Loving and Hating Pikmin

Wouldn't the ship being covered in gold make it harder to fly because of how heavy gold is?

OG Pikmin is a weird game. This almost twenty-year-old game series, about tiny freight drivers turned tiny explorers like Captain Olimar, who use whistles to control colorful plant aliens, is a pretty clever premise for a real-time strategy game. On the surface, Pikmin’s focus on traversing through a monster-filled alternate version of Earth while solving puzzles with pikmin offers a distinct playing experience not easily replicated in other games. Yet, I have struggled with Pikmin, particularly OG Pikmin and Pikmin 2. Both games walk right alongside a sandtrap with “greatness” at the bottom, but just never truly fall in.  

I started with Pikmin 2 as a kid, soI’ll also use it as my starting point here . Exploration, especially at the start of each of Pikmin 2’s spring, summer, fall, and winter themed areas, feels great. OG Pikmin kept the world more like a secluded forest compared to Pikmin 2’s random person’s backyard or post-apocalyptic civilization. Similar to the Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards planet Shiver Star, a planet that looks like an Earth destroyed by a new ice age. The areas are filled with large plant pots, hollow logs, and even some tiled showers. The game’s starting area is even a snow-covered street with man-hole covers. These dioramas, often impressively vibrant with clear waters and pretty flowers, are fun  to look at despite being somewhat limited by the GameCube’s texture rendering. The environmental storytelling in Pikmin 2 hints at an unseen but bigger world outside of Olimar and partner Louie’s. 

That's why they call this town Silent Pikmin.

The ability to permanently progress in these areas, from breaking down barriers and building bridges to draining areas of water, makes the earlier parts of the game feel like a collection of little accomplishments. With each area being limited to a daily timer, it feels great to complete a new path, and find treasure, as an end of day marker of progress. Mix that mellow feeling of the results screen music and the look of the sun going down to create the feeling that I’ve had a good run that day.

Thinking about that board game Heroscape but with pikmin units instead of mech units and samurai. Heroscape didn't have the most concise theme.

Speaking of treasure, Pikmin 2’s premise of finding realistic space valuables in order to pay off a debt allows for an odd range of artifacts. A consistent gag is most of the objects are named and built up to be far more impressive than they actually are,  because Olimar and Louie have no real clue how they work. For instance, the heaviest object in the game is a one-handed training weight. Olimar considers how heavy it is and thinks it’s a crazy projectile and thus calls it a Doomsday Apparatus. Another clever one is the Dimensional Slicer, which is  a can opener. This overexaggerating of treasure usefulness  is funny because many of them are technically true if you squint hard enough. Some of the optional ship equipment in the original Pikmin are also valued in a similar style.

Olimar is talking about his sick reps.

The inclusion of real world treasures in Pikmin 2 reinforces the sense that this is a post-apocalyptic Earth; from Sun Luck water chestnuts to a lid for Kiwi-brand shoe polish. When I was a chapped lipped kid, I greatly appreciated seeing my exact container of Carmex in a video game renamed as the Healing Cask. Finally, the real-world treasures let Nintendo fill the game with Easter eggs, including R.O.B.’s head and the gyro blocks from Stack Up.

The partner system in Pikmin 2, which grants the ability to swap between Olimar and Louie (who has the best voice when picking him) makes squad control so much easier. It lets the game lean into that important “trying to complete as many things in a single day” aspect. I get  this dumb feeling of productivity when team A is digging out a treasure while team B is building a bridge. It makes the game feel manageable.

Dungeons are where Pikmin 2 tries to distance itself from OG Pikmin, for better or worse. The struggle with dungeons is that they are often too long, centering themselves on not screwing up horribly five floors down because of a simple accident and having to start all over. The auto-generated dungeons are, by their very nature. More combat arenas than beautifully detailed dioramas on surface. Mad respect for the kid’s playroom dungeon known as Glutton’s Kitchen aside, the various dungeons necessary to beat the game are often stressful and time-consuming. If there was an option to simply revisit a previously visited floor after leaving it the first time, I would take it immediately. The dungeons also exasperate Pikmin 2’s struggle with combat. Combat is not something I ever felt better at, only that I was fifteen-to-twenty purple Pikmin (used for stun-locking most enemies) prepared for an encounter. Sprays helped, but just slightly.

Time to have a play date...in Hell!

With all its charms and unique gameplay, Pikmin 2 starts to sag in the middle and towards the end of the initial ending. The true ending is locked behind 100 percent completion of all treasures and what effectively turns into collections of boss rushes. The fourth location, Pikmin 2’s version of fall called Wistful Wilds, is a challenge arena only accessible after completing the first ending of the game. By the time I got tired of the other areas and wanted to explore somewhere new, i.e Wistful Wilds, most of what I had left to do was complete dungeons instead of exploring the surface. I felt railroaded into the dungeons and a little cheated by the end. It was if I missed a noticeable part of the middle of a game.

I came to the OG Pikmin rather recently in life with an outline of what OG Pikmin had compared to Pikmin 2. Pikmin does have its strong points. The entire game is the overworld exploration that I wanted out of Pikmin 2. In other words, a game more focused on the charm of building through a path and knowing it will be there the next day. That great feeling of “well, I got this far last time, so I can bulldoze through to a new area tomorrow”. Olimar truly feels like an adventurer in Pikmin, especially with his insightful but underlining frantic day recaps detailing different Pikmin and monsters. Speaking of monsters, OG Pikmin expands the otherworldliness of its planet by featuring these weird optional bosses. The way they work is that certain bosses like the Smokey Progg, the Mamuta, and the Goolix only show up on certain days. An understated aspect of Pikmin is how unintentionally creepy it can be with its monsters. For instance, the Smokey Progg is thought to be a screwed up And mutated version of the otherwise serene Mamuta, a walking statue who just want to be left alone. It adds unease to combat.

Speaking of monsters, OG Pikmin expands the otherworldliness of its planet by featuring these weird optional bosses. The way they work is that certain bosses like the Smokey Progg, the Mamuta, and the Goolix only show up on certain days. An understated aspect of Pikmin is how unintentionally creepy it can be with its monsters. For instance, the Smokey Progg is thought to be a screwed up And mutated version of the otherwise serene Mamuta, a walking statue who just want to be left alone. It adds unease to combat.

The Mamuta just wants peace.

The elephant in the room with Pikmin is Olimar’s thirty day time limit on the planet. The objective is simple but narrowed to at least one treasure per day. It turns the entire game into a stressful tightrope, where screwing up means returning to a previous save. Granted, with a guide and one’s level of personal mental mapping skills, it’s possible to swipe two items in a single day which provides  a buffer. This turns what would normally be casual exploration for the sake of exploration into a tense hide-and-seek. However, it does add to Olimar as an individual, especially when he’s thinking about his family when the stress of the game gets too hard for him.

That's rough, buddy.

Pikmin’s loose controls mixed with the lack of more combat-ready pikmin like the purple and white pikin from Pikmin 2 means that most combat is way harder than it needs to be. Halfway into the game is a part where you have to potentially fight multiple Burrowing Snagret,  bird and snake hybrids, for a single treasure. Since most of Pikmin combat is based on lobbing pikmin, it turns into hopeful button mashing with little strategy. It feels like every other conflict is just about having enough pikmin to swarm a single enemy and praying for a stun lock. Outside of the yellow pikmin’s extra height and use of bombs, every pikmin fights the same, and half  the time it boils down to “is the monster weak to the bomb rocks?”. The usage of pikmin in general lacks depth compared to Pikmin 2. Yes, most of what Pikmin 2 boiled down to was using the blue-colored key to open the blue-colored door, but without that variety, the pikmin mostly act the same.

No matter what color you are, you are all still totally useless in combat.

OG Pikmin bases its ending based on the amount of collected ship parts. This meant that I started to crap out at the last few treasures because I recognized them as the same platform puzzles from the Perplexing Pool area of Pikmin 2. Granted, this is just a consequence of most areas in Pikimin 2 being revamped areas from the original Pikmin. OG Pikmin is also not that long, so that realization that the last area’s monsters were just tougher reskins of previous enemies made the rush to the game’s climax less impactful. It was as if I was just expected to play the earlier stages again but with  added difficulty. Like finding seven pieces of candy in one of those Halloween buckets from the 90’s: less depth than what was originally presented to me.

Now each Pikmin game has their own impressive accomplishments, ranging from how it handles exploration and world building. But there exists a feeling of ennui I get around the 3/4ths mark of these games, where my joyful adventuring feels replaced with tense difficulty and a tedious list of extra tasks in order to advance the games’ threadbare narrative. It’s as if Pikmin has two bowls to feed me with and I’ve clearly finished one before even getting a quarter into the other. I really want to enjoy these games, but something always kicks me away. I read that Hey! Pikmin was not great, but the rumored easy difficulty for Pikmin 3 on Switch still makes me hold out hope for a Pikmin game I unabashedly enjoy. Just let me relax with some space captains and tiny plant aliens.

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