Pikmin 1 & 2 Retrospective
A choice between drive and freedom
The recent success of the Nintendo Switch brings to mind the legacies left by past Nintendo consoles. You have the Super Nintendo, a machine often credited with reinforcing high-budgeted, long-form epics like A Link to the Past and Chrono Trigger in the home console market. There’s the Wii’s massive audience of toddlers and grandmothers alike. The original DS’ massive library and accessibility was rivaled by few other systems. The Nintendo 64 had instant classics that seemed to master 3D space when other platforms struggled. Even the Wii U and Virtual Boy are notable in their lack of success… but then you have the GameCube.
I love the Nintendo GameCube a lot. It might be my favorite console of all time. That said, the GameCube is probably the least special Nintendo console ever. There were no control gimmicks; this wasn’t a big jump into 3D, HD, 4K, or whatever. This was just Nintendo making a more powerful, more stylish version of their previous console; a very un-Nintendo-like thing to do. If it were to differentiate itself from the herd, it would have to draw on its power and style because there wasn’t much else. While technically out-classed in power by the original Xbox, it was far more powerful than its main competitor, the PlayStation 2.
What can you do with all that power? Make a bunch of Marios walk around on a dish.
Super Mario 128, an early tech demo for the GameCube (previously known by its codename, Dolphin) wherein 128 small Mario clones would walk around a spheroid and defy gravity, drew in a lot of interest, but would never be made into a full game. Still, it would come to represent the GameCube’s strengths in a very pure way. The GameCube could make many more calculations per second than the N64 and, suddenly, things like a high number of on-screen entities and variable gravity were now possible. Variable gravity would actually have to wait until the next Nintendo console’s launch to show up in the forms of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Super Mario Galaxy, but the idea of controlling a large mass of characters wouldn’t have to wait long at all to show up.
Pikmin and its sequel Pikmin 2 account for the non-gravitational aspects of Super Mario 128’s console-proving features and provide a nice piece of software identity for the GameCube. At no point in the future would controlling 100 ant-like plant creatures be considered ground-breaking innovation and at no point in the past would it have been possible. Pikmin is, at its core, a uniquely GameCubian idea.
… This has all been a roundabout way of explaining why I’ve been thinking about Pikmin so much lately, because I have been thinking about Pikmin SO much lately. I felt like context is necessary here because Pikmin is a weird game and having some sort of reference point is important when talking about it.
So, I just replayed Pikmin and Pikmin 2.
The original Pikmin game is dry. Not as in it has a dry tone, a dry wit, or it has a lack of something. Pikmin is just a solid, dry object, and is as uncomplicated in its design as the cube it was played on. The game stars Captain Olimar, a space freight transporter from the planet Hocotate. His ship (reverently called “the S.S. Dolphin”) is hit with an asteroid and he crash lands on earth. Olimar’s first encounter with a real world object, a gigantic cardboard box, illustrates how small he truly is in comparison to the insects and small animals that could potentially endanger his life. The box is blocking the good captain’s path to his ship’s engine, which was knocked loose of the ship. In order to move the cardboard obstacle, he must enlist the help of Pikmin, locally-grown flora-fauna hybrids who can work together to fight enemies and carry large objects, but have poor individual leadership skills.
As Olimar uses his new buddies to push the box out of the way and to carry the Dolphin’s engine back, the core loop of the game is formed. Pikmin is a game about directing masses of small creatures to fight enemies and breakdown obstacles between ship parts and the Dolphin and then, once the path is cleared, carry the ship parts back. Every once in a while, you may choose to spend time producing more Pikmin by picking up organic objects like pollen pellets and defeated enemies and bringing them to the Pikmin’s own spaceship, “the Onion.”
There’s a catch, however.
Captain Olimar’s transport mission was initially supposed to be very short, so he only brought thirty days worth of breathable air. Oxygen is toxic to him and extending his stay on the planet passed those thirty days is out of the question. If the game is not completed thoroughly enough by the end of that time period, the player is forced to restart the game from the beginning. The number of ship parts that were knocked loose from the Dolphin is also thirty so if you aren’t picking up ship parts at a rate of at least one per day, you will most likely not get to them all. Additionally, days are only about thirteen minutes long and you cannot work through the night, so you need to make sure all Pikmin on the field are accounted for by either collecting them with Olimar or by placing them in or near their Onions before every sunset. Because of both the day-long and month-long limits of play, Pikmin goes from what would be a methodical strategy-stealth game to a strategy-action game with the threat of time running out looming over every decision you make.
This obviously has its pros and cons. Not being able to casually grind for an infinite amount of Pikmin forces the player to be a bit more thoughtful about getting in potentially dangerous situations. It also makes the stakes of the game seem a lot more real. Olimar could actually suffocate and it could be your fault. That kind of thing forms an emotional connection few games can hope to achieve.
On the flip side, a friend of mine who loves the Pikmin franchise has expressed that she simply cannot handle the time limits imposed on the first game in the series. She is very methodical in her play style (read: “slow”) and she’d prefer the ability to explore every inch of the world that Pikmin has to offer. She’s probably not alone in this.
Pikmin 2 later removed the one month time limit (even though the daily time limit is still present), likely due to public outcry over the stressful nature of the first game, but I think the results were double-edged.
At the end of the first game, provided all of Olimar’s essential ship parts are found before thirty days are up, Olimar is shown flying back to Hocotate. It’s revealed at the top of the second game that, unfortunately, his transport company has fallen deeply into debt while he’s been gone. Serendipitously, a bottle cap Olimar brought back from earth as a souvenir for his son is found to be valued at 100 pokos (a lot) and he’s immediately sent back to earth to collect more “treasure.” This time, Olimar is joined by Louie, his less diligent work associate.
The game begins similarly to the original Pikmin with a crash landing on earth, but there is no threat of the captains outlasting their breathable air supply because of an on board air filter in their ship that refills every day. Olimar’s company’s debt, similarly, has no due date. This effectively means that any stress one had about having to fit their entire playthrough into one in-game month is completely gone. While the end-of-day time limit is still in place, the lack of a maximum number of days to spend in Pikmin 2 means that there is little-to-no rush to collect anything at all. If the player wishes, they can spend entire in-game days just increasing the size of their Pikmin armies and seeing the world, and what a world it is to see.
Pikmin 2 has in spades what the first game did not even attempt: world-building. Every aspect of this game is purposefully designed to make spending long periods of time dawdling about and engaging with the environment rewarding. To start, the treasures you have your Pikmin collect in this game contrast with the ship parts in the first game in that, instead of abstract-looking machinery, they are all real-world items like vegetation, food packaging, and even Duracell-branded batteries. After being collected, each of these collectibles show up in an encyclopedia with fantastic descriptions by Captain Olimar himself. Sometimes Olimar will stick to postulating about what purpose the item could have served, but other times he’ll start by trying to talk about the object but he’ll just use the fact that he’s writing as an excuse to go on about his day-to-day worries and cares. For example, here’s his description for a horseshoe magnet:
“I’ve had an upset stomach lately. I’m not old yet, but I’m not young anymore either. Maybe I should start doing a better job of looking after my health. Perhaps basking in this contraption’s magnetic rays will make me stronger…”
And here’s his description of a heart-shaped ruby:
“The vivid color of this red stone reminds me of my wife’s eyes when they burn with rage. Just between you and me, I’ve noticed lately that she’s been getting more wrinkles. Now that I think about it, I’ve probably caused her a lot of stress. When I return to Hocotate, I’ll take her on a long vacation.”
Things like this go a long way in distinguishing Captain Olimar from more typical, silent Nintendo protagonists like Mario, Link, and Samus. Those folks have goals, rivalries, affinities, and all that jazz, but Olimar misses his wife when he’s away on work and worries about his body-image. It’s mundane, but it feels real in a satisfying way. To be fair, Olimar having a personality is not new to 2, but the general focus on character is much more prominent.
Alongside Olimar, both Louie and the President of their company also explore the earth, describing enemies and objects and engaging in full character arcs of their own. To describe what happens with them would be a bit of a spoiler, but it should be telling that these specific characters can even have spoilers. Olimar’s arc in the first game can pretty much be simplified to “Man crash lands on planet, fixes ship, leaves planet.” The captains actually have stuff going on in 2.
Another aspect of delightful world-building is Pikmin 2’s reuse of old Pikmin 1 areas. With the exception of Valley of Repose, 2’s starting area, every single world in Pikmin 2 is a slightly aged version of a world from the first title. It’s fun to walk around and see how areas have changed with litter and overgrowth adding to the landscapes and ponds drying up or expanding.
This world-building comes at a cost, however. There are many more treasures than there were ship parts in 1, and by increasing the number of things to collect, you’ll also need to increase the area able to be explored. Pikmin 2’s solution to this was to introduce caves. Caves are multi-floored level-based areas that are tackled in a much more mission-like structure than the regular, open overworlds. The entirety of how the game is played is different in the caves. There are no opportunities to grow additional Pikmin, time does not pass, and there are only certain places where Olimar, Louie, and their Pikmin can return to the surface with all of the treasure they’ve collected. Perhaps these focused, challenge-based segments would be a nice way to break up the normally very open, strategic gameplay, but the majority of the game takes place in caves.
One of the worst aspects of the cave system is that, because there is no limit to the number of days you can spend in Pikmin 2, the game feels no remorse in throwing unfair obstacles in your way. From Decorated Cannon Beetles, giant bugs that shoot enormous boulders that can crush an entire platoon of Pikmin to death in one blow, to Volatile Dweevils, spiders that double as timed explosives that fall from the ceiling when you least expect it, caves can hand you a lot of bullhonkey. Sure, you can spend as long as you like making more Pikmin outside of the caves, but that doesn’t make the surprise destruction of my Pikmin feel any less like the game’s fault instead of my own. Often, they seem so unforgiving in their punishment that the best tactic is just to bring 100 Pikmin in and hope that you still have a good amount by the time you’re done.
The caves’ gaminess characterize the way Pikmin 2 divorces itself from its predecessor. There is much more content, much more time, and many more ways to lose Pikmin. If Pikmin is dry in its design, Pikmin 2 is dripping wet.
Drive versus freedom
The central divide between Pikmin 1 and 2 is a choice between drive and freedom. Pikmin is not a long game, but everything Olimar accomplishes is a race against time which makes doing things that don’t even take fifteen minutes feel like major questions of risk and reward. Pikmin 2 feels as far from that as possible. Why not, for example, just spend an in-game week dedicated to grinding out 1000 of every color of Pikmin you can have? Why not spend an hour on a single floor of a cave just to get through it without losing a single Pikmin? The lack of an end-game time limit makes those things not just possible, but encouraged. The freedom to spend as much time as you want doing anything you like seems like an obvious positive, but you lose a bit of critical gameplay balance. There is no down time in Pikmin , but Pikmin 2 has however much of it the player deigns to create.
Pikmin 2’s freedom of exploration is perhaps a more memorable design philosophy. Seeing the real-world objects recontextualized in the Pikmin universe is a treat that always had me excited to see what the next treasure would be and experiencing a narrative with much more character was fantastic. Ultimately, however, I personally favor the first game in the series. The emotional drive to get everything Olimar needs to leave the planet as fast as possible, coupled with the responsibility to not just let Pikmin die because of the lack of time to repopulate your armies, forms a strong desire to complete the game that feels relatively unique to this franchise.
Merits of the “best of both worlds”
One of the great things about both these games, despite whichever I prefer, is that they target two very different demographics while still staying true to what the core ideals of the Pikmin series is all about. I could warn someone against all of the grinding and unfairness Pikmin 2 introduces, but that could be the exact thing they want as a video game player. Similarly, I could explain why I think the time limits of the first game are brilliant and that might simply stress them out so much that they never give it a shot. Because of this, it might be a good thing that the two design philosophies are kept separate.
It’s possible that drive and freedom are intrinsically at odds with one another in game design. If the player is driven to do a specific thing, one could argue that they are encouraged against exploring and seeing things through in their own time. Similarly, when a player is given all the time to do whatever they like, it might be a necessity for them to feel that it isn’t important to go do anything specific.
Still, one can’t help but wonder if it’s possible to make a Pikmin game that merges the best qualities of both games with none of the bad and manages to cater to the two demographics of the original games. Well, the elephant in the room is that there is a Pikmin 3. It came out for Wii U in 2013 and I have, shamefully, never played it. Some people have told me that it’s a mix of both of the original games’ designs, so I’m optimistic about it. Apparently, there is a limit to the number of days you can spend in-game, but that limit is expandable based on how much of the main collectable you’ve found. That sounds great. I’ve also heard that the playable characters in 3 have a lot less personality than both Olimar and Louie and that the things you collect are exclusively regular ol’ fruit. That sounds less than great. I’m also skeptical of Pikmin’s place outside of the Nintendo GameCube, the system the series was created to prove. Still, I’m probably going to give it a try soon and maybe I’ll report back later with my thoughts on it.
Until then, I leave you with a few questions:
- What is a more important feeling for a game to have: drive or freedom?
- Are these ideas fundamentally at odds?
- How would you design a Pikmin game? More like 1, 2, or an entirely different way?
Feel free to let me know your thoughts below now that you know mine.