Of course, as much as I idolize Mario today, I can't exactly get away with calling him a complicated character. Is that a bad thing? Certainly not. Many of gaming's most popular characters are akin to the cast of Looney Tunes and Mickey Mouse: They will not impress in terms of symbolism, character depth, or backstory, but their endless appeal and lively personalities entertain audiences to no end. However, just as graphics, gameplay, and even music have been radically transformed throughout the various gaming generations, so have the casts of characters that have been introduced to us within the past decade and a half.
While the Super Nintendo's RPGs paved the way for character development in video games, it truly became mainstream with the advent of the Playstation. While Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon picked up on Mario's parading enthusiasm, critics and older gamers found themselves enamored with the casts of Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy VII. These characters weren't stereotypes of typical archetypes; instead, they were characters with detailed personalities, tragic backstories, and even romantic relationships. As they progressed through these titles, players began to not only care for them but wanted to find out what would happen to them, which gave them all the more motivation to finish the game. The immense success of these titles was quickly noted by the rest of the industry, and the aspects of detailed characters and elaborate world-building soon became the norm in the game industry.
Did Nintendo follow this route? Not really, and with the continued success of Mario, Donkey Kong, and Pokemon, who could blame them? While their questionable business practices had sealed their ranking at third place, the non-evolution of their characters was not the cause of their financial decline. What really is beautiful about Nintendo's cast of characters is that since they don't have multi-layered personalities or established backgrounds, the players can have fun filling in the blanks. How exactly did Bowser obtain eight children? Who is Meta Knight, and what is his true purpose? How did Mario and Luigi take up their roles as defenders of the Mushroom Kingdom? Thousands of theories have been made on a variety of subjects regarding these characters, as their vagueness only wants us to know more.
Of course, some of Nintendo's characters have a bit more personality and history imbued into them. The Fire Emblem series and the enigmatic Mother 3 are recent cases, both of which produced dramatic storyline and developed characters. However, American audiences were first introduced to a developed character in none other than Pikmin's diminutive hero.
If there's one thing that Nintendo's protagonists succeed at doing, it's leaving a great first impression. The cartoony, bouncy air around Mario and his friends immediately hook in any child within range of a television. The badassery of Donkey Kong and Samus Aran are second to none. Pikachu's cuteness captivated the female population, and players were able to become a hero through the blank slate of Link.
It should be obvious, then, that Pikmin's Captain Olimar does not leave a strong first impression.
Upon first viewing, he is a rather bizarre figure. Unusually short and stumpy, Olimar does not emanate any form of heroism or fortitude. His squinty eyes and plump nose are not exactly attractive features. He lacks Mario's party-going atmosphere. He does not possess Donkey Kong's prowess. He doesn't even come close to matching the sheer coolness of Link and Samus. How can he possibly be an appealing character?
Simple: He speaks.
While Samus Aran and Fox McCloud had previously conversed in their titles, Olimar is notable for possessing a well-established personality. While, again, he is not provided by a voiceover, his text boxes allow us to peek into his thoughts and feelings about what goes around him. His signature verbosity is well-suited, as he constantly tries to make sense of the distant world he's trapped on.
Olimar's first words serve as introducing the plot of the game. He's not only stranded on an unknown planet thanks to a ship crash, but his life-support system can only stand the poisonous atmosphere for thirty days. To escape this strange planet, he must recover his missing ship pieces. The sheer size of the daunting task ahead of him is obvious from the beginning, and he soon realizes he can't do it alone.
As Olimar chatters away in a text box, his observations and inquiries serve as a clever method for the player to get situated in the oddball mechanics of Pikmin. Through his constant documentation of the strange world, the player learns not just the goal of the game, but how to effectively employ the Pikmin and their many uses. We learn how to use their Onion pods, and how to throw Bomb Rocks, and discover that Blue Pikmin can use their gills to tread through watery areas. His analysis is key to understanding the game.
However, his analysis is not a robotic one. While described as being an expert freighter, his apparent love for research and zoology allows him to express a sense of wonder. His distinct speech aids in his surprise, as he can't help but to be in awe of the various going-ons around him. As noted when he meets his first Red Pikmin, "Here I am, stranded on a toxic planet, fighting to survive, and yet I'm intrigued... I must research this fascinating creature!" In a way, his reactions to the wondrous flora and fauna of the planet mirror those of the player. The world of Pikmin was unlike anything else in gaming at the time, and Olimar's constant feedback shares these feelings with the player, and a connection is immediately established.
As the adventure continues, it becomes clear that Olimar excels as a leader. Through his monologues that are peppered throughout the game, his quick thinking and analytical strategies guide the player on progressing through the game. His diminutive stature is all but forgotten as his astute assistance defines his character. Just as the Pikmin eased Olimar's loneliness and he came to depend on them for companionship, I came to depend on Olimar as my sole ally. The world of Pikmin, while captivating in beauty, felt more real and deadly than any other game world I had previously explored, and I felt scared at certain times. Even so, I could depend on Olimar's chattiness as my sole ally into this scary world.
What really drives this point home is his personal Voyage Log. As Olimar retreats into sky with his battered Dolphin during the nocturnal hours of the planet, he jots down a daily entry into a journal. The subjects of these entries vary, often reflecting upon events the player had engaged during that day's expedition or indulging in nostalgic memories. If, for example, a Bomb Rock had engulfed a number of Pikmin, he details the heart-wrenching expression of the deceased Pikmin. If a ferocious creature is encountered, he reports of their dangerous abilities. At other times, he remembers his family back home.
And that's the sharpest reminder of Olimar's predicament.
In the Forest of Hope, one ship piece requires the Pikmin to build two bridges over a small pond not far from the landing site. It's a process that takes a while, but it's far from the hardest job in the game (other than the danger of water). After both bridges are finished, you cross over the both of them and locate a small, green object known as the Sagittarius.
When Olimar locates a ship piece, he excitedly details the piece and its purpose for guiding the ship straight into the heavens. That's not the case this time, however, as Olimar reveals its origins:
"I've found my Sagittarius!
My son gave this to me as a present. It brings to mind vision of my son back home on Planet Hocotate. Oh, to be back there right now!"This was my favorite ship piece documentation back when I first played the game, and it remains this way even today. The player is reminded here that Olimar's escape from the alien planet does just not mean bragging rights. We now know why Olimar is so adamant on his survival and trying to persevere: Because he has a family at home waiting for him. We eventually learn of his wife and daughter, and his nightly logs eventually consist of him yearning for their comfort, knowing that they must be worried for him.
A weight is suddenly thrown on my shoulders, and it was a big deal when I was younger. I was in control of Olimar's destiny. I was in charge in making sure he braved through the dangers of this mysterious land and had to crush every creature in my path. If I succeeded, Olimar would be able to escape the planet and be reunited with his family. If I failed, he would succumb to the planet's atmosphere and never see his family again.
Subtle, yet powerful. That is the way of Nintendo's characters. And that is why Olimar is one of my favorite game characters.
"I just recalled the day I took my son for a ride in this spaceship. He was so happy... I shall tell him of this journey when I return. And I shall return! I must! I can already see the look of wonder on his precious face as I describe my adventures with the Pikmin..."
Olimar's monologues are our key to understanding Pikmin, but the titular characters are his own for survival. While Olimar eventually proves himself to be a likable character, it is the Pikmin themselves that draw players to the game. They instantly appeal, whether in terms of curiosity or admiration, and it's strange how they accomplish this besides having simple designs. Each type of Pikmin has a distinct physical feature that, along with their colors, distinct them from one another, but they all have the same blank stare. Even while looking at the picture above, it's as if they could come to life at any moment, ready for me to issue an order.
As the player gradually amasses an army of Pikmin, they'll quickly find out that the Pikmin are a lively bunch. When called out of their Onion homes, they slide down its legs with a bubbly banter. When new Pikmin are plucked from the planet's soil, they greet Olimar with a squeaky greeting (if one listens closely, a trace of English can be heard). They favor the sweet taste of the blops of sap found in tall grass, and immediately chase after the sparkling hide of a Iridescent Flint Beetle. They are quick to aid Olimar in forging a wooden bridge, and cheer for joy when one of the Dolphin's ship pieces are recovered.
And yet, when used in the right hands, they are deadly. When prompted to attack a monster ten times larger than they are, they waste no time in attacking. Their bubbly attitudes instantly become fierce as they assault and nip on the back of a napping Bulborb or on the tiny head of a Burrowing Snagret. Even as members of their own ranks are instantly crushed or devoured, none pay heed as they continue to thrash at their opponents. As the monster falls the ground, the Pikmin immediately revert to their energetic state and carry the body off as nothing happened, installing it into the Onion for more Pikmin seeds.
Olimar is not the only to be both amused and mystified by their actions (as noted in several of his voyage logs), as it's not long before the player grows attached to them as well. It's no secret that people grow more quickly attached to pets than they do to other people, and the same goes for the personal army of Pikmin. Their squeals and groans are not unlike a puppy's whines or a kitten's mews, and they gently soothe the player into exploring deeper and deeper into a dangerous world. Why, just listen to them trying to pick up a heavy object (Awp! Awp! Awwwuuuuuooo!)!
But, like all pets, they eventually die.
The life of a Pikmin ends without warning. A handful will be crunched and swallowed by the monstrous fangs of a monster. They will crushed by a gargantuan leg or wayward boulder. They will be burned alive by a fire-breathing beast. Others will be suffocated, or body slammed, or swept away by a monstrous tongue. Whatever the case, a Pikmin will force out a mournful squeal and dissolve into a lonely ghost, as depicted above.
And it will all be your fault.
The death of a Pikmin symbolizes not just a fatal mistake as a leader, but the force of attachment you've established with the little critters. When they die, you feel it. You commanded them to engage in a ill-fated attack on a deadly monster, and half of your platoon fell prey to a hungry monster. The scars of battle are evident. Suddenly, your gang of a hundred Pikmin has fallen to fifty. The petals of a flower Pikmin have been reduced to buds or leaves, and as such your fighting power has been halved. Your platoon is smaller. The harsh reality of the Pikmin world is at full force here.
The Pikmin have the spirit of children, the courage of a warrior, but are as fragile as a flower. As the terrain becomes rougher and the deaths pile up, the player learns that the protection of the Pikmin is top priority. By realizing this, the player learns they must eliminate the opposing creatures as quickly as possible through various strategies. As shown above, running frantically with a sloppily organized mob of Pikmin will do you no good. You must attack from behind, or when the monsters are resting from their assault. You must strike quickly, and not lag or mistime in your throws.
But even so, mistakes are made. Perhaps the most horrific sight is watching a drowning Pikmin. The Red and Yellow Pikmin cannot traverse in deep bodies of water, and immediately begin flailing for life as they desperately attempt to reach for shore. While they can be saved with a certain method later on, there will be times where it won't be avaliable. You can only watch helplessly as the Pikmin begins to sink under the deaths. Its struggles eventually begin to cease as it floats face down in the water, evaporating into a ghost.
The concept of characters dying had previously scared me during the Nintendo 64, but the Gamecube only frightened me in the case of Pikmin. Watching these characters I had being fostering so tenderly die in the jaws of a beast or in the depths of a lake chilled me to the bone. I always worked hard in making sure none of them would die, but I'd slip up every now and then, and I couldn't go through with it. I'd turn off the Power button, turn the system on again, and try again.
Many years later, it's different. When Pikmin die, I have to move on. As a young adult, I am able to steel myself forward even with a fatal mistake. A Bulborb has eaten ten of my Pikmin? Alright, then, I'll just have to slay it and replace my fallen Pikmin with its corpse. A Fiery Blowhog has torched my Pikmin? Same deal. While I felt sad, I had no time to mourn their deaths. Olimar's clock was ticking, and I had to move on without their sacrifices badgering my mind.
The other day, one of my Pikmin somehow fell off a bridge. I didn't have the necessary tools in order the save it, so I could only watch it drown. It was a particularly poignant moment for me, and I was suddenly standing between time. If this had happened nine years ago, I would've instantly turned the Gamecube off. Now? I could only watch, and then realize I had to keep moving. While I felt a little guilty for abandoning the Pikmin, I knew that if I moved on, I would eventually complete the adventure and fight on in it's memory. In a way, it showed just how far I had come.
And just like real life, even when Pikmin die in the game, life goes on. The Pikmin will continue to multiply and carry and fight. They will continue to laugh and serve Olimar's every command. They chirp and squeal and greet and cheer. Some die, some get crushed, some drown, but it's fine. The Pikmin may represent the game's darkest hours, but they also represent its brightest, and they continue to find joy in everything.
It just goes on.
Loved writing that one! Sorry if it got a little gloomy at the end.
In any case, with E3 looming so close...I'll probably be taking a bit of a break from writing about Pikmin. While I already have the rest of the Seeds planned out, I don't want my excitement over NINTENDO'S NEW CONSOLE to distract me, so I'll bang that out real quick the day after E3's over and get right back to this.
See you Friday!