Thursday, 15 August 2013

The Pikmin Abomination

What really happens to that one pikmin you left behind? That one red pikmin. He toiled in the dirt and rain all day for you. He obeyed your commands, thinking it would lead him and all his pikmin brethren to salvation among the stars. He has witnessed horrors you can’t imagine, his friends and relatives swallowed hole, drowned, smashed into a ground by a giant malevolent crab. Images forever burned to his retinas, not that he had long to live now anyway. 

He now watches from terra-firma as you take off without him. He feels a soaring sense of hopelessness as you, the master, the supposed protector, arc into the heavens and out of sight. In that brief moment he wonders what it was all for. In the distance, he hears the monsters coming, hungrily picking up his scent. And so he disappears into the darkness amidst the howls of beasts.

Be under no illusions. Pikmin 3 is an awful dreadful humbug of a game. 

You see it too, right? 
I’m relatively new to the world of Pikmin, but have finally taken my first foray into the franchise with Pikmin 3 which recently came out for Nintendo's ailing Wii-U system. As a number of reviews from around the web will tell you, the game is great, in line with Nintendo's typically high standards. You have accessible gameplay mechanics that make good use of the Wii-U’s touchscreen and gives way to a surprising amount of depth focused on exploration, the management of resources and light strategy. All brought to life with Nintendo’s new found embrace of HD visuals. Eurogamer’s Christian Donlan provided a particularly fluffy appraisal of the game, emphasising the importance of ‘family’ as key to its charm. The pikmin are children, your own adopted flower children, of whom you are sworn to protect…  
"This is a game built of empathy and responsibility - a game about exploring a familiar workd from an unfamiliar, childlike vantage point, and about trying to ensure that the equally childlike characters who assist you on the journey come to no harm along the way." 
But enough of these false pretenses. Let’s get real for a second. Play this music and keep reading.  

For ‘tone’. 

Behind the classic Nintendo sugar coating, the bright colours and cutesy characters, there are dark forces at work within Pikmin 3. The kind of forces that have made and broken nations and civilisations throughout the ages, the whole damned cycle of suppression and suffering that has defined the course of human history. Pikmin 3 is essentially a parable about invasion, slavery, and greed resulting in the frantic consumption and consequent exhaustion of natural resources. Adopting the family friendly camouflage, Nintendo is passing off on all these things as if they are okay.

All for a bit of fruit... 
To kick things off, Pikmin 3 opens with a pretty bleak introduction that cements both the overarching theme of survival – survival by any means necessary, within the looming threat of the end game scenario, a civilisation on the verge of ruin as a consequence of its own greed. The planet of Koppai has exhausted all of its food resources. Nintendo leave us to only imagine the devastation that such conditions would bring, fixing its gaze upon the cold depths of space to forward the plot. In a desperate attempt to prevent extinction, space exploration teams are despatched across the cosmos in search for new planets containing new food resources. So far, there is little hope - save one, a single planet categorised as PNF-404.  

Pikmin 3 deals exclusively with three space travellers, Captain Charlie (good name admittedly), Alph and Brittany, who are sent to the planet in their space ship the SS Drake. PNF-404 may in fact be Earth, there are elements that are certainly recognisable but the game is very ambiguous about the planet's precise history. You have grasslands, tropical rain forests, arctic tundra and deserts, throughout which are littered relics suggesting the presence of humans that existed at one point or another. But as Stephen King would put it, this is an earth that has 'moved on'. You’ll ask yourselves where the humans have gone? In context of the infernal subject matter it should become all too obvious. My pikmin haven't dug out fragments of the statue of liberty just yet, but I wouldn't be surprised.

Of course, it doesn’t really matter to our intrepid space travellers. PNF 404 is just another number in some archive. Another number to be cracked, processed and exhausted, destined to become another hollowed out husk floating among the stars within the vast emptiness of space. Unfortunately, what starts off as a routine operation soon becomes a vicious fight for survival as their spaceship crash-lands and the three crew mates are scattered across the continents. Tiny little space people at the mercy of a vast uncaring and unfamiliar world. That rubbish Will Smith movie that recently bombed at the box office, whose name I will not utter here, has got nothing on Pikmin 3. The world is home to a number of dangerous carnivorous creatures, that mostly come out at night. Mostly…  

No amount of nods to Star Wars can hide the darkness. 
You do find salvation of sorts, however, when you encounter the pikmin, an indigenous species of small flower people - neither animal, nor plant. It is quickly established they respond to your whistles and commands.

“Come here.”

“Go here.”



It all starts off very simply, as the bondage of slavery often does. They band together behind you. They perform menial tasks for you. They dig, they fight, they clear obstacles and help you gather pieces of fruit carting them back to your spaceship for your own consumption.

The crux of gameplay relies on a day and night dynamic. During the day you explore the planet with the pikmin in tow, gathering whatever resources you can. As the sun falls however, you have to retreat back to your space ship before all the nocturnal beasties come out. Daylight lasts approximately 15 minutes, time you have to spend organising your team in attempts to cover as much ground as possible, using your pikmin to solve puzzles, fighting enemies and collecting whatever resources you can. Should any pikmin be left idle or fail to make it back to the landing zone by sundown, they are simply left behind and eaten.  

In order to survive and keep exploring, you must gather fruit and bring it back to your ship, where it is converted into juice at the end of each day. The fruit is recognisable to us, apples, oranges and grapes, but since the Koppai space travellers are new to this world they give it silly names like 'face wrinkler' (Lemon), 'crimson banquet' (water melon), or 'Scaly Custard' (Avocado). Haha! That’s so cute, right? You consume juice at a rate of one space bottle per day, meaning you are constantly looking out for your next fix, building up an enviable stockpile. Initially it is for survival, but that feeling of anxiety of being pushed for resources soon passes and you become a bit more confident. Thusly, the game gradually transitions into the attainment of more and more resources, more fruit, more pikmin slaves. 

Let’s make no qualms about it. The pikmin are your slaves. You collect more and more Pikmin until you have an army. Pikmin of all different kinds! There are red ‘fire’ pikmin, yellow ‘shock’ pikmin, blue ‘water’ pikmin, and the new additions for the third iteration - rock pikmin, who exist purely to smash things up and pink flying pikmin. Each group have their own particular skills that will help you get past obstacles, water pikmin can swim, yellow pikmin are resistant to electricity and can be thrown higher. Yes you throw the pikmin at whatever task needs doing, by their head stalks. The more pikmin you have the more obstacles you can overcome. Be it walls or larger more threatening enemies.

Individually they are weak, but together they are strong.

Together pikmin become a militant entity, conducting your business without question. With each enemy you destroy, you have your pikmin carry the bodies back to your ship for ‘processing’. The more dead you harvest. The more pikmin you create and stockpile. The culmination of exploring results in a boss encounter of monstrous proportions. These are supposed to pose a significant challenge, designed to make you enact strategies on the fly. Once sussed out, these battles become easy. Once the beast has fallen, you get your pikmin to carry its corpse back to base for processing. This can often take up to 10 – 20 pikmin but it is quite a sight to behold, a bizarre ritual of sorts, an extravagant parade in your honour as alien conquerer. Once you were at the bottom of the food chain, but now you levitate about it. The world shrinks in fear, completely at the mercy of you and your terrible pikmin legions. It becomes smaller and somehow less wondrous. Meanwhile the march of you and your pikmin goes on. 

Where will it end? Once you get off world? Once you've restored your home planet to its former glory?       

Here they are defeating Moby-Dick reborn as a centipede... Accomplishing what Ahab never could...  Pikmin find a way.
I lost plenty of pikmin over the course of the game’s campaign, some died in battle, some drowned, some were crushed, others eaten alive and some, regrettably, were left behind when the sun went down. 

So what became of that one lone red pikmin? Forced to brave the darkness as the predators moved in.  

From orbit, you crack open a bottle of fruit juice in orbit. It is sweet and cold, honey running down your throat. You gaze at the curvature of the world below you. You laugh as you remember your early days stranded on the planet's surface, how it all seemed so threatening. Not so anymore, not from this height. Alas, you feel the day’s hard work take effect, and you drift comfortably into a dreamless slumber. No thoughts of your dying home world or the loved ones left behind so many lightyears away, and certainly no thought for that one red pikmin you left behind.  

Morning comes, and you land once again in the forest with plans to salvage what remains to the East. You gather up your pikmin, an even split, 20 of each type. They dispense from the onion, all immaculate and gleaming in the morning sun. But wait… you do a double take, there is one in the corner of your eye. You turn your head to meet his gaze. He just stares back at you, through cold vengeful eyes. You notice that he appears a bit scuffed around the edges, not like the other red one. The thought does cross your mind... but you quickly synapse back to the matter at hand - daylight is wasting. 

Do Pikmin feel? Do they think? Do they plot? 
You move onward, today’s task is to build a bridge. You whistle for your pikmin, but instead of the bustle you have grown accustomed to, the chorus of chirping and the patter of feet, there is only silence. You turn to face your troop. They just stand there staring back at you. Maybe they didn’t hear you? You whistle again. No reaction. A hundred pairs of blinking eyes. The shoots and flowers emanating from their head mounted stalks swaying gently in the wind. You whistle again, and again, and once more in desperation. Then movement. They huddle towards you, surrounding you - a sea of pikmin, you feel their tiny hands grab on to you. Coloured fingers pressed up against your visor, you struggle, whistling madly, but resistance is futile. In one smooth synchronised move they hoist you up into the air and carry you away, never to be seen again.

I'll just leave this here. 

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