As rumors of the long-awaited Metroid Prime Trilogy Switch port ebb and flow, another Nintendo series remains desperately due for a similar HD trilogy package deal. Shigeru Miyamoto’s singular Pikmin franchise is a quirky and inimitable game series that at once brought real-time strategy games to consoles and kids alike. And while Pikmin 2 may be the largest and most daring, and Pikmin 3 the most gorgeous and refined, the original Pikmin laid the groundwork for the cult favorite series as a Gamecube launch-window game back in 2001. In anticipation of both the confoundingly-long-teased Pikmin 4 and the unannounced (and perhaps nonexistent) Pikmin HD Trilogy, I will be swarming the original Pikmin to analyze its design level-by-level. In this entry, I will examine the game’s third level, The Forest Navel.
After obtaining five ship parts from The Impact Site and The Forest of Hope, Captain Olimar gains entrance to The Forest Navel, an underground region accessible only through a small hole (or “navel”) in the forest floor. While the first two levels blended together aesthetically, The Forest Navel sticks out for its dark lighting and consistently brown architecture. Outside of some calcified pools of water, the Forest Navel is aesthetically humdrum, offering little variation in setting or decor. Meanwhile, the lighting is so dark that it can be difficult to see into the distance as well as nearby environmental intricacies like slopes and ramp edges where Pikmin can get easily stuck.
Unfortunately, The Forest Navel’s twisted maze-like layout further exacerbates navigation and control because it is almost always difficult to tell where you’re headed. With an incredible amount of twisting crests and gullies, Pikmin will constantly get stuck in obscure places and the path to a given destination is never as straightforward as it seems. Meanwhile, the uniform aesthetic offers little sense of geography, with it being consistently unclear where Olimar is in relation to the rest of the stage. Furthermore, by having the level slope downward on all sides from the landing site, it encourages the player to easily lose their way and then have to tediously backtrack to the onion numerous times. While a winding cavernous region is a great idea that would be one-upped in future Pikmin titles, The Forest Navel is simply too dark and twisting, and its pathways too narrow and littered with environmental obstructions, to ever feel very enjoyable. This overly ambitious layout brings out the worst of micro- and macro-management in the original Pikmin, ultimately feeling like a level the series was not quite yet ready for.
Outside of its dark, cramped, mazy spaces, The Forest Navel seems primarily concerned with the importance of Pikmin specialization. Almost every pathway requires the use of a specific Pikmin type, whether it’s Blue Pikmin to swim across water, Yellow Pikmin to use bomb rocks, or Red Pikmin to defeat fire-spitting baddies. While this works well in theory, switching between Pikmin and controlling groups of Pikmin in this particular game can be a tedious chore. And with only one controllable captain, many players will likely find most of their Pikmin go unused on any given adventure, since there is usually some barricade of some sort demanding the use of only one Pikmin type. This requires a lot of trial-by-fire experimental traversal with different amounts of different Pikmin, which can be troublesome and annoying in a game with a time limit, where pathfinding should be intentional and efficient. Coupled with an excessive amount of walls and type-specific obstacles, playing through most of this region is a total drag.
The Forest Navel introduces Olimar to Blue Pikmin, which are essentially identical to Red Pikmin except they are invulnerable to water instead of fire. This allows them to cross bodies of water and attack water-based enemies, which in itself probably makes them the most valuable Pikmin type in the game. While they would be balanced out in future entries, Blue Pikmin are a little too useful here, as many situations are best dealt with by an army of Blue Pikmin rather than a variety of types. The Forest Navel also includes nine ship parts, most of which are hidden along the perimeter of the map and require the use of at least one Pikmin type to reach, whether due to an environmental barrier, enemy type, or mini-boss. Unfortunately, these ship parts don’t impact gameplay like the Whimsical Radar in The Forest of Hope.
The Forest Navel is home to seven regular enemy types, four of which are new (Fiery Blowhog, Breadbug, Wollywog and Shearwig). Fiery Blowhogs are a series staple introduced here, and they are sort of like miniature elephants who shoot fire through their snout. Like many enemies designed around a specific pikmin type, they are difficult to take down without Red Pikmin, but overly easy with Red Pikmin. The level’s one Breadbug is almost like a mini-boss in its high defense and large health bar, but he can’t do any direct damage to Pikmin so he is more a battle of endurance than anything else. The premise of him taking fallen pellets rather than outright attacking the player is a fantastic idea of doing indirect harm I wish the game dabbled more in. Meanwhile, Wollywogs are like aggressive frogs that can deal massive damage very quickly. Though better balanced in subsequent games, they can be difficult to deal with here, especially without Purple or Rock Pikmin less vulnerable to their attacks. Finally, Shearwigs are like flying Sheargrubs that can regenerate health. If the player has accurate aim, they can be one-shotted, but otherwise they can be a slight nuisance.
The area also features two bosses, Puffstool and Beady Long Legs. Puffstool is one of the most innovate and well-executed enemies in any Pikmin game, with an attack that turns Olimar’s Pikmin against him. It’s an exceptionally clever concept for the first game of the series, and even though the enemy’s attack pattern can quickly become predictable, he certainly succeeds as a unique, threatening, and well-balanced miniboss. Unfortunately, Beady Long Legs is a less enjoyable fight since he moves quickly and lethally with little window to strategize or respond. Once the player understands the optimal strategy to defeat him he is less of a bully, but first-timers will likely find themselves having to restart the day because they were bombarded without warning. And as a side note, the amount of bomb rocks needed to destroy to walls to clear an optimal path to his arena is simply inane.
The Forest Navel is a singular and ambitious area that would influence the series exponentially despite its myriad flaws. Indeed, almost every upside has a constituent downside. Its setting is unique, but also drab, overly dark, and underdeveloped. Its layout is less obvious but presents several navigational challenges that stretch the game’s mediocre ally AI to its limit. Its enemy selection is varied, but many enemies feel in need of fine-tuning in terms of behavior of difficulty. Despite these many downsides, The Forest Navel introduces a new type of level design to the series that would flourish in later games, especially once the series’ controls were adjusted and graphics were improved. Having a level as brave and visionary as this in Pikmin 3 would have been a huge boon to the experience of playing that game, as that game’s levels were altogether too similar to each other. But here, The Forest Navel feels like it needed some more time in the ground to sprout into the elegant flower it could have been.
For deep dives into other levels from Pikmin, as well as levels from other classic Nintendo games such as Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, click here.