Remarkably for a twelve year old franchise, Pikmin still feels like a fresh take on the strategy genre. Perhaps that’s because Nintendo’s frugal management of the series has sheltered it from the erosion of repetition – this latest instalment is the third in over a decade and the first in nine years, a rare thing for an industry obsessed with relentlessly churning out sequels. Or maybe it has more to do with the lack of imitators – Little King’s Story, Overlord and The Wonderful 101 pilfered the idea of commanding large groups of minions from a third-person perspective, but there’s been little else. Most likely it’s a combination of both these points and the fact that Pikmin’s original template was just so unique to begin with.
Most modern real-time strategy titles are complex simulations of warfare, overseen from the general’s armchair with an overwhelming number of tactics and interactions to master. In Pikmin 3 you fight on battlefields of colourful, Honey I Shrunk the Kids-style oversized flora and fauna, directing your troops from the frontline as a squat, space-suited explorer. Your war is one with survival, your only goals to collect the scattered parts of your crash-landed spaceship and to retrieve enough types of fruit to save your starving home world. And the only way to do that is by cultivating a symbiotic relationship with a workforce of adorable, diminutive (Pik)minions.
This indigenous population of saccharine sweet critters can be found hiding in clay plant pots, plucked from beneath the alien planet PNF-404’s topsoil, or created from the remains of defeated creatures, and they follow you like lost children, attacking or collecting anything you throw them at. They are your adopted army and you their marshal, and taking care of them in return for their aid is essential to surviving each day.
The ebb and flow of those days is dictated by a 15 minute day-night cycle. Early mornings are mostly spent rounding up enough Pikmin for the day’s activities before venturing out into the deeper recesses of a stage to search for a beautifully bump mapped orange, to construct a bridge in aid of exploration or to unleash your ants upon a fire-breathing pig-sloth. But come the bell-tower chime that heralds the arrival of dusk and the game quickly turns into a frantic scramble to retrieve all of your Pikmin from the field, sheparding them with a whistle blow to the safety of their onion-shaped house before the dangers of night time arrive.
It’s here, in the honeydew haze of fading sunlight, that a macabre cut scene reveals a surprisingly emotional side to Pikmin’s rhythmic structure. Any stragglers you have failed to retrieve are set upon by nocturnal predators and the ghostly apparitions of the dead hang in the air as you fly towards the safety of planetary orbit. Nintendo often creates worlds as lucid and vibrant as the gardens of PNF-404, but rarely are your actions in these abstract landscapes representative of such a relatable relationship as that of the parental protector and the dependant, enthusiastically helpful infant.
Nurturing that relationship is vital to progression through Pikmin 3’s free-form story mode. There’s a small number of levels making for a relatively short campaign, but each stage is an intricately woven spider’s web of tunnels, water bodies and dirt paths. And, in that timeless Nintendo design tradition, the farthest reaches of each area is made tantalisingly visible, but blocked off until you acquire the necessary tools to clear each path.
In Pikmin 3 that toolset is composed of elemental variations of the leaf-headed labourers. The primary Pikmin colours, red, yellow and blue, retain their elemental resistances to fire, electricity and water from Pikmin 2, whilst two new types provide interesting functional and visual variations. The chunky, chiselled Rock Pikmin can shatter path-blocking crystals and enemy armour, whilst the pink, insect-eyed Flying Pikmin can rise above environmental hazards, providing aerial defence and the fastest mode of transport for any scavenged items.
Only 100 Pikmin can be taken out at a time and choosing a balance of types to set out with at dawn depends on the day’s scheduled activities. Exploring the scattered ponds of the Tropical Wilds requires a mostly blue man group, whilst taking on larger land-based monsters might be a wiser idea with a horde of powerful Red and Rock Pikmin.
There are many small strategic decisions like this to be made on a minute to minute basis in Pikmin 3’s deeply layered, but approachably presented systems of interaction, and most of them can be fumbled without dire consequence. A comfort blanket of Pikmin-growing poker chip plants and a generous abundance of fruits – the only collectable resource necessary to progress to the next day – always surround your landing zone. Supposedly, Shigeru Miyamoto’s inspiration for Pikmin came when he took up gardening, and it’s likely that this peaceful hobby also informed the relaxing pace that makes exploring these wondrous gardens such a delight.
It’s also likely that Pikmin 3 exists in part so that Nintendo’s most famous designer could realise the dandelion sprouting mud paths and glistening ponds of his backyard in crisp HD detail, as they make for some lovingly rendered interactive playgrounds. Waxy sun-soaked leaves sway as you pass beneath them for shelter, whilst water ripples, plinks and plops in gloopy physics-driven globules, and a colourful variety of adversarial wildlife bumbles and blunders around, erupting into animated frenzies once attacked. Only the flat, lifeless textures of forest floors let the visual presentation down.
Each of Pikmin 3’s beautifully rendered stages contain much to discover, which is where the addition of a third controllable character (strangely, a design Pikmin 3 has in common with Grand Theft Auto V) comes into play. Pikmin 2 experimented with duel-protagonist multi-tasking, but players could only direct one character at any time. Here the Wii U Gamepad’s touch screen is employed as both a local map and a satnav for co-ordinating the movements of your three protagonists and their Pikmin whilst you take direct control of any on the fly, allowing for more efficient foraging.
Pikmin 3’s use of the Gamepad is subtle and unobtrusive, and there’s a variety of core control options that all centre around its use. The game can be played using the traditional duel-stick setup of Pikmin 1 and 2 on the Gamepad, either through a TV screen or on the central touchscreen. Alternatively, the Wiimote pointer and Nunchuck can be used for more accurate orchestration of your miniature army with the Gamepad on your lap as the map screen. The former options are fine for everyday exploration, but they lack the refinement of control needed to engage in battles that the latter, somewhat cumbersome setup provides.
Touchscreen facilitated multi-tasking is the most fundamental change to Pikmin’s formula, but whilst it proves an intuitive boon to normal play, it isn’t thoughtfully employed in the story mode until an end game sequence specifically designed for it. Jumping between each commander and plotting out their movements works so well here that its lack of enforcement elsewhere feels like a missed opportunity.
It’s in the series of increasingly difficult challenges to be found in Mission Mode that the ability to juggle groups of Pikmin becomes a far more essential skill. Success here depends upon collecting as many items or defeating as many enemies as possible within a time limit, which makes for a nice counterbalance to the leisurely pace of play in Story Mode, as speed and efficiency are vital to success. It also demonstrates that Pikmin’s curious brew of strategic elements is robust enough to support a more challenging pace of gameplay, as well as a satisfying co-operative multiplayer.
Elsewhere a competitive Bingo Mode pits two captains against each other in competition to collect a line of items on a four by four matrix. Like the best Nintendo multiplayer games, Bingo Mode is a jagged but even tug of war, designed to empower the sneaky saboteur as much as the fair player, and sure to fill any living room with protests of anger as much as laughter. It’s well-balanced fun, if unsubstantial enough to remind of a Nintendoland mini game.
The lack of any online functionality, bar the ability to take pictures and upload them to Miiverse, is a sour omission, one indicative of the conservative attitude Nintendo has been handling its major franchise revisions with of late. Co-conducting Pikmin with a friend in Mission Mode works so well that the idea of an online, co-operative Story Mode presents a salivating and clearly possible prospect for the franchise, especially given its ever-increasing number of protagonists.
Cautious iteration in favour of radical evolution is unsurprising, however, when you consider that Pikmin 3 represents the most significant first party Wii U release to date. Nintendo is no doubt resting some fairly substantial hopes on the shoulders of these tiny creatures, hopes that they are strong enough to carry their host console’s lacklustre software library through to the end of the year. That Pikmin 3’s relatively unaltered template still feels so fertile, so inventively adorable (what other game refers to a Lemon as a ‘face wrinkler’?), and so unique after so many years makes it a wise bet from Nintendo. Pikmin 3 would be something of a rare gem in any console’s library, never mind the fledgling Wii U’s.