Pikmin

There is nothing quite like Pikmin, and its mixture of action, exploration, and army-management is so unique that pinning it to a genre is nigh impossible

Captain Olimar is a tiny humanoid from the planet Hocotate. A family man who is devoted to his wife and two kids, he works for his world’s cargo-transport fleet and, for that reason, he is often traveling around outer space in his trusty rocket-shaped ship, the S.S. Dolphin. Unfortunately for Olimar, as Pikmin starts, tragedy strikes: the vessel is hit by a meteor, loses power, and ends up crash-landing on the surface of a nearby unknown planet. Once the captain comes to, he realizes his situation is rather dire for a number of reasons. The place’s atmosphere contains high levels of oxygen, a substance that is toxic for his species, and the artificial life-support of his suit only has enough resources to keep on working for a month. Moreover, his ship just does not work anymore due to the simple fact that thirty of its parts are missing, having likely been launched around the vicinity in the process of the crash. Thankfully, though, he is about to find some adorable help.

Created by the man who was also responsible for birthing Mario, Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda, Star Fox, and other important Nintendo properties, Pikmin was among the GameCube’s early releases, and it was also one of the first major games of the system to carry Shigeru Miyamoto’s stamp. Naturally, most players back then expected that status to fall on a title of the big-selling Super Mario franchise; after all, a groundbreaking installment from a huge property is just what a new console needs to start moving thousands of units. But, despite featuring a completely different setting, Pikmin is actually somewhat related to Nintendo’s mustachioed princess-saving hero.

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In the GameCube’s first showing, looking to display the processing power of the new hardware, Miyamoto unveiled a demo called Super Mario 128. Other than being a cheeky nod to Super Mario 64 as well as the amount of bits consoles of that generation were expected to have, the number was also a reference to the quantity of characters that were being shown on the screen, as the software displayed 128 Marios behaving independently on a spherical surface. Sadly, to those who loved the concept and were interested to learn more about it or even play it, the demo never matured into a full game. The idea of dozens of beings moving simultaneously, however, would go on to be the backbone of Pikmin.

That is because, as Captain Olimar quickly discovers, the planet where he crashed is home to friendly part-animal part-plant creatures that he chooses to name Pikmin on account of how they look like the Pikpik Carrots native to his world; and upon interacting with the little guys, he finds out they have a very unique type of behavior. Since the Pikmin are at the bottom of the food-chain of a planet packed with insects and other beings that are larger than them, they tend to join forces to overcome the hostility of their surroundings. Additionally, given they are still not very good at this cooperative scheme, they are more than willing to receive orders from a leader. As such, Olimar and the Pikmin form a mutually beneficial partnership: the captain will guide them as they try to survive while the creatures will use their combined efforts to reassemble the S.S. Dolphin.

Truth be told, on what qualifies as a nitpick in political correctness, the game could have done a better job in using its initial narrative to highlight that there is a thoroughly positive relationship between the starring hero and the creatures: the fact Olimar is helping them learn how to work together and fight is only highlighted in the ending. Because of that, before that moment comes, it might seem there is some selfish exploitation going on, even if the captain comes off, in the daily logs that punctuate his adventure, as a genuinely good guy that means no harm.

Due to its setup, Pikmin is a very unique game. Where most of the industry’s protagonists have a varied set of skills that, in turn, are employed in the generation of multiple gameplay scenarios, Olimar cannot do all that much. In fact, without the Pikmin, he is unable to do anything at all. And the creatures themselves are, on an individual level, not that capable: when alone, they are not very good at fighting, they are not strong enough to carry objects, and they cannot overcome any obstacles. For that reason, the Pikmin need Olimar, and the kind captain needs his carrot-like companions; and not just one of them, but dozens.

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The game, then, is heavily focused on managing an army of the titular beings. Although when he first encounters the Pikmin there will only be a lonesome red little guy standing in an open area, Olimar will quickly assemble quite a gang, being able to deploy up to one hundred creatures at the same time. True to the basic nature of his abilities, the hero does not do a lot: he can throw Pikmin via the A button; the analog stick not only moves him around, but also controls a reticle that indicates where the creatures will land if thrown; the B button activates a whistle which affects a limited circular area and is used to tell Pikmin to stop what they are doing to fall behind the rest of the group that is following Olimar; and the C-stick gives the captain some control over how the army is positioned behind him, which is useful in a few situations where tight spots need to be navigated. Meanwhile, the L, R, and Z buttons are assigned to adjusting the zoom, angle, and rotation of the game’s effective camera.

Once they are thrown, the Pikmin will automatically interact with the object that is closest to them. If it is an enemy, they will attack. If it is an obstacle, they will try to destroy it. If it is an object, they will attempt to pick it up. And if it is nothing of interest at all, they will just stand around. When summed with Olimar’s throwing and whistling abilities, that gameplay package may not seem like all that much. However, following on the footsteps of many other Nintendo classics, Pikmin extracts quite a lot from its simple premise.

For starters, battling requires a mixture of pattern-recognition and strategy. Sure, some smaller enemies are pushovers that can be defeated by mindlessly launching a lot of creatures at them. However, the planet’s environments are filled with tougher foes that will immediately kill the Pikmin by eating or crushing them. As such, many of the combats involve knowing when to throw new units into the fray, recognizing when to use the whistle to make them retreat, and also carefully moving around the enemy hordes so that the little guys following Olimar do not get accidentally harmed in some way. Moreover, Pikmin do not fall from trees. Instead, they are bred from the nutrients contained both in special pellets found around the environment and in the carcasses of defeated foes, which have to be carried to the mother ship of the creatures so that new offspring is produced. As a consequence, building up the army and recovering from the losses of war require work.

Furthermore, the game adds flexibility to the proceedings by featuring three distinct types of Pikmin, which are quickly introduced in the early moments of the game and that, therefore, come into play through most of the way. Red Pikmin are the strongest of the bunch, being ideal for battling; besides, they are also invulnerable to fire. Blue Pikmin, meanwhile, have gills, and are consequently the only ones that can move through water, as creatures from other colors will immediately start drowning if they happen to touch the substance. Finally, Yellow Pikmin are lighter than their peers, and for that reason they can be thrown to reach taller heights; in addition, they are also capable of carrying explosive rocks that can come in handy to either stun enemies or bring down certain gates.

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With those pieces in place, Nintendo’s designers work their magic into the game. By mixing and matching different types of foes, bridges that need to be built, barriers that must be brought down, walls that have to exploded, heavy objects that require a lot of Pikmin to be moved or carried, geysers, lakes, elevated surfaces, and other elements, developers were able to create environments that not only are a joy to explore, but that also provide an engaging challenge of army-management. As they try to help Olimar find the missing parts of the S.S. Dolphin, which will be highlighted on the map once the ship’s radar is collected early in the adventure, players are likely to be sucked into a quest that is very hard to put down; one that joins the usual Nintendo value in excellent design, charming visuals, and catchy music, with the brutal reality of nature.

One of the key features of Pikmin, which would go on to be somewhat discontinued in its sequels, is the thirty-day limit imposed by Olimar’s life-support system. Rather than being a merely theoretical deadline that does not impact gameplay, Nintendo opted to turn that threshold into a reality. Since after the sun sets the planet is overrun by deadly nocturnal animals that easily overpower the Pikmin, Olimar cannot work at night, being forced to move to the low-orbit alongside his companions during the twilight hours; with any creatures that are not sent to their mother ship before darkness comes being lost for good. Because of that, the daily labor must be done within a certain amount of time, which corresponds to roughly thirteen minutes in the game’s American and Japanese versions, and about sixteen in the European one. By doing some math, one can conclude that the parts must be gathered, respectively, within six and a half or eight hours.

From the game’s release, this limitation was always a point of contention. Sure, four of the thirty parts are not mandatory, with the last one of the whole bunch being locked behind a special final boss that is reserved for players looking for full completion. Yet, collecting twenty-six parts in the span of one month of thirteen or sixteen-minute days is a good challenge, and a non-negligible amount of players complained about that ceiling. It is understandable: the limitation can induce anxiety; it can be seen as an odd feature, especially considering Nintendo’s family-friendly nature; and it does not allow for one to tackle the game at a leisurely pace. However, the bottom line is that many of Pikmin’s most essential elements heavily benefit from that trait, as the game was clearly designed around that limit.

Firstly, it adds a very interesting planning variable to the framework, since players will be forced to carefully analyze the map, think about the obstacles it contains, and formulate a list of goals they need to accomplish during a said day. Secondly, in case one feels they did not have a productive day, twilight always comes with the option of going back to sunrise; and since the game is made up of thirteen or sixteen-minute parts, not a lot of progress is lost in doing so. Thirdly, those who want to get more out of the package can challenge themselves to try to clear the quest in as few days as possible, and fully aware of the allure found in that replayability, Pikmin even keeps a ranking of the the general stats of every run, including the quantity of parts collected, the amount of days that transpired, and the number of creatures that were lost.

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The most important ramification of the thirty-day limit, though, might be the fact that it plays into the hands of the multitasking capabilities of the game. Since the Pikmin are autonomous after they are thrown, it is possible for Olimar to try juggling various activities to squeeze the most out of every day. While a group of Pikmin is busy assembling a bridge or bringing down a wall, for example, the captain can take another army to deal with the enemies standing in the way between him and a part of his ship. And as those foes are downed, he can assign smaller groups of the army that is with him to work on carrying the bodies of those defeated bugs back to the ship so that new Pikmin are produced. Besides being a fun way to be productive and not waste much time just watching the creatures do their work, pulling off this multitasking also requires a deal of careful panning and is very important if there is either a new player trying to get all ship parts before time runs out or a veteran attempting a run in as few days as possible.

In the end, there are a few problems that hold Pikmin back. Featuring only five areas, with the first being a small introductory sector and the last containing just a few tricky puzzles as well as the final boss, the package comes off as being a bit too thin in spite of its good replayability and the existence of a Challenge Mode that has five stages where the goal is to gather as many Pikmin as possible in a single day. Furthermore, although the CPU-controlled Pikmin generally behave well, some hiccups emerge along the way: they can automatically get distracted by specific types of scenario elements and there are a few moments when it feels like they do not answer to the whistle. Needless to say, those problems create a certain degree of annoyance, especially when they occur in the midst of life-threatening battles. Finally, if players are carrying a mixed set of Pikmin, there is no easy way to throw a creature of a certain type; here, this action, which would be added to future installments, can only be achieved by disbanding the army with the X button, which causes each Pikmin to stand close to their peers of the same color, and then using the whistle to form a uniform group.

Vicious in how it depicts the merciless spirit of nature and charming in how it covers it all up with cute colorful painting, Pikmin is a creative victory. Simply put, there is nothing quite like it, and its mixture of action, exploration, and army-management is so unique that pinning it to a genre is nigh impossible. What is truly important, though, is that it is a thoroughly engaging package which challenges players to multitask, plan, and skillfully use a horde of little creatures to overcome obstacles as well as bring down foes that tend to outsize the heroes by a very comfortable margin. And even if problems do exist in how the Pikmin occasionally act, in how the quest’s time limit may turn some gamers off, and in how the project’s scope verges on being too small, the formula created here is by all means a winner, and in its first outing it already emerged as an incredibly fulfilling experience.

FINAL SCORE: 8 – EXCELLENT

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