I have an unusual relationship with the Pikmin franchise. The original game, despite having an engaging premise, drives me crazy because of its time-limit mechanic. Pikmin 2, however, is one of my favorite GameCube games, even though its stakes are relatively low. Pikmin 3, while enjoyable, finds itself at a halfway point between the first two games on a personal level. And I’ve yet to play the 3DS game, though I’d probably enjoy it too.
I mention this because of my stance on real-time strategy (RTS) games in general. I’ve played a few in my day, like Starcraft and the first two Star Wars: Battlefront games. While I’ve definitely enjoyed them, they never seemed to grab my attention quite like the Pikmin games do. Those simply aren’t as fun and accessible in the long-run, hence why I usually suffer from burnout. Yet Pikmin games routinely grab me, even long enough to 100% complete them. And considering how I normally don’t 100% complete games, that’s a big deal! So I figured I’d discuss my stance on these games, what makes them so special, and what the inevitable Pikmin 4 can take from its predecessors.
Let’s get the elephant out of the room first: yes, the Pikmin games are, in fact, RTS games. I know that some RTS fanatics scoff at that notion, but it’s no less true. The Pikmin franchise ticks off all of the standard checkboxes in the genre, right down to its “divide and conquer” approach to combat. The games also involve prioritization, strategizing, and intimate mastery of the in-game maps. They also penalize you for being tardy in any of the above, exactly like a real RTS game.
What makes the franchise unique, however, is how it disguises that inside a not-so-subtle environmentalist message. Taking cues from Shintoist environmentalism, which states that everything has a place in the grand order, the Pikmin games tackle the concepts of predator vs prey, hostility about the unknown, and even ecological balance. It does this through collecting ship parts in the first game, discarded trash in the second game, and fruit in the third. Each time, it uses these core gimmicks to make a statement about the value of inane objects we often take for granted. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, after all!
Beauty in the ordinary
Honestly, I like this idea a lot. By making these games all about collecting the mundane, they remind the player that the little details matter. Every piece of Olimar’s wrecked ship, right down to its tail wings, matters for him to escape. Every piece of trash, right down to an apple core, matters when it comes to making money. Even every piece of fruit, right down to a single grape, matters for survival. This insane attention to detail in scavenging makes a rather boring and tedious concept — foraging — into something fun and rewarding. It also keeps my interest.
Additionally, the games give a surprising amount of soul and depth to their characters. Olimar, Louie, and the crew of Pikmin 3 aren’t simply player avatars — they feel like real characters with wants and needs. They have physical limitations, right down to their inability to survive enemy encounters on their own. The Pikmin too have distinct character traits based on their individual species, with certain types performing certain tasks more efficiently than others. Even the enemies feel unique and varied, with no two attacking alike. And when anyone dies, hero or enemy, they have terrifying screams, reminding you of the sacrifices they’ve made.
I think this level of personification on the games’ part really ups the experience for me as well. No longer am I playing a standard RTS game. Rather, I’m now playing a survival game! A scary survival game, with real consequences for my failure! It’s something you don’t appreciate initially, but it makes the games that much more compelling. It forces you to think two steps ahead without realizing it.
On top of that, the Pikmin franchise’s characters all possess a certain cuteness to them. The Pikmin may work like ants, carrying items ten times their size, but physically they look like babies. The playable avatars may act like military commanders, designating tasks, but they look like children. Even the enemies have an appearance of being docile, making their hidden aggression that much more shocking. And their deaths, as I said earlier, feel all the more disturbing because of that.
Taste the rainbow!
But arguably the best case for why I like these games so much is, true to Nintendo form, their color palates. Many high-profile games in the days when these games launched utilized lots of greys, browns, and blacks in their level design, as if to emphasize how mature and macho they were. They’re all about being “edgy” and “dark”, with no light-heartedness found anywhere. I’d be lying if I said that none of them were fun; some definitely were and still are. But after a while, the lack of color diversity became boring. Besides, wouldn’t being “real” mean adding color, not removing it?
Fortunately, the Pikmin games had color, and lots of it. True, they have brown, grey, and black, but they also have blue, green, red, orange, yellow, and everything in-between. This color diversity keeps the games consistently appealing visually, which prevents them from getting boring. It also, not surprisingly, makes them feel more adult, especially when factoring in the aforementioned. It makes them feel fun, in other words.
What can Pikmin 4 do to keep the momentum going? For starters, it can continue all of the above and improve on it. It can also expand on the evolution of the franchise’s themes by introducing a new collecting gimmick and adding more Pikmin varieties. It’s not like Pikmin 3 didn’t open itself up for a sequel with its closing cinematic, too, so perhaps starting there is good? While we’re at it, maybe give us an explanation for why so many ships keep crashing on that planet? And perhaps make another final boss that, this time, is not so irritating to beat?
I’m not a programmer, but the ideas are endless. That’s especially true now, with the Switch’s portability factor standing so prominently in the console’s design. Perhaps Nintendo could make Pikmin 4 into a co-op venture between Switch owners? Or have players compete for survival? We have no limit on options now!
Ultimately, though, Pikmin 4 needs to be fun and innovative while still keeping the beating heart of its predecessors intact. It shouldn’t take the Paper Mario route and innovate for the sake of it, completely forgetting why it worked in the first place. That philosophy of unnecessary experimentation killed the latter Paper Mario games, and it’d be a crime if that happened to Pikmin as well. So experiment, yes, but not to the point of excess.
But what do you think? What should Pikmin 4 do to progress the franchise? And do you even like the Pikmin games at all? Let us know in the comments below.