Article suggested by PustDustIn and is an opinion piece. Thanks to Nantendo and Soma for edits.
While I’ve spent a fair amount of my time at Source Gaming attempting to dispel or deconstruct truisms about various games, this is not done out of a contrarian spirit. Some of them are certainly legitimate, like today’s subject: Real-Time Strategy just does not work on home console games. I mean, it’s not exactly easy to dispute that; RTS – a genre in which you build up and fight massive armies – demands that players can immediately alternate looking at the world at macroscopic and microscopic levels, and console controls are better suited for moving a specific avatar than an entire society. Most attempts to either port preexisting games to home consoles fare ignominiously, and attempts to build one for the system have to curtail the genre’s speed or specificity for the benefit of playability. Why, then, is Pikmin (or Overlord, which took extensive influence from it) an exception? The answer, I suspect, is that Nintendo’s science fiction series isn’t Real-Time Strategy…at least, not strictly.
Let’s look at a traditional RTS game, like StarCraft or Age of Empires. The role of the player is, depending on how you view it, either a politician or general or effectively God, viewing the world from a zoomed out bird’s-eye view. You build up resources or troops, sending them to perform tasks or fight enemies. The problems with copying this presentation on a console are clear when looking at the controller. They have slowly evolved to better accommodate broad genres; action, platformers, and shooters among them. Some games or genres based on specific mechanics simply don’t cohere with generic control setups, which is why we have innovative iOS or DS games that would never comfortably play on a dual stick device.
Pikmin, however, has you only control space faring Captain Olimar, who has crash-landed on a dangerous planet and can only escape by working with an army of plant-like drones, the Pikmin. You bring a squadron of up to a hundred with you, and direct them to perform certain tasks, like dragging a giant treasure back to your ship or killing a monster in your way. The Pikmin themselves are divided into easily understood groups based on color, and you unlock new ones over the course of the games as you gather more treasures and come closer to saving yourself from certain doom. Each type can do different things – like the amphibious Blue or the fireproof Red varieties – and discovering them allows you access to more environments or sections.
In other words, Pikmin is essentially a Metroid or Zelda game retrofitted into a loose RTS mold. All the stapes are there: giant levels restricted by how far you’ve progressed through the game, iconic boss enemies that are either required or greatly encouraged to beat, and unlocking new powers and abilities that allow you to traverse the environment or find hidden bonuses. Even the Pikmin themselves are livelier than most RTS units, in the same way that Nintendo games sometime anthropomorphize their mechanical systems to make them feel like a more coherent part of the world.
Real-Time Strategy is based around a battle of sorts between two or more parties as they build up their forces and slowly go to town on each other’s societies, and that leads to another problem of playing them on consoles: players cannot adequately see threats in that perspective. Pikmin, again, reshapes the idea of how the genre works. While you fight a plethora of bizarre creatures on this post-apocalyptic Earth, the real threat is time. In the first game, you’re given a harsh thirty day limit (with each day amounting to around thirteen minutes), and if you don’t get the twenty-five necessary parts of Olimar’s ship by the end of that time, you just die. While the limit is exceedingly annoying, it also gives you a necessary feeling of pressure that recreates the frantic nature of gathering and exploiting resources.
Though it’s a better game overall, Pikmin 2’s removal of the mechanic without a suitable alternative killed all sense of urgency, and with it the satisfyingly dark tone about a man trapped alone on a hostile world. Pikmin 3 brought it back, but instead made the limit a slowly shrinking backlog of food supplies. You collect fruit while exploring to keep from running out, which is both tied to the plot about gathering fruit seeds to save your hungry home planet and allows the limit a great deal of player-controlled leeway. That game also managed to fuse the series’ take on RTS with the genre’s more traditional standbys thanks to the Wii U GamePad, which allowed players to direct three separate teammates and perform tasks independently.
The difference in perspective is not the only reason for the game’s success. One of the more notable attempts to recreate RTS on consoles in a character-driven mold is Brütal Legend, Tim Schafer and Jack Black’s paean to heavy metal about a roadie who builds up an army in a demented fantasy world. Where Legend fails, however, is in its lack of engagement with the central tenants of the genre; it is unable to make the leading more than a chore when it’s simply more satisfying to run Black’s character around and hit monsters with a guitar. Making Olimar useless as an actual fighter – something that’s often anathema to games – and unable to perform any necessary tasks on his own forces players to use and understand the mechanics of the Pikmin. It also emphasizes how insignificant he is, a man the size of a quarter barely surviving the post-apocalyptic ruins of Earth.
It’s this feeling of insignificance that ultimately holds together the disparate elements, and is likely a major part of why Pikmin resonates so strongly among its fans. In most games, those Zelda and Metroid ones as well, you start as weak but slowly empower yourself through the mechanics, exploration, or the story. That’s true in here as well, but with the added caveat that your “tools” can die by the dozens in seconds, that without them you go back to being nothing, and that you’re always aware of that deadline. Minor enemies can be utterly terrifying in the right circumstances, although that is mitigated somewhat by their corpses being one of many resources used to create more Pikmin troops. It’s a hazardous, often scary world, at odds with not only the picturesque landscapes in which the series takes place but Nintendo’s more happy, controlled tone as well. Even beyond the company’s lineup, it’s rare to find games that engender all the mixed feelings you get from this series.
And that odd mixture of power and weakness, of constant movement alongside periods of terrifying calm, has always been central to the appeal of Real-Time Strategy. It’s a feeling you have when you’re unsure whether to lay siege to an encroaching Zerg camp or wait for more troops or upgrades. You feel it when the time for a mission is getting close to its limit, and you’re nowhere near fully prepared to rescue an allied unit. Other genres, like RPGs or shooters, are happy to give you the succor of time and preparation, but RTS has always been about that pressure and insecurity. And as any speedrun of the series will attest, thriving under it is the point when the act of play becomes incredibly thrilling.
In some ways, Pikmin is about the weirdest and least accessible of Nintendo’s series. It’s a dramatic departure from a genre that is already niche, and on systems where that genre is otherwise alien. It features adorable moppet-like mascots who get butchered by the score, in environments that are teeming with natural beauty and threat. Were even a few things to change, it would be a collection of incoherent game systems, something it was likely the case with the unreleased tech demos Super Mario 128 and Adam and Eve that were later incorporated into the first Pikmin. But by focusing its ideas, drawing from previous Nintendo successes, and holding them together with a specific tone, the series manages to take the many unique pleasures of Real-Time Strategy and use them in surprising ways. It may differ widely from its forebears, but it understands what makes them work.