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Standing small: Celebrating 20 years of ‘Pikmin’

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Dirty fingernails. Wicked sun licked at my neck as I squatted low ripping weeds out of our front yard. Bits of dirt and leaves rolled into the crevices between my heels while the unmistakably thick scent of roots and stems overwhelmed me. I stared at my dirty fingernails and sat in the wood chips ready to replace weeds for seeds. Having never planted a single thing in my clean fingernail life, I was ready to start failing pandemic gardening and move onto the next distraction: a new sourdough starter. But after a couple days, lo and behold: sprouts. Several sprouts peeping out of the dirt like a secret. Solitary green stalks so tiny and vibrant you would miss them in any other instance of life. They reminded me of the very first video game I truly called mine: Pikmin.

Pikmin (2001) for Nintendo Gamecube.

2021 marks the 20th anniversary of Nintendo’s humble Pikmin franchise of plant-centric strategy games. It’s a short franchise comprising three mainline console titles, an entry on 3DS, and numerous little cameos across the glossy Nintendo royal family of games. Easily overshadowed by Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, Kirby, and dozens of more successful older siblings, Pikmin was never first to bat and warmed the benches between big releases at best. Pikmin was, is, and always will be a small game. Its reputation, history, and cult following reflect this miniature scope. 

The main mechanical throughline between all the games is having your minuscule captain command an inch-high army of plant/animal/personoids dubbed Pikmin. You are then tasked to delegate up to one hundred Pikmin of varying colors and specialties to attack enemies, clear obstacles, and carry treasure back to your ship in a set given time. These qualities distinguish Pikmin from other Nintendo franchises by emphasizing optimization, efficiency, and time management, lest you be literally consumed by the uncompromising world you and your Pikmin are thrust into.

Enter five year old me. It’s 2001 and the Nintendo GameCube has just been released in North America. The launch lineup is small and I’m holding the admittedly terrifying game case of the original Pikmin (2001) in the backseat of the car. Everything’s plugged in, the tiny CD is in, and I am absolutely lost because I barely know how to read. It doesn’t matter. I figure out enough to face a giant half-slug, half-chicken (Bulborb) that proceeds to turn my Pikmin into mincemeat. The ghosts of my soldiers float across the screen without fanfare. I turn off the GameCube. 

Back to the present. I’m in our house’s garden with dirty fingernails, and sweating my skin off. I focus intensely on green sprouts I dare not pluck. An obsession begins. Feed the plants, feed the birds, feed the worms. I am out in the garden every day daring my patience to wear thin as leaves multiply. I fill the other half of the safer-at-home malaise with video games. But not before I see our green onions begin to flower. Have you ever seen a green onion flower? Do you know what it looks like?

Writer Justin Ricafort feeling the Pikmin spirit in his garden.

Enter twenty-five year old me. It’s 2021 and I’m playing the original Pikmin again and I remember everything. I try to pace myself for just one night, and by the second night I have one hundred percent completed the game. Never in my life has my muscle memory for a video game been so pixel perfect. I know where Olimar’s ship parts are, where the short cuts are, and where every individual Pikmin is at any given time. While those skills can be gained through sheer repetition, I also felt a discernible difference in my mindset that was consistent throughout the entire playthrough: my increased capacity to cope with loss and failure.

On this most recent playthrough, I had lost more Pikmin than I could count, I was quicker to make decisions and correct mistakes, and I knew when to cut and run. There was not a single time when I felt it was necessary to reset the game. I lived with it all and I played at the edges of my limits, instead of right in the middle. At this time, I was most present with a game I had known practically my whole life.

What changed in twenty years? I can say that I’ve experienced incomprehensible loss of opportunities, friends, and loved ones. I’ve persevered through crises of identity, faith, and my own future. I’ve learned what is too big to tackle alone and what I can overcome and absorb. And I know that patience is underrated and underused, for everyone and for myself. These together make me at times a more calloused player, but always a more confident one.

The Pikmin series has not received attention equivalent to its contribution to gaming. Its unique design is rarely copied and difficult to explain until you’ve seen and played it. It’s easy to learn and hard to master. Its gorgeous presentation contrasts with its demanding gameplay. Innocuousness is the story of Pikmin as fans chomp at the bit for any news of a now fabled Pikmin 4 and the imminent news of a mobile app.

I learned lessons within Pikmin and beyond it. It feels almost too neat to accept, but it’s true. Here I am in the garden doing the same thing I did in the game. In a harsh world, I try to make each plant grow, but all I can really do is encourage them. I know the different ways to feel small and come out the other side. And ultimately in defiance of everything, the seed can grow and go on. 

Pikmin was my gateway here and gardening is my gateway back. Those are the two ends of the time machine where I’m not afraid to get my fingernails dirty and actually do the work to breathe life into myself and the worlds I live in. I can go back and tell five year old me that we’re going to make it because it’s true. To play Pikmin is to live against tremendous odds for twenty years.

Photo and illustration by Justin Ricafort.

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