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pikmin Pikmin


by Steve Linberg / aka TomatoMan March, 2002

The list of games I've binged-and-purged on in my life is very, very long. The first was probably Hamurabi, a text-only game from the 70's that would run on the TRS-80 I had early in high school; I would drift through classes thinking about strategy, and rush home afterwards to plug into that warm, creamy (early-)videogame goodness, the same kind of escapist rush I'd soon be experiencing in D&D and home and arcade consoles. Games that took over most of my waking thought for days or weeks until I had saturated on them... some stretching into months, even. Zork and the Infocom games, Combat, Maze Craze, Asteroids, Defender, Robotron, Rogue, Lode Runner, Airborne!, Angband, Doom, Marathon, Quake, Spectre, Crystal Cavern, Crystal Caliburn, Super Mario Brothers, Super Punch-Out, Super Mario 2, Super Mario 3, Super Mario World, Ghosts and Goblins, Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, Quake 3, Warcraft 2, Diablo 2, Super Monkey Ball, and now... Pikmin.

I knew I was in trouble when I started reading the previews of Pikmin last fall. Even before getting my GameCube, I had heard and read about it, and I knew I'd be waiting on launch day. I got it the day it was released, and my Cube has seen very little else since them.

Pikmin had the same hook for me that Warcraft 2 did - a lot of the game was resource management. The main game itself was fun, but I didn't feel much urge to replay it after going through it once. What I fell into, though, was a little add-on called "Challenge Mode." The object in Challenge Mode is simply to grow as many Pikmin as you can in the span of one game day, which is about 12 minutes. You start with a small number of pikmin and various "seeds" called "pellets" that can grow more when pikmin carry them back to their "onion" spaceships. There are obstacles on the courses that require planning and thinking, and creatures that range from annoying to dangerous. You quickly need to get to know where the pellets are on any given level, and plan what sequence to retrieve them in for the optimum path that results in the fastest growth.

There are lots of pellets and baddies on the five levels. Far too many to collect them all, or so it seems at first. However, many of the levels can indeed be swept clean with skill and planning, and not too long after the game came out, people starting reporting scores on a messageboard online and realizing there was a theoretical maximum score on each level, which could be calculated by adding up all of the pellets' values along with what the baddies will give up when killed, and avoiding losing any pikmin yourself. Complicating this is that the pellets give their full value only when returned to the matching color "onion" by the correct pikmin; a maxxed score is impossible if one pikmin dies, or returns a pellet of the wrong color to its onion, or if you miss any.

I can only talk about The Impact Site, the first challenge level and the only one I seriously played. It was a long time before anybody broke 200 on this one; my early scores were in the 140-150 range, and crept slowly towards 200 as time went by. When I was doing 200s, scores were appearing in the 250s, and by the time I was in the low 220s, the maximum score of 264 had been calculated and reached. That was sweeping the level clean and returning every pellet to the correct onion without missing any. Squeezing that off in the 12 minutes allowed required a finely-tuned approach that allowed the distant pellets time to return, which meant not always grabbing everything that's close, but building a critical mass by midgame that you could reach into the distant areas with and get back in time to clean everything else up. It was very challenging, and it took me a couple of months' worth of playing a couple of nights a week to get into the 240s, by which time I was able to have my hands on every pellet in the level, but not in time to get them all back.

SnapDragon, the God of Pikmin who reached the maximum scores early, then announced that he had reached a new maximum, which was 273. This was done by completing a perfect 264, and then additionally, pounding the bejeezus out of a creature called the Flint Beetle, which only appears if you invade a certain specific bush near the middle of the level. This wild insect runs at great bursts of speed in random directions, and any pikmin in the area follow it madly and leave your control. You have to get them back under your control and throw them on its head, and it sometimes releases pellets when you do - but the duration it stays above ground before disappearing again is short and (I think) somewhat variable, and it will often run right into a firespout (and take your pikmin with it, most of whom will go up in flames instantly along with your high score attempt). If you manage to hit this thing five times, you get two 1-pellets (which give you two apiece when returned to the right onion) and one five-pellet, for a total of nine more. Doing so is not easy and is subject to its wildly random behavior. Often it will just run out of range and you can't hit it. Or it will run into the fire and stay there. Or you just miss because it moves so damn fast, and when it's not dropping pellets, it's dropping nectar, which your pikmin will jump into happily and forget everything else while you're frantically continuing the chase all by yourself.

273 became the new holy grail, and for a long while SnapDragon was the only one who had done it, and he moved on to other levels while the rest of us struggled to match it. And struggle we did. We discussed strategy on the messageboard, tried different combinations of approaches to see what worked, and cursed and cursed, yet persevered because of the heart-thumping rush that accompanies a good run, in which you are making order out of chaos and keeping many threads of motion going at the same time, like spinning plates, giving each one just the attention it needs and keeping the whole show moving forward. We learned the fine points of the game: how to throw your pikmin so they take a flower down in one bite rather than the slow bash-on-the-stem method, what the various little sounds they make actually mean and how you have to react to them, how close you can stand to a pikmin sprout and throw pikmin before your throwing motion becomes a picking motion.

After long nights and weeks of toil, I touched perfection with my first 264. Most of the other folks on the messageboard had achieved their 273s (some many times over) and were hard at work on Forest of Hope and Forest Navel, but I stayed back and kept tuning my technique, not wanting to move on until I had matched their scores. The 264 was a great achievement - it meant you did everything perfectly, no mistakes - but 273, a perfect run plus a perfect Flint Beetle Battle, was the real goal. You could do a 264 on straight skill pretty much every time if you didn't make mistakes, but the wildly random Flint Beetle added a whole new dimension of randomness and action that couldn't be planned: you just had to flush him out and then wing it, trying to stay focused and sharp and hoping for the best. Getting all 3 pellets out of him was hard, and the time you took to do this was all precious time spent NOT doing other things you need to do on the level, and therefore time you needed to trim off your 264-time, and that was distinctly non-trivial. Finishing a 264 at all before time ran out was very difficult, and every second really did count - and fighting the beetle took a good 10-15 seconds, which is an eternity when you're finishing your 264 just as time runs out, as you usually are.

I crept over 264 by getting some pellets from the Beetle, but missing one or two others along the way, or losing a pikmin to the fire-spout or while bombing the rock-wall. I'd press on because a slightly imperfect run with a good Beetle Battle could score better than a perfect run without one, and I hit 266, and 270... and then, finally, one night weeks after hitting 264, I managed a 273. Everything nailed perfectly. I whooped-n-hollered so loud I scared my dog; I typed my announcement to the message board with trembling fingers, and was met by warm congratulations. The relief and joy was palpable... odd, being just a video game, let's remember... but the camaraderie of the board enhanced the game's value. I doubt I would have even conceived of the possibility of a perfect score without the board and the people on it. For a little while I just basked in the finality of it; I had done as well as it was possible to do.

Then I wanted to relive that feeling and do another perfect score, and went back to replay the level, and quickly found that I couldn't get anywhere NEAR 273 again. I was back in the 240s and 230s. I had no idea what I was doing wrong, I felt as if I was doing everything the same way I had done it, but it just wasn't working. It was maddeningly frustrating. A couple of weeks went by and I had the guilty feeling that the 273 was a fluke, with the gods' thumbs guiding mine on the controller. The once-off 273 was not the indicator of mastery I thought it might be, or should have been. Still, at least I had done it, and that tempered the frustration somewhat.

Then the worst thing happened; a whisper started that maybe 273 WASN'T the maximum possible score, because someone had managed to hit the Flint Beetle EIGHT times in a regular game, and gotten another five-pellet from it. So the theory was that if you could hit the Beetle three more times than you need to do for a 273, a maximum score of 278 was theoretically possible.

I shook my head, closed my eyes in dread, and dug in.

After a couple of weeks of thrashing about, something finally clicked on my technique, and I had worked out the best possible route I could through the level. I really just made a couple of minor timing adjustments that wound up paying huge dividends by the endgame phase, and I filled my high score board with 273s in short order and decided to press on for the 278.

So far as anyone knows, the 278 had never been done and was just a theory. In one game I played, I did manage to hit the beetle eight times and did indeed get another 5 on the eighth hit, so I knew it was possible.

Here's the problem: hitting the beetle eight times is close to impossible. In order to hit it eight times, the following must happen:

  1. It must stay above ground long enough for eight hits, each of which result in a backflip-tumble and eats a second or so off of its very short total above-ground time.
  2. It must not enter the firespout area at all, which it does about a third of the time, unless you're going after it with red pikmin which are fireproof. Since the beetle always drops blue pellets, it doesn't make much sense (I think) to chase it with reds, because you won't get full value if they bring them back to their onion, and keeping them from doing so is too much of a distraction from the battle. So if it heads into the fire at any point, you can essentially forget it, no matter how well it's been going up until that point.
  3. It generally has to run in circles and not do those big long runs up onto the log or back into the onion area, which it will often do.
  4. You have to keep control of your pimkin every time he drops nectar, which will be four times if you're hitting him eight times. You have to do this and still try to keep a steady cascade of pikmins on his head and anticipating his next move, which is always random.
  5. You have to have good aim and hit him, repeatedly and constantly, with everything else going right.

I was at the point where I could do 273s pretty routinely if nothing went wrong, but I was finding that I could only get eight hits on the beetle about once in about 20 or 30 tries. And to get that far, you had to play halfway through the level, which is about six minutes if you're fast. So six minutes of perfect gameplay as a necessary precondition to roll the dice and try for your very small chance of all the Flint Beetle conditions tumbling into the right order and you having enough skill, speed and resources to capitalize - and then you have to do everything else perfectly on the rest of the level from there out on, with even more time eaten up by the Beetle Battle and therefore not available to you for the rest of the level. No wonder nobody had done it, and most sensible people weren't even trying.

As I thrashed through all of this, with a small part of my thinking I began to wonder what the hell I was doing it for. I mean, come on: I'm 35. I have a software consulting business through which I've managed to keep food on the table for two and half years now, so I must be doing OK; I've got a lovely gal who puts up with my eccentricities because she knows it helps me keep my stress levels down, but she also began to look at me askance and wonder whether the Quest For 278 wasn't causing me more stress than the work-stress I'm ostensibly escaping. I started to have dreams about Pikmin, in which I'm outside in a sunny field and there are pellets and pikmin, and I just pick the pikmin up in my hand and place them on the pellets, and it's so easy I wonder why I never did it this way before. It's another binge cycle. I've been here before with other games, it's familiar territory... but, as I'm keenly aware, I'm 35 years old and I'm still doing this. Is there something weird here?

Well, I came to terms with and forgave my geeky nature some years ago, and I honestly don't berate myself for loving games the way I did a few years back. A little older and wiser, I realized that you have to play in life, and people who don't die unhappy. I believe that, and I actually think it's good that the teenager in me is alive and well; may he remain so always. However, there is also certainly a balance to be considered, and there have been a couple of days recently (or more than a couple) where I played a couple of rounds in the morning before settling down to work, and the morning stretched into afternoon with the familiar refrain of "this is my last go, dammit" followed by "...well that one was sucky, I have to have one more GOOD run and then I'll stop." Good thing my clients aren't breathing down my neck right at this moment. Maybe I've been so stressed and overworked lately that my brain just won't engage, and this binge is my brain telling me to slow down and rest. I'd like to think this is the case, it's the most defensible explanation I've managed to come up with so far, but I'm not really sure.

A week or so of two-to-three hour sessions per day go by and the 278 still eludes me, and it's starting to not be fun anymore. More and more I wonder what I'm trying to prove here. On six occasions, I manage to get the eighth hit that barfs up the extra 5. The first few of these result in very low scores because I botch everything else on the level so completely. When I get the extra five, my heart pounds in my chest so hard I can see the fabric of my t-shirt move. I've just been told by my doctor that I have high (for me) blood pressure for the first time in my life, and I wonder whether something that gets me this riled up is really good for me. But the desire to make order out of chaos drives me forward. I KNOW this can be done, and when I do it, I will be at peace. If I quit now, it will always nag me.

One Saturday morning I hit the Beetle eight times, and the rest of the level locks in. My timing is good. My ratios of color are right on, and when I get to the crucial distant area, I've got exactly what I need and everything goes perfectly. Heart pounding, I return to the central area for the endgame and wrap everything up in record time. This is it, I think to myself. Nothing can go wrong now, I've done all the hard stuff and I've got time to spare. I get the last pellet in motion and the end-of-level countdown hasn't even started yet. I look at my score: 274. The last 1 lands and I have 276. The countdown begins. I missed something. Somewhere there's a 1 that got left behind. I run around in a panic looking for it, and finally, with three seconds to go, I find it; one that I just missed on a fluke throw, something I never do. The pikmin that was supposed to grab it is standing right there, asleep; one sheet-of-paper-thickness distance from the point at which he would pick it up. I holler and get it into motion, but too late. Time runs out and I have a 276.

It's the high score, but it was REALLY a 278 that I botched. If I hadn't made that freak miss, I would have been done. Now I REALLY can't stop. I can't let it go at that. If I hadn't come this close, I might have actually thought about giving up, because in my darker moments it seems like I'm putting in all this effort just waiting for a perfect game on my part - which I've already demonstrated I can do on many occasions - to coincide with the flukey luck needed for the Flint Beetle to do the right thing and give me the extra pellet. Really, what's the point? I'm doing it basically the same way over and over; eventually, it's going to work, and when it does work, I know what it's going to look like. So do I really need to go through with it? How about getting back to work? How about taking my gal to the movies?

We rent a movie and I keep on. One night I'm up until 4am before I realize what's happening. I do another 276, this one comes with nothing wrong that I can tell - the timer counts down and everything is in, but obviously I screwed something up somewhere. A couple of days pass. Now I'm recording the runs on a VCR, feeling that I'm getting close and I want to be damn sure I capture this when it happens. It's starting to feel like when, not if, but although there are fun moments, the overall experience doesn't quite feel fun and I'm starting to wonder whether the binge is winding down at last of its own accord and I'm going to have to admit defeat and resume my life.

Which brings us to this morning. I get up, I run my errands, I come back with a fresh videotape, and I say "one good round before I start work." And I get going, and I'm in a zone, and before long I've done a 277. The 277 seemed perfect, and I can't figure out what went wrong. With the videotape, I can wind it back and look, and I still can't tell what happened, except that one 1 went to the wrong color onion, which is the only mathematical explanation. Exasperated, I stop again. Along the way I've done some very fast 273s that show just how far I've refined the technique... I've probably done over a hundred runs since I started the Quest for 278, not counting the ones I abandoned in the early phases if I didn't like the way it was going or it just didn't feel right.

I shake it off, make a quick updated announcement on the message board, and then get back to it. Morning eases into afternoon. And then I hit the Beetle again, and it's all rolling again, and I'm thinking "OK, stay calm, I've been here a bunch of times before, and one of these times I'm going to do it, that's a certainty." And my heart isn't quite pounding the way it was the first time. And I go through it carefully, and I have the right amount of luck, and the ultra-lean method I use is leading me through well, and I get back and clean out the endgame area, and with the last two 1s in motion I finally steal a second to glance down at the score, and see 274. And I know the two 1s are on the way to the right places. And I know that this time it's finally over. And I run my little character up to a ledge where he can get a good view of the whole field, and watch as the last two 1s arrive in their proper places and the score clicks to 276 and then to 278. And then the end-of-level timer starts, and I've finished the level with 278 with time to spare. It's over. I'll never play this again, I'm free. Time to purge.

Best of all, it's all on tape. I wind it back and watch it again, a couple of times. A good run, and really I can't find any fault with it; a couple of minor glitches that were easily corrected. Not stellar, but good enough: no major screw-ups, enough good luck, and good timing from way too much practice and repetition. (Somehow the best runs are always a little dull, because everything's working and you're not scrambling so much.) I make my announcement on the messageboard and wait for responses.

So far as anyone knows, that's the only 278 that's ever been done. It may be a "high score", perhaps worldwide. It's hard to know because there isn't any central reporting agency or location, but nobody I know has heard any reliable reports of anything over 273.

(Editor's note: since this article was written, of course, the 278 has been reached many times by many people. Some have even filled out their "Impact Site" scores with five 278s. Yikes. Not me!)

How do I feel? Calm? Not quite. More like exhausted at the end of a marathon. I finished the race, I guess, but it's certainly not that people better than me couldn't have done this earlier. I'm just the first to bother to stick it out through the grueling tedium of the endless restart, restart, restart cycles. I'm still not really clear about why I was willing to do this. Some weird combination of my anal, perfectionist nature and the undying teenager in me who will always think videogames are cool, I suppose. It's certainly a little bit weird.

But, you know what, so what. So I'm a little weird. I have a good life, a roof over my head and food on the table, and friends and family to re-emerge to following the binge. All in all, things could be worse. Much worse. If I had to pick a character flaw for myself, periodic addiction to video games isn't the worst I could come up with. I could demean the 278 as an idiotic waste of time, or herald it as something metaphorically epic that I set my mind to doing and did do, or just accept it as the most recent cycle of videogame binge-and-purge, and add Pikmin to the list of games that have done this to me, and nervously await word of Warcraft 3 and Neverwinter Nights, both coming this summer.

Finally, some people are now whispering that 278 might NOT be the highest possible score. If the Flint Beetle's patterns are consistent (one-nectar-nectar-five), it's theorized that a ninth hit on him would produce another 1-pellet, making the maximum possible score 280. And, I suppose, if you could hit him twelve times, you'd get another five. Again, so far as anybody knows, nobody's ever hit him 9 times under any circumstances. I got him eight times on nine occasions, but never got a ninth hit. It IS possible, though, and it would make sense. (And if I just had one more pikmin in the air coming down towards the beetle right after the eighth hit...)

No. Screw it. I'm done.

(Final editor's note: I have since managed to hit the flint beetle ten times in the regular game, and just got more nectar each time. I'm quite confident, based on this, that 278 is the maximum. Phew.)