Return of the plant people


“Pikmin 2” may be old news around Japan, but it’s fresh out in English.

For those of you who do not remember the original “Pikmin,” it was a highly influential game released in Japan in late 2001. This was one of the titles that put GameCube on the map after its dismal launch. Not only did “Pikmin” help sell the first million GameCubes in Japan, it produced a best-selling soundtrack as well.

“Pikmin 2” picks up where the original left off — literally and figuratively. Like “Pikmin,” the sequel combines real-time strategy and role-playing in one family friendly package filled with fun challenges and a lot of guilt.

As “Pikmin 2” begins, Captain Olimar is returning from his harrowing crash landing on the planet of the Pikmin. Once home, he discovers that the transport company he works for, Hocotate Freight, has gone bankrupt. If Olimar can salvage enough junk on the Pikmin planet, which strangely enough is our Earth, he may just be able to save the company.

In “Pikmin 2,” Olimar has a sidekick named Louie. Both space pilots are cute little elves. They are smaller than a human thumb in stature with disproportionately enormous bald heads and pointy ears. Their adorability factor, however, pales when compared to that of the Pikmin, the aboriginal plant people who apparently inhabit Earth under our very noses.

You don’t find Pikmin. Instead, you grow them by placing special disks under an “onion” — a Pikmin mother ship. The station ingests the disk and then plants the Pikmin, which are ready to serve to the death the moment you pull them out of the ground.

Pikmin come in five varieties — red, yellow, blue, purple and white. Reds are fire retardant and good all-around servants. Yellows can be used for air attacks. They are not hurt by electricity. Blues are water resistant. Purples, a rare variety, are strong but slow. Then there are the treasure-hunting and poisonous Whites.

Your job is to lead entire bands of Pikmin across obstacle courses in search of treasures such as 7-Up bottle caps, Duracell batteries and other scraps that can be salvaged for money or inventory. You also pick flowers that onions convert into Pikmin and berries that can be converted into handy sprays.

Pikmin are obedient, but small, so you must have plenty on hand to kill animals, break barriers and carry items. It’s all very cute.

My biggest complaint about “Pikmin 2” is that it sometimes throws too much at the player at once. This game simply has too many controls. You have camera controls, communications controls, a button for switching between Louie and Olimar, and more. And along with everything else — a hostile world, treasure hunting, big bugs — you need to deal with time constraints. If you do not tuck your Pikmin in at night, they will be killed by animals.

There is a day meter at the top of the screen. You must make sure to have all your Pikmin safely stowed on ships by sundown or you lose your army and deal with the guilt.

Pikmin also die in the course of your work. It’s sad, but true.

These guys are specialists, so until you learn how to use Blues to kill a fish and Yellows to unlock electrified gates, you lose Reds in droves. And sometimes you need to control two armies simultaneously. It gets a bit overwhelming.

About the only freebie in “Pikmin 2” is the actual control of the little eponymous slaves themselves. You command Pikmin by tossing them at objects, be they treasures, obstacles or enemies, and the Pikmin figure out what to do and do it themselves. Of course, if you don’t determine the optimum ways to approach problems first, your Pikmin will die unnecessarily. Oh the guilt of it all!

Above all else, “Pikmin 2” is an utterly charming game with adorable creatures, a great sense of humor and smart puzzles. It often throws too much at the player to control, but at a time when people are complaining about the lack of creativity in the games market — a game about helpful little plants is a nice change.