IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY… A creature named Olimar hurries all of his equally adorable and frightening servants, collectively named Pikmin, into his spaceship so that he may continue to brainwash them. He takes one representative from each breed of Pikmin and huddles with them in a private room.
“It is time that you learned what I really am,” he says. “I belong to a race of sentient noses named Sentient Noses (nasa sentiens) who attach themselves to roughly humanoid-looking piles of clay and control them with psychic abilities so that we might more easily convey ourselves from one location to another. Now, come with me; I need you guys for a Super Smash Bros. match and although I am taking all of you, I can only use three of you at a time. The rest of you will need to hide in the ground until I pluck you up by your hair. Please understand.”
This is the exact plot of 2001’s Pikmin, a Stockholm Syndrome simulator for the Nintendo GameCube. Considered to be the masterwürk of the otherwise pedestrian game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, Pikmin is an operatic metaphor for not only the complex interactions between survival instincts, empathy, and rational thought, but also the inherently violent nature of life in any form.
When the Blue Pikmin are introduced, eight of them perform an alarming twenty-three-minute vocal fugue which–as has since been noted by many scholars (e.g. J. C. D. Cardigan-Workshite, 2013; Diplomapop Farmerbottoms, 2017; G. K. Chesterdrawers et al., 2020)–takes place directly in the centre of the work and represents all of Miyamoto’s themes colliding and attempting to work themselves out in respect to each other and their differences. This moment is referenced near the beginning of this review because it is representative of the self-awareness that highlights both the game’s brilliance and its failures.
The gameplay itself exists somewhere between real-time strategy, bullet-hell action, and dating simulator. Olimar is required to spend finite amounts of time sectioned off into units referred to as ”days” to progress through the world of Pikmin in order to fix his spaceship so that he can take his Pikmin spouses home as an offering to his Sentient Nose overlords. Olimar must decide how many of each type of Pikmin he must bring with him, striking a balance of their different abilities that are tied to their colour. Red Pikmin practically represent strength and thematically represent lust and anger. Yellow Pikmin practically represent flexibility and thematically represent lust and joy. Blue Pikmin practically represent defense and thematically represent money and pest control. As the Pikmin begin to have feelings of resentment or skepticism toward Olimar’s leadership, he must dodge their thoughts to fill his gaslight meter while continuing to focus on his main tasks. Once Olimar has filled his gaslight meter, he automatically subjugates all the Pikmin currently with him and they bloom a mind control flower on top of their heads to signify their total dedication to their new master.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the gameplay is that each time Olimar throws a Pikmin to perform his unfeeling tasks there is an unskippable cutscene that shows Olimar kissing the Pikmin on the head in a manner reflective of his specific manipulative relationship with that specific Pikmin. Miyamoto claims that this is an intentional disruption of gameplay to show the time investment and delicate emotional maneuvering needed to break the minds of that many Pikmin and while it is true that the game’s dizzying and horrifying ending would not be as poignant without this element, the fact cannot be ignored that the game is not very fun because of it either.
In an attempt to provide juxtaposition to the oppressive nature of the gameplay and story, Miyamoto chose a pleasing visual aesthetic for his game. Made to look like a wild backyard garden–likely as a metaphor for an innocent, unspoiled mind–the graphics are charming and colourful and use plenty of rounded shapes to make the environment look deceptively welcoming. The music–except for the previously mentioned fugue–is also gentle and calming and helps the player understand why the Pikmin are initially so trusting of the insidious Olimar. Soon, the player will become equally trustworthy of Olimar.
All these elements combine to create a meticulously crafted and darkly insightful game that lures the player in with its soft visuals and music and then slowly twists the experience until it is an inescapable hellscape of sluggish gameplay and disturbing and confusing cutscenes. Once the vocal fugue starts in the middle of the second act is when most players decide that either the game has beaten them and they are finished with the game, and life, or that it is a masterwork and has secrets that can only be found by suffering through it by blasting off (perhaps upon a metaphorical rocket).
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Platform Reviewed: Nintendo Wii
Release Date: 26 October 2001 (Gamecube, Japan)