A Look Back – Pikmin
Pikmin is a cute, short, adventure/strategy game that was a launch title for the Gamecube back in 2001. Whenever I try to describe this week’s topic (Overlord) to someone, I invariably call it “evil Lord of the Rings Pikmin”, which is true for many gameplay mechanics and general ideas, but not fair to either game. On Monday, I said a lot of really nice things about the writing and dialogue in Overlord, but Pikmin really doesn’t have any spoken words. The story is told in an entirely different way, and Olimar is the only character in Pikmin that is relatable and and goal-oriented. This is not to say that Pikmin NEEDS more writing, though, because I thought the game had remarkable story-telling.
Pikmin is about Captain Olimar, who accidentally crashes his ship on a strange planet that very similar to Earth, only Olimar is very small in comparison to say, all the plants, bugs, boxes, puddles of water, cans, and whatever else you might find on any given small patch of land on Earth. The planet’s wildlife is all bigger than Olimar, and almost all of it is overwhelmingly hostile. He would be doomed and unable to find the (strangely intact) pieces of his ship that were scattered by the crash if not for his discovery of the small, friendly, plant-like inhabitants of the planet, the titular Pikmin. The Pikmin unanimously follow Olimar’s every command unquestioningly, and through strength in numbers they help him traverse and explore this strange place, and gather the pieces of his ship back together.
So, I think the storytelling here is great. Like I said, there isn’t much writing, but it’s a great example of showing instead of telling. This is an important concept in any interactive medium, because when you make the landscape and inhabitants show the story, you draw the player into a world that feels more real. This game – without any spoken dialogue – shows you a world where the Pikmin were leaderless and all but wiped out, due to the vast advantages the predators on this planet have against them. When Olimar shows up, the Pikmin aren’t just helping him because they are nice (although they ARE nice), they are helping him because they need his help too.
I think this is actually more subtle than it needs to be, and many people say Olimar exploits the Pikmin for his own gain. This is true to an extent, but really, they need his leadership just as badly to rebuild their numbers and ever stand a chance against the other inhabitants of the planet. So you have a game world that tells you this story of teamwork by placing obstacles and enemies in your path that must be overcome with strategy AND numbers. You need a lot of Pikmin to beat the big spider because many will probably die, but you also need Olimar to give them a strategy and a chance by throwing them up to the spider’s weak points and charging its legs. And if you’re really good, almost no Pikmin will die.
When comparing Overlord to Pikmin, there’s none of this pansy give-and-take. The Overlord commands his minions, and they obey because they have to, not because they really gain much besides better gear and a chance to die. That is fine for the setting, and that game has its own tone. The tone of Pikmin, while somewhat dark and mostly about survival on a hostile alien world, is also about friendship in unlikely places and teamwork to achieve great things. Olimar repairs his ship and gets to go home because he and the Pikmin together are greater than the sum of their individual parts. It’s a moral story in a children’s game, but an adult can appreciate it too.
Anyways, enough gushing about this brilliant and interesting setting, let’s wrap this up.
So I thought the gameplay in this game was unique and original, and so it goes without saying that I thought basically the same thing about Overlord’s gameplay, because their mechanics are almost exactly the same. I know it can’t really be completely original if it rips off Pikmin, but Overlord put its own spin on an under-used idea and gave you more combat options besides ordering your minions to attack. Overlord has magic spells and the option to attack on your own to great effect. Olimar can attack, but he is mostly useless and easily killed. The Overlord is not that squishy in his metal armor, and he gets to wield a massive mace.
So, these two games are similar in style, but totally different in tone and setting, making for two very different, yet strangely similar, fun experiences. It’s good to see that the gameplay ideas in Pikmin were picked up and polished in the 6-year gap between these games. On Friday, we’ll take a trip to Overlord 2, and see if anything is new and exciting, or if they lost all the originality after the first one. Thanks for reading!