Pikmin began as a modest—and arguably unrefined—foray into the strategy genre with its original installment on the GameCube, which limited players to just 30 in-game days to complete the adventure, lest they fail and be forced to start over (or at least far enough back to regain some ground). But for all its rough edges, the game commanded a totally unique sensation that was wholly separate from anything else the genre had seen to date: while it was colorful and cute—based in garden-like environments and filled with “enemies” who were ultimately just ordinary insects and wildlife—each and every action was grittily deliberate, with the lives of your soldiers and the seriously endangered outcome of your entire mission hanging perilously in the balance.
Pikmin 2 dialed this pressure back considerably and instead was redesigned as a much more leisurely explorative adventure. Gone was the 30-day time limit in exchange for a much larger game and a huge variety of treasures to collect. Although the daily time limit was still in play (a permanent staple for the series), we also saw the addition of caves in which time was frozen and resources were the true limiting factor. Some of these caves were the most challenging and deepest sections of Pikmin 2, and some of the most beloved, to boot.
This is a beautiful game.
It’s been over five years since then. Officially in the works since 2008, Pikmin 3 has been the subject of a lot of patience. It crossed platforms at least a couple of times, and eventually landed on the Wii U, where the dual-screens and better graphical horsepower just made sense. And while its changes to the series aren’t as sweeping those of Pikmin 2, it once again presents a rebalanced and redesigned adventure that blends the spirit of both of its predecessors into a composite experience that feels as fresh as it does familiar.
All things considered, the biggest change in Pikmin 3 is the clever reintroduction of the overall game time limit without the harshly rigid penalties of its expiration. In other words, now, your total number of possible exploration days is once again limited. However, unlike in the original game, where the maximum possible was set at a hard value of 30 days, Pikmin 3 expects you to collect fruit to expand this limit and add to the number of remaining days. It’s a smart way of encouraging exploration outside of the scope of directed progress, and it forces the player to—at least for a little while (until a suitable buffer is amassed)—balance these two objectives.
The narrative supporting this change goes something like this: a planet called Koppai is running out of food—primarily thanks to, as the story explains it, poor planning. As such, the Koppaites have begun a frantic search for intergalactic sources of food, eventually stumbling (near the end of their rope) onto a planet that’s filled with promise. That stumble escalates into a crash landing, and one of the crew members is forced to begin a search for his other two companions. With each passing day exploring this world, the Koppaites are tasked with creating juice to sustain themselves from the indigenous fruits collected from the wilds. That is, while simultaneously searching also for their cosmic drive key, which is the only way they’ll ever see home again regardless of the fruits of their labor.
OH MAN! This is enough to feed us for... two days
And so begins the traversal of this alien world—which, of course, to the player, is quite obviously Earth (or something like it). Amongst the beautiful flowers and lush jungles, rolling tundras, and autumn wonderlands live the tiny Pikmin, who strangely come to do the bidding of the galactic travelers. Like the previous games, you’ll begin with just one type of Pikmin, but as exploration continues, you’ll necessarily discover several other types, all of which have their own unique strengths and weaknesses.
These are (slight spoilers):
Red Pikmin – Unaffected by fire and strong on attack.
Blue Pikmin – Able to walk underwater.
Yellow Pikmin – Can withstand electricity and complete circuits, but are weaker on attack. Strong diggers.
Flying Pikmin – Take a guess. However, their attack is notably weaker.
Rock Pikmin – Can break fragile objects when thrown and do great damage to unsuspecting foes, but they’re slow.
That’s two new types total, though two others from Pikmin 2 are conspicuously missing from the list. No worries—they’re still available, just only in Pikmin 3’s Mission Mode.
The general style of progression feels very much like that of the previous games, thanks mostly to the existence of the daily time limit. This keeps you on your toes while exploring your environments, effectively carving your expeditions into ten minute slices. At the end of the day, if any Pikmin are left in the wild outside of your landing zone, they’ll be eaten by nocturnal creatures and lost for good. However, as long as they’re under the command of a captain when time expires, they’ll all find their way back to the ship safe and sound.
As always, there's enough action to keep things interesting
Speaking of captains, that’s the other biggest change in Pikmin 3: for the first time ever, you can now switch on the fly between three different captains (commanding three different squads of Pikmin—adding up to the same maximum possible total of 100 in play at any given time). Captains can be thrown just like Pikmin, after which they become their own squad leader—and this not only allows for a helpful degree of multitasking, but it’s also is the basis for some pretty fierce puzzles. These puzzles come in the form of simple physics teasers such as weighted counter-balancing lifts and other such basic concepts, but when one careless step means losing precious minutes of gameplay (and potentially prompting a return to the beginning of the day), it all seems much more complicated.
And that brings us back to the unique form of progression we touch on earlier—those slices of expeditions that you have to assemble to make it through the adventure. Each day means a little more progress, breaking down walls, solving puzzles, beating bad guys, and collecting fruits to convert into some correlated volume of precious juice. Provided your efforts yield a surplus of this juice, you’re cleared to continue exploring at your own pace, mapping the paths through the wilderness and unwinding the mysteries of your surroundings in whatever way you see fit (subject to the confines of the game’s mostly linear central script).
This means an adventure featuring just about the right amount of time pressure: enough to keep you paying attention, but not so much that you can’t enjoy exploring. It’s a suitable balance and a great step forward for the series that most likely will become the new standard for future installments if we had to guess.
It works... though we wouldn't blame you for still using a Wii Remote
You might be wondering whether the Wii U’s hardware factors measurably into this experience. In short, yes. While it isn’t exactly a revolutionary pairing, the addition of the GamePad and its second (touch) screen make for a useful companion. Humorously named the KopPad (by the Koppaites), the screen houses not only the expected map and status information, but also provides the power to pause the action at any time simply by dragging the map to allow for an overhead view of the environment (corresponding with the map location displayed on the GamePad). Best of all, you can even send a captain and his squad to a particular known location on the map simply by tapping. This allows you to set waypoints for one squad while commanding another, which—though it surely sounds trivial and basic in the world of modern real-time strategy games—is something completely new to the third-person-action-style real-time strategy gameplay at the core of Pikmin.
No longer will you be collecting treasure in Pikmin 3, as fruit collection has become front and center on the agenda alongside the primary story objectives. However, there are a couple of extras strewn here and there for avid explorers, such as a whistle upgrade that commands your Pikmin to perform a dodge maneuver (either left or right) with the press of the corresponding button on the D-pad, as well as a suit upgrade that improves your captains’ defense.
That defense is pretty helpful when you’re battling the game’s bosses, a few of which are no joke. The primary attack is always tossing Pikmin, of course, but the strategies range from completing circuits and producing light to dropping special Pikmin rock bombs at the right time—so there’s lots of coordination involved, and plenty of strategy. It’s still horrifying to see your little guys get gobbled up, especially when you have a bunch of leveled-up flower Pikmin, but that’s one of the things that makes the game great. It’s also nice to have the lukewarm comfort of the game’s day-by-day automatic saving system, which allows you to—at any time—return to a previous day, where your progress up to that point was snapshotted.
They look innocent enough, don't they?
And you’ll likely want to spend some extra time running around anyway, as Pikmin 3’s environments are downright gorgeous. Bump-mapping and lighting effects abound, with the leaves of the trees overhead shadowing the sharp textures of the terrain below and caves made navigable by sparse light sources. Depth of field is heavily emphasized, giving the small-scale nature of its constituents a real sense of macro presentation. The soundtrack is also good; though it doesn’t feature live instrument recordings, it’s high-quality, catchy, appropriate, and dynamic, shifting and morphing according to time of day, precipitation, and the presence of enemies.
For all its refinements, there is one particular aspect of Pikmin 3 which falls short of its most recent predecessor. Quite simply, there are no caves. Indeed, one of the best additions to the first sequel was the assortment of time-frozen, often extremely challenging dungeon-like sequences, and they’re completely missing from Pikmin 3. It’s true that the outdoor environments do feel more expansive now, and the level design is most certainly the best of the series to date, but it’s hard to mention this omission without feeling like the series has taken two steps forward, one step backward.
Fortunately, there are two other modes in addition to Story Mode. The first, called Bingo Battle, is a two-player versus mode where players have to fill up a Bingo card (with four rows/columns) by collecting fruit and battling enemies specified in the photo on each individual square. This might sound lame, but believe it or not, it’s a lot of fun for a while. There are twelve total maps, which provides a good bit of variety—but even the various elements of the maps themselves are randomized (such as pellet locations, fruit, and enemies). The only downside is that the multiplayer is local only, but honestly, it isn’t the type of game I think we’d see a lot of people playing online (unless the maps were much larger and there were four players perhaps). If you’ve got a friend who enjoys strategy games and you’re looking to burn some time, it’s a great way to accomplish that.
The other mode—Mission Mode—is even more interesting. It’s a handful of different challenges (usually in the neighborhood of around 10 minutes apiece) that are broken up into three categories: Battle Enemies, Gather Fruit, and Defeat Bosses. Each category is home to five challenges which can be completed co-op with a friend. However, the real challenge is to complete the missions and earn a Platinum medal, something which is so difficult that I am embarrassed to reveal how many I’ve acquired thus far. If you’re done with Story Mode and looking for more action, this is clearly your next stop. It doesn’t replace the missing caves in the adventure, but it’s a decent consolation regardless.