This past week I made a trip to hang out with some friends an hour down the road, and something we do almost every time I come over is plug in the modded Wii and fuck around with whatever iso catches our eye. This two day event was no different: Monday night I banged out the last third of Resident Evil 4, and the next morning; huddled around the TV looking for something to pass the time with, I tried Pikmin on a whim. My memory card was full from last night’s adventure so I could only get a taste of the adventure at the risk of losing a massive amount of work, but even from the 3 day sample we tried, I could tell it was something special. Everything about it was attractive to me, from the Nintendo-spun RTS mechanics to the peculiar world they inhabited. I knew when I got home from that trip that I had to sit down and really sink my teeth into the game.
Funny enough, Pikmin has actually been a bit of a white whale for me personally. As a kid playing Luigi’s Mansion for the first time, unearthing the Pikmin trailer felt like peering into something beyond our world. It always looked like something I’d be into, but fate was not kind to my interests, and I never got my hands on a copy. Though maybe in retrospect I should have actually asked for the game once or twice… Regardless, I finally sat down to play it as an adult, and predictably it was absolutely wonderful. What I didn’t expect was that I’d go on to play through the game 3 times to completion within the week. Looking into it online it seems like the length of the game, and by extension the 30 day time limit, seem to be the biggest point of contention amongst most players. This is peculiar to me, as in my experience I found it to be the glue that prevented the game’s systems from completely collapsing in on themselves. That’s not a sleight against the mechanics though, and I do want to shine a light on the actual game part because I feel like it gets overlooked when looking at the game from the outside.
Every layer is razor sharp, and the few massive pieces of design interlock so well to allow for interesting strategy puzzles, that removing or adding just a single piece would likely send the whole thing crashing down. Across a single day there are only a few major things to keep track of: The Pikmin population, part locations, level layouts, and enemy spawns. It’s all disgustingly simple on paper, but contending with everything at once is where the magic really happens. Efficiency is the name of the game here, and because tasks have to be performed in real time by the Pikmin (with slight time saves coming from the number of Pikmin on a task and the status of their bud), a strong grasp of level navigation is all but essential to prevent massive time and population losses. Some weeks I’d play simple and juggle basic tasks to nab a part or two a day, whereas other times I’d find myself playing more towards chipping away at level hazards one day, and then cleaning up with 3 or 4 parts in a single stretch the next. It’s a testament to the complexity and density of the admittedly small levels that even after multiple reasonably efficient runs, I still couldn’t even begin to chart out anything resembling an optimal path to get parts as quickly as possible.
So how about the timer? Well, it's maybe not a direct threat in the way the developers intended. On a first playthrough you have more than enough time to collect all 30 ship parts and get the best ending (on my first playthrough with minimal resets I managed to beat the final boss on day 27, and collect the final part on day 28) and you’ll likely continue to shave off time with every subsequent run, so on paper it may seem like it the timer may as well not be there at all, right? I’m not convinced.
The reason I find the time limit to be such a captivating piece of the puzzle is not because it’s a particularly challenging thing to work around on its own, but for how it shifts your perspective on every mechanic and every choice you make over the course of a run. If you took this exact campaign and all it’s challenges, but lifted the 30 day timer, the way you’d approach each level would completely flip on its head. Multitasking would be unnecessary as you could execute a plan as slowly and carefully as possible, you would have all the time in the world to plant the maximum amount of Pikmin for any one scenario, and the punishment for mistakes shifts from added tension and short-term changes of plans, to simply robbing you of more of your time. In layman's terms, removing the timer would probably miss the point.
It’s been said that people tend to optimize the fun out of something if given the opportunity. In the case of Pikmin, this has completely different insinuations depending on the existence of a timer, and that’s what makes it such a fascinating inclusion to me. No matter how well you understand the game, no matter how sharp your execution is, it doesn’t matter. The timer is always looming overhead like an albatross subtly weighing on your psyche and steering your every move. Some may view it as something that just restricts player freedom, but with how loose the balance of the game and the timer admittedly are, it somehow perfectly balances itself as an element of the game that always subconsciously keeps the player in check. Few titles before or since have promoted optimisation in the face of a looming failure state so well, and this coming from a Nintendo game of all things could very well steer younger audiences to explore more games of this niche, and I just sorta love that prospect honestly.
This type of psychological tension is something I wish would be explored in more inherently childish games like this, and not just reserved for “mature” games. I sorta understand why this hasn’t been a common design principle - especially for a modern children’s game - but I love that the Big N was willing to put something like this together with their own flourish and have it come out so perfectly realized despite being such a bizarre mismatch of aesthetical and mechanical sensibilities. It would be easy to call it just a tech demo given its compact size (and it’s literal roots in GameCube tech demos) but that would be a mistake. The original Pikmin still stands as one of Nintendo’s boldest games to date, and I think it deserves to be viewed in the same glamorous light as every other masterpiece released on the purple lunchbox at the time. We need to do our best to cherish this game now, because I think the time of its potential influence and popularity has already begun to fade.
Reviewed on Mar 07, 2023
2 months ago
2 months ago
Awesome rundown. Agree absolutely on the timer.
I will say that its worth keeping in mind that Pikmin (2001) is very easy to us as adults (especially because we've played other RTS' before) but this is a game meant for the young & inexperienced. If you got there by day 27, others probably didn't at least on their first play through. Though they likely reset after realizing they were falling behind which is fine in my my view. I did that shit in Unsighted (2021) a couple months ago, I'm no better.
Plus this is one of the few Nintendo games with a genuine tension in its story. Olimar is trapped on an alien planet and the first thing he writes in his journal is 'so..im running out of oxygen'. Like damn, The Martian (2011) step the fuck back and bow down cause looks like Nintendo beat ya to it by a decade :D
2 months ago
@Erato_Heti thank you! I didn’t want to weigh down the review with this at the time, but this was also sorta my introduction to RTS games in a sense! Even though it was relatively loose in retrospect, there was a genuine tension and thrill that came from big mistakes and changed plans, even right up until the very end. Can absolutely see younger audiences genuinely struggling with it, but the world and characters have likely gone some way towards keeping them hooked.
I also really loved every bit of flavor text in the game, the waves of curiosity about the world and impending mild despair were far more captivating than I expected. Once I made it around the 20 day mark and Olimar started to comment more on his family it made me :(((
2 months ago