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'Pikmin Bloom,' an AR step counter to improve your daily walk, is so simple it's magic

Todd Martens, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

"Pikmin Bloom" is the latest augmented reality venture from Niantic, the team behind "Pokemon Go." I can already see people rolling their eyes. "Pikmin Bloom," after all, is a pedometer that's barely a game. But there's beauty and playfulness in its simplicity. "Pikmin Bloom" doesn't demand our time so much as seek to enhance an activity — walking — that we already partake in daily. It's a tech overlay for what can be everything from a mundane action to an important part of our weekly exercise.

"Pokemon Go" and its soon-to-end follow-up "Harry Potter: Wizards Unite" had similar ambitions — or at least Niantic's marketing department liked to talk up their physical activity-inducing benefits. Yet "Pikmin Bloom," despite still using what is by now relatively standard augmented reality techniques — open your camera and see a character nearby — feels to me more confident than both, especially in relation to the too complex, too plot-focused "Wizards Unite" (at the time of its release I wrote that I wished it had come with footnotes as it was weighed down in Potter lexicon).

"Pikmin Bloom" could have been more game-ified. I was nervous it would be. After all, the lesser-known Nintendo property it's based on is a robust strategy game stealthily disguised in cuteness. On Nintendo consoles, the games gradually ramp up their difficulty as players direct Pikmin — plant-like creatures with water droplet bodies — to complete numerous tasks, deal with predators and figure out which color Pikmin is suited to the best errand. Another one of my favorite games of 2021, "The Wild at Heart," is steeped in "Pikmin" influences.

But blissfully, no prior knowledge is needed for "Pikmin Bloom," in which we simply walk and plant virtual flowers, and occasionally send our Pikmin out on tasks in our neighborhood. Doing so can result in them bringing us back apples, lemons or seedlings that grow other Pikmin. They'll often also snap some pictures on their virtual journeys, so we can see our Pikmin act as tourists in what for many players is probably an overly familiar setting.

Key to its success is that "Pikmin Bloom" focuses on the themes rather than the mechanics of its game console counterparts. The franchise, created by game design master Shigeru Miyamoto ("Super Mario Bros.," "The Legend of Zelda") is ultimately a celebration of nature. "Pikmin Bloom" in particular encourages players to see plants for the vibrant, living beings they are, and emphasizes teamwork, environments and natural elements.

There are no proper battles in "Pikmin Bloom," and I am relieved and hope that never changes. I simply enjoying booting the game up to look at how my downtown streets — stained hourly with new layers of litter, grime and, more recently, a bounteous supply of rat poison — has been turned into a virtual arboretum. In this sense, "Pikmin Bloom" is more than a simple pedometer encouraging us to reach a daily step goal; it's a reminder to continue to seek magic in our surroundings, regardless of our emotional state or their physical reality.

 

It's also arriving at a time when most mainstream conversations surrounding technology have been exhausting. Bored of hearing about the metaverse yet?

Whether you answered "yes" or "I don't know what the metaverse is," that's likely because no one, from Epic Games ("Fortnite") to the recently Meta-rebranded Facebook, have been able to create a narrative as to how or why an evolving, persistent online world is going to better our lives. We've seen a lot of blanket statements that the virtual universe that is the metaverse is the result of our lives increasingly relying on tech and the internet, which, sure, true, but nothing that says how anyone plans to make this connected world smarter, healthier or more efficient than our current mess of a one.

"Fortnite" makes a valiant argument that the metaverse is going to be a boon for corporate brands, a world where Marvel, the NFL, "League of Legends" and car manufacturers all get cozy with one another — commercials that double as an in-game experience. Meta's marketing has been muddled, largely focusing on virtual reality and virtual conferences, items that only benefit the privileged, and an ad campaign that indirectly argues that art museums are more impressive than Meta's interpretation of them.

"Pikmin Bloom," however, while sliding under the radar of most fall game releases, presents a stronger argument for how tech can harmoniously amplify our realities.

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