Pikmin Bloom: All the Flowers With None of the Hay Fever

Pikmin Bloom is great, which is saying something because the entire mobile game industry is horrible.

Mobile games are treated as commodities instead of creative products, like how Atari viewed their games in the 1980’s. The billions of dollars mobile games bring in are dirty money, worsening corporate greed and encouraging exploitation of the poor and downtrodden, especially those that struggle with addictive behaviors. Arguably, mobile games never even had much potential in the first place. Before Candy Crush Saga ruined everything, they tried to mimic PC and console games, with anemic results. There’s just not much you can do with just a touch screen, no buttons, and not even a Nintendo DS stylus to get around how fat and imprecise fingers are. Putting a virtual d-pad and buttons on the screen just means your fingers are always covering the action, while packing a bluetooth controller just causes a smartphone to take a good hit to its portability, its main selling point. Even the best of mobile Sonic the Hedgehog remasters is vastly improved with an actual controller or a port to Steam. To this day, mobile games are defined solely by their limitations, like FMV games were back in the 16-bit era. The mobile industry is basically a dumping ground for the kind of trash that used to infest the Playstation and Game Boy Advance, and what’s worse, its toxins have been trying to seep into handheld and console games to make them worse with glitchy patch-it-out-later launches, microtransactions, and always-online live service business models.

If you want to make worthwhile mobile games, you need to stop thinking of them as games. Chances are you’ll only get something as shallow as your average Atari 2600 game that way. It’s better to step outside the box and think of them as toys. And that is why I love Pikmin Bloom. It’s not a game; it’s a digital toy that encourages you to get outside and brighten up your life.

If you’re a fan of Nintendo’s relatively obscure Pikmin franchise though, you’ll find Pikmin Bloom to be the antithesis to it. In the console games, Pikmin are just ants. You produce them en masse because their lives are short, frenzied, and fraught with danger. They exist to do a few tasks for the horde before getting eaten. In Pikmin Bloom though, they live carefree and active lives under your care. They never die either; in fact the Pikmin themselves are unique and collectible.

There’s almost no overlap between this toy and the main series, but that’s not really a problem. You still have an app that works well with the confines and advantages that characterize the mobile platform. In fact, though Bloom isn’t a part of the Pikmin timeline, it works rather well as a prequel to the entire franchise when you think about it. The mainline games are already implied to take place on Earth, and in Bloom, you are an earthling hunting for Pikmin that you can only see thanks to augmented reality. When mankind goes extinct sometime in the future, there will be no one around to find and cultivate Pikmin. Strange creatures will evolve and prey on them until they face the brink of extinction. Only Captain Olimar happening to crash land on the planet will save the species and prompt the Pikmin to form their own independent colonies without any human aide for the first time.

The main gameplay loop goes like this: you raise and carry your own personal Pikmin colony in a special planter backpack that’s powered by the steps you take, then you send those Pikmin out on expeditions to collect seedlings and fruit. Seedlings grow into one of the seven types of Pikmin that exist throughout the franchise so far. Fruit is broken down into nectar that you can feed to your Pikmin so they blossom into a variety of different flowers, then you pluck their excess petals and use those to plant more flowers in the real world.

Planting flowers makes it more likely that you’ll discover seedlings and fruit, earns you coins to spend at the in-game store, causes seedlings to grow up to 30% faster than normal, and allows you to get special fruit from visiting real life landmarks, like that fountain or sculpture or mural your town is well known for. It’s there where you can use your flowers to grow gigantic flowers that spawn special fruit, or send your Pikmin to destroy mushrooms that can yield huge prizes if you get more players to send their own Pikmin to help. That’s plenty going on for what’s ultimately just a fancy pedometer that helps track how much exercise you’re getting each day.

The main draw is the decorations that the Pikmin wear. Each Pikmin has a friendship meter that rises when you feed them nectar or send them out on expeditions. When friendship maxes out at four hearts, that Pikmin will set out on a journey to the place where you originally found it and bring back something special to wear. There are dozens of possibilities like chef hats, four-leaf clovers, stag beetles, gas station snacks, french fries, hair ties, train tickets, toy airplanes, seashells, dandelions, pins, stickers, stamps, 3D glasses, bananas, mushrooms, coffee cups, cookies, sushi, and more are being added all the time. Some decor, like chess pieces and bags of incense, is limited to annual events.

The best way to raise friendship is probably to cultivate one squad of Pikmin at a time. Set them as your favorites so you can easily summon them with three quick tweets of your whistle, feed them nectar until you harvest 5 out of 6 petals from them, which is the exact point when they’re just about to run out of petals and go bald, then walk around with them until they reset how many petals they’re able to give you, which usually takes a couple hours. If you have enough nectar, you can raise Pikmin friendship by one full heart a day this way, and it’ll take about 100 nectar to max out their friendship. Outside of this power leveling technique, participating in mushroom battles provides the next best friendship boost. You can also find huge seedlings that include decor, so the Pikmin won’t have to go questing when its friendship maxes out.

Nectar and petals come in a wide variety depending on what flowers are in season in real life. Cherry blossoms, sunflowers, lilies, roses, hydrangeas, pansies, tulips; it’s honestly a joy seeing those flowers pop up on your screen. But, since they are flowers, that means they eventually wither and die, usually about a week after planting them. Plain nectar is the easiest to find and causes Pikmin to go from leaf to bud to flower stage, rather than straight to flower like all other nectar. Pikmin will also reach bud stage on their own if you walk around with them enough, and the bud stage provides more petals when Pikmin, well, bloom, so it’s best to exercise your Pikmin to that level before feeding them rare kinds of nectar. At the other end, blue nectar is always the hardest to amass. If you want to plant a lot of blue flowers, your best bet is actually to feed blue nectar to Pikmin you don’t want, then release them. Pikmin always give you a gift of ten petals of their flower color when you get rid of them, though unfortunately they can only ever be the plain flower petals, not any of the seasonal or special kinds.

Since this isn’t a proper game with hostile environments and puzzles to solve, the differences between Pikmin are pretty minor. Red, Yellow, and Blue Pikmin are the slowest at completing expeditions, but have moderate power when destroying mushrooms, grow from seedlings the quickest, and get the widest variety of decor, so they’re the most collectible. Mountain, sushi, theme park, and rare chef decor is available only for these types, plus Blue Pikmin even get a handful of leaves they can wear if you find blue seedlings during rainstorms.

Purple and Rock Pikmin are quite a bit stronger than normal in mushroom challenges, plus they’re able to do the work of five or three Pikmin, respectively, so you can send less of them on expeditions, making them a LOT slower in exchange for being able to complete them with limited manpower. That also means a full expedition squad of Purple or Rock Pikmin is a fair bit faster, the second fastest in the game, in fact, and you definitely want to send full squads whenever you can because each Pikmin that participates in one gets a little friendlier. Personally, my favorite decor tends to be what Purple and Rock Pikmin wear too, since it always tends to be a little goofy.

White and Winged Pikmin are puny and the weakest when destroying mushrooms, but the fastest on journeys. White Pikmin are especially good at accelerating mixed Pikmin squads, especially when they travel with Purple or Rock Pikmin. Winged Pikmin are ridiculously fast, but since they’re the only ones that can fly, they are drastically slowed down when they have to travel with any other types of Pikmin. It’s worth growing a large air force for completing lots of long expeditions and amassing lots of resources quickly.

All these rules and features are gradually unlocked and taught to you via an RPG level system. Leveling up always requires walking a certain amount of steps and also often involves planting a certain number of flowers, growing a certain number of Pikmin, or completing specific challenges. Each new level increases how many Pikmin can be in your personal squad or sent to mushroom battles at once, plus it rewards you with nectar, temporary seedling slots, and other useful items. Arguably, levels stop mattering after level 60, because that’s when your two squad sizes max out at 40 each. It’s a good thing too because past that, mushrooms start requiring careful planning to destroy fast enough alone, and level 100 outright requires you to find other local players to assist you.

To destroy mushrooms, you need your Pikmin to be as strong as possible. That strength is determined by several factors, like their friendship level, flower growth, and species of flower. Pikmin also become significantly stronger when wearing decor or when their color matches that of the mushroom they’re attacking. One decent goal for Pikmin Bloom is to grow a squad of 40 decor Pikmin for all seven Pikmin types, so you’ll be ready to trample any mushroom at full strength. That means 280 Pikmin total, which is just under the limit of 300 the game starts you off with. There are four mushroom sizes: small, normal, large, and giant, and if you’re a single player, you might as well throw your weakest Pikmin at large and giant mushrooms. You can’t destroy them fast enough without other players physically present, but even clearing them with the lowest ranking still guarantees at least one full-sized fruit, so you might as well use them to get more friendship points for your youngest Pikmin.

Still other features include being able to share friend codes and then invite your friends to weekly walking and planting challenges, no matter where they live in the world. Those often have worthwhile rewards, like gold seedlings during special events. You can buy and sometimes earn clothing for your Mii, and you’ll even get a blue Pikmin wearing a Mario hat if you link your Nintendo account.

You can take AR photos that make it look like your Pikmin are wandering around in real life, following you into the restroom and perching on kitchen countertops. If a huge flower is glowing nearby, you can examine it and then swipe it to harvest some nectar. Rarely after drinking nectar, a Pikmin’s blossom will shine bright and you can pluck as many petals as you’re able to within ten seconds. There’s a life log that functions like an in-game scrapbook or personal diary. Pikmin often pick up postcards from the places they visit too, and those can be traded with your friends so you can see what art installations, buildings, and other landmarks exist across the globe. A shame you can’t also trade the seedlings you find, but maybe that will be in a future update. It would also be nice to be able to leave personal notes and postcards for other players to find, since normally the only time you can easily find local players is if they happen to be planting flowers, and even that public visibility is turned off by default. Trying to get multiplayer groups assembled can be nigh impossible due to the limited social options.

Of course, there are issues with Pikmin Bloom that no update can patch out. After all, mobile games tend to be always-online games with all the associated bugbears, plus this is an app developed by Niantic, a studio seemingly comparable to Telltale Games circa 2018 in how they only know how to make one kind of game and don’t understand the importance of diversifying one’s portfolio, not just in game genres but in having multiple small revenue sources instead of one or two huge ones. Your experience with Pikmin Bloom ultimately depends on your satellite reception and network congestion, meaning mundane tasks like plucking petals and choosing expedition members may suddenly become impossible due to lag. Furthermore, this inherent jankiness can be exploited. If you live in a rural area and want wrist exercise instead of leg exercise, sitting in a chair and shaking your phone up and down will often cause you to travel through the AR world in random directions, so you can take a lot of steps and plant a lot of flowers even if you’re immobile for whatever reason.

Usually the fixes to the app’s funny little glitches are easy. You just have to blow your whistle to get all your Pikmin to reset their positions or maybe dance through a couple screens and menus to get the app to snap out of its confusion. Once in a while you may even have to close and restart it, but you’re not likely to encounter anything game-breaking. You merely need the patience to deal with network congestion and wireless signals getting blocked by fog, trees, and concrete. You should also be sure that your phone never goes into power saving mode and always runs the app in the background.

Microtransactions are not one of Bloom’s problems, fortunately. They exist, but there is no gacha system, nor are there timers you can shorten with cash. It’s never like you’re feeding money to a one-armed bandit. Instead it’s like you’re buying expansions for your playset. Of course, the game will advise you to buy those playset expansions whenever you’re full up on resources, but that’s relatively benign. My own purchase history involved spending about $10 early on to upgrade my Pkimin storage to 350, enough to hold 50 of each of the seven types of Pikmin, plus nectar and petal storage upgrades so I could hold 300 of each. The nectar and petal storage upgrades let you hold a little more of EVERY type of nectar and petal, of which there are dozens, so they’re very useful. Those initial upgrades made the early game more comfortable and probably did a lot to suck me further in.

See, the game is not aggressively monetized at all, but its basic structure almost inevitably pushes you toward purchases. There may be some subtle genius behind Pikmin Bloom’s monetization because when you only have a few Pikmin at the start, it’s easy to work with your initial resource caps. But the game is centered around growing more and more Pikmin, which means more mouths to feed and better chances to earn diverse types of decor, so you’re liable to buy a couple more storage upgrades at a couple bucks each every couple of paychecks until you finally look back and wonder where you went wrong in life. I now can carry 700 Pikmin, plus 1000 of each type of nectar and flower petal. Did I really need to spend that much? No, but this has been a fun little toy to play with and I don’t mind having practically backed Pikmin 4’s Kickstarter with my purchases because Pikmin Bloom has never made me feel tricked or ripped off.

I did indulge a couple times, such as by buying a lot of in-game currency before going on a long vacation. The app used to have this special Bloom Pack for 1480 coins that included a bunch of VERY valuable items: 15 Special Slots that grow Pikmin 30% faster, 12 Special Nectar drops that increase Pikmin friendship by one full heart, and 10 Detector charges for finding hidden fruit and seedlings. The Detector doesn’t even rip you off if you have 70+ charges ready for it; you still get one free charge per day no matter what. (The way I’m impressed by that is probably a very damning indictment on the entire mobile game industry.)

I think I even got a few “loyalty bonuses” for my purchase history too. Normally you earn 1 coin for every 500 flowers you plant, but that got permanently cut to 250 flowers after buying a modest number of upgrades, plus at one point I got a free 100 petal storage upgrade in the dead of night for seemingly no reason. It’s possible that these bonuses have been given to all players by now and I’ve just never noticed.

I started by saying that I like Pikmin Bloom because it isn’t a game, but… it has a nice amount of game elements to it. It’s a darling little app that has honestly made my life better. I’m more of a bicyclist than a walker because I have flat feet, but Pikmin Bloom has taught me to take slower, healthier bike trips in low gears where I have to do more pedaling and hence build more muscle. (The app stops letting you plant flowers if you go over 10 miles per hour.)

I’m a bit concerned about its potential longevity as part of one of Nintendo’s more niche franchises built by a developer that’s struggling in spite of or perhaps because of its work on Pokemon Go, but perhaps merely being a Nintendo IP is enough to give Pikmin Bloom years of life no matter what happens in the future. With Pikmin 4 officially launching in 2023, there might be a lot of potential for crossover content between the two games as well, though I have no idea what form it might takes since Bloom is the opposite of the console games. Niantic has recently started holding Community Days not just as in-game events, but in public locations too.

I attended the Seattle Community Day on August 13 at Woodland Park and immediately ran into other players as confused as I was about where the event hub actually was. It turned out that the location was updated at the last minute to be at the Seattle Zoo adjacent to Woodland Park. Specifically, inside the zoo proper, meaning you had to buy a $27 pass to get in. About two dozen of us objected to that surprise microtransaction, so we basically formed a squad of human Pikmin and made inconvenienced and disappointed noises as we threatened to plow through the zoo entrance gates with our sheer numbers while making cute karate sounds. Eventually the Niantic staff noticed and met us outside the zoo entrance, delivered the promised swag, took photos with us, and then proceeded to set up a satellite community hub in the zoo’s public rose garden. I got a ridiculous amount of sunflower nectar as well, since the giant flowers were set to wither every 15 minutes, meaning you could quickly regrow them over and over and farm lots and lots of nectar entirely by accident. Overall it was a success and it reminded me of the magical sense of community Nintendo games tend to cultivate. Next time I’ll bring a power bank so my phone doesn’t die right after the event.

My only remaining misgivings are whether this game has any overlap with the console fandom. Mobile games almost never overlap with console and PC games; they’re two separate audiences, and the latter in particular want to spend money on more games instead of microtransactions and other predatory casino mechanics. Gamers want to buy Mario Kart 9 and Pokemon Scarlet and Violet, not spend more money in Mario Kart Tour and Pokemon Unite. But perhaps Pikmin Bloom might be the rare exception to the rule? I’m also concerned that the worsening global climate crisis could kill this app like how the Covid-19 pandemic killed Minecraft Earth. But Pikmin Bloom is still a worthwhile and, dare I say, wholesome expansion of what the Pikmin brand is capable of. I hope the colony of people who play with this toy continues to grow at a determined march.

Pikmin Bloom is free to download on your app store of choice.

Won’t you join my Discord server and talk to me about how much you enjoy Pikmin? https://discord.gg/pzRwXGrcru

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