It’s been over eight years since the last Pikmin game, closer to nine, actually. Not counting the New Play Control re-releases of the first two games on Wii, we’ve been waiting nearly a decade for the next installment in Shigeru Miyamoto’s gardening-themed, extra terrestrial RTS. Nintendo is notorious for the lengths of time they store some of their franchises in cryo-sleep; Pikmin has joined Metroid on the scale of “how many years we’ve had to wait for a sequel.” That span of years usually means expectations for the next game are stratospherically unrealistic…but for me at least, I am simply pleasantly surprised.
Strangely enough, it surprises me that it’s been so long since Pikmin 2, probably because the wait hasn’t been so agonizing for me. I played and enjoyed both Pikmin 1 and 2, but I borrowed them from a friend, never finished either and didn’t bother buying them myself. I appreciated the gameplay improvements the second game made to the first, but there was always an enduring sense of “eh, that’s nice,” to the series, at least for me.
To be blunt, Pikmin has always been kind of a let-down for me. The combination of one of my least favorite genres—RTS—with yet another trademark Nintendo whimsical, cutesy-poo art style and aesthetic made for a property that I was pretty uninterested in back when it first came out. I didn’t hate Pikmin, but I was far more eager to dive into the next Zelda and Metroid, or explore some of the then-new IPs like Prince of Persia than I was for what amounted to RTS gardening. To me, Pikmin signified the end of the “rockstar” phase in Miyamoto’s career. He could still slam out new Zelda and Mario games without breaking a sweat, but he was clearly transitioning into a more subdued, artful style of game design. Miyamoto-san was done inventing
new industry-shifting IPs, and I understood and appreciated that. I just wasn’t sucked into Pikmin the way I was with other Nintendo franchises.
Does this lack of fanboy bias make me better-equipped to review Pikmin 3? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t presume as much. I think it simply gives me a better, more detached perspective with which to judge the game on its merits, and surprisingly, it also gives me a better appreciation of what Nintendo is trying to do with the game and by extension, their broader new approach to the Wii U platform as well.
For a game that took so long to get here, Pikmin 3 isn’t significantly different from its predecessors—just bigger and with more variety. You still control adorable, tiny alien astronauts, but this time there are three of them: Charlie, Brittany and Alph. Their home planet is running out of food, so they’ve journeyed to the Pikmin planet (ostensibly Earth) to bring back the abundant fruit that grows here. Their spaceship crashes and scatters the little explorers, so early on you’ll have to explore to reunite with your teammates, but soon you’ll have all three at your disposal.
Of course the main draw is the formidable army of Pikmin you’ll accumulate as you play. The game wastes no time in introducing the new varieties unique to Pikmin 3: rock and flying species of Pikmin. Flying Pikmin can safely fly over (and carry goods across) deadly stretches of water or otherwise impassable gaps, saving a lot of time compared to their ground-based cousins. Rock Pikmin pack a huge punch when you hurl them at enemy creatures and can also survive being crushed—they are merely pushed into the ground momentarily.
While new kinds of Pikmin are always welcome, the main gameplay shift in Pikmin 3 is appropriately that you have three explorers to command. This really opens up puzzle and multitasking possibilities. You can now leave part of your Pikmin troop behind with Alph and Charlie as you explore with Brittany, and early on some of the puzzles even require that you split up, toss Pikmin to an unreachable area, and then hook up with them again once you’ve reassembled your main troop. On paper this also means that you can assign different tasks to different explorers and their troops and then swap between them at will, but in practice I found this multitasking to be cumbersome because the AI just wasn’t up to it. More often than not, and unless a puzzle really required it, I was just wandering about with a giant mob of Pikmin, and swapped between the explorers as needed.
Sadly some of the AI pathing for the Pikmin still has issues as well. I was headed back to my ship on one occasion and crossed a bridge, but the Pikmin, trailing behind, didn’t have the sense to cross
the bridge and instead waded into a river and drowned. Less catastrophic but no less annoying instances also included stray Pikmin getting stuck on obstacles, wandering off, or stupidly attacking a giant creature and getting munched. These incidents are rare and by no means do they break the game, but after seeing them crop up in the previous two Pikmin titles, it is a little disappointing that they haven’t been resolved by now.
The mechanic of limited time is a staple of the series and Pikmin 3 is no exception. As usual you have a finite amount of daylight in which to explore because predators come out at night and will quickly overwhelm you. The overarching time limit is a bit more organic this time, however. Upon arrival the explorers lose most of their rations in the crash, and only have three days worth of life-sustaining juice, apparently the primary form of sustenance Koppalites consume. Retrieving the giant fresh fruits from the world not only collects the seeds vital to accomplishing the explorers’ mission, but also provides them with more badly needed rations. Smart use of time and exploration, then, become your main objective: it’s imperative to collect at least one or two fruits each day as you explore.
Pikmin 3 also benefits from some control improvements, mostly in the form of multiple controller options. The pretty darn great control scheme from the New Play Controll Wii ports is back, and the Wiimote-Nunchuk setup offers the most precision by far for aiming and directing your Pikmin troop. The Pro Controller is available for a more traditional feel, but the standout of course is the default GamePad setup. While similar to the Pro Controller—they do have identical button/stick layouts after all—the touch screen offers some significant advantages.
It’s all pretty standard stuff, even this early in the Wii U’s life, but it sure comes in handy in a game like Pikmin 3. As you explore, the typical “fog of war” gets pushed back, slowly revealing the entire map of an area and the locations of all of the items and fruit it contains. You can pause the game at any time simply by tapping on the map and scrolling it around, and you can also access all of your logbook info this way. You can even select a desired location and put your Pikmin on cruise control for a while. It may be a rather typical use of the touch screen, but being able to keep track of all my Pikmin at a glance is a far sight better than some of the “innovations” Nintendo has foisted onto a few of their previous games, just as an excuse to use the weird new hardware in some quirky way.
The control disparities start to show up more in multiplayer. Pikmin 3 has a cooperative “mission” mode and also something called “bingo battle.” While the co-op is another good example of Nintendo’s asymmetric gameplay approach—letting one player with the GamePad coordinate and assist the other by using the map—in competitive mode, the person with the GamePad has a huge advantage. In bingo battle both players scramble to fill out a bingo card of various fruits scattered throughout the level. As you can imagine, however, having a real-time map of the level saves a lot of time in hunting down the fruit. Bingo battle is a fun idea, but it should be reworked into something similar to Nintendoland, where two or more players work together against the GamePad holder with the advantage.
Pikmin 3 has seen some incremental, evolutionary improvements in gameplay. It doesn’t turn the formula upside-down but then again I don’t think anyone really wanted that. What Pikmin 3 does do, however, is show that Nintendo is finally taking triple-A production values seriously in their games. It really took me by surprise—what began as Miyamoto’s whimsical, intimate little art project is now getting the star treatment. The game has a gorgeous opening cinematic with full voice-over, something Nintendo seems loathe to attempt even in their big flagship titles like Zelda.
Once the game shifts to the Pikmin planet, it’s really the subtleties that matter. The game doesn’t bash you over the head the way the annual CoD installment does, but the world of Pikmin is even more detailed and nuanced than before. Starfields glitter with thousands of sharp pinpoints and the planet slowly turns below you, wreathed in milky clouds. Then you travel down to the surface and everything gets much closer and more complex. Gentle depth-of-field blur makes you feel like some kind of eclectic nature documentarian, an entomologist peering down through a magnifying glass at this tiny, busy universe.
The subtle details, the delicate textures and animations running through everything, make Pikmin 3 more than ever look like someone’s backyard. The magic of this series has always been that it makes you feel like a kid again, crawling around in the dirt on a summer’s day, but also with the vivid imagination you had when you were little that let you visualize hundreds of tiny creatures and little alien astronauts.
After suffering through SD resolutions, muddy textures and flagging framerates—issues that hamstringed some of the very best games on Wii—it’s immensely gratifying to see Nintendo finally realize the value of pixel shaders and HD. There is restraint here; the same minimalist graphical touch that you’d see in something made by Valve, and the “lateral thinking” Nintendo has practically made their trademark. But more than any other Wii U title so far, Pikmin 3 shows that Nintendo has finally, finally
decided to join us in the world of 21st
century graphics. It may seem odd that they made this jump with a game like Pikmin, but Nintendo is a cautious company; they like to test the waters. I have a good feeling that the next Zelda or Metroid is going to look freaking amazing.
At the end of the day I’m kind of glad I didn’t get into Pikmin until now. I think a little time and maturity can go a long way. Back when the first Pikmin came out I was a neurotic, insecure high school sophomore, intensely unhappy that my little purple GameCube was getting positively destroyed by the PS2. Nintendo’s aggravating persistence with cute, colorful games made me feel even worse that my console of choice wasn’t like the sleek, cool Sony monolith. But now that I’m in my late 20s, it can be nice to take a break from the usual gray-brown blood, guts and sexploitation of so-called triple A titles, and spend some time unwinding with something that is at once a little less serious and a little more cerebral. Pikmin 3 doesn’t make up for the barren game-less stretch of dust we’ve had to endure on Wii U this year, but it is a welcome sign of change to come and hopefully Nintendo’s first major step into a bigger, prettier world.