The GameCube era is still a questionable time for Nintendo fans. While the console undoubtedly had its standout titles, there always seems to be a lingering question over how high — or, more to the point, how low — it would rank when gauged against Nintendo's other consoles. But wherever you fall in the debate, it's impossible not to acknowledge Nintendo's willingness to shake things up.
We're aware that the GameCube hardware is often seen as Nintendo's attempt to "play it safe," at least when compared to its previous boundary-pushing machines like the NES, SNES, Game Boy and N64, not to mention the Wii and DS that would follow. In reality, though, the GameCube was Nintendo's attempt to shake things up from a different perspective: the games themselves.
After all, consider the entries the console brought to Nintendo's flagship franchises. Super Mario Sunshine, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Metroid Prime and Star Fox Adventures all took their respective banners in bold new directions, and these titles are still polarising today. Nintendo was trying new things; if that's not clear enough, just look at the fact that the console launched with a game about Luigi instead of Mario!
Not everybody enjoyed these new directions, but such is the nature of experimentation. That experimentation wasn't limited to Nintendo's existing IPs either; the GameCube saw several new genres explored, and one of the fruits of those labours was Pikmin. This new IP was released in 2001, and one thing was clear: Nintendo was trying something brand new.
The game centres around Olimar, an otherworldly spaceman whose ship crashes on a bizarre and dangerous planet. Doomed to be suffocated by the planet's toxic atmosphere within 30 days, Olimar needs to reassemble his ship or die trying.
Fortunately for Olimar, though, he's not alone in his efforts. Early on the first day he meets his first of the titular Pikmin: an adorable, colour-coded species that travels in packs and is in desperate need of a leader who can protect them against the hazards of an uncaring world. So begins the strategically symbiotic relationship that so potently enraptured gamers that, ten years later, many are still clamouring for a third game.
In reality, the GameCube was Nintendo's attempt to shake things up from a different perspective: the games themselves.
There were several things unique about Pikmin, all of which worked together to make the game stand out so strongly. Firstly, it was the gameplay. While you are ostensibly in control of Olimar, it doesn't take long to realise that he serves as more of a cursor than a character, and it's the loyal Pikmin who are the real stars of this show.
Commanding armies wasn’t something we'd seen much of in Nintendo produced games at that point; nearly all first-party adventurers were lone wolves who got the job done single-handedly. Now we had limitless little soldiers who would gleefully go to their deaths for us, and that added elements of both pathos and social responsibility to our actions. After all, the Pikmin are like ants not only in terms of their behaviour and disproportionate strength, but in the way that they can be so easily squashed or burned by our curiosity.
As Olimar collects the parts of his ship, the Pikmin are forced to overcome enemies that increase continually in size, power and attack strategy. Early puzzles are as simple as directing the Pikmin's attention to something, but later battles require genuine war tactics. It's somewhat telling that in the best ending of the game, Olimar leaves behind a planet now ruled by Pikmin bullies.
That leads us to another thing that stood out about the game: the darkness. The main character, after all, is fated to suffocate after 30 days, and his only hope of survival is a complete upheaval of the planet's food chain. Not many games are established on the gimmick of a main character who is slowly dying, and the idea that you're just helping the Pikmin defend themselves is somewhat undercut by how tempting it is to sneak up on sleeping creatures and kill them before they have a chance to retaliate.
Also memorable is Olimar's journal, a method of delivering hints and tips to the player at the end of each in-game day. As Olimar nears the end of this last month, however, his journal entries can become increasingly panicked, fatalistic, and even borderline-insane depending upon the progress you've made...or haven't made. It can even culminate in Olimar making a doomed attempt to fly off in an inadequately repaired space ship, which leads to easily one of the darkest endings in Nintendo history.
And what would any discussion of this game be without speaking of its brilliantly designed areas and creatures? There's the Pikmin themselves, of course, but every creature on this planet is lovingly realised, with behaviours and life-cycles that convincingly feed into each other and fuel the idea that this planet is self-sufficient and completely believable unto itself. One creature builds what another destroys, insects scavenge for the dead, and several creatures even join forces to assist each other in battle. It's an evolving, condensed little world, and whether or not you make it out alive it's an honour just to have seen it unfold around you.
The music, as well, is absolutely top-notch. Every area contains a beautiful, long, winding composition that both sets the mood and passively emphasises the danger. The soundtrack ranks among Nintendo's very best, and that is substantial praise indeed.
Everything about Pikmin seems perfectly designed; a complete and functional mechanism unto itself. For those gamers who managed to penetrate its shell, who managed to steer their way through truly treacherous habitats, who forced themselves onward in spite of the game's terrifyingly brief time-limit, who managed to survive a bleak and unforgiving world that didn't care if they lived or died, they found a brilliant achievement of a video game. It’s an experience that grows slowly and is totally unforgettable, and one of the strongest reasons the GameCube can never truly be thought of as a failure.