With the recent unveiling of the newest installment in the Pikmin series at E3 and the slashed price tag for the Wii version of Pikmin 2, it’s hard not to get excited for this hybrid Real-Time Strategy-Farming-Multitasking-Money-Making-Race-Enslaving conglomerate. But the game goes deeper than genocide of several native, endangered species through the use of another native, endangered species—there’s much to be discovered about ourselves and the subtle difference between telling and showing a story.
So let’s jump back to 2001′s Pikmin: You play as Captain Olimar, an uncannily human extraterrestrial, on vacation in your spaceship, when you get plot-enticingly struck by a comet and are forced to make a crash landing. You awake and find that the planet is contaminated with a poisonous element: oxygen! You only have 30 days to reassemble your ship and get the heck out before you die. Sounds like a long, boring fetch quest, but the hook is that you discover some indigenous plant species with which you can pulverize any threats that lie in your path.
You get three flavors of pikmin: cherry, banana, and blue. That is to say, each has their own specialties, abilities, and immunities. Red pikmin are immune to fire and do more damage, yellows can be thrown further and pick up explosive rocks, and blues have mystical not-drowning skills.
After the initiating action and the introduction of the disarming carrot-people, the story of the game is solely told through text between day cycles—you can’t be on the planet during the night without risking ingestion. Pikmin isn’t the first game to do utilize this method of storytelling, and certainly won’t be the last. Where it shines is in the bond you tacitly gain to your pikmin. It’s like the bond a boy gets with a lost puppy who blindly follows his every move and command, except the puppy is several hundred bloodthirsty vegetables who will gladly beat the crap out of anything that has the poor circumstance to be in your sights.
But the monsters aren’t helpless, either. Even the weaker enemies can eat several of your pikmin instantly, a grueling us-or-them standoff. And when your pikmin do get eaten, you have to carry the burden that their pained screams and closely-following ghostly cries leave on your conscience. God help you if you ever get a pikmin extinction.
The result is that many people, myself included, would immediately quit and reload if even one pikmin died. This was even more prominent in Pikmin 2, which saves after each floor of a dungeon to encourage the obsessive to be compulsive. Curious. A game about controlling drones with seemingly no personality or will of their own elicits the sort of emotional response you’d expect towards perhaps a close friend or loved one. Indeed, if one dies, an identical one can easily take its place. In certain ways, playing in an all-or-nothing style ruins the point of the game, which is to be as efficient and wide-minded as possible to escape the planet before you run out of air, and to make sure that the number of pikmin gained is never superseded by the number lost.
Maybe it’s the uncanny cuteness that the pikmin all share, or perhaps it’s the blind naivete with which they follow and die for you. More likely than not, it’s the struggle that you share each new day on your sojourn in a fantastic land. Giant mushroom men who convert your pikmin to fungi, bird-moles who pick at you and your pawns with practiced ease, and even giant blobs who replant your pikmin into the ground all serve to strengthen the bond you feel towards the little guys—free of exposition. In fact, the lack of it adds a heightened sense of isolation and mutual reliance, you for escape and them for survival.
Pikmin 2 takes the same concept of the first title and expands it; you no longer have a day limit, but rather the goal is to collect as many items as possible to bail out the shipping company your work for. Also included are two new pikmin, the skinny and poisonous white pikmin, and the extra-fat extra-strong purple pikmin, and more than a few new surprises. While you no longer have the looming motivation of an ultimatum, being stuck in a dungeon for extended periods of time helps recreate the feel of the original. To prevent you from slacking off, the game also gets increasingly difficult the more days you spend on the planet.
And the more time you do spend on the planet, you come closer and closer to a realization: a planet filled with oxygen, strangely human items, insectoid enemies…the planet is Earth. Or more controversially, a post-apocalyptic Earth. From coins to dumbbells to old action figures, all of the items you collect seem remnants of a long-dead civilization that has become dominated by bizarre bugs and plants all smaller than a tin can. Ominous commentary, especially for a Nintendo game, but commentary nonetheless.
Subtlety is the greatest component of the series. Witty descriptions and names are given to each item as you collect them, which allude to their original purpose in a past era. Alongside the regularly-kept journals of enemies, items, and locations, an encyclopedia of information and lore is present for those who want it, but skip-able for those who don’t. Most of the game’s mechanics and enemies outside of throwing pikmin and carrying objects back to base are learned via trial-by-fire. Even the last level of the game can only be accessed by first accomplishing the sole objective of the game.
There is no right way to play Pikmin. The original game gives you 30 days to find 30 items, though if you play your cards right, you can do it in less than half of that. The more conservative player can take a single purple pikmin and use it to clear out the weaker enemies, or the brash one can send all 100 pikmin charging to their doom.
By all accounts, Pikmin and Pikmin 2 are the kind of games with successes that other titles should seek to recreate. It has a deceptively simple premise, room for plenty of choice and exploration, humor, a proper balance of difficulty, variety, and a genuine sense of progression. Better still, the sequel adds to and improves the original instead of just changing location and objective–how a sequel should be made. You start to care way more than you should for your tireless pikmin, yet still enjoy each new encounter as it comes. The only hope I have for Pikmin 3 is that it will retain these core attributes that made the first 2 games both fun and memorable while still adding enough new ideas to keep the game interesting.Challenge mode: beat the writer! Best record in Pikmin 2: Debt repaid in 14 days with 0 pikmin lost. All treasures collected in 24 days with 0 pikmin lost.