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Pikmin : Style and Substance ~ Bryce Mainville

Pikmin1boxartPikmin is a Nintendo franchise released on the Nintendo Gamecube system (and recently re-released on the Wii) that combines light real time strategy gameplay with treasure-hunt adventuring. The premise is that Captain Olimar, a diminutive alien no taller than a quarter (pictured in red on both boxes) crash lands on a mysterious planet filled with frightening creatures. In Pikmin 1 (number added in this article to help differentiate), players have 30 days to collect the scattered parts of his broken ship and blast off before his life-support systems fail. In his task he is aided by the eponymous pikmin, a species of sentient plant-animal hybrids creatures (also pictured) which the player harvests as Olimar and uses to fight creatures, carry loads, dismantle obstacles, etc. These pikmin are designated by color and each type has some sort of ability associated with it (i.e.: blues can swim).

Having successfully fled the planet in the first title, Pikmin 2 finds Captain Olimar returning with an assistant from his home planet of Hocotate named Louie (pictured in the water on the second box). The president of their shipping company back home learns of Olimar’s fabulous adventure and concludes that the bevy of amazing artifacts on the planet (more on this in a minute) are worth a bundle, and sends you to retrieve as many as you can at your own pace, with no time limit.

You might already be guessing at what I’m about to contrast here. I have a professor who always stresses the importance, in both creative writing and analytical writing, of “focus, focus, focus.” Usually prefaced by reminding us of the old real estate mantra, “location location location,” with a roguish grin. The difference then, between Pikmin 1 and 2, is focus.

In Pikmin 1, you’ve landed on an alien planet about which you know absolutely nothing, populated mostly by creatures much larger than you, with a busted ship that can only travel small distances. Your life support systems are running out. If you do not repair your ship in thirty days, your suit’s systems will give, and you will asphyxiate in the alien atmosphere and die. Captain Olimar is not trying to save the world. He is just trying to survive, so he can get back home to his wife and kids.  Among the core Nintendo library (that I am familiar with) only the Metroid series and Zelda: Majora’s Mask have used this same premise: desperation and survival, so centrally (and neither to the extent in Pikmin 1).

There are thirty parts to collect, and thirty days. Some can be gathered in groups, maybe two or three on a given day. Others will take the ENTIRE day, almost a full twenty minutes, as you desperately rush the pikmin and the rocket part back to the ship in order to get in cover for the hostile night (you only play during daytime). The mute pikmin follow you unquestioningly in your task, perhaps seeing you as some kind of parental figure. They are, although cute, uniformly slavish, voiceless, unblinking creatures, which will happily go to their deaths for you and ultimately, serve as just a means to an end in your escape from this hostile alien world. Pikmin 1 is a game about getting lost in the woods, far away from home, with only one long shot at getting out. And you have to move fast, for the night is dark and full of horrors.

Pikmin 2, however, is a game about that fiendish need to horde possessions you’ve developed after playing so many JRPGs. There is no time limit in Pikmin 2, although you still use the day and night system, just to prevent you from doing each level in one entire go. You collect a myriad assortment of artifacts, usually small household items. The fight for survival becomes the fight for pawn shop goods, with about as much urgency as Diablo 2 manages to instill in players (hint: not much). In Pikmin 1, every ship part retrieved is one step closer to escape. In Pikmin 2, every item collected is just another piece of junk on the heap.
But wait, you say, before you talk more about this focus difference, what was this, about household items? I thought it was an alien planet. It is. Sortof. The items you get are very clearly things that we are familiar with, but they appear exotic and amazing to the diminutive Olimar and Louie. A pencil, for example, is romanticized as an “Instrument of Toil,” and a fruit juicer is a “Merciless Extractor.” Because they lack the language to describe these things by their actual names, they have to make an educated guess.

Yes, this mysterious planet is clearly earth, but at an unspecified time in the future. Perhaps. Many of the levels in both games still contain large holdovers of human life, a mossy flowerpot, an old curb, and in one level even a manhole cover with pavement around it (Manmade items in Pikmin 1 were more opaque and uncommon than the first, making the connection less apparent). For all this new alien life to flourish on earth (most of the alien species bear a passing, but only passing, resemblance to some real world animal), a huge span of time would have to pass. But if that were the case, nothing of modern life, like overgrown flowerpots, would remain. This lends the game a surreal aspect, perhaps suggesting that this is an alternate earth cohabited by man and a completely different ecosystem of animals. The player is left to make conclusions for themselves, and for that, I applaud both Pikmin 1 and 2.

Nintendo producer Shigeru Miyamoto claimed to have come up with the Pikmin concept after spending time tending to his garden at home. I think he was also, in a roundabout way, referring to the practice of bug-catching he, and many other people, enjoyed as children (I’m assuming he did, since the man seems to be interested in everything).

Director Satoshi Tajiri-Oniwa of the Pokemon games famously stated that he got the idea for Pokemon from bug-catching. Pokemon deals with this concept by placing the player in a position of power (the pokemon catcher) using the pokemon to collect more pokemon, and battle them with other trainers. Even though the Gameboy Pokemon titles have been fundamentally sound and entertaining games, this position diminishes the excitement and discovery of the actual pokemon catching (Not to mention the “Gotta Catch Em All” mentality (for more on the Pokemon phenomenon, check out this article).

Pikmin puts the player in a position of weakness (Olimar) and makes you dependent on another individually weak being, the pikmin. In numbers they can be powerful, but you are almost always outsized by the wildlife of the planet and have to think strategically. Pikmin is big-game bug-catching, where an alien rhinocerous beetle can kill you in two hits and one charge can eliminate dozens of pikmin in a single rush. Both Pikmin and Pokemon are about that feeling you got as a kid when you explored your backyard. Pokemon waters it down and makes it into a graph. Pikmin shrinks you down and lets you go adventuring.

But anyway, whereas Pikmin 1 is a game about survival in a strange world, Pikmin 2 is about your inane kleptomaniac tendencies. But even then, I am hesitant to say Pikmin 1 is a better game than Pikmin 2.

1094506946-00Pikmin 2 refines virtually every mechanical aspect of Pikmin 1. Controls are more precise and allow for a greater degree of control over your pikmin, and there are 2 more pikmin color varieties to work with, each with new abilities. There are also “dungeons,” underground areas in each level where time does not pass. These areas are divided into sections, and you can only bring up to 100 pikmin into the dungeon with you at a time, meaning you cannot replenish pikmin from their Onions (the large plants they come from) as you would in a normal level. Because the pikmin in both games care little for their own lives and are essentially the tools by which you accomplish tasks, this can harbor in the player a certain feeling of detachment towards them. The dungeons of Pikmin 2 force you to think carefully and logically about what makeup of pikmin to bring, and how many, since they will be your only lifeline when you’re underground.

The levels in 2 are, by and large, a rehash of those found in 1. This is not surprising, as Nintendo loves to feed the fanboy need for nostalgia by reusing old game resources (and to save money). Though the layout, color pallet, and many features of the levels have changed, those who have played 1 will be able to see the similarities. This isn’t really a big deal though, since the inclusion of Louie in addition to Olimar means you now can control two distinct groups of pikmin, acting separately with each character, to accomplish even more complex tasks and puzzles than in 1.

From a purely gameplay perspective, Pikmin 2 takes everything about Pikmin 1 and fine tunes it. It is a fundamentally more challenging game due to the addition of dungeons, many of which I could simply never complete because they required such a degree of skill and focus (and possibly because I’m a quitter). But in terms of its tone, story, and atmosphere Pikmin 1 completely steals the show. Of the two, I can only really bring myself to replay Pikmin 1. Even though 2 still fits like a glove, it feels transparent, a perfunctory sequel on Nintendo’s part. Focus, focus, focus. If Pikmin 1 had the gameplay of Pikmin 2, it may have been the single best thing released on the Nintendo Gamecube (Metroid Prime notwithstanding). But at least we’ve got them both to marvel at, and that is certainly worthwhile.

O brave new world, that has such pikmin in it!

One Comment

  1. pikminfan pikminfan March 12, 2010

    i love pikmin…

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