Death is almost always trivial in videogames. Whether it’s yours, the enemy’s or innocent bystanders, the pace of action in everything from Super Mario Bros to Gears Of War ensures there’s no time for reflection or regret. Exacerbated by the generally low standard of writing, the lack of sympathy for enemies and allies alike is gaming’s weakest link in terms of emotional involvement.
The few times you do feel remorse for a virtual murder are therefore heightened by their rarity and unexpectedness. Although it features enforced labour and the sacrifice of countless hundreds of lives for the benefit of your lone player character, Pikmin was deemed family-friendly enough for a 3+ age rating. As with many of Nintendo’s best titles, the apparently cheerful exterior is no guide at all to the complexity of the content within.
The release of Pikmin marked something of an end of an era for Nintendo, even though it was released just a month after the launch of the GameCube hardware. In the early NES days the company was kept busy establishing its mascots and key franchises as the videogame market was reinvented following the Atari-led crash. But once created, its development – particularly in subsequent generations – was forced to split between creating other new IPs and maintaining those that had already proven their success.
There is something very different about Nintendo’s new franchises from the 16- and 32bit era, though, with the majority bearing much more obvious comparison to the creations of others. As fans ticked off the checklist of AAA Nintendo racing games, flight sims and beat ’em ups, the revelation that Pikmin was a realtime strategy game made far more sense than the continued reticence to create a firstperson shooter. Whether the likes of Command & Conquer were ever really direct influences for designers Masamichi Abe and Shigefumi Hino has never been clear, with the most commonly quoted inspiration being Shigeru Miyamoto’s love of gardening – a hobby unlikely to have preyed on the minds of too many Westwood Studios or Blizzard employees.
The verdant fields of Pikmin’s world allow for a typically Nintendo-style context for a normally war-torn genre. It starts with gnome-like spaceman Captain Olimar (Orima in Japan – an anagram of Mario, as if Nintendo was afraid to create a new game without any links to its existing pantheon) crash landing on an unfamiliar planet whose dominant lifeforms are never seen. From their detritus it’s implied they’re human, but the range of insects, birds and fire-breathing moles which tower over you are like nothing you’ve ever seen.
Nor indeed are the pikmin themselves, apparently possessing animal-like intelligence and locomotion but with a reproductive system (and flower-topped antennae) borrowed from the plant kingdom. Available in three different colours, the long-nosed reds are the strongest and immune to fire, while the gilled blues can swim and big-eared yellows can be thrown great distances and handle explosive bomb-rocks. As the equivalent of Hydralisks or Rhino tanks they seem pathetically underpowered and lacking in diversity, but the strategy in this game is not primarily that of warfare but of exploration and resource management. The pikmin also fill in for this latter role, with new creatures spawned by bringing special pellets or dead enemies to each of the three colours’ flying ‘onion’ HQs.
The exploration is all in the service if finding the 30 lost parts of your crashed spaceship the SS Dolphin (another coded in-joke). Since Olimar doesn’t have the strength to bring the various cogs and components back to the ship himself, his pikmin must drag them back for him. But, thanks to the game’s most controversial feature, this must all be done within 30 days (an in-game day lasting around 15 minutes) or the entire campaign is lost.
Which is not to suggest that the game is particularly arduous, despite the elongated difficulty curve needed to wrap both head and hands around the concept and controls. However distinctive its goals and circumstances may be, the game is still recognisably a realtime strategy and as such the joypad-based controls are doomed to compromise. Basic movement works well enough, with a single button to throw pikmin and another to recall them, but organising your troupe into different sections is an imprecise art.
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