The first and last time Nintendo collaborated with location-based AR company Niantic, the result was the worldwide mega-phenomenon Pokémon Go. Five years later, the companies are working together once again to see if they can recapture the magic with a new augmented reality game based on the much more niche Pikmin franchise.
After testing an early version of the Pikmin Bloom app over the last week, I can say that the game serves as an effective, super-cute pedometer, providing some nice, gentle motivation for reluctant walkers to get up and get their daily steps in. But while this gamified Fitbit requires less fuss and direct hassle than Pokémon Go, the game’s basic “watch the numbers go up” loops also don’t have the same compulsive collect-them-all appeal as Niantic’s previous hit.
Watching numbers go up
For the uninitiated, Pikmin are tiny, colorful, slightly humanoid creatures with blooming flowers on their heads. In the original console games, your character collects and manages an expanding team of Pikmin with varying abilities to help a marooned spaceman escape a planet. In Bloom, the Pikmin who follow you on your daily walks are more concerned with planting petals and growing normal flowers, which show up permanently on the game’s map.
What starts as a small stroll with a single Pikmin quickly grows into an ever-expanding loop of resource extraction and consumption. First, you throw colorful nectar to your Pikmin, causing it to bloom with color-coded petals that you can pluck with a satisfying tap. But each Pikmin can only grow a set number of petals each day, and those petals are actively consumed as you grow flowers during walks.
Thus, you need to grow more mouths to feed (and petals to pluck) by finding seedlings, which only grow into full Pikmin after a set number of steps (usually in the thousands). More Pikmin also means more pairs of arms and legs to send on timed expeditions for more fruit, which turns into nectar, which is fed to Pikmin for more petals to fuel more flowers along your walking path. Meanwhile, you stumble across more seedlings, which turn into more Pikmin, which fuel more frequent expeditions for more seedlings and fruit. And on and on…
The basic loop continues as you build up a squad of dozens of Pikmin and multicolored nectars. Along the way, you slowly see your regular walking paths fill up with a vibrant garden of AR flowers on your on-screen map (you also see flowers grown by other players in your area, but that hasn’t been a big draw during the limited pre-release period in my area).
Any gamer who has ever played Diablo knows the simple joy of seeing numbers go up as you play, and Pikmin Bloom provides this motivation in spades. Seeing steps turn directly into a growing squad of cute critters under your indirect control is a joy, and strong sound design and animation work do wonders to sell the package.
Crucially, besides the walking itself, Pikmin Bloom demands very little attention to power this process. In a game like Pokémon Go, you must constantly pay attention to the app as you walk, tapping to collect new monsters, spinning Pokéstops, or participating in multiplayer raids. Pikmin Bloom, on the other hand, passively registers your steps and applies them to your goals without requiring much babysitting. A quick five-minute check-in when you have a moment is enough to pluck new Pikmin, collect fruit and seedlings from your expeditions, and make some new petals to power your next walk.
“We tried to make the game fit into your life,” Niantic CEO John Hanke said in a recent Q&A attended by Ars. “[Pikmin Bloom] doesn’t demand your attention, but it’s there when you want to give it your attention.”
The game encourages these check-ins with regular notifications, of course. But it also encourages reflection with a special check-in at the end of the day, reviewing your daily steps and the key locations you visited with virtual postcards. The game even asks how you’re doing each day and can incorporate photos you took on your trips for a kind of digital “lifelog” scrapbook that builds over time, even incorporating any pictures you took that day. In this way, Pikmin Bloom could be seen less as a game and more as an excuse to keep a simple, semi-automated diary of your travels.