Yet again, I’ve let my Pikmin down. In my flailing attempt to beat a gigantic four-legged monster in battle, I’ve accidentally left a few of my soldiers in the field. And as night falls and the predators emerge from the undergrowth, I can only watch helplessly as three of my precious Rock Pikmin are devoured in the dead of night.
In most strategy games, the loss of a few units seldom makes much of an emotional impact. They’re mere cannon fodder – collateral damage in a greater war effort. But in the Pikmin series, you don’t so much become the commander of a brutally efficient army as a hapless shepherd in charge of a flock of wilfully dim yet impossibly cute sheep. You’ll curse those Pikmin when they blithely wander into the path of a roaming monster, or abruptly slip down an earthy slope into deadly water. But deep down, you can’t help wanting to care for them all the same – and each untimely death brings with it equal parts frustration and a cloying sense of guilt.
Yet while you might feel compelled to protect your growing crowd of wide-eyed, sentient radishes from danger, they’re still effectively your soldiers in a weird and painfully cute battle for resources. Like the title creatures in Lemmings, you don’t control the Pikmin directly; instead, the player’s character literally throws the Pikmin into action. Red Pikmin are handy in a fight. Yellow Pikmin can be thrown further and conduct electricity. Blue Pikmin can swim.
It’s a simple yet surprisingly deep system, established in the first Pikmin way back in 2001. Like Pikmin 2, the third game expands the line-up a little – there are now barrier-shattering Rock Pikmin and flying winged Pikmin, and three player characters instead of the previous title’s two – but the essential mechanics are the same.
The Pikmin are summoned with a whistle, which causes them to surround and follow the player at the touch of a button. Pressing the A button flings the Pikmin wherever your reticule’s trained, while pressing the left bumper switches between different types of Pikmin.
Whatever your chosen objectives may be – finding the other two members of your crew, who’ve been scattered across the planet as the game begins, or locating enough fruit to eat for another day – you have until sunset to get the job done. If your Pikmin aren’t either rounded up or sent back to their home by nightfall, they’ll be devoured by predators. It’s a formula that worked perfectly in the first two games, and while Nintendo may have played it safe by merely tweaking it here, it still feels fresh, even nine years after Pikmin 2.
What’s immediately notable about Pikmin 3 is just how beautiful it looks. The GameCube entries (and their Wii remakes) did the best they could to create an almost photo-real world with the technology available, but the Wii U’s HD makes Pikmin 3 the most beautiful entry yet. A clever use of camera angles, depth of field, textures and lighting creates the illusion of a miniature world – it’s like lying on your belly in a meadow and looking down at the insects scuttling around among the grass and soil.
Through this detailed environment, the Pikmin toddle, collect and fight as your commands dictate. Far from being a cosmetic improvement, those graphics make the bond between Pikmin and player more tangible than ever – it’s a world that draws you in, and engrosses you in its miniature dramas.
The second screen on the Wii U’s GamePad is elegantly employed, and becomes a sort of command terminal for much of the game. From it, you get a map of the current area, where you can scroll around and even select a waypoint for your explorer and his Pikmin to dash towards by simply tapping a location.
In most situations, Pikmin 3′s controls are perfectly intuitive – it’s only during more critical moments, such as the occasional boss battle, that aiming becomes an issue. As you move the reticule around in search of a target, it’s all too easy to miss the thing you wanted to throw your Pikmin at – especially when that target happens to be on the move. During one boss encounter, the Pikmin I’d intended to throw at the monster’s spindly legs ended up overshooting and landing in a lake instead. For the most part, it’s a minor problem, albeit a frustrating one when yet another precious Pikmin meets its maker.
Switching to a Wii Remote does solve this situation to an extent, since pointing directly at the screen is more accurate than wiggling a thumb stick, but lengthy play sessions will inevitably result in a very tired arm.
On the topic of minor faults, it’s also notable that, in spite of the intervening nine years, some of the same AI issues still remain. Pikmin will still get stuck on outcroppings and lumps of scenery as you rush around the map, which means you can often get to the end of the day and realise that about a dozen of the little critters have been left behind somewhere on the map. Fortunately, the map on the GamePad makes it clear where they’re located, meaning that you can run back and retrieve them – assuming you have time before the sun sets.
Really, though, these problems fade into the background when compared to how carefully put together Pikmin 3 is elsewhere. The way it introduces each element of the game’s mechanics gradually – introducing just one central character first, then a couple of Pikmin, before showing you how to control them and how to grow more of them – is perfectly judged. Before you know it, you’re switching between three separate player characters (each more quirky and cute than the last) and sending them off on their own separate missions, flicking between them and micro-managing their actions like an anime field marshall.
Each subsequent day gradually introduces new puzzles and challenges, and new areas to explore. The use of a time limit adds a sense of pressure while also dividing the game up into discrete chunks, meaning that, no matter how challenging the game becomes – and it really does become remarkably taxing within the space of a few hours – there’s always an opportunity to regroup, reflect, and plan a new strategy.
That Pikmin 3 manages to pack in so much RTS complexity into such an adorable, approachable package is a true feat, and something Nintendo still excel at. There are moments in Pikmin 3 that are extremely funny (a familiar household object abruptly puked up by a monster in its death throes is a stand-out scene), moments of unbearable tension (getting a vital piece of fruit back to the ship before sundown always gets the pulse going), and occasional moments of genuine wonder.
Unlike, say, a major new Zelda game, Pikmin 3 may not be the title that will endear the Wii U to the masses, but it is undoubtedly the most engrossing, challenging and adorable system exclusive yet released for the console. Ultimately, Pikmin 3 is that rarest of things: a game with depth and complexity, but also colour, humor, and Nintendo’s seemingly infallible lightness of touch.