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Pick of the Week: Cartoon Colonialism

No matter what your relationship is to video games, from seasoned e-sports professional to baffled grandparent, you’ve heard of Nintendo, and probably have at least a general idea of the types of games they produce. You likely even know at least some of their characters. So immense is their fame that the Prime Minister of Japan, looking to capitalize on one of his country’s most recognizable exports, appeared dressed as Mario at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Above all, this iconic brand is associated with family-friendly, fun games, cute diversions you can enjoy with your kids. But they’re capable of a lot more.

On the surface, their newly refreshed real-time strategy game, Pikmin 3 Deluxe, seems to follow the famous Nintendo formula. Gorgeously drawn animated landscapes greet a cast of chibi characters, who appear to be about an inch tall, wandering around the suburban gardens of an abandoned Earth. They fall in with a pack of equally adorable local creatures, whose bizarre biology piles on more absurdity. It’s all just so damn cute. The gameplay is also typical Nintendo: easy to grasp, challenging to master, but endlessly engaging.

For many players, that’s all there is to Pikmin 3. Indeed, most game reviewers have already highlighted the appeal of the gameplay, which includes a short main story (ten hours or so if you take your time), plus several replayable side games for solo, co-op, or player-versus-player enjoyment. The Deluxe version, which finally brings this underappreciated classic to the popular Nintendo Switch platform, adds some technical and quality of life improvements, a two-player mode for the main campaign, and a few additional short stories. It’s well worth buying and playing, whether or not you experienced the previous version on the Wii U.

This is a remaster of a seven-year-old game, but if you really don’t want any of the story spoiled you should stop reading now, go get it, and play it. Then come back, because there’s some baggage we need to unpack. While this cute, cartoonish little game is plenty of fun on the surface, I’m amazed that so few commentators have delved into its deep, pitch dark subtext. For such a short story, this game has a lot to say.

The main characters, Alph, Brittany, and Charlie, have traveled from the planet Koppai on a desperate mission: find food for their starving home world. The opening narration explains that through overpopulation, environmental destruction, and “poor planning,” the people of Koppai have eaten themselves to the brink of extinction. As these three intrepid explorers arrive on a newly discovered planet they call PNF-404, they’re seeking fruit they can eat and seeds they can take home. If they fail, everyone will starve to death. But that’s not the really dark part.

On arrival, they encounter a native species called Pikmin, which sprout from the ground like plants but then grow into semi-intelligent, bipedal creatures (it makes a weird sort of sense in the game). The Koppaites discover that they can order Pikmin around, and they immediately start breeding an army of them to retrieve native fruits and vanquish larger animals that try to stop them. Whenever the Pikmin kill some other creature, they haul its lifeless corpse back to their base and recycle it into more Pikmin sprouts.

The Koppaites repeatedly rationalize their actions, talking about how they’re helping the Pikmin even as they enslave them for a relentless mission of planetary exploitation. Only the native creatures can die in the game, and they sure do. Besides the animals you’re attacking and feeding to your local conscripts, the nature of the combat virtually guarantees that some of those same troops will also perish. If you don’t round up all of your Pikmin at the end of each day – you’ll have up to a hundred of them deployed at once, so they’re easy to misplace – you’re also treated to a heartbreaking little scene of nocturnal predators gobbling up the stragglers. Such are the costs of colonialism, borne entirely by the colonized. This is the most adorably drawn horror game ever created.

Even when we see what the game is really about, on some deep, visceral level, it still feels good. I want to breed up more Pikmin, loot more fruit, kill more enemies, conquer more territory. As the game proceeds, my appetite, like that of starving Koppai, becomes insatiable, and it is my manifest destiny to consume this world. There are terrifying monsters on PNF-404, and they are us. It took insight and courage for a Japanese company to make a game like this.

The protagonists’ colonial ambitions culminate in a final boss fight that’s a Freudian acid trip. The boss, who’s a dead ringer for a paleolithic fertility goddess figurine, has captured a fellow conquistador and swaddled him in a state of suspended animation, doting on him like an overbearing mother. You and your army of expendable natives have to rescue the bundled victim and drag him through a series of caves, fighting illusory enemies along the way. Once you deliver him from this symbolic birth canal, you whittle down the boss until her power shrivels away, and all of your characters can escape to their imperial base with the spoils they’ve plundered from her planet.

The only question that remains is: can you handle a game this cute?