Shigeru Miyamoto’s quirkiest games all seem to have one thing in common: they come from classic childhood experiences. Mario‘s trademark pipes have their origins in manga, The Legend of Zelda was inspired by adventures in the forests, mountains, and caves surrounding his home village, and Pikmin comes from backyard observations of small creatures like ants working together to achieve great goals.
We’ve talked at length about Zelda‘s storyline and thematic elements, but now it’s time to direct our focus towards a different franchise. What life lessons does the world of Pikmin have to offer? Let’s take a look at it through our analytical magnifying glass and find out…
The game begins with a relatively ordinary scenario: Olimar is on an interplanetary vacation from his work for the Hocotate Freight company. We’re given no reason to believe Olimar is some kind of hero or warrior; he just seems like your typical working-class guy enjoying his time off. It’s very much a throwback to Mario’s character, who as both a carpenter in Donkey Kong and a plumber in the Mario series very much represents the working class. And just like every other such tale about the Average Joe, Pikmin‘s vacation takes an unfortunate turn…
Just like Mario’s first trip down a pipe into the Mushroom Kingdom, Olimar’s untimely “detour” is a classic metaphor for the unexpected moments of crisis we frequently find ourselves in. Whether it’s the car breaking down miles from home, getting laid off from a job, or suffering a family tragedy, there are all kinds of events in our lives that blindside us, humble us, and give us a different outlook on life. In Olimar’s case, he finds himself stranded on a planet where everything from blades of grass to garbage is several times his size – talk about discovering a brand-new perspective!
But it’s what goes on in this mysterious world that really serves to teach us. Not long after landing, Olimar meets the Pikmin, plant-based creatures that behave similarly to real-world ants. If you’ve ever really examined the behavior of ants before, you’ve certainly seen that they have an unmatched sense of teamwork. They’ll create massive chains of workers heading from their mounds to whatever source of food they can find and are capable of working together to take down predators or prey several times their size and carrying them back home in order to feed their clan. Sometimes they don’t even necessarily need to team up, since they’re incredibly strong on their own!
Where the Pikmin differ from ants is in the fact that their sense of cooperation extends beyond their own species – they’re perfectly content to assist Olimar with repairing his ship in addition to foraging for food and protecting their Onions from Bulborbs and Blowhogs. They don’t even discriminate based on color, but instead learn to divide tasks based on the diverse skill sets that each variety brings to the table. It’s only by enlisting the help of the fire-retardant Red Pikmin, the bomb-savvy Yellow Pikmin, and the water-loving Blue Pikmin that he can gather all of his lost ship parts and reassemble his craft in order to return home.
The specific ways in which the Pikmin help Olimar also represent the challenges we face in the real world. Jets of flame are evocative of the heated situations that seem to get in the way of progress – an argument with a family member or coworker, someone hitting your car on the freeway and making a big fuss about it, or really any other moments of confrontation. The giant stone barricades represent the monumental challenges we often encounter and have to break through – hardship and adversity, prejudice and disability, and all the like. Certain seemingly-unreachable islands signify situations in which we have to build bridges and establish lasting connections to reach our goals.
If you haven’t figured out where I’m going with this already – the Pikmin represent the benefits of cooperation and diversity in the face of such challenges. We shouldn’t just look out for our own; we should recognize that helping others is a good thing, too, and works out better for everybody. If Olimar only relied on the Red Pikmin, he’d miss out on many of the ship parts that he needs the Yellows or Blues to reach. It’s a similar message to the one seen in the Four Swords games, which reminds us that we all have a role to play in every community that we’re a part of, from our families and close friends to the greater world.
But beyond that, the image of an entire world crammed into normally overlooked spaces like the backyard serves to demonstrate that, if you’re willing to look, there’s a new experience behind every blade of grass and underneath every twig. After all, even though there’s a much bigger world out there, even the things that seem tiny and insignificant can still teach us a lot about ourselves.