Tuesday, December 2, 2014

\\ Plucked From Our Hearts: Pikmin //

This article contains spoilers of plot points and gameplay scenarios in Pikmin for the Nintendo Gamecube.

More and more recently, I’ve noticed many of my favorite games tend to communicate something important about human existence to me, whether it be through mechanics, storytelling, visuals, or music (likely a combination of these elements). We often worry about whether or not a game is “fun”, but fun isn’t the only emotion one feels during play; we undergo sadness, pain, frustration, excitement, agitation, anxiety. It’s the entirety of the development team’s job to understand clearly what is to be communicated through play and aesthetics. Indeed, we often postulate of games as art, but really, I think the more worthwhile discussion is games as communication, games as political statements, games as transcendence, games as personality.

When I wrote about Majora’s Mask, I spoke in great detail of a game which had changed in significance for me over a timespan of several years, and discussed the ways in which the game in general was a failure for me as an appropriate means of communicating to the player the things Aonuma and his team were interested in. I lambasted the game, and looked at it from many different angles, as I thought it was a very interesting game, even despite being a failure. Failures tend to be the most interesting prospects for deep criticism, criticism which doesn’t choose to merely wade in the shallow pool but dives in the deep end, wading through the breadth of experience in pursuit of fuller and more profound truths in the world.

The truth of the matter is that it’s simply easier to acquire the necessary level of interest to embark on these adventures when a work seems daring, stepping away from the norm and wandering in the pool of unexplored territory. It becomes easier and more rewarding still when the works holds some significance to you and your past.

Pikmin and its first sequel were games which found their way into deeply vulnerable places in my heart from the onset of their respective releases. The series represented many of the things which I as a child was initially pulled to in games: strange and quirky characters, gorgeous environments, unfamiliar yet lovingly inviting core mechanics, and music which was engineered by Hajime Wakai to tug at one’s heart-strings.

Just adorable!
Just adorable! (image credits: Always Nintendo)

Initially, a friend and I approached Pikmin with naïve contempt; we completed the first level and thought it was over (we didn’t much fancy reading, as our years of extensive video game-playing would prove!). After all, the ship took off after securing the Main Engine; shouldn’t we just be able to return to Planet Hocotate and reconvene with Captain Olimar’s beloved family?

Pikmin would manage to open up itself to us, revealing a different, difficult, uncompromising, yet somewhat flawed game. The game released a little under a month after the Nintendo Gamecube, which launched with a pretty strong lineup of titles like Luigi’s Mansion, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Wave Race: Blue Storm, and Super Monkey Ball. It’s a real-time strategy game, yet simpler and with more action elements, as well as an aesthetic that lends itself to a younger audience (though not too cutesy as to alienate older folks).

Upon starting a new game, we meet Captain Olimar, the game’s main protagonist. He pilots a space vessel known as the S.S. Dolphin (an homage to the Nintendo Gamecube’s original codename), which gets struck by a meteor. Careening toward what is somewhat implied to be a warped version of our very own Earth, several pieces integral to the Dolphin’s operation fly off in wayward directions.

Olimar wakes up in a gorgeous garden, but doesn’t have much time to soak in his surroundings, as he finds behind him the startlingly destroyed remains of his beloved Dolphin. It quickly becomes our goal to retrieve the parts of our ship in order to recover its usability; we later find out that there are thirty parts missing over five different locations on the planet.

But for reasons similar to Majora’s Mask (and part of the reason revisiting the game proper seemed so appealing to me in the first place), Pikmin would prove to somewhat of a controversial and alienating release for Nintendo: Olimar’s life support systems reveal to him that he will only be able to last on the planet for up to thirty days (one for each missing ship part!), as the planet’s oxygen is poisonous to the alien Hocotatian (one of many references to the planet being that of our own).

On the first day, we’re given an infinite amount of time to explore what is known as the Impact Site, but we’ll quickly find that there’s not much to see with only our own hands to toil with. Walking forward a bit, our eyes dart to what appears to be some sort of alien vessel, a uniquely-Pikmin UFO structure rooted in the ground. Touching its outer shell, it sprouts to life, bursting with red color and extending its three legs, and returning to the ground. It wears a flower on its head, and a beam of light resonates from its bottom. As its animation comes to a close, it spurts a strange seed which burrows itself into the ground. The seed quickly sprouts a plant of sorts, which Olimar notices to be as strange in his worldview as it is to our human one. With a tap of the A button, Olimar promptly gives in to the player’s urge to find out just what it is.

The creature is red and tinier than even Olimar, who pales in comparison to the flora around him. It has a humanoid-esque figure to it, with small, beady eyes, twig-like arms and legs, and most notably, a stem emanating from the spot where its head is. Atop this stem is a leaf, not unlike what one might find attached to the branch of a tree.

We’re treated to some flavor text narration from Olimar analyzing this anomaly, where he relates the creature’s bodily form to that of the Pikpik brand carrots from his home planet, choosing to name it as the titular “Pikmin”. Olimar intuits that its small and light form lends itself well to tossing with the A button. With the B button, Olimar bellows out a loud whistle noise, as well as a circular radius emanating from his antenna which will retrieve wayward Pikmin to our side whom find themselves in this circle. The X button causes Pikmin to retreat and group themselves based on color, and the C-stick will make the Pikmin circle around Olimar in the direction we point it at, looped to a fun circus-style melody. The game’s camera looms overhead, and in these vast outside locations, isn’t very obtrusive, for the most part.

With only one Pikmin at our side, we’re not able to do much. Searching the breadth of the Impact Site, we soon find a circular red pellet with the number ‘1’ displayed prominently on its face. If we allow the Pikmin to its devices near the pellet, either by throwing it or circling it close-by, the Pikmin will grab the pellet, and start to walk it over to the vessel it itself grew out of, which we soon will title the “Onion”. The number on the pellet indicates the weight of the object in Pikmin strength; to put it more plainly, a “1” means only one Pikmin is necessary to pick up the pellet, though more than the required amount of Pikmin can grab an object at once to speed up their movement toward the Onion. I don’t really like that the designers chose to put an English number on the pellets, as it seems to root all of the locations we visit as being in only one of a few Earthly locations, as well as making the world feel less alien, familiar to us as it may already be. Creatures we’ll later slay too have weight values relative to Pikmin strength, and we can also bring them back to grow more Pikmin.

The core controls are a bit strange, whether you’re playing the original Gamecube version or the Wii re-release. An aiming reticle hologram appears in the direction which Olimar is facing, and we can throw our Pikmin in an arc toward that direction. The Pikmin we grab depends on whichever is right behind Olimar; this kind of sucks when we want a specific type of Pikmin, as we’ll soon find that each of the three colors (and yellow Pikmin holding bomb rocks) has their own unique abilities. It stands to reason that trying to grab a certain Pikmin can be a frustrating ordeal; you can either try, often in vein, to position Olimar so that he is in front of a certain color, or press X to disband the Pikmin following you, call to your side the color group you want, and then have at it, which of course creates the problem of the other Pikmin you disbanded just hanging out, or going off to do things on their own which you didn’t intend. Pikmin 2 intelligently managed to alleviate this problem, which would have been expounded upon if they had not, since the sequel has five different types of Pikmin, as opposed to the original’s three; while holding a Pikmin in your arm, you could press the X button to switch out with a different color Pikmin. I’m happy it’s something that would eventually be fixed, but that doesn’t change the fact that the problem was introduced and not alleviated in the original game.

I really like the C-stick swarming function, it’s a simple and obvious way to quickly take out a group of enemies without much thought (though, of course, this can become problematic if you’re too careless!). But it works well mostly because it’s player-controlled; the interesting thing about Pikmin is that the individual Pikmin are, in fact, each a unique AI. This gets unwieldy when one is able to have up to one-hundred Pikmin in the world at once, and if each of this large group is following us. Pikmin have their own behavior, they aren’t necessarily shackled to what the player choose to do with them. For example, if one disbands their Pikmin, and a pellet is nearby, or there is some grass that can be pulled, the Pikmin will automatically interface with these things of their own will. When using the C-Stick, I personally am telling the Pikmin to pull the grass, to break the walls, to kill the enemies, to pick up their remains, but with the X button, I’m only purposefully trying to disband them so that the red Pikmin don’t go in the water where they can’t breathe, or so that the yellow Pikmin don’t burn in the fire. Pikmin gets frustrating fast when you’re at the will of the AI, which is something I’ll get into in greater detail later.

With our singular red Pikmin, we’re able to grow several more by finding pellets near the Onion. The Impact Site is a nice little training ground of sorts for learning the game’s controls, especially when we’re not constrained by the usual time limit on our first day. Pushing a box over which requires us to have grown at least ten Pikmin to move, we encounter the first prize; our ship’s engine is still intact and running, even without being attached to its mother vessel. With at least twenty Pikmin, we can carry the engine back to our ship, rendering our star craft operational once again, and will leave the Impact Site automatically.

With just the engine in tow, our ship is powerful enough to make the trip to our next destination, and the true beginning of the game, the Forest of Hope. There are eight ship parts to find here, and we need five more parts to gain access to the next area. The first obstacle we’re introduced to here is a wall which appears pretty dilapidated and easily destructible. If our Pikmin approach it, they instantly start butting their heads against it. It looks painful, but it seems to work; the wall destroys in stages as a result of the intense head-butting. It’s an example of forced learning, a small moment of game design that reflects Pikmin’s design ethos; when you land, you are forced to attempt to break the wall, as there is really nothing else to do in this sliver of the Forest of Hope. As a result, the game teaches you something interesting by showing, instead of telling.

The other significant part about our second day in the world of Pikmin is that on the top of our user interface is a new element which shows a sun-like figure moving from the left of the screen to the right. One may notice the lighting in the game shifts a bit as the sun reaches the right side of the screen, until finally we’re alerted by a prompt in the middle of the screen to gather our Pikmin, as the day is ending. That’s the game’s much-maligned time element at play; days last seventeen real-life minutes each, which doesn’t leave us with much time to see everything there is to do in each area. As mentioned before, we only have thirty available days until Olimar’s life systems give in; this amounts to the game literally ending if we haven’t received all of the ship’s parts up until that point. We receive the good ending if we get the twenty-four essential parts necessary to returning home (Olimar returns home but with a lighter load than before), the best ending if we received all of the parts in the game (Olimar returns home with all of his parts! Hooray!), and the bad ending if we didn’t receive all of the essential parts (Olimar literally dies and the Pikmin revive him as a Pikmin; it’s quite grim for a Nintendo game).

Pikmin reminds me a good deal of Majora’s Mask, not only for both having time limit, but also because both were quite polarizing games as a result of having this striking element of the game in place. But Pikmin’s is in fact much more fatal; in Majora’s Mask, we had the ability to reverse time back to the dawn of the first day with the Song of Time, but Pikmin has no formal time reversal function in play. If you finish a day and save, your progress is permanent, and you are one day closer to potential doom. I personally am a huge fan of this aspect of the game, and was disappointed that the game’s sequel allowed for an infinite amount of days without consequence, even though its premise is dire as well (the company you work for is going out of business, and with your new partner Louie, you must find treasures in exchange for money). It made the concept of days sort of pointless, especially given the fact that time doesn’t pass when you’re spelunking in one of the sequel’s infamous cave sections. Pikmin 3 would sort of bring the limited-time concept back (you need to get fruit to stop a famine), but the more fruit you got, the longer you were able to stay on the planet; there’s only a very short time limit set in stone initially. I personally haven’t played the third game in the series, as I own no Wii U console, but I’ve been told that the time limit in that game may as well be nonexistent, as it’s extremely easy to circumvent by just finding fruit out and about, and you are allowed up to one-hundred days of play as you gain more and more fruit.

The first game in the franchise’s time limit gave the game a sense of urgency that the others just don’t. The thirty day limit isn’t too few days, nor is it too many. You don’t exactly feel rushed, but it gives the game a certain edge, a special je ne sais quoi that forces the player to be constantly thinking ten steps ahead, paying closer attention to their surroundings, valuing the lives of their Pikmin more than if they were to have an infinite amount of time to grind out resources. It makes every Pikmin’s death feel devastating; you come to love the little fellows, with their adorable voices and complexions, their tiny bodies feeling strong yet malleable. With knowledge that making the wrong move can prove fatal for your playthrough, you tend to think twice, to contemplate further, but not for too long, as you’re running out of time. The designers even have some nice Majora’s Mask-style touches which make enemy placements and spawning differ depending on the day you arrive at a certain level. I’m reminded of one of the game’s more secretive enemies that I personally have never encountered, known as the Smoky Progg. He appears inside of an egg in the Distant Spring if you reach this location on or before the fifteenth day, and is a bit hidden in a location which is otherwise not vital to finding parts in this area. It’s a pretty neat touch, and something that a game with a limited amount of days is able to do, unlike Pikmin 2 with its infinite amount of days, or Pikmin 3 with its one-hundred.

Not you again... (image credits: Know Your Meme)

My main issue with the time limit is, in fact, not the limit itself, but its implementation. Since video games are a piece of software, they’re fragile if not assembled with care. In Pikmin, if you turn the game off and start over, you’ll start the game from that day you were on. You can also pause the game and press “Continue from Last Save”, which actually just kicks you back out to the file select menu. This basically means that if you make a mistake and want to reverse it, you can either turn off the console altogether or quit out to the main menu. While I do value players having a choice in large matters in games, in this case I think it robs the game of the feeling it’s going for; what I love about the game, if played as the designers intentioned, is that it makes each playthrough feel precious and unique. Dark Souls later got it right, where the game would save your progress all the time, making each action feel valuable; Pikmin got really close, and if it had adapted this idea, could have been stronger. I find myself starting the day over if I mess up since I have the option, as it would be stupid not to. It’s not as sprawling an option as Pikmin 3’s was, where that game allowed you to revert your progress to any specific day if you weren’t satisfied with your playthrough up to that point (which, again, didn’t really need it since you can get up to one-hundred days), but it’s still an oversight that I wish had been amended before the game’s release.

Oh look, the wall’s finally down! That didn’t take too long. The game appears to really open up at this point, but after doing a good deal of exploration, we find that we can really only go to our right, straight into the first and most common enemies of the game, the Bulborbs. They come in small and devastatingly large varieties. Smart players might want to open up a path ahead of time by killing them off, as Pikmin often make the mistake of carrying spoils right into harm’s way. We have to be careful, as they can eat our Pikmin with relative ease. The small ones can be killed with one well-positioned Pikmin toss, but the larger ones will require a lot more effort, as we focus our tosses at their spotty backs; swarming their feet won’t do too much good, as they’ll just gobble up a mouthful of Pikmin at once.

After breaking down another wall (you’re going to want to get used to that), we find a fork in the road; to our left is yet another wall, and a can with some strange rocks in it. They don’t seem to do anything just yet, so let’s head to the right for now. After a quick stroll, passing by or killing some enemies, your choice, we find another pod similar to what we now know as the Red Onion which houses our red Pikmin. It springs to life, just as before, but this time releases a yellow seed; you can probably guess that it houses a yellow Pikmin.

The yellow Pikmin have two main purposes; whereas the reds seem to be the all-purpose, go-to Pikmin (we’ll later discover they have a particular usage, but that’s for another time), the yellow Pikmin soar much higher when thrown. This proves to be invaluable; we’re going to need to utilize their unique ability often (Pikmin 3, strangely, would later introduce a Pikmin type which actually flies) to reach high treasures. Their other ability is that they can pick up those rocks we noticed earlier! By simply messing around with them a bit, it turns out that these stones are in fact quite deadly; they explode after being set down! This is useful for killing enemies (and our own Pikmin if we’re not careful!) but also for breaking down walls, both the usual walls that we could destroy with Pikmin headbutts and also stone walls which can only be destroyed with our new friend, the bomb rock.

We can use the yellow Pikmin to reach a nearby ship part, which we can get to after bombing one of the area’s rock walls. If we have the time left in the day, we can try to bomb the rock wall which acts as a shortcut back to the landing site (and a shortcut out of it, to boot!).

Players will probably spend a few days in the Forest of Hope, just getting themselves better acclimated with the general flow of the game’s progression, and getting better at simply playing the game. Along the way, they’ll notice beetles which cause the Pikmin to get agitated and attack; honey which causes flowers to grow on the Pikmin’s head; bulbs and then flowers growing on Pikmin’s head if they stay in the ground for long enough; Pikmin will die, Pikmin will grow; they’ll find holes in the walls; they’ll discover that their Pikmin can’t survive in water, yet seemingly need to in order to build certain bridges or knock down certain walls; most importantly, they’ll discover new ship parts on their own, which, while rewarding in its own right, also affords the joy of reading one of Olimar’s excitable descriptions of what they do for the ship. They’ll ask questions and answer some, leaving others to hover about in their subconscious. They may arrive in the forest with despair, but after recovering five ship parts, and itching to explore other parts of the planet to our loveable hero, they’ll leave with hope.

Whereas the Forest of Hope was bright, illuminated by gorgeous background melodies and wondrous, calm, yet destructive creatures, the Forest Navel is dark, dank, fearsome, yet motivating still. On our first day here, we’re likely immediately drawn to the shallow, wet areas. Personally, when I find a new area in a Pikmin game, I often like to do some scouting work with just Olimar, so that I don’t potentially lose Pikmin unwisely. My selfish adventuring pays off here, as exploring the watery pools will find us yet another Onion, this one inhabited by a lone blue Pikmin. We discover immediately that this blue Pikmin, unlike the others in our now vast repertoire of minions, isn’t affected by water; in fact, it revels in it.

I loved finding the blue Pikmin, because it was as if a million closed doors suddenly unlocked themselves all at once. The vast pool we first encountered in the Forest of Hope, and the wall submerged in water, and the clamshell-infested lagoon back at the Impact Site behind the rock wall; all were questions which seemed to answer themselves in a brilliant moment of epiphany.

The gang's all here.
The gang's all here. (image credits: Amazon)

We can use the blue Pikmin here to grab some easy ship parts here, but better yet, we can bring them back to other areas to explore those sections further, and fight tougher enemies in locations which at once seemed safe and familiar. It might have been even more effective if the blue Pikmin were discoverable in a section even later in the game, like the Distant Spring to come next, but it was still much-appreciated.

Further into the Forest Naval, we encounter scenarios which introduce a new usage for our red Pikmin. Before I delve into what exactly that is, I’d like to take a moment to appreciate this kind of design philosophy; things being deeper than they first appear, discovering new applications for ideas that at first seemed straightforward and relatively simple, and ideas that before were obfuscated becoming clearer, all while maintaining simplicity in the core design. Red Pikmin are also immune to fire, which can sprout out of the ground and from certain enemies, in this case the Firey Blowhog. The game didn’t need to introduce a specific type of Pikmin that’s immune to fire; it already had that from the beginning, we just didn’t know it. It’s a beautiful application of minimalistic design ethos, as it adds in complexity while also managing to not detract from the quality of gameplay.

The Forest Naval is a bit tougher than the areas we’ve encountered before. We encounter our first boss enemy, the enormous spider creature known as the Beady Long Legs. In general, the enemies here are larger, and more imposing. It starts to really feel like we are in the thick of the game. It’s here, in fact, that one starts to feel the game pulling back at us; we’re going to start losing Pikmin, it is simply inevitable. It’s here that we must endeavor to make more careful deliberations, looking closer, casting our net further, and persevering harder if we are to make it out alive, and to the Distant Spring beyond.
There are no shortage of challenges here; firey spouts from the ground; deeper, more imposing pools of water, which limits our Pikmin availability to blues; high ledges, more walls to impede our progress; large frogs which will not hold back from trying to squish our Pikmin all at once; mushroom fellows which release spores that make our Pikmin purple, turning them against us in the process. I recall a very interesting usage of the different types of Pikmin, involving a walkway which had fire spouts, which only red Pikmin can survive; we have to use our C-stick to make sure that the other types don’t get damaged, then build a bridge, throw yellows to a high ledge to nab one ship part, grab another submerged ship part with blues, and then use our reds to ensure that our Pikmin don’t burn alive while carrying a part back out of the walkway. It’s these kinds of challenges which force us to apply deliberate combinations of Pikmin types to narrowly avoid death around every corner, while still faced with the looming hand of limited time pushing us further and further to do efficient work. It’s momemts like this which make the original Pikmin so effortlessly unique, challenging, yet somehow not too overbearing so as to be obnoxious (I’m looking at you, Pikmin 2…).
Returning to the Forest of Hope, I encountered one of the first situations in the game where I was genuinely mad at the game about the outcome of a situation. Sometimes, the Pikmin are fucking stupid. It’s one thing to have their own behaviors, acting as they would like, but it’s another to intentionally throw themselves in harm’s way when there’s another obvious solution. Upon defeating three giant Burrowing Snagrets, we receive yet another ship part. To get to that area, I had to narrowly bypass a bunch of enemies, and had already lost a bunch of Pikmin fighting off the vicious birds. The ship part is at the peak of a very small cliff, one that we can easily fall down and is a short distance back to the landing site. If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is; the Pikmin chose to go back the way I came, which, while not only the long way, also puts them right in the face of danger. I turned my back for a second, and suddenly heard their cries of agony as they died to the teeth of a large Bulborb. But this was their own fault, not mine; if I’m expected to allow Pikmin to act on their own wills from time to time, shouldn’t it be expected that they wouldn’t drive themselves into imminent doom? It’s frustrating, and almost made me start over in anger, and it wouldn’t be the last time I would have an experience like this.
The problem is that the Pikmin are hard-wired to follow a specific path for carrying loot back to the landing site, determined at the time of picking up an item; they aren’t making any decisions while actually carrying the spoils. If they walk into an enemy, the Pikmin alerts the enemy, who promptly attacks the Pikmin, killing it since it won’t fight back, as it’s too busy with its own carrying routine. This caused me a good deal of trouble in the Forest Naval and Distant Spring as well; am I to believe that the Pikmin are this stupid, or, dare I say, masochistic?
After braving the many toils and troubles of the Forest Naval, and obtaining twelve ship parts, we can gain access to the Distant Spring. It’s got the most ship parts of any location in the entire game, a total of ten, and they’re far and away the most challenging, requiring us to be cunning, inventive, all while playing defensively with our Pikmin to be able to leave with all of them alive. As the name implies, there’s a great deal of water found here, so it’s a good idea to have plenty of blue Pikmin available at all times.
It was at this point in my playthrough that I found myself returning to the Impact Site, not only for the other ship part found there, but also because I noticed my Pikmin count running dangerously low (spoiler alert: I’m not the best Pikmin player in the world!). Indeed, it became time for a grind session. I’m really not a fan of grinding in general; doing extremely simple tasks over and over again is obviously a very boring task, and Pikmin’s grinding isn’t much different. I chose the Impact Site as it doesn’t have many enemies, save for one that shows up in front of the bomb rock wall as well as the clam shells, and also because it has a lot of pellets available; it is basically made for grinding. In the original game, you really only have time to spend a couple of days grinding, however, so for me it is not actually that huge of a problem. In Pikmin 2, I found the grinding to be much more obnoxious, as you have a plentitude of days, and the game in general is much harder, in addition to the general grindy nature of the overall game progression (trying to get as much money as possible).
The Distant Spring itself is interesting, in that it seems in fact much larger than it actually is. The layout for me took a good while to internalize, as I had grossly overestimated the location’s size, but once I realized how small it actually was, being able to plan for grabbing ship parts became much simpler. But yet again with this area, I ran into the problem of my Pikmin not being able to intelligent enough to simply walk around monsters I didn’t want to bother fighting in fear of losing more Pikmin, which sucks because the level actually has a good deal of open space for the Pikmin to potentially work with.
Beautiful, yet bare.
Beautiful, yet bare. (image credits: Pikipedia)
I also thought that this area felt kind of bare, as if they were starting to run out of interesting new ideas. There’s a new Bulborb type, called a Bulbear, which looks a bit older and is stronger, as well as an enemy known as the Puffy Blowhog which can blow the flowers off of our Pikmin. We also are introduced to a flower which we can throw Pikmin into, and after throwing in ten, it will shoot out ten Pikmin seeds of the same color as the flower, but this is really only used for one puzzle to obtain a ship part. Aside from that, this area is really more of the same as the last one, yet with less variation; it even reuses the Armored Cannon Beetle enemy we found in the Forest of Hope, which even then wasn’t very challenging to begin with. I don’t really have much more to say about this area in all honesty. It felt long but not that interesting, and I was far ahead of the time limit by the time I finished it, so I didn’t exactly feel much pressure or anxiety while trying to collect all the ship parts in the Distant Spring.
Once you have twenty-nine ship parts, and your ship looks prepped and ready to go, there’s one more challenge, albeit optional. Fittingly titled the Final Trial, we are searching for Olimar’s prized Secret Safe, which is quite literally a piggy bank where he keeps his Pokos (the Pikmin world’s currency).
This area’s quite anticlimactic, and I wouldn’t consider it to be much of a “trial”. It has one pretty obnoxious part, where in order to destroy a rock wall, we need to get a few bomb rocks which are located on a high up ledge. There are only a small handful of bomb rocks available to us, and so we have to be careful. We have to throw our yellow Pikmin on rocks which are above water, so if we have a Pikmin who has a bomb rock in its hand, and it falls in water, then even if we save it, it will lose the rock. Worse still, if we call a Pikmin that we previously threw who is currently holding a bomb rock, it may drop the bomb rock where it is, and it will explode. Since there’s only a small handful of bomb rocks in the Final Trial, and they don’t regenerate, you can potentially just run out of rocks and not be able to progress until the next day, in hopes that you don’t mess up again. The simpler, hackier solution, of course, is to just turn the game off or back out to the menu to start the day anew. The rocks should have been part of a plant which self-regenerates, so as to not provoke game-breaking behavior from the player. After messing this section up a good amount of times, I nearly quit in anger.
It’s an obvious lack of foresight in an area that feels so hobbled together, because that’s really all there is to this section; you build a few bridges, break a couple of walls, and then you’re at the boss’s arena. There are no enemies up to this point, and really no harmful obstacles to impede your progress. It’s mostly a straight shot, and I don’t really see how Nintendo was able to call this a “trial” with a straight face.
At the end we fight the Emperor Bulblax. He’s pretty neat but ends up feeling a bit obnoxious, where we’re forced to try and have him lick up a bomb rock so as to stun him for a very short period of time, where we can attack him with all the Pikmin we’ve got. Surrounding his lair are some bomb rocks, and a safe space where we can leave Pikmin we don’t want fighting at the moment, which is an interesting approach to a final boss battle. He’s really good at slurping up tons of Pikmin at once, and I wish there had been a simpler way to stun him than with the bomb rocks; this obviously gets annoying once you’re struggling with the controls, trying to grab the right Pikmin for the cause. Like most boss battles in the Pikmin franchise (which is why I kind of don’t like them), the fight ends up being mostly a button-mashing war of attrition. Upon conquering the final encounter, we receive the Secret Safe, and are sent on our way home, onward to what would eventually become even grander excursions.
The original Pikmin was a tight and focused adventure. It stuck to a design ethos that makes it a more pure experience, one which is distilled down to the essence of the franchise’s best aspects. Still, the game definitely shows its age from time to time. The core mechanics would later be refined in the Pikmin 2, whereas the encounter design, in my opinion, became a lot more egregious and annoying to deal with as complexity unwisely increased. I’m definitely interested to play Pikmin 3 someday, just to see how it manages to strike an interesting and satisfying balance between Pikmin 1’s minimalist and Pikmin 2’s maximalist design philosophies.
Unfortunately, the game sort of fizzled out for me toward the end, and, for me, might have benefitted from being even shorter than it already was. It’s clear having played the game again thirteen years out that it was pushed out the door a bit to make the Gamecube’s general launch window (it missed launch day by about a month).
Yet it still sticks with me; earlier, I mentioned how the games that deeply resonate with me have something to say about the human condition; they speak to me in ways that are meaningful, and make themselves vastly important to me. Pikmin, with its doomsday time limit and the constant fear of losing the allies you yourself worked hard to raise, meets these criteria. It never really needed a sequel to deviate too far from its formula, but could have been interesting by adapting the original’s core gameplay loop to a more different set of challenges.
I wish the first game had been better, or at least as good as I had remembered it being. But it is still great, great in the way that strange experiments which explore new and exciting prospects are. Pikmin represents the direction I wish Nintendo had gone, opting to try weird and large new ideas in completely new environments instead of simply toying around with small new ideas which need to be adapted or watered down to fit in with previously established franchises (see: Super Mario Sunshine, Mario Galaxy, Twilight Princess, Captain Toad).

I’ll still fondly remember Pikmin for years to come; just thinking about its sunny music warms my heart still. I dearly hope that generations beyond my days won’t forget this strange little thing; if Nintendo manages to keep the dream alive by continuing to iterate on the original idea, rather than just including Olimar in every Super Smash Bros. game to release in the future, then so be it, I begrudgingly suppose. Indeed, I would rather Nintendo strike out into the desert, and find new oases to explore, but I know this company well, and that simply won’t be the case. Perhaps, though, other game designers, such as my hopeful future self, will embark on these necessary expeditions; we’ll have to remember to pluck a few Pikmin along the way to keep us company.

Someday! (image credits: Gamespot)

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