Franchise Festival #16: Pikmin

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy franchises from the last several decades of gaming history! Older entries can be found here.

This time we’ll be gathering details about Pikmin.

With regard to sources, DidYouKnowGaming is always a source of interesting trivia (though their first entry on the series is sadly narrated by JonTron… ugh). More substantially, NintendoLife’s feature documenting the series history was invaluable in compiling this article.

Background

By 2000, Nintendo seemed to have stopped introducing new series. The Nintendo 64 had offered no unique franchises from the Japanese hardware juggernaut, introducing only Super Smash Brothers as something of a spin-off series in 1999 (Animal Crossing was published on the Nintendo 64 in Japan, but it didn’t come west). Before that, the only new IP debut post-dating 1995 was Pokemon on the Game Boy portable console. While a handful of new series were still appearing, things were clearly different from the watershed era of the 1985-1993 when the company had introduced Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Yoshi, Fire Emblem (in Japan only), Famicom Wars/Advance Wars (in Japan only), Kid Icarus, Kirby, F-Zero, Star Fox, Mario Kart, Donkey Kong Country, Earthbound and more.

Into that apparent void stepped Pikmin. According to a story published in The Telegraph and re-published with some interesting analysis in Kotaku, the series got its start in a very unexpected place. Shigeru Miyamoto, the legendary game designer behind the Super Mario Brothers series and many others, had given up his more free-wheeling lifestyle in the 1990s to focus on home life. While relaxing on his patio after a day of gardening, Miyamoto noticed a row of ants exploring and bringing food back to their colony; this led him to speculation about why games needed to be competitive, and what an experience foregrounding worker cooperation would resemble. The result was Pikmin.

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Pikmin (2001)

The Pikmin series saw its technical origin in an even stranger place than its philosophical origin. A tech demo called Mario 128, intended to convey the processing power of the new Nintendo GameCube console, debuted at the SpaceWorld 2000 conference; in the brief movie, 128 unique iterations of the Mario character run around a three-dimensional sphere with apparently individual AI. Fans clamored for a release of this new Mario game, but no such publication ever occurred – instead, the programming underpinning that demo was leveraged to create the entirely new Pikmin IP.

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I know these Marios in Mario 128 look cool, but imagine how much cooler they’d be if they were carrying spaceship parts around a garden.

As with most Nintendo properties, the narrative of Pikmin is simple. The player takes on the role of Captain Olimar a short, round alien from the planet Hocotate. In an introductory cutscene, Olimar crash-lands his spaceship, the S.S. Dolphin, a humorous reference to the GameCube’s prototype name), on a mysterious planet referred to in-game as PNF-404. The air on this planet is toxic to Olimar, and the player is given thirty in-game days – roughly thirteen minutes a piece – to retrieve twenty five parts needed to get his ship back off the ground.

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Red Pikmin assisting Olimar with spaceship component retrieval.

The means by which Olimar retrieves his ship components is the game’s prinary draw. Olimar quickly discovers a local species he names Pikmin; Olimar opts for this name because the plant-like critters remind him of the ‘PikPik’ carrots local to his home planet. These helpful creatures quickly bond with Olimar and are key to exploring PNF-404. Using commands entered on their controller, players navigate Olimar and issue orders to a group of up to one hundred Pikmin. Three types exist – red Pikmin are strong and resistant to fire, yellow Pikmin have the ability to blow up obstacles, and blue Pikmin can swim. By coordinating the efforts of all three types throughout five large environments, the player is able to restore Olimar’s ship and depart the planet.

One interesting wrinkle occurs at the end of each day. Olimar must gather all Pikmin and lead them to his crashed ship or else they will be devoured by PNF-404’s nocturnal predators. Predators prowl the environments during the day as well, particularly the ubiquitous Bulborb, but they are generally able to be defeated or avoided by hurling dozens of Pikmin at them or sneaking around. The night predators cannot be defeated, and will instead reduce the player’s stock of Pikmin if he or she is careless. Miyamoto once described the end-of-day Pikmin roundup as reminiscent of a teacher gathering his or her students, though one suspects that no teacher’s students were ever at risk of being devoured by a ravenous monster.

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Here is an “onion,” which functions as a home to return to and nursery from which new Pikmin are born.

Interestingly, the planet itself appears to be a futuristic version of Earth. No humans or modern animals are present, but artifacts found throughout the environment suggest the presence of humans in the distant past. Olimar and the Pikmin are tiny, however, and items like currency and electronic devices appear massive to them. One of the series’ many amusing elements is Olimar’s explanation of what he believes these mysterious (but familiar to the player) objects to be. More ominously, an active Geiger counter can be found in the game, implying a rather apocalyptic end for Earth’s modern residents.

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The cover to Strawberry Flower’s “Ai No Uta” single. In Pikmin 2 the Pikmin will actually hum this song if you leave them unoccupied for long enough!

The game was, unfortunately, not a massive success in North America. It had been boosted in popularity in Japan by the popularity of a song featured in its television commercial (Strawberry Flower’s “Ai No Uta,” which was composed for the game but went on to outsell it!); in foreign markets, no such tie-in was present and the game sadly became a little-purchased GameCube launch title. Real-time strategy titles are rarely commercial blockbusters, and that is doubly true for RTS games that don’t appear, at first glance, to even fall into that genre. Luckily, this did not stop Nintendo from pursuing a second game in the series.

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Pikmin 2 (2004)

Undaunted by a cool reception to Pikmin‘s series debut, Nintendo released a sequel three years later. Much of the game’s system and visual design remained intact, but a few new mechanics were introduced.

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A promotional still depicting the new Pikmin types introduced in Pikmin 2.

In particular, two new types of Pikmin were added: purple ones are strong and able to move oversized obstacles or battle enemies, while white ones are immune to poison. Of course, these new abilities offer the developers new obstacles to place in the player’s path. At the same time, a second main character was added in the form of Olimar’s coworker Louie – this quirky fellow kickstarts the plot by getting Olimar’s company into debt.

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Looks like Louie and Olimar turned a crisis into an opportunity…

To repay the debt and get ownership of the S.S. Dolphin back, Olimar and Louie are dispatched to the Pikmin planet by their company’s owner. The purpose of the game this time is to retrieve oversized artifacts that can be resold on Hocotate. Pikmin contribute to this objective, once again, by helping Olimar navigate the landscape and move artifacts. Aside from the added characters, Pikmin types and objective, the game’s biggest change is the removal of a thirty day limit. This time the game ends only when the player has gathered enough artifacts to pay off their debt, lengthening playtime and reducing player anxiety significantly.

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That’s one unsettling Bulborb!

Both Pikmin and Pikmin 2 would eventually be released on the Wii console with updated control schemes in 2009 (both were published in short succession in Japan, though North American players inexplicably needed to wait until 2012 for the Pikmin 2 re-release). These were part of a series known as the New Play Control! brand. Little about the games was changed aside from integration of Wii motion and pointer controls, and these versions would later be published again on the Wii U.

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Pikmin 3 (2013)

By the 2010s, the Pikmin franchise had achieved a high level of critical acclaim. Despite a lengthy development period after being originally announced by Shigeru Miyamoto in 2008, fans were thrilled to hear about the series making the jump to high-definition visuals on Nintendo’s Wii U console. The series had become something of a cult classic, achieving a still-greater notoriety due to being one of the only new IPs introduced by Nintendo since 2000.

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A terrifying boss encounter.

Pikmin 3 did not represent a radical departure for the series, but was the strongest iteration yet. The world was more expansive, of course, and again the characters saw the most significant development. Players no longer took on the role of Olimar, though he and Louie do eventually appear as NPCs in the game. Instead, players switch between controlling three new aliens from Koppai, a planet similar to Hocotate. Alternating between them and managing a supply of Pikmin for each is the most significant gameplay innovation, and brings Pikmin 3 more in line with other RTS titles. The plot hinges on these three characters seeking to find enough food on PNF-404 to supply their starving home planet.

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Pikmin 3‘s controllable characters: Charlie, Brittany and Alph (L to R).

Two new Pikmin types make their debut in the series’ third entry. The first of these new types is a gray Pikmin. These creatures are shaped like rocks and can be hurled at fragile structures to break them. The second new Pikmin type is pink, and is similar in appearance to a mythical fairy. Pink Pikmin can fly, opening up new opportunities for traversal, though they are also rather weak. For better or for worse, these two new types come at the expense of the purple and white Pikmin varieties of Pikmin 2 – they are nowhere to be found in Pikmin 3.

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Note the rock-like appearance of the gray Pikmin. This is in keeping with a trend established in Pikmin 2, where new Pikmin differ in shape from the initial three types.

Multiplayer was also expanded after having been introduced in Pikmin 2. Pikmin 3 featured entire cooperative and competitive campaigns, augmented still further by downloadable content. The Wii U GamePad offered the potential for two-screen couch multiplayer, and was put to some of its best uses in Pikmin 3.

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Spinoffs

Though only three games have been released in the core series, Pikmin has inspired a number of spinoffs and cameo appearances. With regard to the latter, the Pikmin themselves can be found in Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour (2003) and several WarioWare games. The little creatures even appear as an amusing animation during players’ transfer of save data from their Wii to Wii U consoles. Meanwhile, Captain Olimar made his fighting game debut in 2008’s Super Smash Brothers Brawl. Finally, a Mii-oriented mini-game based on Pikmin was included in the Wii U’s NintendoLand (2012) multiplayer collection.

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It seems that trusting small plants with your fragile data might be a misstep.

More substantially, Shigeru Miyamoto directed a series of animated Pikmin shorts. These were not playable, but instead offer humorous vignettes depicting the beloved characters in the series’ characteristically lovely art style. The shorts were made available to purchase on the Wii U and 3DS in 2014 after first appearing at the Tokyo International Film Festival and were well-received by fans.

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If the films are good enough for Yellow Pikmin, who are you to argue?

Finally, and most importantly, the series branched out into side-scrolling gameplay on the 3DS with 2017’s Hey! Pikmin. This title largely retains its predecessors’ strategic gameplay, but transitions from three dimensions to two dimensions. Consequently, it becomes more of a puzzle platformer in which the Olimar uses Pikmin to cross obstacles, defeat enemies and retrieve artifacts. Hey! Pikmin also features humorous amiibo functionality, as players can scan their figurines into the game to access unique puzzle stages; at the conclusion of the level, the player receives Olimar’s idiosyncratic interpretation of the relevant Nintendo character.

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Here is the rather funny monologue on Mario’s beloved frenemy, “Gaudy Goon.”

After the release of Hey! Pikmin, the series’ future remains opaque. Pikmin is clearly a passion project of Shigeru Miyamoto, so fans can rest assured that a new adventure will be coming someday. In spite of confirmation in 2015 that Pikmin 4 is in development, though, no other information has made its way out of the notoriously tight-lipped studio. It sees that we will all need to take a cue from Olimar and remain optimistic.