Delayed Reactions – Pikmin
When I got serious about gaming last year — probably around the time I chose to study them in grad school for several years — I decided to catch up on some of the influential or unusual games I missed in the last couple of generations. So: Ico is on my list, along with Majora’s Mask, Symphony of the Night, Beyond Good and Evil, and… Pikmin. I got it for $12.99 used at Gamestop and dusted off my old GameCube. Why Pikmin? Well, first of all it’s a Shigeru Miyamoto game, meant to be the start of a major series; it was regarded as strange-but-innovative, which is always good; and it seemed to have simplified RTS elements, which is great for me because I’m terrible at RTSes. I’m pretty sure the game was commercially successful, but for some reason it barely registered on my radar at the time. So I bought it and played it all the way through. It was short — maybe six hours total — and I have no desire to go back to it. But I’m glad I played it. This was a game that I couldn’t play late at night because it would get stuck in my head like a pop song. Does this happen to other people, or is it just me? When I went to bed and tried closing my eyes, I couldn’t sleep. I just saw myself throwing pikmin into the air, or even simply marching around with them. In other words, it stuck with me in some way. That doesn’t happen often, and I’m not sure it’s a compliment (it’s actually annoying as hell), but it never happens unless the game is unique in some way.
Here’s the executive summary, if you’re unfamiliar. You play the part of Captain Olimar: a friendly spaceman who crash-lands on some strange version of Earth and needs to repair his ship. The problem is that you can’t do anything on your own. You need to grow a small army of pikmin, little flowery-animal things that you pluck out of the ground, in order to fight the monsters, blow up the obstacles, carry the scattered spaceship parts back to your ship, and so on. Dragging enemy carcasses and plants back to base will cause more pikmin to grow, which you’ll need considering they die at an alarming rate in combat. So you need to divide your time between ‘Zelda-like’ exploration, puzzle-solving, and fighting on the one hand, and building up your army on the other hand.
It’s this last element — the time-management — that’s actually Pikmin’s master stroke.
There’s a rigid in-game clock, with each day lasting about 10-15 minutes, and every sunset you need to stop what you’re doing and gather your pikmin. Anyone you leave behind will be slaughtered before your eyes (heartbreakingly) by the world’s nocturnal monsters. The timing gives Pikmin the same appeal of turn-based games like Civ — that weirdly addictive thinking about what to do next. Every day you end up leaving things undone, so you need to catch up the next morning. And then you start exploring a new area, spend some time growing the troops, get in a couple of fights, and before you know it you’re scrambling to bring everyone home for the night again, and you start planning your next day.
Honestly, it’s not very much like an RTS at all. The actual moment-to-moment tasks are ‘Zelda-lite’, very exploration-based. You move into a new area, clear out the monsters, and then start opening things up. There are walls that need to be knocked down, bridges that need to be built, spaceship parts that need to be carried home, etc. Most of the game’s joy comes from this exploration: marching out with your troops into the unknown. The environments are lovely, even for a 2001 game, and never lose the sense of mystery. Of course there are only five environments total, including the intro and the last boss. Still, they’re pleasant while they last.
Here’s something I loved: you ask your pikmin to interact with an object by picking them up and throwing them at it. Battles are mainly fought by keeping your pikmin away from the mouth and flinging them onto the exposed weak point. For some reason it was mostly this mechanic, the flinging, that kept me up at night — beats me why. The fighting is tougher than it sounds (keep in mind that you’re wrangling 70 or 80 pikmin at once), and actually the hardest part of the game by far, which seems wrong to me. This feels like a game that should have more of a puzzle-solving component. The puzzles, though, are kind of insultingly easy. They basically just boil down to choosing the right color Pikmin.
It’s the little touches that keep me thinking about the game. I never thought of myself as very susceptible to cuteness, but I found all of the pikmin adorable. There are the little sounds they make when you’re directing them — like playing army marches on a kazoo — or the way they sometimes trip and fall while following you around. It feels like you’re leading a very obedient army of three-year-olds. Which makes it really sting when you ask them to die by the hundred. And they will die, in many terrible ways. And the way they die is so cute and heart-rending (they wobble and fall over dramatically, with a mournful sigh, and then a little unhappy ghost rises from the body) that you’ll learn your lessons quickly. Keep yellow and red pikmin away from water, or they drown. Keep blue and yellow pikmin away from fire, or they burn to death (horribly). Keep everyone the hell away from activated time bombs.
Other little touches: I love the fact that you’re clearly on the planet Earth, with its “dangerous concentrations of oxygen.” But it’s never spelled out directly. And the fact that you’re apparently about an inch high means the primary enemies look like a cross between a ladybug and a tyrannosaurus. Then there’s the quirky tone of your spaceman’s narration, i.e. as he repairs his ship (“ah, this component is called a Geiger Counter. I have no idea what it does, but it’s always making these annoying beeping sounds!”). The game feels alive; it pulls you in. At least while it lasts.
One thing that stuck in a lot of craws is that there’s an overall time limit: you only have thirty days to find all the spaceship parts. My feelings are mixed. Yes, it would’ve been nice to have more time to explore, but on the other hand I needed a time limit to keep me focused. I’m a perfectionist in games; I could imagine myself spending entire days growing my army and never marching out with fewer than a hundred pikmin behind me (you can have a hundred on the field and a thousand in reserve). I don’t want to play like that — it’s not very fun — but to some extent I can’t help it. I need something hanging over me. No, what bothers me most about the game is that it feels unrealized; its more a proof of concept than anything else. It feels great and it’s a lot of fun, but where’s the game? Why does finishing Pikmin feel like finishing a tutorial? When are we going to add the complexity? Supposedly the sequel, which adds the complexity and ditches the 30-day limit, is a superior game. I understand why and intend to play it, but I’m reserving judgment for now. I’m worried about what the lack of a time limit will do to me. So here’s my verdict on Pikmin: rent it for a weekend. Sleep on it. If you like the game, you’ll probably finish it before Sunday night. And then move onto the sequel, if you dare.