Monday, February 29, 2016


It goes without saying that Shigeru Miyamoto is a genius. After all, he's the creator of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, two video games that revolutionized the game industry. They grew into multi-million selling series that forged countless childhoods over the course of three decades; in particular, Super Mario has sold more than any other video game franchise in the world at over 300 million (and that's not including the dozens of spin-offs). The names "Mario" and "Zelda" are practically synonymous with the term "video game", proving how successfully they've penetrated into culture and the public at large.

Pikmin, Miyamoto's pet project for Nintendo GameCube, never achieved those same accolades. But I'll be damned if it's not his most inspired concept. This isn't to say it's his best, yet that one could make compelling cases for its masterpiece sequels shows the series can stand proudly with his most famous titles. And yet that they were both born from this experimental little oddball fascinates me to no end. After all, Miyamoto himself said Pikmin 3, undoubtedly the finest game you can play on Wii U, was the finalization of what he set out to accomplish with this title.

The game is the little survival tale of a diminutive astronaut, who crash-lands onto an alien world. His beloved Dolphin a mess, Captain Olimar must recover the spaceship parts with the help of plant-endowed critters, who share the game's title. Divided into three separate colors for their respective strengths (reds are immune to fire, yellows are light and can be tossed high, and blues can wade through water), the Pikmin are inquisitive, adorable lifeforms who require a capable leader for their own survival. Through commanding and propagating the Pikmin, Olimar must brave the dangers of the planet within thirty days before his life support system runs out. But the team can only brave the planet's surface during daytime, as the nightlife is far too dangerous for expeditions.

Needless to say, it's a game that requires a different sort of dedicated commitment than Zelda; a far cry from the pick-up-and-play familiarity of Mario. There were those who couldn't handle the pressure of completing the game under the 30-day time limit; others didn't "get" the premise's replayability and thought it was too short. And that's fine; while we could cite shortcomings on behalf of the developers, not every good idea will penetrate the mainstream market.

Personally, I suspect another reason, which relates to the "pressure" factor, is probably what I love so much about it; mainly, there's a stark sense of humanity present, more so than its two sequels. There's as much whimsy as any other Miyamoto title, but it hits home. There's the impending threat of Olimar's demise, for one: we learn from his nocturnal logbook that as excited as he is to learn about the Pikmin and their strange world, he always reverts to thoughts of his family back home.

Then there's the Pikmin themselves. Playful as children and fierce as beasts, we delight in discovering the nuances of their life cycles. We watch with wonder as they carry Pikmin-producing pellets back to their Onion nests, or start whacking away at mysterious holes in the ground. Our hearts melt at their puppy cries when attempting to lift heavy objects, and we feel like a proud parent when they return to the sound of Olimar's whistle. Our hearts break when a plan to slay a beast goes wrong and gasp in horror at their various methods of demise, be it getting munched, crushed to death, drowning, burned alive, or, as everyone is bound to do at least once, accidently leave one or two behind at the end of the day and watch helplessly as they're devoured by nocturnal monsters.

That's right: Pikmin decides to punish you for your failures by killing off your new pets. To further rub it in, they emit one last mournful cry before they dissipate into ghostly silhouettes, rising up to the great beyond.

I'll be honest in admitting I've since enjoyed a dark humor in that as I've grown older (particularly in the sequels, as they lean more towards comedy), but that you constantly have to manage and weigh the lives of adorable little critters under a ticking clock was probably too much for some. I know it was for me as a kid, no matter how much I enjoyed it.

I cannot claim this is entirely a matter of "git gud", either. Just the year before Pikmin, there were players who couldn't accustom to the three-day apocalypse of Zelda: Majora's Mask, which coincidentally also featured oddball humor and poignant themes. However, there's a rather big difference between the two: not only would the player have to purposefully encounter Majora's Mask's hour of doomsday given how the game incorporates time travel, but the player can actually work around the game's rules through slowing time. In Pikmin, either you play ball with the rules given, or you don't. In that sense, I understand Miyamoto's regret.

But why was I so captivated by it then? Why did I try to succeed over and over? Because of the very same reason it may've turned people off: its presentation of "stark reality." The sunbaked forests and desolate springs bear eerily Earthen roots, yet are framed in a style so alien we cannot help but discover its depths. There's all the indigenous life-forms, for starters: you have the bird-serpent hybrids, mind-controlling toadstools, fire-breathing warthogs, and, my personal favorite, a bread loaf-shaped scavenger that frequently engages in tug-of-war with Pikmin for goodies.

That these creatures sound just as cartoony as the Pikmin themselves would imply the game's world is just as cartoonish, but we're instead left to traverse one of the most beautiful worlds the GameCube has to offer. A cartoonish setting would entirely defeat the game's purpose; in the end, the Pikmin's world is that of survival, and Olimar's plight is no different. The realistic setting ensures the dangers of carnivorous beasts and environmental hazards come alive.

What really drives this point home is the great music provided by Hajime Wakai. Listen how the above example, the lullaby that is Forest of Hope, fluctuates according to time and tension. The way it initially captures a languid sunny morning is a perfect complement to how the area starts off. With the landing site block off by a dirt wall, Pikmin are divided into groups of either breaking it down or securing Pellets to grow more Pikmin. The ensuing work is long and hard, but it's ultimately an eye-opener into the game's circle of life: newborn Pikmin who remain planted in the ground gradually grow from leaf, to bud, and finally flower.

But who knows how long they'll live? The Forest of Hope is the first time Olimar and his troops will engage ravenous beasts (none the least of which are the spotty Bulborbs) and hazards of the watery and explosive kind. Whether accompanied by simple percussion or sleepy xylophones, it's downright raw to hear the dying cries of Pikmin drowned out by such gentle croons. And yet, life goes on.

On the opposite side of the spectrum lies The Distant Spring. It's a flooded marsh host to both infinite beauty and certain death, as the aquatic grounds are home to most of Pikmin's deadliest creatures. As echoed by the song, it represents the number one creed of nature: survival of the fittest, and so the cries of dead Pikmin naturally blend in. Despite being succeeded by one more area, visiting The Distant Spring truly feels like reaching the ends of the world.

 It's here the player realizes Olimar is our link to the world. For as much as he's in wonder of the alien world, his fight for survival is a lonely one the Pikmin can't entirely cure. We are just as in the dark as he is, and so we share his feelings of discovery, his confusion, his loneliness. By the time The Distant Spring rolls around, enough days have certainly passed for the explorer to feel more than a little homesick. But the harsh environment cares little for his plight, and so like Olimar, we must shoulder the burden of survival and sacrifice.

The roots for this process takes place from the very beginning, although with how the game starts at The Impact Site, you'd hardly think things would take such a dark turn. The song frames Olimar's plight as an adorable intrigue; a playroom mess rather than a struggle for survival, and given the oversized flora and cardboard boxes, you wouldn't be at fault for mistaking it as such.

But given the size chart in the game's manual (Olimar is only the size of a quarter), perhaps that's the point. It's a game designed for all ages, and so the game's darkness has to be balanced out by the whimsy of the Pikmin. Like the song and Olimar themselves, we delight in discovering what they're capable of.

Which brings us to the joy of the game's greatest song. No matter what point you're at in the game--be it having just met the Pikmin or have emerged from the depressing throes of The Distant Spring---the World Map theme will be there waiting for you. Opening with a light-hearted sunrise, the World Map theme is as adventurous as it is encouraging. It'll play even when time is running out, or if Olimar's army of Pikmin has been mercilessly slaughtered.

And that's because its job is in telling you to keep trying. It implores you to explore, to persevere.  You may've had one bad day, but why not persevere and come up with new strategies for next time? Time run out and you still haven't found all the necessary ship pieces? Hey, life goes on, so why not try again? The song matches Nintendo's objective in always looking out for the player, and even if Pikmin doesn't hit all the bases for that, this one moment holds that one creed above all else.

But suppose you do succeed, and are thusly rewarded with the heartfelt you play again? After all, this sort of game is supposed to reward creativity. To achieve one goal in different ways and discover new shortcuts and tricks. Such a game begs for replayability, yet as mentioned before, Miyamoto and co. observed not many chose to do so.

Does the reason go beyond the stressful time limit? We can offer the argument that Pikmin and fellow GameCube launch title Luigi's Mansion offered a style of gameplay that flew over the mainstream's heads, yet I can't help but shake the feeling both games stuck too closely to their experimental roots. Of course, not every inspired concept will come barreling out the gate with heaps upon heaps of polish and content, but their respective setpieces never "wow" us as the N64 and SNES launch efforts did prior. We're drawn into their creativity, but leave considering them appetizers to the main course (in this specific context, Super Smash Bros. Melee).

 Pikmin is a step above Luigi's Mansion in that there's more nuance to its gameplay; namely, you don't have to tackle every single enemy with the exact same strategy. And yet, it never quite breaks out of the "glorified tech demo" label Luigi's Mansion was also branded with. It's not that there's ideas left unfinished or anything resembling sloppy design, but there's a notable incongruity in how inspired the game's objectives can be. Take The Final Trial: the final boss is as difficult as they come, but barring the bit with the isolated bomb rocks, the "trials" preceding it are painfully simple and short. That's not to say the game doesn't get creative--look no further than The Forest Navel--but such moments aren't uncommon. In the end, Pikmin's concept ends up being more creative than the final product.

It's why I label the game as experimental, but that doesn't mean I don't think the game's a beautiful rough draft. Just because the general public may've been done with it after one go doesn't mean I wasn't, and the aforementioned nuance is enough to keep me coming back on lazy afternoons. What propels Pikmin from "good" to "great" mainly boils down to two things: a) the character and presentation involved and b) the presence of an addictive Challenge Mode. The latter has been undeniably outstripped in the sequels, but the former possesses a unique niche even those masterpieces may have yet to surpass.

In the end, while Pikmin doesn't reach the awesome heights of Miyamoto's more famous works, it nurtured enough love and passion to blossom into one of Nintendo's finest franchises. In that respect, such humble beginnings are rendered just as stunning. Hmm, I wonder what that reminds me of?

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