Nintendo returns to the quirky puzzle-related action of the Pikmin world with Pikmin 2. It's a great little title that sorts out a lot of the more annoying quirks of the original, but at the end of the day, it's still a title that will only attract those who really appreciated the original game.
At the end of the first game, Captain Olimar successfully escaped from a hostile alien world with the help of tiny multicoloured onion-like creatures, the Pikmin. Returning to his home world, he finds his employer, Hocotate Freight, in severe financial difficulties. They've sold his ship and everything in it, leaving them with only one old clunky freighter and a massive debt hanging over their heads. Olimar's sole remaining possession, a bottle cap that he found on the planet of the Pikmin, is scanned by the freighter, and found to be worth a small fortune. That's enough context for the president of Hocotate freight to send Olimar, along with a sidekick, Louie, out to the planet of the Pikmin to recover more treasure and pay off the crippling 20,000 Poko debt that the company has owing. Naturally, the first thing that you do upon landing is find some friendly Pikmin willing to bow to your every whim. They're accommodating little vegetables like that.
Intergalactic banks must be pretty accommodating places, as while the company is indeed in deep financial trouble, there's no immediate urgency that places a time limit on Louie's and Olimar's adventures. Unlike the first game, which gave you a scant 30 days to rescue Olimar, Pikmin 2 gives you an unlimited timeframe to work in, although you're still governed by a day/night cycle that sees you leaving the planet each day to avoid the vicious night-time beasts that roam the surface. Dropping the time limit gives you a lot more freedom to explore and lessens the pressure, and it also removes the terrible position that you could end up in with the first game where you knew you didn't have long enough remaining to get all of the ship parts back together.
Unlimited time isn't the only trick that Pikmin 2 brings to play. By bringing along a sidekick, the scope of many puzzles is expanded, as you can set Louie and Olimar on different tasks, assigning groups of Pikmin to each of them. The three classic Pikmin colours -- Red, Yellow and Blue -- return, along with two new types of Pikmin, Purple and White. Unlike the Red, Yellow and Blue Pikmin (who are respectively flame, electricity and water-resistant), Purple and White Pikmin aren't generated from seeds within onions, but are instead essentially mutated Pikmin of other colours. Purple Pikmin are super-strong and super-slow, while white Pikmin are fast, poisonous when ingested by enemy creatures, created when you throw Pikmin into flowers found in the underground lairs - which form the last part of the truly new content in Pikmin 2.
As you explore the landscapes, you'll find vents that lead into multi-level dungeon-style cave, rich with treasure and laden heavily with enemy creatures. On the plus side, time doesn't pass when you're in a cave, giving you a tad more thinking time, but on the minus side, you can't replenish your Pikmin troops while in a cave, unless you abandon your exploration, leaving behind any treasures you've collected so far. Choosing how many and the right type of Pikmin to take with you is therefore vital - on more than one occasion I found myself in a pyrrhic situation where the boss that resides at the bottom of the cave lay defeated, a treasure lay ready for the taking - and I didn't have enough Pikmin to pick the bleeding thing up!
One thing Pikmin 2 does really well is presentation. Olimar and Louie are cute in a somewhat super-deformed Spock-like way, but there's no doubt that the Pikmin themselves are the stars of the show. They're well animated, even in large bunches, and speak their own little language (a kind of alien Simlish, if that makes sense) that gives even a horde of bloodthirsty Pikmin immediate appeal. There aren't too many games like this that use what are effectively cannon fodder and manage to create an empathic link between you and them - you'll feel a real twang of regret when you hear a Pikmin on fire, or, horror of horrors, the death cries of a Pikmin. Listening to an army of Pikmin die - usually when you've done something really stupid - is just about as heart-wrenching as it gets in video gaming.
Our only presentation complaint should be familiar enough to anyone who's ever played any 3D game, ever - the camera. While it's user-definable, there are instances where you'll get lost, or miss a clue, because the camera's chosen a particular angle. It's nowhere near as bad as it is in other 3D titles, but it would be amiss to simply ignore the fact that it is a problem.
The new Pikmin, multi-character setup (which also lends itself to a couple of standard but sedate multi-player modes) and cave setup don't mask the fact that this is still a relatively sedate puzzle game, made even more so by the fact that time is now no longer quite so pressing. As such, if you loved the original, you'll enjoy Pikmin 2 even more this time around, as it's a smoother and easy to work with game. On the other hand, if you were ambivalent or even hostile to the original, there's precious little here that's likely to change your opinion on the title. Pikmin 2 will probably join a growing cast of quirky Gamecube titles, thinking specifically of fare like Donkey Konga, Luigi's Mansion and Super Monkey Ball, that have their ardent fans but don't quite do enough to appeal to the broad mainstream.