Happy 20th anniversary, Pikmin. Two decades on from its original launch on GameCube, Nintendo's beloved garden strategy series has been re-imagined by Pokémon Go maker Niantic, in partnership with original creator Shigeru Miyamoto.
The result is Pikmin Bloom, a charming mix of light strategy, collecting and exploration over your local area. As you might expect from Niantic, this is another game which encourages you to get off your sofa and wander the real world, played on your smartphone.
But there are some surprises, too. There's much less Pokémon Go in Pikmin Bloom than you might expect, plus plenty of personality from your little Pikmin friends as they scurry in groups over your neighbourhood, or eagerly run over to you when whistled for a drop of nectar to slurp. The Pikmin act exactly as you remember - their boisterous little personalities shining through.
There's a big focus on your step count, and a little scrapbook function for remembering your day. The whole thing ends up feeling a more relaxed experience than other Niantic games - one which can tick over in the background while you go for a stroll.
Pikmin Bloom's launch begins in Australia and Singapore today, before releasing elsewhere across the world "in the coming days", Niantic says. I've had five days access already, and have been slotting it neatly into my daily walking routine (and around Pokémon Go) - more on all that below.
Access to this near-final beta version has also thrown up some questions around user privacy when using the app, which is something I've spoken specifically to Niantic about. Again, answers to all that follow.
What's Pikmin Bloom like to play? Well, there's a relatively straightforward gameplay loop to take part in whenever you leave the house.
As you begin walking, you can select "Start Flower Planting" to scatter a trail of flower petals behind your Mii avatar as you walk, leaving a path of bloomed flowers in your footsteps. Starting this mode is your push into action - and how you'll want to be playing whenever you're outside to maximise your rewards.
Planting flowers speeds up the growth of Pikmin shoots you have incubating, charges up nearby flower stem locations, earns you flower coins (the game's in-app currency), and generally makes the world a little brighter.
You refill your flower petals by sending your Pikmin off on Expeditions to collect pieces of fruit. Oranges, lemons, limes and so forth can then be turned into various types of nectar, and fed to your Pikmin so they grow different coloured flower petals. You can then collect these petals from your Pikmin, up to a certain amount per day.
Expeditions also let you scavenge new Pikmin shoots, including different Pikmin colours. These require a certain step count to hatch, with higher step counts for shoots which hatch Decor Pikmin, who wear cute costumes. These are rare, but seem tied to the types of locations and businesses you might encounter (a Pikmin wearing a chef's hat from a nearby restaurant, for example).
At the end of your walk, or whenever you want to stop flower planting, you switch off your flower trail and receive a notification of your step count.
Know your onions
If you fancy some play time while not on the move, you can still send out Pikmin on Expeditions to gather new fruit and shoots from areas you've previously visited. You can also look over your growing Pikmin horde, and see which creatures have levelled up their friendship with you over your various interactions. A selection of achievement badges also keep track of gameplay milestones, including one which acts as a checklist for Decor Pikmin. (Pikmin Bloom sticks to the series' base seven breeds - Red, Yellow, Blue, Purple, White, Rock and Flying - with costumed versions of each to hunt for.)
At 9pm each day, Pikmin Bloom provides you with a daily summary of your activity via its Lifelog screen, which couples virtual postcards from places your Pikmin might have visited (taken from PokéStop locations) with a photo from your camera roll (if you have granted the app permission). You also get a brief recap of your gameplay achievements, the ability to rate your day and leave a brief description. It's a cute, almost diary-like experience - inspired, perhaps, by the reflections Olimar and co. make at the end of another day on the Pikmin planet.
Pikmin Bloom is more passive than Pokémon Go - which may prove a good thing as the game exists alongside Niantic's smash hit. Having Pikmin Bloom in the background for the majority of my walks while playing Pokémon Go, or simply out with friends at the weekend, the app was able to track my steps and plant flowers uninterrupted, with returning Expeditions waiting for me whenever I checked back in.
"[Pikmin Bloom] doesn't demand your attention at certain times, but it's there when you want to give it your attention," Niantic founder John Hanke told me in an interview via Zoom this week. "If you want to pay attention to something else, maybe you're walking with a friend and talking to them, or in a coffee shop and ordering a coffee, you can put the game away at any time. If you're planting flowers they'll continue to plant, if you're still walking it'll still count your steps. If you were playing another Niantic game you can do that without it competing for your attention."
"The style of gameplay and frequency of how often someone might play Pikmin Go is pretty different to Pokémon Go," said Madoka Katayama, director of UX design at Niantic Tokyo, the studio which worked with Nintendo on the app. "I think they work pretty well together," she added, mentioning that during the app's early development, other unnamed Nintendo franchises were even prototyped - but these didn't fit Pikmin Bloom's intended gameplay loop as well.
"We did experiments with a lot of other Nintendo IPs, but famous IPs don't always mean the best fit for what our goals are, and the experience we wanted to deliver," Katayama continued. "Out of all the prototypes and demos we made, we saw Pikmin fit and balance those goals and the vision we had."
Pikmin and privacy
The idea behind flower trails which cover a local area is a sweet one - and it's both beautiful and genuinely quite interesting to see my potterings around the local area over the past five days overlaid on the map in various colours. But I can also see others thinking twice about continually starting or stopping their flower planting sessions outside their front door, or showing a regular route always visited at the same time.
A further option, which you need to specifically toggle on after starting flower planting, allows you to share your live Mii location with others. It's an interesting gameplay choice considering this is not possible in Pokémon Go. Reading through the game's forum for beta testers, there are various comments and concerns about how visible you might be while playing. I put some of these to Niantic - including why flower trails are public by default.
"We really wanted this collaborative factor where everyone is working together to plant flowers across the world, to collaborate to grow these big beautiful flowers," Katayama told me in response. "But we tried to do this in a subtle way though - so even if you don't see people, you can see trails of flowers and things people have left behind which leaves traces and feelings of the pretense of others, but not who has made them, or any way to trace them back to the actual person.
"The trail - we play with the weight of the visual a lot so when the trails get created, you don't see the actual trail, you see small patches of flowers that is integrated really well with the background, so it doesn't look like an actual trail made by somebody," Katayama continued.
A Niantic spokesperson clarified this further after the call, by saying that the game showed other users' flowers "consolidated into small patches, so you can tell someone was there planting flowers, but can't see their actual trail". Additionally, there's no way to see the name or details of people planting flowers nearby.
"You can choose to just have the flowers viewable to yourself," Hanke told me. "I don't think there's an option to make it visible only to a specific set of friends, but you can choose to not make it visible to anyone else if that's your preference." On this, a Niantic spokesperson followed up to say that you can select to delete location history for any specific day via the Lifelog, or all location history from the app in one go via its settings.
Pikmin death, and the future
During our Zoom interview, we briefly touched on the future of Pikmin Bloom, and Niantic's plans to grow the game in the future. The company's hope is to reach new types of players, including those not already playing a Niantic game, and there will be a monthly Community Day to get players out and about together.
A big part of the main Pikmin series is combat, and the risk-reward of putting your Pikmin in danger in order to obtain treasure. At the moment, there are no enemy species like Bulborbs in the game - but Niantic said these may eventually come down the road. What about Pikmin deaths, I asked? I didn't want to kill my Pikmin after spending time finding and nurturing them - but without the fear of that happening, the rewards could become too easy...
"This was a big part where we talked with Nintendo about the original IP," Katayama told me. "Most of the time it's pretty safe but there will be certain gameplay where some of them [Pikmin] may not return. But that [will be] something that rarely happens - or happens when you're a little further into the game."
So yes, Pikmin death will be included in the game's future? "We don't use the term death," Katayama replied laughing, "either they are returned to seedlings or reborn. They never actually die, conceptually."
For now, anyway.
After five days, I'm level 15 in Pikmin Bloom, have red, yellow, blue and purple Pikmin and my first Decor creature. There's still a lot about the game I feel like I'm slowly working out - but I think I have the basics, and can recommend giving it a go when it launches where you are. 20 years on, I'm delighted Pikmin is getting more love - and as Niantic probably hoped, Pikmin Bloom is intriguing exercise.