It’s hard to think of a game that represents Darwinian thoughts on evolution well, other than closing off a Zoo Tycoon park and importing a group of jaguars and polar bears. And even that loses its appeal quickly, which is when you switch over to Dinosaur Tycoon and relive the past few hundred million years of evolution to see whether the popular Jurassic Era dinosaurs really live up to the hype. But a month into the GameCube’s lifetime, Pikmin, Darwin’s dream game, was released as a brand new Nintendo IP. Which is sort of like picking up a four-leaf clover that was on the back of a cricket dragging along a rabbit’s foot that was blessed by the pope.
Captain Olimar has had his spaceship damaged by a meteor and, with odds greater than C-3PO could describe, lands on a planet without being harmed much. He needs to gather certain parts of his ship in order to it in working order before his life support gives out. Olimar’s life support system only has a certain amount of time before it all runs out and dies of a heart attack. Along the way, you can collect other pieces that have fallen off that don’t actually help you leave the planet, but expand Olimar’s background. It reminds me of the Dead Space plot-building devices of us seeing a picture and video of his girlfriend, almost like the game is just asking us to feel sad over a mute block of a character that could’ve been replaced with any of the Thomas Was Alone crew and have had the same emotional effect.
Pikmin sets itself out as an adventure/platform puzzler, but uses the pikmin as your puzzle-completing entities. Rather than navigating your character around the platforms to complete the puzzles, you fling and focus your pikmin at specific objects, creatures, and places. The three pikmin, red, yellow, and blue, each have their own special ability that helps with reaching certain objects. The red can withstand fire attacks, the yellow can be flung farther, and the blue can go underwater without flailing like a seizure patient. The different colors help differentiate which pikmin do what easily, although a lack in variety of pikmin causes a limited amount of puzzles to be made.
In fact, the entire game seems a bit short. You can only hunt for pieces during the day, and the daytime lasts somewhere between 13-16 minutes in real time, making total gameplay per finished story session at most 8 hours. It almost feels like a proof-of-concept game to see whether there was any appeal in this sort of gameplay. While the countdown does add a sense of urgency to finding the parts, it tends to create a sort of speed-run feel rather than building depth about the world around Olimar. And while there are 30 parts to find, only about 6 are of importance for lifting off and surviving in space.
As well as gathering up the ship parts, you must also constantly be creating new pikmin by killing off the creatures of the world and punching flowers. Maintaining the pikmin’s numbers becomes almost as integral to the game as collecting ship parts. Without a constant supply of able-bodied pikmin, Olimar would most likely be making snot bubbles and singing Yankee Doodle while waiting for his straitjacket to come in the mail. Taking a large group of blue pikmin, for example, and losing most of them to a tougher enemy prompts the player to build back their numbers before you can tackle another water puzzle. It’s definitely one of the more interesting combinations of resource management and puzzle solving out there.
Captain Olimar himself is probably the most useless character in the known universe. His only use is to organize and marshal his troops best for the situation at hand and occasionally fling them like a shot put. He can’t jump, help carry objects, or even put together the parts of the ship without the pikmin’s help. He can only chuck the pikmin and whistle them to attention. If Olimar’s whistle had been damaged in the crash or if he had broken an arm, he would have had a better chance at survival by standing still and hoping that he evolves some sort of photosynthesis before being eating by one of the world’s many shoggoths.
The four main maps are pretty open and unique. Although the graphics are somewhere between the N64 and the GameCube, solving the puzzles can be quite fun. Taking a pack of blue pikmin to explore troubled waters, have them cross the lake and build a bridge while going back and grabbing some other pikmin to help pick up whatever object lies on the other side, has a certain satisfying feeling to it that I can’t exactly wrap my head around. It’s sort of like creating little daily lists. Check on bridge, gather resources, create more pikmin, bring back ship part, don’t die, shit, I died. The combat also has an interesting feel to it. Almost like that one scene in Dragon Age: Origins, where they send out the mabari war hounds to lead the attack. It has a sort of horde mode that can only be seconded by a Zerg rush or a group of fanboys waiting in front of a Best Buy for a new Amiibo to be released.
The game definitely suffers due to having more of a challenge feel to the game rather than a narrative focus. The game seems determined to careen you towards the finish line as quickly as possible while forgoing more useful plot elements other than text boxes and journal entries. It holds on just too much to the Mario type of thinking where efficiency of time and resources is pinnacle to success with anything that might get in the way on the backburner. This efficiency focus, however, creates its own sort of excitement. By providing a different style of gameplay than we’re used to seeing, creating an engaging and enticing world, Pikmin definitely seems to hold up despite a lack in focus and shoddy graphics.