging you or offering anything that is surplus to requirements. But to write it off completely you’d have to be immune to the many charms of this eccentric series, and to be immune to those charms you’d have to be heartless indeed.
Gameplay aside, most of those charms have survived the transition to this minor spin-off. The music occupies a sphere of folksy, plinky-plonk futurism that has rarely been explored since the wackier strains of children’s sci-fi of the 1970s and 80s. It’s often bewitching. The environments can’t match the luscious realism of the strategy games (which clashed with the Nintendo aesthetic in such unexpected and interesting ways), but the animation of the little Pikmin, shown off in occasional cut-scene vignettes, is still heart-melting and exquisite in its detail. Best of all, there’s the Log, where Olimar makes a note of all the creatures and treasures he finds, gives them poetic names (a harmonica is a ‘Song Sewer’; a Mario Bros. NES cart is, he decides, a chronicle of ‘Inevitable Tragedy’), and adds his own salaryman musings.
There’s a whole other world in these tiny snippets of text, which conjure up a vividly mundane off-screen life: the wife and kids back home on the planet Hocotate, the nagging company President with his thinning hair. Considering a small battery, Olimar writes: “Everyone wants to be loved by the whole world, but to do that, you have to be as ordinary and dull as this small, everyday thing. All I need is the love of my family, who stick by me no matter who I am or what I mess up.”
Even in this diminished form, Pikmin can’t be ordinary and dull, because it’s a game about seeing ordinary and dull things through a new lens that makes them magical. And that applies to slightly ordinary, a little bit dull, somewhat mediocre platform games, too.