Feature: A Brief History of Pikmin

Three down, more surely to come

Pikmin 3, after a lengthy development period, is now beginning to grace Wii U systems around the world, and is clearly a source of great pride for Shigeru Miyamoto. The famous Nintendo designer has described it as the "ultimate version of Pikmin 1", and to date it's received substantial critical praise, including a score of 9 in our own Pikmin 3 review. It's an important game for the Wii U in various ways, perhaps not as a substantial system-seller on its own, but as a reassurance of how the system can blend the best of the GameCube and Wii with further enhancements, and represents the arrival of a game that was on many launch day wishlists in November 2012. It's late, but as the potential start of the Wii U's potential relaunch into a sustained period of growth, it's a fitting entry.

Pikmin is an interesting series, as it's one of Nintendo's freshest IPs — due to having just three standalone games — and a unique part of the company's library. To celebrate the arrival of the third entry in the franchise, we thought we'd take a short look at its history to date, including its many cameos that have developed it as a much-loved brand.

The First Seedlings Emerge

The origin and inspiration for the Pikmin franchise is commonly considered to be Shigeru Miyamoto's increasing interest in gardening at the time, which certainly seems to be a reasonable idea. There are plenty of examples of the designer using such interests to inspire his work, yet it perhaps underestimates his detailed design approach to say that the series was formed primarily due to a fascination with growing plants. A love of a hobby ultimately plays second fiddle to defining a project for a quality, engaging game, as Miyamoto explained to GamesMaster magazine late last year (via Official Nintendo Magazine):

There are a variety of different ways for us to create videogames. Sometimes from the very outset we have some clear-cut goals towards which we start working. On the other hand we have cases when we don't have any kind of clear-cut image as to what kind of game it will eventually be but rather we have a very vague image of whatever we would like to establish or realise.

In the case of Pikmin 1 our original idea was how it would be nice if we would be able to see a bunch of small creatures doing something. Something like, they are protecting their own village and at the same time they are trying to grow and expand that village.

Later on we added the feature so that the player character will be there. But at the beginning I thought that it wouldn't be interesting enough because in that original development mode the Pikmin were used as if [they were] weapons. To be utilised, to be shot by the player themselves.

In this respect it was a fresh idea from Nintendo, moving into the real-time strategy genre to utilise the power available on the GameCube. Its late 2001 arrival in North America made it an early game on the system, and it impressed with lush environments and the imagery of dozens of Pikmin moving through the environment. In an interesting design choice, that Miyamoto would later describe as "a little bit too strict and confining", the player was given just 30 days to complete their task of recovering ship parts to return Captain Olimar to his home planet. While he was the protagonist in the story, it was perhaps the Pikmin themselves, with their endearing appearance and charming soundbites, that had the most impact.

In terms of commercial success, the title performed reasonably but not brilliantly, not helped by being on a platform that would ultimately struggle to around 22 million sales, below the Nintendo 64 and just over a fifth of the sales its successor (Wii) would achieve. The first game's worldwide sales of a little under 1.2 million sales were, in that context, thoroughly respectable. Interestingly, sales in Japan were helped along to some degree by a song titled Ai no Uta, which appeared in commercials for the game; it achieved top 10 music chart positions for several weeks in Nintendo's homeland.

It was clear that Shigeru Miyamoto and the Nintendo management were confident in the Pikmin brand, as a sequel was produced and released just under three years after the original, again on the GameCube. It removed the 30-day limit, featured a storyline about Captain Olimar attempting to salvage his business by retrieving treasure — scrap materials to the gamer's eyes — from the Pikmin planet, and included a second intrepid explorer. It was not only possible to switch to Louie during the single player campaign, but Nintendo also introduced local co-op and competitive multiplayer options, which were to return on the Wii U in different forms.

These tweaks to the gameplay, along with what some perceived to be improved AI and visuals, contributed to another strong critical reaction. Unfortunately sales were lower than its predecessor, with some also commenting that it was a tough title to find in the West. By this stage the DS was preparing to take over the portable world, while the struggles of the GameCube against the relentless selling power of the PlayStation 2 perhaps influenced Nintendo's efforts in marketing and distribution.

Growth Slows, with the Occasional Sign of Bloom

While fans of the first two games were vocal and enthusiastic in wanting more of the franchise, the years that followed would be restricted to cameos and re-releases, a scenario undoubtedly frustrating as the Wii Remote's capabilities became clear for all to see. After the analogue stick controls on the GameCube, the pointer controls on the Wii seemed perfect for the franchise that had, in its first few years, seemed destined to become a regular in the Nintendo lineup. A few years passed after Pikmin 2, however, with little but the occasional hint and suggestion for fans to feast upon. Before and during E3 2008 (three and a half years after the last release) various interviews and comments confirmed that a new Pikmin was in development, but subsequent presentations passed with no sign of what was assumed would be a Wii title.

What we had instead were the first two titles re-released as part of the "New Play" series, which brought GameCube titles to the Wii with Remote / Nunchuk support and some other minor tweaks and improvements. In Europe both entries arrived within a few months of each other in early 2009, while North America received the first in March 2009 but had to wait over three years for the sequel as part of the Nintendo Selects range. While some units were sold, the re-releases unsurprisingly didn't hit the same levels of the GameCube originals. For fans of the originals they may have been disappointing in place of a new game, but it was typical of Nintendo's approach to encourage newcomers to experience more of its franchises.

Outside of the re-releases, the series did enjoy some cameo appearance to further cement its place in the Nintendo "family" of IPs. The Pikmin made an appearance in Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour if you landed the ball in flowers, while mini-games in WarioWare Smooth Moves and WarioWare: D.I.Y also featured the creatures. Perhaps most notably Captain Olimar was a playable character in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, with his usefulness very much reliant on having Pikmin on hand to assist; system or data transfers on the 3DS also feature the little creatures diligently carrying blocks of data to their new destinations.

Pikmin Blossoms on Wii U

It's become clear, particularly in interviews over the past year, that the Pikmin franchise and its latest entry are of notable importance to Shigeru Miyamoto; he's rarely missed the opportunity to carry a Pikmin plushie to events, or to talk about Pikmin 3. The third entry had been off the radar for a couple of years when it was confirmed as a Wii U project in 2011, but it was the game's debut appearance at E3 2012 that finally confirmed to anxious fans that it was actually approaching release, rather than simply being an invisible project in development. Naturally it missed its original target of the already lengthy "launch window", but after years of waiting that seemed almost standard practice.

Yet the franchise has already been rather visible on Nintendo's latest home console. Those that have completed the Wii to Wii U system transfer process will have enjoyed some rather adorable animations featuring the little critters (even more so than the 3DS equivalent), while the excellent Pikmin Adventure in Nintendo Land is a terrific co-op game, in particular. For anyone unfamiliar with the franchise that owns a Wii U, there are good odds that they've seen the little Pikmin in action, and they've become the lead attraction ahead of their original leader — the announced characters for Super Smash Bros. on Wii U and 3DS include "Pikmin & Olimar".

With Pikmin 3 now hitting stores, Nintendo's been fairly active in its marketing, while this new entry introduces three new explorers and new Pikmin types, with pink flying Pikmin and tough little Rock Pikmin fleshing out the puzzles and challenges in the experience. Critical acclaim has once again followed, while the Japanese release has accounted for 121,233 physical retail sales (at the time of writing) after two weeks on the market, with eShop purchases as yet unannounced. We've also seen Wii U eShop promotions accompanying the new title in the West, offering discounts and credit to those that opt for the download versions.

The concensus so far, in many reviews and initial word of mouth, bodes well for the new release, with plenty of praise going the game's way. Incorporating elements found in both predecessors, and utilising both the Wii Remote and GamePad, it's certainly a major effort to bring the franchise to a new audience in the HD age.


So will Pikmin return in the future? In part it'll depend on the sales of Pikmin 3, of course, as Nintendo is ultimately a business seeking to maximise resources for the most profit. If it were a decision left to Shigeru Miyamoto's sentiment, however, then we'd expect it to become a prominent series. Pikmin has been particularly visible in recent years outside of its own dedicated games, so it's clear that the brand is a part of Nintendo's plans and identity for the current generation and those to come.

What the future brings will be interesting to see, but for now we should perhaps just enjoy the arrival of Pikmin 3, which has been nine years in the making.