The rise of Nintendo can be directly tied to games that commanded the imagination of the player. Those games can also be directly tied to the man who designed most of them, Shigeru Miyamoto. Hired out of Nintendo's planning department to become the company's first dedicated game designer, Miyamoto produced a string of hits for every home console produced by Nintendo. Therefore, it should not come as a shock that Mr. Miyamoto designed one of the launch titles for the GameCube. Pikmin is notable in comparison with Miyamoto's other recent work because it is a high-profile game with no prior history as a franchise.
One mistake people make when they see that a game is accessible to kids is assuming that that means that the game is devoid of sophistication, either in story or in gameplay. Nintendo has especially fallen prey to this view because of the cartoon-like nature of many of their franchise games. This seems to be specious logic at best—there is nothing preventing a game with cartoon-like graphics from telling a complex and intriguing story, and certainly nothing standing in the way of having great gameplay without having mature themes. Pikmin may look cute and cartoon-y, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a game with gameplay as engaging.
In my last article, talking about Metal Gear Solid, I claimed that there were three basic elements to a game: gameplay, story and presentation of the narrative. I would like to amend that to add the element of aesthetics—more specifically, the artwork contained within the ensemble production of the game. By this I mean the art, the animation, the writing, the music and other related areas. Pikmin does not have a particularly complex story, and the way it is presented is typical for videogames—insertion of text screens and brief cutscenes at appropriate times, always intended to give the player some basic motivation and background, nothing more. Pikmin concentrates primarily on its gameplay and aesthetics elements.
Graphically, Pikmin is notable for very simplistic, cartoon-like characters. Obviously, one can only do so much with carrots, but what about the main character? By making Olimar a simple character, Miyamoto has managed to tie into the human ability to imprint themselves upon iconic characters. This theory, explored by Scott McCloud in his groundbreaking "Understanding Comics," explains that the simpler a character is, the easier it is for any person to put himself in the place of that character. McCloud posits that since we can identify minute details in other objects while retaining only a vague idea of what we look like, we more easily identify with characters with correspondingly basic features.
An interesting aspect of the graphical design is that anything that moves or that you can interact with is done in a very cartoon-y style, whereas everything else in the game is done with an eye for realism. The difference isn't enough to upset the presentation of the game, but it does serve well enough to give an extra bit of weight to the experience. The realistic backdrops create a sense of reality in the game, creating a very Miyamoto-esque world that is very similar to our own, but different in a number of magical ways.
The music for the game is largely non-intrusive and relaxing, with a different theme for each area that Olimar must explore. The sound is also very well done, with the monsters and the Pikmin themselves each making noises, in addition to the sounds triggered by finding your ship parts and attaching said parts to your ship. The music and sounds fit in very well with the artistic nature of the game and never feel particularly inappropriate (although never incredibly engaging either).
The Pikmin themselves are excellently animated anthropomorphic carrots. With their little eyes and squeaking cries, its easy to get attached to the little vegetable army that follows you around. By giving the Pikmin such a personality, and by making them utterly dependent on your every command, Miyamoto has created a situation where you dislike seeing Pikmin die not because it represents inefficient use of resources, but because you're empathizing with an oddly colored baby carrot. Many a time I had to hit reset after accidentally leading non-blue Pikmin into water, which results in the poor things squeaking helplessly and thrashing around before drowning. Another interesting moral tangent is that there are creatures that are neutral, never coming after your Pikmin. You are given the choice of whether to leave them alone or whether to kill them and harvest their bodies for resources. (Oddly enough, your Pikmin attack these creatures by default. Who knew those little guys are naturally bloodthirsty?)
The gameplay is an interesting combination of two of the more popular gameplay genres around. You got your real-time strategy in my puzzler! No, you got your puzzler in my real-time strategy! Ahem. What you get in Pikmin is a giant set of puzzles that must be solved using your various species of Pikmin, which you grow by bringing resources to the appropriate color Onion. The aspect of the gameplay most widely decried by critics and players alike is the time limit. Since Olimar only has 30 days to find the right number of parts for his ship, and each day lasts only 15 minutes, you have to move quickly to marshal your forces and multi-task like crazy in order to drag home parts before the day ends. It is understandable why this is not a popular game mechanic. It induces a feeling of stress upon the player, which is only made worse by the fact that the game world is so interesting, leaving one with a feeling of loss by being unable to fully explore each level as you race around finding parts and collecting resources to grow more Pikmin.
However, the time limit serves a very important function. Without it, the game would be completely devoid of challenge. The puzzles are tricky, but not stumpers, and the fights would be made incredibly easy with the mass of Pikmin one could generate given infinite time. Therefore, the only thing keeping the player on edge and consumed is the fact that time is always ticking away. It is a testament to the balance in the game design that the constant battle to create more Pikmin while solving puzzles and retrieving parts works as well as it does. Since the load/save system makes it easy to quickly load from the last save, I would suggest that players itching to explore the game world play a couple days in each level just for the purpose of wandering and exploring, then reverting to their latest save when they actually want to advance the game. Also given the fact that a single screw-up could ruin an entire day, the revert to last save option comes in incredibly handy.
The other main complaint surrounding Pikmin has been its length. Similar to what we see with many other new games, Pikmin is a game with great graphics and gameplay, but is not particularly long. There has been some speculation that this is due to desires in the video game industry to make games more appealing. Studies have shown that most people do not wind up finishing videogames. Designers have been theorizing that making games shorter will make games also more attractive to people who might otherwise be overwhelmed by the length of videogames.Although Miyamoto attempted to increase the replay value of the title by adding a challenge mode, which essentially is a contest to see how many Pikmin you can grow, the title still suffers from its lack of length. Once you've played through Pikmin, and I'm sure the average gamer could do so in 20 hours, there might not be a lot of reasons to pick up the title again. However, Pikmin offers up such a unique and pleasurable experience that the length can only slightly detract from a game that is notable for efficient and balanced gameplay, as well as a consistent and compelling visual aesthetic.