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‘Pikmin’ Level by Level: The Distant Spring



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 fourth level, The Distant Spring.

After collecting twelve ship parts, Olimar can travel to The Distant Spring, a largely aquatic outdoor space whose land portions are dominated by curious concrete architecture. The level is full of quizzical touches that make it stand out from the pack, including mammalian skeletal remains, boxy ruins, and pale beaches. Despite bearing many superficial similarities to The Impact Site and The Forest of Hope, The Distant Spring turns out to be the most aesthetically varied space yet, setting precedent with its regions defined by their color pallete and architecture much like Pikmin 3 would do over a decade later. And for a Gamecube near-launch title, the water is stunning.

Unfortunately, the layout of The Distant Spring can be a bit of a bummer for all but the most experienced Pikmin players. Though its paths aren’t as winding as The Forest Navel, it is similarly filled with bombable walls and environmental barriers that impede progress at every turn. Though some underwater portions suffer from densely-placed enemies, the gameplay in those areas is arguably the strongest in the level because it clearly communicates which type of Pikmin will be needed where. On the other hand, much of the land portion intermittently calls for various Pikmin types, and since the level is chock full of enemies and much of the level design on land is full of nooks in which Pikmin can get easily stuck, backtracking through these areas gets tedious. Some parts of the level use the environment as a puzzle, such as one portion near the start where Olimar must navigate a brief maze, find a spot to throw Pikmin to unearth a twig ladder, and then meet the Pikmin where they exit that ladder to throw them at a ship part overhead. These puzzles are incredibly clever, but the shoddy controls combined with the twitchy camera can make navigating these portions unfortunately abstruse and unenjoyable.

More than anything else, The Distant Spring succeeds in its emphasis on variety, whether that variety relates to gameplay, environments, or enemies. While certain parts of the level are straightforward combat, others are more puzzle-like, and an optimal run of the level involves a mixture of both — luring enemies away from Pikmin carrying ship parts and finding routes around sleeping enemies to minimize time spent fighting. Combined with the aforementioned environmental variation and a broad swathe of enemy types, it’s all well-crafted, though it can result in some incredibly difficult situations if the player plays this stage like the game has encouraged them to play other levels. Indeed, there never seems to be enough bomb rocks to destroy walls, and enemies and obstacles are so densely placed that the player may feel like they’re making hardly any progress at all. This combination of difficult enemies and navigation can make for an exceptionally distressing challenge that ends up feeling like an unfortunately steep difficulty curve, if not an outright wall. Obtaining all ten ship parts is no small feat, and the player will likely have to come to grips with sacrificing Pikmin for the greater good much more often here than in the previous levels or in either Pikmin 2 or 3.

The Distant Spring is home to nine enemy types, including four the player has not yet run across (Puffy Blowhog, Dwarf Bulbear, Spotty Bulbear, and Water Dumple, the last three of which are species of Bulborb). While the two Bulbears are essentially tougher versions of their Bulborb counterparts, the Water Dumple is a formidable aqueous enemy both nimble and strong. Though an engaging fight, there are too many grouped together across the water portion of the stage. The Puffy Blowhog is a series staple that has singular art design and abilities, but in this particular instantiation blows a little too hard. Fortunately, all of these enemy types would be tweaked in later series installments to offer more balanced combat. While the level features an outstanding array of enemies, it features far too many in specific areas, bringing gameplay to a halt far too often and too frequently obfuscating the paths Pikmin take when carrying back items (especially Spotty Bulbears and Yellow Wollywogs, which can take a while to take down). This can result in undue frustration, as it can make large parts of the level among the most tedious in the franchise.

This level also couches two boss battles, a repeated Armored Cannon Beetle and an optional Smoky Progg. While the Smoky Progg is as legendary as Pikmin baddies get, its appearance here marks possibly the toughest fight in the entire game. This isn’t because the Smoky Progg is aggressive — in fact, it doesn’t intentionally attack the player at all. But its toxic residue leaves behind a lethal trail that will insta-kill Pikmin who touch it. Though an intriguing concept, the game’s meddling controls can make for plenty of mis-aimed Pikmin, which in turn result in plenty of dead Pikmin. Though unforgettable, the Smoky Progg is less a battle against an enemy than a battle against the game’s aiming and throwing mechanics. Meanwhile, the Armored Cannon Beetle is essentially copy-pasted from The Forest of Hope, though he is holding a ship part rather than just guarding it, so killing him is mandatory.

The Distant Spring is a polarizing level of extremes, but its defining point of polarization might be between its conceptual genius and its troublesome implementation. Though the experience it offers is incredibly diverse and full of puzzles as well as singular combat scenarios, they are often excessively difficult, whether from the surfeit of unfortunately placed enemies and obstacles, too-intricate map design, or game-long control issues that feel amplified under pressure. These components stifle the overarching experience, making the player feel as if they are inching forward unassuredly, while also having to be willing to sacrifice more Pikmin than is permissible to any but the most masochistic players. However, more than any other region in the original Pikmin, its design sets the template for future levels in the series, and in many ways would go on to become the spiritual predecessor for the vastly superior areas of Pikmin 3. There is genius hidden behind the flaws here — a genius Nintendo wouldn’t fully harness until over a decade later.

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.

Kyle is an avid gamer who wrote about video games in academia for ten years before deciding it would be more fun to have an audience. When he's not playing video games, he's probably trying to think of what else to write in his bio so it seems like he isn't always playing video games.