Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 80, Pikmin

[extremely Pikmin voice] Pikmin

I’m ranking the top-101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

You can probably still find people willing to argue about the quality of the Nintendo GameCube’s launch lineup, 19 years later. There weren’t enough games in September in Japan, for sure, but the later launches in North America and Europe had far more to offer: Star Wars Rogue Squadron II, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, a full slate of sports titles, Super Monkey Ball, and Luigi’s Mansion were all there on November 18 alongside Nintendo’s handled cube console.

There was no Mario game at launch, though, which was an oddity for Nintendo at the time — not so much today — and the lack of that tends to color memories of what was actually available at that moment in time. The GameCube wasn’t the Sega Saturn, completely failing to ever launch a game with their most popular mascot before being cast aside: it just took some time to get to the next core Mario title.

There were other games at launch, though, as mentioned, good ones, too, and just a couple of weeks later, two significant releases that would end up among the best releases on the entire system hit shelves. The first of those, released on December 2, certainly gets more acclaim: it’s Super Smash Bros. Melee, which gave the series the kind of leap forward that most initial interesting ideas can only dream of. The other is one of the reasons there was no Mario at the GameCube’s launch. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario and lead on those games, was busy at the time with two new franchises: the aforementioned launch title, Luigi’s Mansion, and the other just-after-launch game alluded to above, Pikmin. Miyamoto served as a producer on both games, but Pikmin was his creation, and one worth delaying the development of a Mario release for.

At least, from an art perspective. The GameCube’s low lifetime sales might have suffered from the lack of a launch Mario — Nintendo’s sixth-generation console launched after Sony’s Playstation 2 had already taken such a hold on the market that it had forced Sega to give up on the console business entirely, so, you know, competition was pretty fierce. But I’m here to talk art, man, not business.

With that in mind: Pikmin is a real-time strategy game where you direct these tiny, plant-like, adorable creatures — nicknamed Pikmin for their resemblance to the “pikpik carrots” of diminutive main character Olimar’s homeworld — to accomplish various tasks. Some of those tasks are to get from point A to point B, like by knocking down a stone wall, or building a bridge to cross water. Sometimes it’s finding one of the missing ship parts that Olimar needs in order to return to his home world, and then bringing it back to said ship, the S.S. Dolphin — named that way as a nod to the GameCube’s development code name.

And sometimes those tasks involve trying to kill the other indigenous and carnivorous life forms that would love nothing more than to squash, set fire to, drown, or swallow the Pikmin that are just trying to help Olimar get his ship back together before his air supply runs out and he dies on the uncharted alien planet he crash landed on. And let me tell you: there is little in games as sobering as the death cry of a Pikmin whose trust you’ve betrayed by not properly considering the consequences. They’re just trying to help you, Olimar, and look how you repaid the offer.

It’s this juxtaposition of adorable creatures, sounds (both the effects and the incredibly charming, mood-setting music), and what remains a beautiful hybrid of cartoonish yet realistic landscape with the darker sides of the game — again, the brief and yet all-too-long whimper from a Pikmin whose last conscious thought was either focused on the jaws of the creature that snatched it up closing around it or that their demise could have been avoided if only you were more careful — that makes Pikmin work both then and now. The game is nothing but joy and palpably exuded cuteness until you find out the creature you’re attacking breathes fire, or that the small creature lodged in the soil isn’t so small, and is instead glacier-like with its biggest bits under the surface but not glacier-like at all with its movements, and oh this surprisingly agile terror just squashed 30 of your 100 Pikmin at once because you didn’t react to the horror of this discovery fast enough to keep it from becoming an even more horrific one. And if you lose 30 Pikmin at once, you will hear and wince at 30 death cries, loud and in stereo. It is demoralizing.

To make you feel even worse about every Pikmin you lose, the game shows you some charts after each day. It tracks the Pikmin you lost on the day you just lived through, as well as a day-by-day comparison line graph showing you how many Pikmin you’ve lost the whole time. And yes, of course there is a raw number total there, too, because how else would you end up feeling like shit for the multitude of deaths you’re responsible for if it wasn’t shown in a flashing neon sign for you to stare at between stages?

I guess they could show Olimar’s ship taking off from the planet’s surface as night falls, and then pan to the planet’s predators chasing and eating the Pikmin you failed to get back to your base before sunset. That’s one scarring way to do it.

Anyway, here’s how the game actually works, and not just how it makes you feel. There are three kinds of Pikmin on this planet that Olimar would not recognize as Earth, but you, as a person reading this on Earth right now, would recognize as such. The red Pikmin are the superior fighters, and are impervious to fire: you’ll want to send them out to tackle some of the toughest creatures, or the ones that breathe fire, or to navigate certain areas where fire spews up from the ground. There are yellow Pikmin, which can be thrown much higher and to more hard-to-reach places than the other types, and are also capable of throwing bombs. They’re also not impacted by electricity, so if you see a live current or an enemy that can shock you, yellow is the preferred choice. And then there are blue Pikmin, which can both breathe in and traverse water.

The only thing more upsetting to hear than a “normal” Pikmin death is a Pikmin’s drowning, because they fight and fight and fight, until they finally just give in to the inevitability of their situation and the cold embrace of the deep with an audible sigh. Please do not put your non-blue Pikmin anywhere near water.

You will use these three Pikmin types to solve environmental puzzles, build pathways, defeat enemies, grow additional Pikmin by letting them retrieve food and bring it back to their own ship-like “onion” bulbs, and retrieve the parts of Olimar’s ship that scattered across the landscape upon impact with the planet. You can have 100 Pikmin in the field at a time, organize them by color, split them into separate groups to perform separate tasks, guide them in a line, and it all feels great until, as I said, you fail in some way and then feel like garbage. But that should encourage you to be less garbage-like in the future, unless you are a monster who will just shrug and grow some more Pikmin like they’re an expendable resource and not a living creature whose life you cut short with your selfishness.

The only real knock on the original Pikmin is that it’s relatively short, but if you’ve been following along with this series so far, you know that only bothers me so much: games, like stories, should be as long as they need to be to accomplish their goal. You have 30 days to find all the necessary parts of Olimar’s ship before his air supply runs out. Each day is long enough in real time for you to accomplish a few tasks before the sun sets and danger comes out to eat, but if you stand around for too long or one of your plans falls flat, you can start to fall behind schedule in a hurry. If you run out of the 30 days, that’s it: that’s game over. The game saves, of course, so you can retry from your last save, but there are times where you might need to start over from the beginning to make it work. At least until you’re more familiar with the game.

Some people felt constrained by the time limit. Others, like myself, loved the sense of challenge and the tension it created in a game that was otherwise pretty relaxing. Nintendo would move on from the strict time limit in the sequel, and then kind of put together a blend in the third entry in the series, so who knows what they have planned for the eventual Pikmin 4.

Regardless of the answer to that, Pikmin exists, in its original form and vision, and it merits playing 19 years later. There are fewer types of Pikmin than in future entries and therefore fewer varieties of solutions and gameplay, but it’s also the tightest experience of the bunch given the time constraints of the design. My own preference is actually for the re-release on the Wii, since an RTS game is, no shocker here, superior to control on a system where the Wii Remote’s infrared sensor can approximate a mouse, but even the more traditional gamepad approach works just fine, both here and on future releases in the series.

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