I’ve been a little preoccupied lately. Pikmin 3 came out for the Wii U video game system a few days ago, after about a decade of development, and you can bet I was on that like a raccoon on a ham sandwich.
Pikmin is a series I enjoy as a video game enthusiast, but also as a writer. The Pikmin games focus on an Earth-like planet with tiny, unusual wildlife. The titular characters are these little guys, the various subspecies of Pikmin:
They’re sort of like an ant colony: cooperative and eager to serve a leader. When equally tiny alien spacemen land on the planet, they often find that they need the Pikmin’s help to survive in the harsh ecosystem. Game play is all about strategy and time management. You direct Pikmin to build bridges, collect items and fight off predatory animals. That last one can be very challenging. Pikmin are tenacious fighters but they’re at the bottom of their world’s food chain. Everything eats Pikmin.
I think what I love most about Pikmin games is the sense of genuine wonder. Fantasy fans definitely marvel at the dragons and beasts they see, but the characters actually facing those creatures don’t find it marvellous. They’re used to their world’s beasts — either that or the beast is barely even the point. The character is simply grimacing and pulling a sword, wondering how they’ll get past this obstacle. Fantasy can be weirdly jaded toward its own amazing details. I like fantasy video games with creatures and magic, but the creatures are often just so many units to be slaughtered.
Whereas in Pikmin’s science fiction setting, there are people in space suits noticing every animal and commenting on it. Each surprise is noted and reacted to. Even common Earth plants look new when you’re seeing them from the characters’ inch-tall perspective. The staple character of the series, Captain Olimar, is a deliveryman with a deep personal love of biology: he opines at length on the plants and animals he’s discovering. Sometimes he’s unsure whether he’ll live to see another day but he’s still eagerly documenting an insect he just discovered. The wildlife often get Latin genus names, and commentary how they evolved their particular traits.
There’s even a treasure hunt factor when the space explorers mention their own culture. Since the explorers are focusing their attention on the Pikmin planet, they’re not exactly turning to the player and explaining their homeworld. They reveal themselves in offhand tidbits. Captain Olimar stated in the first Pikmin game that oxygen is “poisonous” to his species, and I’ve been trying to figure out his physiology ever since. If he doesn’t breathe oxygen, what does he breathe? I’d love to know. Pikmin 3 stated that Olimar’s race is vegetarian, and I the writer thought this was enormously exciting information. (Contradictory with previous information, too. The intrigue thickens!) I’m as curious about the space explorers as they are about the Pikmin world — the world we’re exploring together.
I believe that video games are a genuine artistic media. They can create worlds for us to walk around in, and tell stories for us to laugh and cry over. They can pose weighty questions, or just show us something cool we’ve never seen. Pikmin is a great example of what I mean. I’m not just playing some time-wasting game until dawn: I’m rolling around in everything I love about speculative fiction.
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When I think of a fictional character who inspires me — someone who sets an example for life — you know who I think of? King Bowser Koopa. Yes, this monster turtle thing:
He’s been a staple character since Super Mario Brothers came out in 1985. That game more or less saved the entire video game industry, so it’s kind of a big deal. Back then, video game stories were usually a simple “rescue the the hero’s girlfriend from an evil kidnapper” affair. Yes indeed, Bowser had kidnapped a princess and he was the menacing Dark Overlord to be vaniquished. As a kid, I delighted in guiding Mario through levels and knocking Bowser into lava pools. It was fun, if not intellectual.
That formula held true for several more games, until Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars came out. I was 11 when I played that one. I didn’t know that RPG stood for Role-Playing Game, so I wasn’t expecting the heavier emphasis on storytelling, but I ended up liking it a lot. In this game, Bowser was kicked out of his castle by a stronger foe. While Mario tries to save the world from new bad guy armies, Bowser is seen trying to take his own castle back by siege. With progressively smaller armies …
Until eventually, the player stumbles across Bowser. He’s standing in a clearing all alone, wondering aloud what to do, musing to himself that he misses the old days of kidnapping the Princess. He turns around with big, dripping cartoon tears in his eyes — and sees Mario standing there.
That moment stands out in my memory. Video gaming’s biggest, baddest villain was suddenly a person and a real, rounded character. I’m sure it changed the way I looked at fictional characters. For the rest of the game, Bowser fights a greater evil by Mario’s side (although he claims Mario is really just helping him take back the castle), and the food for thought only continued.
As more Mario games came out — in more and varied genres — Bowser’s characterization got more interpretations. Sometimes he’s his classic Bad Guy self, kidnapping the Princess and menacing entire realms. Sometimes he’s an anti-hero with a snarky sense of humour. Sometimes he’s a comedic buffoon, the clumsy oaf who gets tricked by everyone else. Bowser has teamed up with Mario a few more times since Super Mario RPG, with varying degrees of willingness.
All of these interpretations add up to an interesting whole. Overall, Bowser may be a megalomaniac known for kidnapping a woman — but he doesn’t seem to want to hurt anyone. He usually kidnaps Princess Peach because he likes her and has a messed up of showing it. She’s treated well and Bowser has expressed “I hope she likes me”-type sentiments. You never hear of Peach’s guards being killed in these kidnappings — maybe transformed into a brick or locked in a room, but never permanently harmed. And Bowser is usually fixated on defeating Mario, not killing him — why else would he snatch the high-profile Princess and gloat about it, instead of just attacking Mario directly?
All this strikes me as a blustering demand for attention, a kid-at-heart wish to look cool and strong in front of everyone. It certainly explains why Bowser appears in spin-off games where he races go-karts or plays tennis with the good guys. Because who would invite an actual, dangerous enemy to do that?
So the result is a layered meaning that suits E-for-Everyone video games. On his simplest level, Bowser is a scary-looking villain to be beaten. But look more closely at his patterns and he’s really just a rival/antagonist, a blocking figure who is intimidating without being truly dangerous. He’ll laugh about stomping you into the dirt but it’s a metaphorical threat, really.
Yes, yes, this is all an interesting character study, and tough guys with secret soft spots are always adorable. But why is Bowser an inspiration for me? His bad deeds aren’t exactly a guide to life. I’ll tell you why I’m inspired: because Bowser doesn’t give up. He sulks over his losses, he gets his feelings hurt — but he never, ever gives up.
Just think of it: Bowser is a big, strong armoured creature with fire breath, the unquestioned king of his people, who keeps challenging one little chubby human — a human who doesn’t even bring a weapon on a typical day. Bowser loses every time. All the elaborate plans and armies in the world never seem to stop Mario from defeating Bowser in arena combat. How humiliating must that be? But Bowser always thinks about next time. Next time, he’ll try a different plan and show everyone how great he is. Next time, he’ll win. Bowser’s been getting his butt kicked since I was a small child and he shows no sign of quitting.
I think that’s a trait to aspire to.
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