The Charm of Pikmin

A bit of history on an underrated Nintendo video game franchise that embraces the contradictions of nature.

The Charm of Pikmin

By most accounts, the Pikmin franchise is unexceptional. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom sold several million more copies in it’s first three days than the Pikmin series has sold in its entire 22 year existence. So why does it warrant discussion? Why does it continue to put out new games? Frankly, why does it exist at all? Put simply, Pikmin fans should be grateful that their beloved niche strategy games are the pet project of one of gaming’s foremost auteurs: Shigeru Miyamoto. The story of Pikmin is the story of Miyamoto, and by extension, the story of Nintendo itself.

Let’s start at the beginning. Miyamoto was hired at Nintendo (which at the time was selling novelty products such as playing card games) off of his whimsical toy designs. When they decided to repurpose arcade parts into a new game, he was tapped to spearhead the project. The only problem is that he had no history with programming. With a team of developers to execute his ideas, Miyamoto’s role was to throw questions at them: could we have characters of different sizes that move in different ways? Could we essentially remake the game several times, to incorporate varying levels so that players have more to get through? His developers were understandably frustrated, and his ideas faced a lot of resistance from executives. Eventually however, Miyamoto’s first lead video game was published: Donkey Kong. It cannot be overstated how important Donkey Kong is for the medium of video games. At the time, arcade games were abstract and/or tropey, built for addicting mechanics more than anything else. You were a spaceship shooting aliens, or a paddle hitting a ball. Programming a smooth and effective level was the top (and really, the only) priority in game development. Miyamoto didn’t just instantly kickstart a video game empire, he wrestled the video game out of the hands of programmers and into the hands of artists. Donkey Kong told a story, it featured memorable and distinct characters, it had strange and evolving environments. An entire industry was never the same.

Shigeru was just getting started. The home console era was dawning, and Nintendo was building the Famicom, or NES. Most game developers kept the arcade mindset: addictive looping gameplay with a scoring system that kept people wanting to come back and compete for the highest score. Miyamoto however decided to use the advances in technology to his advantage by creating new types of gameplay loops that were compelling on their own without any scores. Simultaneously, he and his partners created two titles: Super Mario Bros and The Legend of Zelda. For Mario, he took his iconic characters from the Donkey Kong games and turned it into a whimsical platformer where players strategize as they glide through the level. It was the sort of expansive and goofy effort that served a natural extension to his first game. Zelda meanwhile was something wholly new. Inspired by Tolkien-esque fantasy, this game was a non-linear adventure where players must explore an open space and figure out the right way to go- solving riddles and slaying monsters on the way. At this point it’s an exhaustingly famous story: Miyamoto wanted to capture the feelings he had as a young boy exploring the woods outside of Kyoto. "When I was a child," Miyamoto said, "I went hiking and found a lake. It was quite a surprise for me to stumble upon it. When I traveled around the country without a map, trying to find my way, stumbling on amazing things as I went, I realized how it felt to go on an adventure like this."

These two franchises were not just groundbreaking then, and not just groundbreaking later when gaming went three dimensional, but serve as high watermarks for the medium even today. As I write this, the Super Mario Bros Movie is the highest grossing film of the year, and the latest Zelda game is the frontrunner for game of the year. By the time we approached the 21st century, however, the development teams were growing and Miyamoto was shifting away from his hands-on role with the two series. By the time the GameCube rolled around, he was hopping around all over the place not just as a game developer for Nintendo’s growing catalog of titles, but as a public face for one of the biggest companies in the industry. He was (and still is) an absolute rockstar in the world of gaming. He had already been dubbed the “Spielberg of gaming”, one of the most influential developers of all time, and plenty of other lofty titles. Perhaps most notably, his philosophy had informed Nintendo’s game development: Miyamoto didn’t believe in focus testing games. He didn’t want player feedback to dictate his decisions. His stance was that if he loved a game, if his team loved a game, they could convince the world to love it too. Instead of chasing a focus group’s approval, he sat with his team and found a way to have fun with them. That’s when they knew they had a hit: when they became excited and passionate about what they had on their hands.

It’s only natural that Miyamoto wanted to start fresh with something new. In his free time, Shigeru rarely played video games, instead opting for playing bluegrass music, walking, and other hobbies. As he stepped back a bit from the day to day slog of developing Mario and Zelda, he took up gardening with his wife. One day, he watched a line of ants walking in the garden. Suddenly an idea clicked in his head: an army of tiny creatures, commanded by a tiny leader. The idea excited him, which meant it had to be good. Through this simple idea a new franchise was born on the GameCube: Pikmin.

Why does the game need all of that historical background on its creator? After all, lots of other developers were closely involved in Pikmin’s creation even before Miyamoto arrived to pull it all together into a coherent title. The background for this franchise is necessary because it’s the organic continuation of Nintendo's roots. Pikmin’s protagonist is Captain Olimar, styled as a bit of a parody of Mario, and its real time strategy gameplay calls back to the original Super Mario Bros design. It recaptures the original spirit of exploration from The Legend of Zelda, taking place in gardens and forests as the player searches for treasures among the foliage. Most importantly, it embodies the philosophy that Miyamoto baked into Nintendo’s essence: charm, absurdity, and a complete disregard for the industry’s trends and genre lines.

Now, a thousand words into the piece: what is Pikmin? It’s a series of strategy games from Nintendo in which you play as an astronaut who stands at one inch tall. Marooned on a distant-future dystopian Earth with no human life, you must find your way home. You’re usually seeking out treasures or ship parts to repair your vessel and leave. In order to collect these treasures, and in order to survive in a hostile environment filled with weird creatures, you must take command of an army: an army of tiny, adorable, plant-like creatures called Pikmin.

The core gameplay is all over the place. Sometimes it is serene as you float on top of a lily pad down a stream in search of fruit. Sometimes you are in dangerous caves filled with terrifying spider beasts. Most of the time, you are throwing your plant minions at obstacles or enemies. The strategy comes in managing which types of Pikmin to carry, how and when to use them, and most importantly how to manage your time. Every day has a fixed amount of daylight, and you must return to your ship by sundown with all of your Pikmin or any and all stragglers will perish. Yes, the adorable mascots of this game die. Often. It is a cold reality of the game that any mistake will likely have a death count attached. The absurdity of this series is watching an adorable monster eat your adorable companion while soft relaxing music plays.

Even in the fiction of the game, there’s something weird at play. Olimar writes in his captain’s log about the mysteries of the Pikmin: “At times, these seemingly emotionless Pikmin act with a blind urgency. For instance, the Pikmin who so tirelessly dig up grass... What could be driving them to do so? Is it merely the promise of a sweet taste of nectar? Or is it some base instinct that is beyond my capacity to understand? Will I ever know?” Despite their strange relationship, they manage to benefit each other: Olimar eventually gets to go home (until his next crash landing) and through his work the Pikmin population has boomed.

It’s hopeful, it’s bleak, it’s peaceful, it’s violent. These contradictions define the personality of Pikmin, a cult hit that has persevered despite a lack of mainstream success because, well, because the guy who invented Mario wants to keep making more. For this I’m deeply grateful: I think this franchise is one of Nintendo’s best and most underrated, structurally unlike anything else out there on the market. Maybe one day a bunch of Pikmin ripoffs will hit the shelves, but I’m not sure any of them can capture the magic.

Are there birds in Pikmin? No, not really. Pretty much every flying creature is more bug-like than avian. I’m writing at exhausting length about this franchise because it’s everything I want this blog to be: curious, all over the place, occasionally lovely, and ultimately in service of its creators' passions. Miyamoto doesn’t make games because he loves staring at screens. He does it to express his love of the world and his hobbies, and to campaign for players to take a walk outside more often, to lay in the grass and watch the sky. Shigeru has even said in interviews that he tells his developers to go play outside when the weather is nice. In this regard, Pikmin is his magnum opus: the beauty and cruelty of nature is on full display, and the serene vibes of gardening are a clear influence.

I love watching birds. They’re gorgeous, fascinating creatures. Watching them preen, bathe, eat, hop, and sing is enthralling in a way I find it hard to define. But I know that every bird I see is the product of evolutionary biology built around survival; birds are under constant threat from predators and starvation, and their entire life is a harsh challenge to procreate as much as possible before an inevitable demise. This sort of blunt reality is hard to miss when you spend time outdoors and watch creatures compete for food. Seeing a bald eagle eat a squirrel in my backyard in 2021 felt a lot like watching a bulborb eat my Pikmin. We of course don’t want any creature to suffer, but we know they do. So in practice, birding becomes an act of awareness, of gratitude, of appreciation for the delicate contradictions of nature.

Writing about this act makes it feel more legitimate, but I don’t really care if anyone reads this or likes it. I write about it because it makes me happy, and will therefore encourage me to do it more. By cataloging my interests, I give myself more reason to focus on them instead of drifting into the algorithmically curated mist of devices. This use of technology to encourage healthy habits is exactly what Miyamoto had in mind with Zelda, or Pikmin, or even the Nintendo Wii.

Encouraging healthy habits through gaming is more prevalent than ever through Pikmin now that Pikmin Bloom has been released. Created by the team behind the famous Pokemon Go mobile app, Bloom is a similar walk-around-and-find-stuff type game that encourages getting outside. The fact that a niche series like Pikmin even gets a mobile game is probably due to Miyamoto’s influence: Mario, Pokemon, and Animal Crossing are simply on a different level of cultural influence and marketability. Even Zelda has no mobile game to speak of, despite people’s love of exploring Hyrule. Miyamoto’s presence is felt even more in the game’s structure, and this is what I love about Bloom: Pokemon Go encourages you to watch your phone as you walk outside, actively playing and catching monsters, while Bloom simply asks that you press a button, turn your phone off, and go. It’s entirely passive, getting outside is the entirety of the gameplay. Planting flowers, searching for fruit, all just by walking around a park and letting your Pikmin do the rest. It’s as if Miyamoto saw everyone hunched over phones catching pikachus in 2016 and said “I can do better than this”.

The real miracle is that it all still manages to be fun. In Pikmin Bloom, I love checking on my expeditions and trying to get my flower count up so I can contribute to me and my friends’ weekly challenge. In Pikmin 1, I love wrangling my army of easily-distracted plant children. In Pikmin 4, the gorgeous scenery and trusty canine companion takes the entire eccentric formula to new heights. Setting aside all of the philosophy and history and ways in which these games work so well for me on paper, they’re also an absolute blast to play.

Pikmin is a goofy video game franchise born from a middle aged man watching ants crawl around. From this small experience sprouted a celebration of nature, of the circle of life, of Nintendo’s own brand of idiosyncrasy. It might not be for everybody, but it’s definitely for me, and I think more people should experience the magic of so many disparate parts held together by passion alone. If you do, it might encourage you to sit in the park more often. What better use for art than to encourage our better selves? To make us think harder, be aware of our time, aware of our surroundings, and grateful for our survival? I doubt Pikmin gets a billion-dollar film adaptation anytime soon, but I can live with it thriving in the background. After so many missions with Olimar and his plant friends, I’ve grown accustomed to appreciating the small overlooked things in life.