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Long time reader here, first time poster. I wrote this a while back but thought I should try throwing it out here and see what you guys think. It's my attempt to discover just what I find so remarkable about the Pikmin franchise. Any critical feedback about my writing is welcome but I'm more interested in just talking about Pikmin in an intelligent manner, which I'm sure will happen here :) .
There’s something really special going on in the Pikmin franchise. It’s not just the fantastic mechanics, character and challenge in the series (proving unequivocally that Strategy games can work on a console) but something much deeper, something more human.
Which is surprising; for a series that has you controlling a microscopic alien on Earth, avoiding goggly-eyed enemies and herding colour coded carrots to help you in various ways, you feel a whole lot of empathy towards Olimar. He's a likable little alien, racing around the planet, blowing his whistle like there's no tomorrow and otherwise being adorably ridiculous. However, it's Olimar's journal entries at the end of each day and his appraisals of everyday objects (in our lives) that made me emotionally connect to Olimar. It’s why I think Pikmin 2 is so special.
It’s remarkably warming to hear Olimar’s journal entries because, while they are often hilarious, they also made me see the objects of his analysis in an entirely new way. While it may sound absurd to say my opinion on a something as simple as a bottle cap has changed because of Olimar, I believe it’s a testament to the quality of the writing found in Pikmin 2 that it did. The fact that every item Olimar finds in his journey is what our society would typically deem to be rubbish, but are incredibly valuable to Olimar’s people, speaks volumes about the theme of the game and our culture. It also perfectly demonstrates just how alien Olimar & Louie are.
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This alien perspective is further explored through the game’s randomly generated “Caves”; areas of the levels which temporarily stop the clock and let Olimar and Louie delve further and further down tunnels in search for treasure. Each descending level of a Cave can be wildly different to the last, taking place in kitchen tiled rooms, underground grottos and childish pencil drawings and toys. In my first playthrough, I simply dismissed these sections as typical absurdist Nintendo charm, a charm that they perfected in the 2D Mario games of old, but further playthroughs revealed something much deeper. I was looking at these levels through the eyes of a human when I should have been looking at them through Olimar’s. What Olimar sees is a world that is completely different to his own. That the designers chose to represent this perspective through fragments, bits and pieces of ordinary human objects, which are in some cases completely out of their normal environment, is a stroke of genius. None of these objects and environments makes sense to Olimar or Louie so there placement, and even displacement, represents that. Even the enemies Olimar & Louie faces are reminiscent of Earth insects and bugs, normally covered with strange armour, wielding sharp claws and even sharper teeth. Again, the familiar is skewed just enough to effectively demonstrate an alien perspective of our world.
Of course not all of the enemies are reminiscent of Earth insects…
However, what I found most fascinating about the Pikmin franchise is how much it doesn’t tell us. Is the planet we’re exploring Earth? Why exactly then, aren’t we there? Each dropped item attained by Olimar & Louie encourages the player to further explore the land in hopes of an answer, but no answer is given. You eventually start to treat each item Olimar & Louie finds with the same amount of enthusiasm they do; pieces of a civilisation long since past. The history of this civilisation, and its ultimate fate, is kept a mystery to both Olimar and the player. For all the knocks Nintendo gets for it’s weak story telling, this is masterfully subtle, dense and even heartbreaking.
And that is why I felt so compelled to write this article. Sure, both Mass Effect and its sequel have fantastic narratives with a compelling cast of characters, but did you ever once feel like you were talking to real aliens in that game? Or feel genuine terror of landing on an uncharted land (maybe it’s not really the game’s fault though, it’s quite difficult to feel terror when you’re packing a large arsenal of dangerous weapons)? Both Pikmin titles managed to immerse the player completely in the role of an alien looking out into a new world, seeing and experiencing the unknown. That the world in question is so similar to that of our own makes Nintendo’s achievements even more impressive.