Some Thoughts on Nintendo’s Pikmin: A Brutally Cute Strategy Adventure

My journey with Pikmin (2001) began in early 2002. It was one of the “’launch-window” games for the Nintendo GameCube. I opted to use the little money I had saved to buy Super Smash Bros. Melee (2001) instead of Pikmin, though Pikmin was the most aesthetically appealing game. Melee looked more fun, a glorious hell of a time!

I had a maxim back then: “If I want to play outside, I’ll play outside.” Pikmin was “outside”, and I ultimately wanted inside. Melee was inside, Nintendo characters duking it out for supremacy. It’s a pure imaginative daydream that could only be experienced inside. Why would I want to play a game that was so “outdoorsy”? I have grown to regret not buying Pikmin first. In 2022, I feel strongly that Pikmin is the most unique and macabre series that Nintendo has created.

Pikmin’s presentation brought to life a world as verdant and bright as it was mysterious. The design of the fauna remains distinct 21 years after its original release. The creatures are simultaneously charming and creepy, as exemplified by the bulborbs. Maybe subconsciously they disturbed the 11-year-old me so much that I decided against buying the game until I could muster the courage needed to venture “outside”.

Pikmin and Bulbors. Courtesy of Mobygames.com

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Due to a crash landing in a strange world, Captain Olimar’s vacation ended with a bang. His misfortune becomes our entertainment.

The mission is simple: locate the missing parts of Olimar’s spaceship, the S.S. Dolphin, and get off the “weird planet” PNF-404. The player as Olimar has 30 days (in-game days, each is about 12 minutes in our world) to collect the necessary parts to repair the S.S. Dolphin. Shortly after the crash landing, Olimar encounters a “strange thing” resembling an onion, so naturally, he calls it an Onion. The Onion is an incubator for Pikmin. Red-colored Pikmin are the first that Olimar encounters. Soon he also encounters yellow and blue Pikmin. Each of these has distinct abilities that can be used to aid Olimar on his mission to escape PNF-404. A challenge mode is unlocked once all three colored Pikmin have been found. The mode tasks the player with producing as many Pikmin as possible before time runs out.

Players will also try to increase the Pikmin population by bringing pellets of either the colors red, blue, or yellow, as well as dead creatures to the Onions. Managing Pikmin within the time and space allotted by the game areas is crucial to success. The Pikmin have a distinct personality. Some are badly behaved; others are all business. Welcome to survival of the fittest à la Nintendo.

The puzzles and boss fights are imposing. Pikmin will perish when trying to meet the tasks commanded by Olimar – how many perish depends on the player’s skill. The game is simultaneously serene and stressful. This is in part due to the game’s fantastic sound design. Players are treated to evocative ambient music. Whenever intense action occurs the music changes to what can be described as uplifting futuristic marching compositions. This eclectic mixture of music can be credited to composer Hajime Wakai, now better known for his ambient score of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Pikmin and Wave Race: Blue Storm (2001) are the first games released on the GameCube that exemplify the Dolphin aesthetic – Nintendo’s response to Sega’s blues skies. Serene and inviting settings, cutting-edge graphical fidelity, and excellent soundtracks heighten and enrich the player experience. Pikmin was a technical showcase for the GameCube, along with Blue Storm and Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader (2001). It might not have helped the system sell more than its competitors, but many games released for the console (the above listed included) have art direction that has aged gracefully.

One thing that hasn’t aged as well is the game’s original controls. They aren’t dysfunctional but they are obtuse and hinder the gameplay experience. Pikmin as a strategy game requires precision. It is key to engender the player with a sense of control of Olimar, the Pikmin, and the camera. The game’s original controls are not up to the task. Pikmin 2 (2004) sought to remedy this with allowing players to switch between two commanders (Olimar and Louie). Later in the series, the ports for the Wii made playing Pikmin more intuitive with the addition of pointer controls. These facilitated precise commands and actions. The zenith was achieved with the release of Pikmin 3 (2013) with its use of the Wii-U’s touchpad and allowing players to control three commanders to control. Pikmin 3 stands as one of the greatest achievements of gameplay, function, and aesthetics that Nintendo has created.

Kawaii-zen and a “Bright-Dystopia”

Pikmin is Nintendo’s most brutal game. Don’t be fooled by its gorgeous locales and cute characters. Pikmin is all about kill or be killed – an arena whose rules are Social Darwinism. You play the role of someone exploiting the world to create cute carrot-like flower minions that kill and work on command. Pikmin’s worldview is kawaii-zen – everything in the game world is cute, deathly, and surmountable (if you have the time, patience, and numbers).

It is kawaii because aesthetically it follows the trappings of Japanese cute culture per Mizuko Ito’s description in “Gender Dynamics of the Japanese Media Mix” (2008) and Matt Alt’s in Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World (2021). Alt describes Kawaii as “a platonic ideal of the concepts of innocence and positivity” (pg. 103). Pikmin is platonic and charming. There is no mating, no sex, and no romance present (outside of Olimar’s hilarious voyage logs) in this game about nature. Pikmin are created by collecting items and the corpses of defeated enemies and brought to the Onions. Reproduction becomes simple resource management economics.

Its a numbers game. Courtesy of Mobygames.com

Pikmin was also embedded by its creator Shigeru Miyamoto with a zen-like aesthetic. It presents the happening of the world, which the player hopes to dictate as Olimar, as matter of fact. The “nature of things” demonstrated in the game is naturalistic in the sense that all living things come and go. Pikmin die in the hundreds. Olimar can fail in his mission and when that happens, he becomes part of the world; a Pikmin in the disturbing “bad” ending of the game.

Pikmin is an imagined bright dystopia. A future where not all is right yet what remains thrives even within the limitations of that tomorrow. The dystopian scenario is turned inside out. In Pikmin we, human beings are gone from PNF-404. It is our world that Olimar and the Pikmin explore. Olimar is intrigued by the strangeness of the planet. Through play and exploration, familiar items of our world are visible. They have supplanted us as survivors. Yet, it is not until Olimar’s return in Pikmin 2 that our everyday objects become collectibles and essential to drive the game’s progress forward. We are gone but our junk artifacts remain.

Another vision of a bright dystopia is seen in Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary (2014). In this novel, Japan is experiencing a post-Fukushima future. The dystopian future is not all doom and gloom. Pikmin exemplifies this in video game form. It has us playing in a post-human world. This goes beyond imagining our own funeral. The funeral is over and done with. There are no traces of the ceremony or regalia. Our infrastructure is at best in taters, at worst nonexistent. This morbid setting and philosophical implications capture the imagination. Without us the skies of PBF-404 are gorgeous and the world peaceful, unless Olimar and the Pikmin pick fights for resources.

Every time I play Pikmin I am reminded of the scene in Studio Ghibli’s greatest film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) where the Buddha and his party arrive on earth to take Kaguya back to the moon. The Buddha’s indifference and his party of celestial beings’ glee are in sharp contrast to the emotions expressed by those on earth that care for Kaguya. She will be taken regardless of what people feel or want. Similarly in Pikmin, the tranquility of the world has come at our expense. Mono no aware.

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I was surprised of coming away from my latest playthrough of Pikmin with the sense that it is the ultimate wargame. As Stalin famously sneered after being advised of the Vatican’s attitudes towards the Soviets, “and how many divisions does the Pope Have?” Pikmin asks the same question to the player. It is a numbers game riddled with indifference. The planet is trying to kill Olimar and the Pikmin. The player needs to strategize to face the challenges of PNF-404 and be prepared to throw swarms of Pikmin at whatever problem is present. Nothing should be left to chance or low numbers.

Pikmin and Olimar carrying the corpses of the Bulborbs. Courtesy of Mobygames.com

Pikmin’s gameplay loop has fitting finality: play a 12-minute day 30 times, in hopes of collecting the 30 parts for the S.S. Dolphin. Though stressful, Pikmin is also comforting due to its brevity. Pikmin also manages to create a disturbing contrast present throughout the whole experience with its mix of cuteness and brutality that dictate the natural world depicted. The idyllic music and realistic environments realized by the GameCube’s hardware calm while the frantic gameplay and the carnage raise blood pressure.

Ultimately on this playthrough, I didn’t make it out of PNF-404 after reaching day 30. The S.S. Dolphin did not have the necessary parts to make the trip. I was too enthralled with the planet’s environment and the behaviors of the fauna. I found myself spectating instead of playing. I had a great time, too bad that Olimar suffered for it. He crash-landed on the planet again as a result of my negligence. The Pikmin took his corpse inside an Onion. At least there is solace in the fact that this is not canon since there is a Pikmin 2.

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