[Game: Pikmin, Nintendo, 2001]
Thinking, with Pikmin:

Why Pikmin‘s Campaign is Superior to Pikmin 2‘s Campaign (in Tone and Design)

 

Introduction:

Pikmin was one of the last few entirely original game concepts produced for Nintendo by Shigeru Miyamoto (the creator of Donkey Kong, Mario, Star Fox, The Legend of Zelda, and more), and it is certainly overshadowed by the worldwide phenomena of his earlier creations. Still, I feel that the original Pikmin is a tremendous game, well worth discussing, and is a very unique approach to the otherwise mostly warfare-focused genre of real-time strategy.

Dedicated readers of this series will probably find the title of this article oddly familiar. That is because it is almost identical to the title of an article I wrote previously about Valve’s Portal franchise. I couldn’t help but notice the similar thesis here, where I am saying that the campaign of a sequel to a distinctive and well-known title is weaker than the original, against the critical consensus, and on the basis of both tone and design. But in this case, I feel that the quality difference is much more pronounced. Whereas I consider Pikmin to be an excellent game deserving of classic status (like both Portal and Portal 2), I find Pikmin 2 to be a stale, stilted, and even at times boring game to play.

The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling plot details of Pikmin and Pikmin 2, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you do not mind spoilers or have already played the games.

Pikmin screenshot with bulborb and red pikmin - Nintendo, Pikmin 2, comparison, analysis

The Tone and Story of Pikmin:

From the outset, the immediately apparent cuteness of Pikmin is balanced against a dark design: a game about a solitary explorer stranded on an alien world.

Much of the music is moody and atmospheric; in contrast to the character art, the environmental art is realistic in style; the journal entries that intercut the levels are a mix between quiet curiosity about the strange new planet and nostalgic longing for life on Olimar’s homeworld of Hocotate with his wife and children; the central mechanic of farming and commanding pikmin, while full of charm and goofiness, nevertheless sees legions of innocents driven to their deaths in droves; and timers loom overhead—each day ticks away before yielding to a dangerous night that slaughters any pikmin left in the field, and if Olimar can not recover most of the scattered parts of his space-faring vessel within 30 such days, then he will die, isolated from his friends and family, lost and alone.

Only through the indomitable will of Olimar (and organized, astute, expedient pikmin management by the player) can salvation be achieved. It is a deeply intriguing scenario, with very high stakes for the player-character. Life or death waits at the end, and the days wear inexorably on toward that end, whichever it shall be. There is no method whereby the days can be lengthened, or the tasks made simpler, or the resources keeping Olimar alive stretched for additional time.

Reviewing the game for Gamespot back in 2001, Ricardo Torres sums up Pikmin’s tonal mix of light and dark as being the “twisted charm found in a good Tim Burton movie.” (At the time, you must understand, the ratio of good Tim Burton movies to bad Tim Burton movies was much more favorable.) And it’s true: the pairing of the game’s writing and music with the game’s character art and sound effects creates a tone not unlike that of Burton’s vibrant-yet-macabre features like Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, albeit without Burton’s gothic aesthetic.

Pikmin is the compelling story of a solitary being with only a matter of time separating him from his demise. This kind of tension drives the player onward with vigor—to navigate more quickly, explore more thoroughly, organize more efficiently, and just generally try to cram as much action as possible into each of the intensely brief 13-minute in-game days.

Pikmin screenshot with Olimar journal entry - Nintendo, Pikmin 2, comparison, analysis

Meanwhile, on the periphery, in the background, Pikmin features yet another layer of meaning.

The first hint of this is the reason that Olimar can not survive beyond 30 days—his air filtration system would be used up, which would lead him to suffocate in the atmosphere of the alien world, which is rich in a substance poisonous to his species: oxygen.

Later, as Olimar wanders around, the player might notice some large and curious structures in the levels: old food cans, indistinct hunks of rusted metal, cardboard boxes, a glass soda bottle, and other pieces of humongous familiar garbage. Except for the rather conspicuous bottle, most of these are quite easy to overlook. In other words, subtly, even secretly, the setting of the game is a post-human earth. The only traces of humanity left are litter, and the dense ecosystems of the planet go on at a micro scale, living on and around the essentially useless artifacts left behind by the planet’s former inhabitants.

One of Pikmin‘s underlying themes lies inscribed in the seemingly trivial fact that it’s set on earth or an analogue for earth: that it is a game with a low-key environmental message, about the potential for symbiosis between intelligent beings and nature. Olimar’s commands may result in the deaths of dozens of pikmin, but at the start of the game the pikmin seem to be near extinction. Each onion initially houses only a single seed. Through Olimar’s agricultural prowess, though, scores of new pikmin are born daily. (In fact, the game’s unlockable challenge mode is all about simply growing as many pikmin as possible.) Through collective military action organized by Olimar, the strengths of the pikmin are amplified, and they can group together to stand up against predators many times their size.

The importance of this notion of the pikmin learning from Olimar to band together to defend themselves against predators can be confirmed in the game’s best ending, accessed by recovering all 30 lost ship parts before time runs out: not only does Olimar escape toward his home, but the pikmin are seen successfully defending themselves against one of the nocturnal beasts occupying the planet.

During the campaign, the pikmin can not defend themselves without Olimar’s leadership, and Olimar can not extricate himself from his predicament without their help. This kind of mutually beneficial cooperation between intelligent beings and nature stands in stark contrast to the conspicuously absent human species, whose representatives in the gameworld are discarded material goods and other byproducts of humanity’s exploitation of the natural world. The game begins in an area replete with large flat stumps—signs of human deforestation. The Distant Spring also features stumps, in addition to skeletal remains despite being an apparently lush region.

Pikmin screenshot with single red pikmin - Nintendo, Pikmin 2, comparison, analysis

You can even see the entirety of nature in the simple design of the pikmin species that becomes your ally: a race of beings half-animal and half-plant. And ultimately, the reward that awaits all players after the credits is a thorough bestiary, a sequential catalogue of all notable animals, plants, and plant-animals that make up the newly discovered ecosystem. Through these details, a great deal of thematic stress is placed on attention and study directed toward nature, and how a highly intelligent species can rebalance an ecosystem without destroying it.

In yet another brilliantly subtle maneuver, some of the ship components echo these environmental themes. Small echoes come in the form of the ship’s “anti-dioxin filter,” a device specifically designed to combat pollution generated by the ship—as well as its “eternal fuel dynamo,” “positron generator,” and “chronos reactor,” all of which have descriptions confirming that the S.S. Dolphin is a vehicle that runs on electricity and similar alternative energy sources.

A larger echo comes when Olimar finds his ship’s Geiger counter near some mutant creatures that are part egret and part snake. A Geiger counter is a device used to measure radiation, and the device is audibly making its signature detection sound the entire time it is present on the planet. A visual indicator dial on the device even points erratically toward the direct center of its range, clearly showcasing an elevated level of radiation.

Between this and the oddly mutated “burrowing snagret” creatures that live nearby, there is a suggestion here that some event in the past caused the planet to become heavily irradiated. Perhaps this even points softly at how the humans in Pikmin managed to remove themselves from the picture—by means of a catastrophic nuclear event, a topic which may be particularly poignant for a Japanese development team. The area of the map screen around the Forest Navel even vaguely resembles an impact site.

So, those are the two strands of thematic material you’ll be tracing as you play Pikmin: on the one hand, a dark and quietly serious tale about a lost-yet-optimistic explorer; and on the other hand, a soft-spoken reflection on how humanity’s interactions with nature could productively improve. Both strands are interesting; both are unobtrusive; and both are included as much through gameplay and atmosphere as through text and cutscenes. It’s one of the rare truly impressive ludonarrative successes in Nintendo’s catalogue.

Pikmin screenshot with blue pikmin and soda bottle - Nintendo, Pikmin 2, comparison, analysis

The Tone and Story of Pikmin 2:

The nicest thing I can say about the thematic content of Pikmin 2 is that it was smart of Nintendo not to re-use the ‘stranded astronaut’ plot from the original. Other than that, what you get in Pikmin 2 is a confusingly fat-headed tone and story without a hint of tension, subtlety, or depth.

From the start, the stakes of the game, so very high in the original, are incredibly low. Olimar’s buffoonish boss, we are informed, has to pay off a loan because of a mistake made by Olimar’s equally buffoonish coworker Louie. So, the boss dispatches Olimar and Louie back to the pikmin planet to harvest items of value to be sold to pay the debt. They soon succeed in paying it off, but the boss wants the rest of the planet’s treasures to enrich the company, so they return to the planet yet again. Also, Louie was left behind on the initial return journey and got lost, so finding him becomes a secondary goal alongside gathering treasures.

Right away, the extremely succinct and clear focus of the first game, where everything is filtered through the experience and narration of Olimar on his singular adventure after his crash landing, is lost. In fact, Olimar’s voice is now utterly lost in the mix. New voices fill the gap, including the company president, the president’s wife, Olimar’s family members, Louie, Louie’s grandmother, and the space ship’s AI—leaving no room for Olimar to say or write much of anything. Olimar’s well-written, softly humorous, occasionally pathos-driven journal entries that punctuated and quietly tutorialized the original Pikmin are gone (largely relegated to optional descriptions within the optional bestiary). Their replacement is a whole roster of characters—all flinging grating, frequent, overbearingly tutorializing dialogue cutscenes at the player both during and between in-game days.

Unfortunately, one of those threads that replaces Olimar’s voice is . . . Olimar’s voice. Literally. Olimar and the other characters now have voice actors, so that each of the three main characters can call out their name when they are selected. So, after getting to know the curious, stodgy, stalwart Olimar throughout the entirety of the original Pikmin, we finally get to hear him speak, if only his own name—and how does the careful, serious old fellow sound? He sounds like a slack-jawed dunce. And that’s not the only obnoxious voice or sound in Pikmin 2; from the now-singing pikmin to the voices for all three characters to the constantly blaring treasure gauge that sounds any time an object of value is near, all of the sound effects have this quality of feeling like they were only supposed to be heard once per day, as each of them becomes annoying before long (none moreso than that treasure gauge).

Pikmin 2 screenshot with cutscene featuring Louie and company president - Nintendo, Pikmin, comparison, analysis

Like the voices, just about everything in Pikmin 2’s story is a throwaway quip or episodic joke of some kind. The emails replacing the journal entries are now jabs at the personal life of Olimar and his coworkers, and the new consumable sprays apply with burp and fart sounds effects. As it’s a much longer game than the original, all of Pikmin 2’s dumbed-down and wacky aesthetic choices together can start to make you feel like you live next door to a Chuck E. Cheese, and just want them to shut up for a few minutes so you can regain your sanity.

A small saving grace is that the childishness of the story and sounds do not extend into the music, as the soundtrack once again includes a compelling mix of otherworldly, calming, and contemplative tunes. The songs are often buried in the mix under the array of unlikeable new sound effects, but when they’re audible it’s apparent that each individual track is now more dynamically implemented—with slightly different versions of each piece of music that smoothly layer in or out based on in-game activity, such as whether one is leading with Olimar or his partner, whether one is in or out of combat, and whether one is nearer the start of an in-game day or the end.

Returning into negative territory, however, in two consecutive blows to the game’s pacing, the story of Pikmin 2 feels like a series of anticlimaxes, and all of the game’s time pressures are gone.

The premise of the game that is set up at the start is the necessity of repaying the company’s debt. That is the driving force for returning to the pikmin’s homeworld to gather resources, and succeeding rolls the game’s credits. So, most players will likely be understandably confused when they’re done with that and the game just keeps plodding along, with more of the game’s content coming after repaying the debt rather than before. In fact, both set-ups for the second part of the game (collecting all of the treasure and fetching Louie) feel more like post-game chores than compelling advancements of the plot, which makes it really odd that one of the game’s four landing areas is completely inaccessible until the debt is paid.

Moreover, all three main objectives in Pikmin 2 (debt repayment, wealth accumulation, and Louie retrieval) have no timers or time pressure to them whatsoever, likely because critics generally expressed distaste for the sharp time penalties used in the design of the first title. This sequence of choices, removing stakes from both the story and the gameplay, is where boredom starts to seep into the picture (without even discussing the monotonous cave mechanic, as that’s being saved for the later section on gameplay).

Pikmin 2 screenshot with blue pikmin in underground region - Nintendo, Pikmin, comparison, analysis

So . . . the tone of the story is farcical; the sounds and character voices are goofy and overbearing; the challenge of the gameplay has been dramatically reduced; and tension and narrative payoff are nowhere to be seen. Where is that tinge of darkness that caused a reviewer to compare Pikmin to a Tim Burton film? It’s just gone. The atmospheric, engaging delight that is the original Pikmin is replaced with a dull plastic toy.

Now, I will admit, despite its lack of any credible tension (with the only possible negative outcomes being directed at the unsympathetic side characters), Pikmin 2’s plot initially had me a slight bit curious, knowing that Nintendo could do something as subtle as the environmentalism of the first title with the basic idea that plundering valuable resources from the planet is the entire premise of the game. But rather than taking this wide-open, clear path toward continuing on with the subtle theming of Pikmin by having a greedy Hocotatian force the player to pick up where humanity left off, Nintendo instead went ahead and tripped over themselves in a clumsy effort to achieve quirky humor. The artifacts that you recover for sale in Pikmin 2 are enormous pieces of refuse left behind by humanity: bottlecaps, batteries, bits of food, discarded Nintendo products, and broken toys.

Yes, the first game’s greatest thematic easter egg is the second game’s main collectible. There are a lot of ways that this choice annoys me, but I’ll just briefly touch on the two big ones:

First, this plot inverts the value structure implied in the first game so dramatically that it makes me retroactively question whether any of the first game’s most clever touches were even intentional. With the exception of the single hour of game time spent rescuing Louie from various predicaments, one spends the entire campaign of Pikmin 2 toiling for the material gain of Olimar’s boss via garbage collection, and it’s dressed up as though it’s a bundle of fun. The idea of the relationship between Olimar and the pikmin as symbiotic is discarded, as the pikmin stand to gain little from continued service.

It’s an absurd bummer to know that Olimar went through the harrowing, potentially life-changing experience of nearly dying on a strange planet and never seeing his family again, then being rescued by befriending and saving one of the local alien species—only to get home and gladly, immediately (before even seeing the family with whom he had feared he would never reunite) resume menial work as a corporate lackey, using that friendly alien species as slave labor to get the job done.

Pikmin 2 screenshot with red pikmin carrying aluminum can - Nintendo, Pikmin, comparison, analysis

Second, the decision to have it be the planet’s “treasures” that you are tasked to collect is a bizarre mistake that turns a potential strength into an actual weakness. If Nintendo wanted to continue the thematic subtext of the prior game, the wide-open, clear path to which I alluded earlier would have been to have Olimar coerced into returning to the pikmin’s planet to collect natural resources, culminating in the revelation that the pikmin themselves could become an incredibly valuable commodity due to their versatility, dexterity, and obedience. Olimar’s actions from then to the end of the game could have determined the fate of the pikmin species. Now that would’ve been a set of stakes worth caring about.

Instead, the Hocotatians come across as neither malicious nor well-intentioned—but rather moronic, with idiotic voices and a fascination with shiny garbage. Instead of saving each pikmin from becoming a tiny tool in a capitalistic enterprise, playing the game necessarily forces the player to use the pikmin as exactly that, with no nuance or irony.

The only charitable interpretation I can come up with for the game’s incredibly myopic narrative choices is that you arguably spend a lot of Pikmin 2 cleaning up litter. You have to ignore just about all of the context, but that on its own could be an environmentalist kernel that ties the games together. It’s pretty damn weak, and it doesn’t do anything to help with the far-reaching tonal issues, but at least it’s something; that’s better than what the tone and story of Pikmin 2 seem to be blatantly providing to the player, which is nothing.

The Mechanics and Difficulty of Pikmin:

In terms of its game mechanics, the original Pikmin is a pure, elegant work of art. From controls to level design to gameplay loop, it boasts an extremely high potential for engaging the player without wasting their time or losing their attention.

Nintendo got herding and commanding the creatures through a controller interface almost perfectly right on their first attempt. Other than the cumbersome necessity of needing individual button presses to pull each individual pikmin from the ground, and some slightly fiddly positioning to select a particular pikmin, the simple effectiveness of Pikmin’s control scheme is otherwise incredibly laudable for a title where you are actively managing up to 101 characters at a time (including Olimar) without the benefit of mouse controls. The most important features along those lines are the area-of-effect regroup function tied to Olimar’s whistle, the way that pikmin naturally form sorted groups when dismissed or being thrown, and the ability to issue formation commands independent of Olimar’s movement.

Pikmin screenshot with separated groups of dismissed pikmin - Nintendo, Pikmin 2, comparison, analysis

In terms of genre, Pikmin’s gameplay is a mix between puzzle and real-time-strategy. The puzzles come across in the layout of the world, the positioning of the lost ship parts, and the behavior of the local species. The real-time strategy comes across in the frantic moment-to-moment balancing act among scouting, directing pikmin to farm resources or retrieve ship components, and directing pikmin to fight hostile creatures—where the limiting factors that require balancing are the number of available pikmin and the remaining time in the in-game day.

As each color of pikmin is introduced, more of each landing site opens up due to the unique abilities of each pikmin type. Red pikmin are superior in combat, and are fireproof; their specialties could be summed up as being effective against hazards that move. Yellow pikmin are capable of wielding objects, and are light enough to be thrown higher; the bomb rocks they can wield act sort of like keys, making yellow pikmin sort of like lockpickers. Blue pikmin can breathe underwater; as a result, there are broad swathes of terrain that are only safe or even accessible for blues. One type addresses a special hazard, another addresses a special puzzle, and the third addresses a special terrain. This variety is sufficient to make it both enjoyable and mandatory that the player maintains healthy populations of all three.

A final layer of time management and complexity is contributed by the flowering system of the pikmin, where pikmin who eat nectar, or are left in the ground for a while prior to plucking, will advance from having a leaf on their head to a having a bud, and advance from having a bud to having a flower. The further along on this scale a pikmin is, the faster they can move and accomplish tasks. Such stages of advancement can be lost in combat when a pikmin is shaken loose from an enemy or otherwise knocked down, and pikmin who die with flowers on their head have a chance to seed the ground where they fall.

The combat, theoretically one of the jankier aspects of the design, serves its purpose excellently. The design of most enemies practically guarantees some loss of pikmin flowering as well as some loss of pikmin life to take them down—this not only places considerable pressure on the farming mechanics, but also underscores the weakness of each individual pikmin and the swiftness of death on the planet (where both are elements of the game’s thematic content being reinforced).

Pikmin screenshot with red pikmin in combat - Nintendo, Pikmin 2, comparison, analysis

In terms of pacing, Pikmin is stellar. The in-game days, however hectic and stressful, are less than 15 minutes each, which makes for very digestible and modular play sessions. The calm downtime between days sees the player reading the journal entries, seeing pikmin statistics, choosing where to land the next day, and listening to calm music—forcibly slowing the pace of the experience in order to add additional texture to the otherwise consistently frenetic playthrough. Other than tutorial-style cutscenes that introduce key areas and ideas, the only in-game cutscenes that break up the flow of gameplay accompany successful location and retrieval of ship parts, adding some satisfying fanfare to the game’s most important and rare collectibles.

And speaking of the ship parts, there is a kind of straightforward brilliance to the developers’ decision to have 30 lost ship parts and 30 days of air. Successfully getting a part each day ensures victory; if a day passes without retrieving a part, you know instantly that you’re behind schedule; and if more than one part is retrieved in a single in-game day, you know that you’re ahead.

All in all, it’s a game as tight in design as it is in duration. If you’re aiming for the best ending, it ticks most of the design boxes for the type of game that my very first article in this series set out to praise: short, challenging, and single-player. With its precisely assembled obstacles, tough-but-fair time constraints, and interlocking puzzle navigation—playing Pikmin feels like a happy medium between playing Nintendo’s best linear work (like Super Mario Bros. and Yoshi’s Island) and playing Nintendo’s best nonlinear work (like Super Metroid and Breath of the Wild).

The Mechanics and Difficulty of Pikmin 2:

If I had to sum up the design philosophy that seems to govern the gameplay of Pikmin 2 in just a few words, I would say, “broader, not deeper.” There are more enemies, more collectibles, more pikmin, more locations, and more mechanics—but few of them are additions that deepen the gameplay rather than acting as clumsy redundancies, disappointing missed opportunities, or elements that slow things down.

One of the very first changes to the gameplay that the player will encounter upon booting the game for the first time is probably Pikmin 2’s most noticeable source of squandered potential: the dual leader system. Where before you could only control lonesome Olimar, now you can swap between two captains, each controlling their own groups of pikmin: first Olimar and Louie, then Olimar and the company president.

Pikmin 2 screenshot with two leaders near yellow onion - Nintendo, Pikmin, comparison, analysis

The number of puzzle scenarios theoretically opened up by this change to the gameplay is immense. If one has played a fair share of puzzle games, then the opportunities for hypothetical new puzzles built around this change jump out at every turn. Here are some ideas I’ve just thought up off the top of my head: it could be required for each leader to open doors for the other leader; there could be a route that can only be accessed with one type of pikmin, yet requires another type to complete, which can be thrown in further along by the other leader; one leader could position themselves with their pikmin onto a raft that sets into motion, while the other leader must toggle gates to safely shepherd their waterborne ally along the way; and there could be enemies which have to be confused to become vulnerable by moving the leaders into certain configurations to draw the enemy’s focus in multiple directions.

These example spring readily to my mind because puzzle titles that require the mutual control of two or more entities to reach solutions are extraordinarily abundant; some examples include The Swapper, Small Fry, Ibb & Obb, Lemmings, Death Squared, Thomas Was Alone, all of the games in the Trine franchise, and the co-op campaigns of both Battleblock Theater and Portal 2. But alas, for some asinine reason, Pikmin 2 almost never involves the player’s access to two leaders in any unique puzzle scenarios requiring both characters. In fact, outside of the first tutorial segment and a couple spots where stumps behave like balance scales, there are no parts of the game that resemble any of those hypothetical examples listed in the paragraph above. This is especially strange because there are a few parts of the original Pikmin where it is necessary to take different groups in different directions in order to access certain areas, hinting in a design direction that multiple leaders would have aided.

Still, perhaps you hear all of this and you say to yourself, “Okay, but so what? Having two leaders isn’t just for more interesting puzzles. It’s for multitasking!” Again, a terrific thought—if that were actually in the game. But you don’t get to play out each day as each leader; you just get to swap between them as you go, and the main campaign of Pikmin 2 is an entirely single-player experience.

The player is only one person, and can only control one character at a time. Even if they send their leaders in opposite directions at the start of an in-game day, they can’t actually accomplish much more in a given day than they could with one leader. For instance, instead of going 1000 units of distance in one direction in one day, you can now go 500 units in two directions in one day; but you can still only traverse 1000 units in one day. While the player is controlling one character, the other character stands idle wherever they were left, doing nothing productive, presumably drooling. And the maximum number of pikmin in the field at once is still 100, which must be shared between the leaders.

Pikmin 2 screenshot with one leader being carried by pikmin - Nintendo, Pikmin, comparison, analysis

So, absent any interesting puzzles or substantial conveniences afforded by controlling two leaders, this seemingly large change to the gameplay at best saves one trip to or from the landing area at a time. This remains true even after obtaining the “napsack” from the third cave, as its automation of returning a leader to the ship does not bring all pikmin enlisted by that leader along with them. The dual leaders also make the game a bit easier, as it’s now necessary to have both leaders fall for a day to end prematurely, but the lack of an overriding limit on days makes this essentially a moot point. That is, there was already no consequence to failure. The dual leader system isn’t a negative addition to the game . . . it’s just a conspicuously shallow mechanic bursting at the seams with untapped potential.

A less-initially-noticeable but far more negative change is, as in the section on narrative and tone above, how the game handles its primary collectibles. In the original Pikmin, there were 30 ship components to find. Each one was of vital importance to Olimar’s mission, so successfully retrieving one stopped the gameplay to celebrate with a small cutscene of the ship receiving the part.

In Pikmin 2, the primary collectible is discarded human trash, and instead of 30 such items, there are now over 200. So there are over 6 times as many primary collectibles, and they are of sharply diminished importance to the player and to Olimar—yet the gameplay-arresting cutscene showing the item being accepted is retained, now with an accompanying menu display to show the value of the item. Once again, this seems like a short-sighted attempt at humor, where the punchline of each cutscene is the outlandish name given to an everyday human item, such as calling a jar from a mustard cap a “yellow taste tyrant.” Using the science of making up a number that feels right to me, these jokes are sufficiently humorous to justify the cutscenes somewhere in the neighborhood of 10% of the time.

But now let’s consider some real, specific numbers about these item cutscenes. At 10-15 seconds each, measured from the moment control is taken from the player to the moment it can be regained, this adds up to about 40 minutes of just watching item acquisition cutscenes over the course of a completionist playthrough. This dramatic mismatch between the importance of the items and the amount of time spent on celebrating them is horrendous, and it’s likely that a player will be sufficiently annoyed by this to mash buttons throughout the cutscene after just a few hours of play (in the hopes of ending it a split second sooner).

Pikmin 2 screenshot with ostensibly comedic name for a watch - Nintendo, Pikmin, comparison, analysis

All of this would be bad enough on its own, but the ship’s AI often piles commentary and tutorial cutscenes on top of finding new items, new areas, new pikmin, new consumable spray ingredients, and new cave entrances. Its constant interruptions of gameplay start in huge abundance during the game’s bloated, multi-day, multi-cave tutorial section, and take numerous hours before starting to amenably lessen in frequency. The widespread removal of time-based consequences would’ve made it easier for players to learn about new mechanics through experimentation rather than direct instruction, yet every single solitary mechanic is now explained in overwrought text tutorials anyway. Rather than killing two birds with one stone, this is the lesser-known proverbial act of killing one bird with one stone, and then slamming that same already-dead bird with a second stone for no reason.

And even setting aside its intrusive redundancy, the AI is still responsible for the obnoxious beeping noises used to indicate low health of a captain and proximity to a treasure. In the final assessment, the spaceship in Pikmin 2 could easily rank alongside Navi and Fi in the pantheon of intrusive Nintendo companion characters whose implementations are worthy of scorn.

Cutscenes notwithstanding, the only attempt to add variety to the relentless march of hundreds of uninteresting items is that a small subset of them (13 of the 200, to be exact) are treated as character upgrades. These upgrades are a mixed bag: three simply allow access to new areas or game modes and are thus not actually character upgrades; and four are upgrades to the leaders’ ability to participate in combat and survive hazards themselves (thus incentivizing the player to act against the core design and appeal of the game—which is solving problems by issuing commands to groups of pikmin). The remaining six upgrade items are fairly straightforward positive additions to the abilities of the leaders, where it makes arguable sense to withhold them from the player at first; but that comes out to just one useful, non-detrimental character upgrade per about five hours of playtime.

The most mixed bag by far, however, in terms of the quality of the changes and additions in the second game, would be the set pertaining to the pikmin types themselves. The unique ability of the yellow pikmin to wield objects has been removed, and replaced with them being resistant to electricity. This fairly neutral change does nothing but deaden some of the variety of the original. As the navigation of water by blue pikmin was already arguably a form of hazard resistance, the puzzles in Pikmin 2 have now been reduced to a truly mindless exercise in matching the color of the pikmin to the color of the hazard (red for fire, yellow for electricity, blue for water)— like one of those infantile block puzzles with slots for shapes. This change also removes the small layer of challenge inherent to handling explosives near the fragile pikmin.

Pikmin 2 screenshot with sparking yellow pikmin - Nintendo, Pikmin, comparison, analysis

You may fairly remark that this is a negligible difference in actual puzzle design between the games. But the reason that the original Pikmin is challenging has nothing to do with the puzzles themselves, and everything to do with solving the puzzles against the time constraints while balancing other concerns. That’s what made it a good strategy title as well. Now that the player has infinite days to complete their tasks, the difficulty and required strategy had both already taken an automatic nosedive. So for them to also remove one of the few varieties in the puzzlesolving (having to at least locate a cache of bomb rocks and clear a path between them and the target for the yellow pikmin to navigate) is just gratuitous.

And unfortunately, the lowering of the difficulty does not end there, as it’s time to talk about the new variety of purple pikmin that was added. Purple pikmin are beefy brawlers that deal as much combat damage as red pikmin, are immune to the panic status effect, are resistant to knockback, have the fastest digging speed of any pikmin, have a chance to stun enemies just by being thrown at them, and can fulfill the role of 10 pikmin of any other color for moving objects. Their only drawbacks are that they have a reduced movement speed (which might matter, if there were any serious overall time constraints to worry about), and that they can’t be thrown very far.

In short, purple pikmin are way, way overpowered. These chubby fellows trivialize nearly every aspect of Pikmin 2, and they’re introduced on the second in-game day. It’s no longer risky to fight with a small number of pikmin, as the purples can be thrown repeatedly to obtain stuns; it’s no longer necessary to carefully manage how many pikmin survive through a level, as a purple can single-handedly lift objects many times its size; and the new consumable sprays are basically irrelevant and dead on arrival, as no extra help is ever needed to succeed at a task as long as there is a purple pikmin available. Moreover, this addition is yet another blow to the thematic material in the first game, as there is now a type of pikmin that can accomplish all kinds of tasks, including combat tasks, independently. So much for the necessity of cooperation! In light of purple pikmin, the already low difficulty of Pikmin 2 descends through the floorboards.

But I did say the pikmin changes were a mixed bag, so now it’s time for a brief island of positivity in this section’s ocean of issues. Pikmin 2 also introduces white pikmin and bulbmin, and both are terrific additions. White pikmin move at high speeds, can detect objects under the ground, are resistant to poison, and deal poison damage to enemies if eaten. So, they address a new hazard, have a unique detection ability, and are fast—but are balanced by having otherwise average stats and only being a big help in combat if lost forever. Bulbmin, on the other hand, are resistant to all hazard types, have average stats across the board, and can not leave the cave where they are found. So they’re versatile, but also unexceptional and very limited in usage. Both are well-balanced, interesting additions to the roster, which meaningfully deepen the strategy gameplay through their presence.

Pikmin 2 screenshot with purple pikmin providing absurdly high carrying capacities - Nintendo, Pikmin, comparison, analysis

Unfortunately, these new subterranean pikmin types all bring me on to my final topic for this section, which is one of the biggest missteps in the design of the game: the cave system. Like the dual leader system, this is an area of the game which had an enormous potential. But unlike the dual leader system, about which the worst thing I can say is that it could’ve been a lot better, the cave system not only acts as ignored potential but also as an active detriment to enjoying the game.

Basically, dotted throughout the landscape of Pikmin 2 are 14 cave entrances; entering one begins what amounts to a simple dungeon level consisting of between two and 15 sublevels. The caves contain the majority of the world’s treasures, meaning that over half of the game will be spent inside of them, or well over 10 hours of cave time. Despite this considerable emphasis, and the caves being yet another element that initially had me excited for something new and fun on my first playthrough, they quickly establish themselves as an unwelcome departure from the standard gameplay of the overworld in many ways.

First, the caves betray the logic of the gameworld in a way that deals yet another blow to the strong, clear theming of the original. Time doesn’t pass at all while spelunking, so there is no distinction in a cave between the planet’s relatively safe days and its seriously dangerous nights. This is in open contradiction to the first game, where the entirety of one of the landing areas, the Forest Navel, is underground, yet time passes normally there. Moreover, there are sublevels in some caves that take place outdoors . . . where it just stays daytime forever. But even setting that weird fact aside, the time-exempt status of the caves begs the question: why are any pikmin ever natively exposed to any danger in Pikmin 2 at nighttime? If they go in a cave, they’re safe. It’s apparently a form of shelter so effective that it negates the existence of widespread nocturnal predators, allowing the leaders to remain on the planet indefinitely. Inside the caves, the pikmin could even climb into purple candypop buds and turn into gods . . .

Second, ironically, despite all of their geographical depth, the caves turn deep gameplay into shallow gameplay by emphasizing the combat and removing the only remaining time limit. Because time doesn’t pass, an in-game day can never end while the player is in a cave (unless both leaders fall). To reiterate, the puzzles and combat in both Pikmin and Pikmin 2 are very shallow; it is only the stress placed on those systems by having to prioritize and manage them against time constraints that creates layers of engagement and complexity.

Pikmin 2 screenshot with cave entrance - Nintendo, Pikmin, comparison, analysis

Imagine playing a version of Tetris with the automatically falling blocks turned off. Instead, you place blocks manually at any pace, under your full vertical and horizontal control. In both cases, it superficially sounds like a small and simple change to remove the time constraint, but in both cases it actually destroys the core gameplay by removing the necessity for on-the-fly decision-making. As it happens, there are block games like that—but we don’t call them Tetris. With the cave system, the focus of Pikmin 2 heavily shifts from energetic time and task management to a matter of incessantly farming pikmin on the overworld and then incessantly burning through them to clear the caves, all for the greater glory of the Hocotate Freight Company . . .

Third and finally, the caves are slow. By their very nature, they involve multiple discrete areas broken up by copious saving and loading processes, which is a state of affairs that negatively impacts the flow of gameplay in much the same way as the item-based cutscenes and ship’s AI cutscenes—both of which the caves also heavily include. Further, as each sublevel of a cave contains far fewer interactive elements than an overworld area, much more of one’s time is spent watching and waiting while pikmin laboriously carry objects around. Moreover, as one can not gauge the length of any given cave prior to entering, and any cave may contain up to 15 sublevels, they telescope the length of a play session in an unpredictable (and thus often unwelcome) fashion.

This would be like if some of the random battles in the tall grass of the Pokémon series could take over 30 or even 60 minutes to complete. Where the reliable and strict in-game days of Pikmin created what I called “digestible and modular play sessions” above, the inclusion of caves that are divorced from that system makes it so that the duration needed to complete an in-game day in Pikmin 2 is hugely variable and inconsistent. An in-game day spent on the overworld is still less than 15 minutes, but a day where just one lengthy cave is entered has the potential to take nearly two hours.

If someone had told me before I played Pikmin 2 that, in order to reach full completion, I would be spending well over half of the game in slow, repetitive, minimally soundtracked, combat-heavy, cutscene-and-load-zone-packed underground dungeon areas—then, based on the experience of playing the original Pikmin, I would be forced to conclude that they were probably joking. Still, I may have believed such a warning, as, unfortunately, the kind of egregious time-wasting seen in the item acquisition cutscenes, constantly tutorializing AI, and caves of Pikmin 2 has been a staple of Nintendo game design from the late 90s onward.

Pikmin 2 screenshot with cave sublevel title card - Nintendo, Pikmin, comparison, analysis

It is widely noticed, for instance, by players of Zelda titles like Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword—with a significant portion of the player’s time dedicated in those games to obtrusive micro-cutscenes for everything from opening chests for low-value rupees to picking up crafting items dropped by enemies to opening doors for entering buildings to receiving unwanted advice from companion characters. Pikmin is an exception to this trend; Pikmin 2 is not.

Hey, on the plus side, if both leaders are active when plucking new pikmin, the time it takes to pull them out is halved because both participate. And, as I said above, there are a couple of worthwhile new types of pikmin, as well as a more dynamic implementation of music. Oh, and there are a great many new enemy designs, some of which are even truly brand new (not merely reskinned versions of enemies from the first game, which is most of them). If these several positives were in service of a focused sequel with more carefully selected additions and changes, things would be looking pretty great!

Conclusion:

Like Portal, Pikmin is a game which has received nearly universal acclaim from critics for just about everything other than its duration, where critics have consistently underscored that each game is “shockingly” brief: taking less than 10 hours for a first-time player to complete. Personally, I’ve never seen a short duration as a mark against a game, and brief encapsulations of exquisite gaming experience like Portal and Pikmin recall for me the portioning of desserts in high-class cuisine: low quantity, high quality. Nevertheless, the sequels to each game have rushed to address that criticism.

But whereas Portal 2’s main campaign only surpasses the length of Portal by a few hours, Pikmin 2 has enough content for single-player completionists to fill 30 hours. And just about every extra hour you get in the sequel feels like bloat: unsatisfying, game-logic-breaking, tedious cave dungeons; endless collectibles providing endless grating cutscenes and a diminishment of glory in success; and a campaign that extends interminably past the conclusion of its ostensible main objective.

Pikmin screenshot with balanced team heading into battle - Nintendo, Pikmin 2, comparison, analysis

Being a shorter game by cutting down on cutscenes and cave length, however, would not have saved Pikmin 2 from mediocrity. Its childish tone and uninteresting story; its destruction of puzzle and combat complexity through the introduction of purple pikmin and the removal of time constraints; its baffling total failure to take advantage of having two leaders in any meaningful way; and its clumsy reversal of the environmentalist subtext of the original—all sum together into a bland mess of a game.

Is Pikmin 2 a bad game? . . . I suppose I would have to say, ‘no.’ It’s just not a particularly good game. It doesn’t live up to the legacy of its predecessor. If you only play Pikmin 2 until the debt is repaid and you skip as many caves as possible while reaching that point, then it’s okay. You’ll have to ignore the horrendous sound effects, voices, and tutorial messages; pretend the game isn’t still giving you objectives at the end; be content to only have access to three overworld areas; and look past the superficial uselessness of the story—but you’ll get some hours of new Pikmin experiences: uncovering the white and purple pikmin, seeing new levels and creatures, hearing new music, and accomplishing the inherently satisfying task of growing and leading a gigantic horde of little leaf people.

The original Pikmin, on the other hand, is an understated masterpiece. It’s a game of such tight excellence in design and execution that Shigeru Miyamoto should be proud to list it as part of his legacy alongside Mario and Zelda. Apparently, Miyamoto’s idea for Pikmin “arose out of his time puttering in his garden” (Paumgarten). This makes total sense to me, as it’s such a charming, contemplative, nature-informed work. I just can’t help wishing he had continued to apply that gardening influence three years later when working with the team behind Pikmin 2, to do some much-needed pruning.

Works Cited:

Paumgarten, Nick. “Master of Play.” The New Yorker, 2010. Web.

Torres, Ricardo. “Pikmin Review.” Gamespot, 2001. Web.

 

[Game: Pikmin, Nintendo, 2001]
Thinking, with Pikmin:

Why Pikmin‘s Campaign is Superior to Pikmin 2‘s Campaign (in Tone and Design)

was last modified: May 18th, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski
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