With a sparse release schedule and thirdparty support on the wane, it’s once again down to firstparty games to revive a flagging Nintendo console. Pikmin 3 may not be a system seller akin to the two Mario games that kickstarted 3DS’s turnaround, but it does at least make convincing use of Wii U’s controller – eventually, anyway. Those familiar with the Wii re-releases of the first two Pikmin games will likely opt to play with the Wii Remote and Nunchuk at first, but Nintendo would clearly prefer that you use the GamePad.
Doing so means losing a pointer but gaining camera control with the right analogue stick, and a left trigger lock-on does much to compensate for the loss of the Remote’s finer aiming. Yet the real reason you’re better off using Wii U’s tablet controller is that you have to anyway, regardless of which control scheme you opt for: there’s a GamePad replica in the game itself. Whenever one of Pikmin 3’s trio of protagonists pulls out their so-called KopPad – which they do frequently – you’re prompted to look at yours, which feels much more natural when the GamePad’s already in your hands.
While the KopPad’s hint-dropping data files and chats with fellow crew won’t sell Wii U to the sceptical – and are visible on the big screen anyway – the map just might. It’s a delight, helping you find wayward Pikmin in the pre-sunset scramble to reassemble your squad. It marks the location of fruit and treasures, a valuable aid in singleplayer that becomes positively game-breaking in Pikmin 3’s multiplayer mode, Bingo Battle. It lets you plan routes: mark a waypoint and a colleague will trot off automatically, squad of Pikmin in tow, and let you know they’ve arrived and are awaiting further instructions. It’s a vital tool in a game in which you speedily micromanage not one but three squads. An automated helping hand is welcome indeed and, in the late game especially, frequently proves essential.
The three protagonists, while identical to control, change the pace of the game. In Pikmins past, Olimar could set a gang of Pikmin to work on one task while taking another group elsewhere, but he’d always have to make time to return once the job was finished. Now you can keep a commander close by, instantly switching between them with a button press – and as such can, in theory, get three times the amount of work done before the sun sets. Fellow crew can be thrown onto ledges or across gaps – simple stuff at first, but before long you’re dealing with seesaws and weighted platforms or flinging Pikmin and colleagues at bulbous mushroom trampolines from a lily pad. Leave a colleague near your home base, meanwhile, and they’ll automatically pluck new Pikmin from the ground when they appear.
When new Pikmin turn up they don’t just bring new puzzles, but personality too – a welcome change after two games of Olimar’s blank canvas. Setting out in search of resources to save Koppai, their starving planet, our heroes discover the verdant planet PN-404 on the edge of the solar system. Their ship, the SS Drake, breaks apart on landing, scattering the trio across the planet’s surface. You spend the early part of the game with Alph, a freckled, dopey-looking fellow who bears a passing resemblance to Olimar (who has a very different, although no less crucial, role to play here).
Alph soon links up with Brittany, a bespectacled redhead who spends her evenings fretting about the crew’s meagre food stocks. Eventually you reunite with Charlie, the rotund, mohawked captain who’s rather attached to his rubber ducky. It’s all a far cry from Olimar’s fretful logbook entries, with the team indulging in friendly banter during the day and writing their own journals at night. Alph pens clumsy poetry; Charlie stoically mourns the passing of lost Pikmin; Britanny, meanwhile, admits skewing the division of daily rations in her own favour.
Gathering enough food to keep you sustained and save your home planet is the main goal, and as such PN-404’s abundant fruit takes the role of Olimar’s missing ship parts, squirrelled away behind gates, enemies or environmental puzzles. And what fruit! This is lovingly rendered stuff: ripe, plump and brightly coloured. Good enough to eat? This is good enough to save a planet, and the best-looking thing in the game too. While the shift to HD is clearly a gigantic leap forward from the blurry GameCube originals, ground textures are flat and muddy looking. Leaves and plants in the background have been afforded the same production values as fruit, but it’s disappointing that PN-404’s one constant, the ground beneath your feet, is the worst-looking thing in a very pretty game.
Despite the increase in poly counts and protagonists, there are just five varieties of the floral-headed supporting cast in Story mode. There’s the series stalwart Reds, Yellows and Blues, plus two new types. (Pikmin 2’s Whites and Purples appear only in Mission mode.) The pink Winged Pikmin specialise in pulling things up, lifting gates and uprooting Flukeweed, rosy-hued plants that hold treats inside their tightly wound coils. Their slender forms limit their damage output but they’re handy in battle, especially against the spiders that shrug other Pikmin off their backs and straight into webs below. Bulky, angular Rock Pikmin, meanwhile, can one-shot many enemies if they strike from above, break through crystal barriers, and can’t be squashed. All five can be briefly powered up by juice from spicy berries, but the new additions don’t change the feel and flow of the game in any meaningful way – certainly not to the extent of the three protagonists.
Largely, this is a sequel that seeks to refine rather than reinvent. There’s now just the one Onion – the bulbous organism in which Pikmin are produced and spend the night – rather than one for each colour, saving you valuable seconds when assembling your squad at the start of the day. Send a small squad to strip a bunch of grapes, or to transport a pile of rubble to rebuild a broken bridge, and they’ll head back and forth automatically until the job is completed. Accidentally guiding the wrong Pikmin through water, fire or electricity no longer spells doom: instead they become panicked, and will calm down and rejoin the squad if you’re quick to your whistle. Tap left or right on the D-pad, meanwhile, and your Pikmin will roll to the side – an invaluable aid in the game’s boss fights, although losses are still inevitable. These battles punctuate the easy rhythm of daily life on PN-404, a welcome change of pace given the relative lack of challenge elsewhere. Until the end, anyway…
Pikmin 3’s final level is a sprawling, beautifully designed test of everything you’ve learned so far, and a spike, not in difficulty but in pressure. As well as the hard stop at sunset there’s a constantly encroaching threat that, if it catches you, can instantly trigger the end of the day, and the odds are further stacked against you by a subtle shift in Pikmin behaviour that slows you down. Even sterner tests await in Mission mode, in which you chase high scores and medals by collecting fruit or killing enemies to tight time limits.
As the pressure ratchets up late in the game, cracks begin to appear. The script is witty but there isn’t enough of it: the crew’s nightly reflections on the day start repeating after the 30-day mark, and frequently bear little relation to what actually happened. We could have done without Brittany fretting about the day’s failure to find any food when we had ten days’ worth saved up and had just lost 75 Pikmin in a botched boss fight, for instance. The script is diluted even further by the needless abundance of data files, some of which are curiously placed, at one point spoiling the imminent arrival of a new Pikmin type by explaining its abilities.
Yet perhaps the biggest disappointment of all is how iterative it all feels. Pikmin had one protagonist, the sequel had two, and here we have three, and while the puzzles that require all three are smartly designed, they’re few and far between and you can bumble your way through most of the game by playing it like Pikmin 1 and 2. Ultimately this is still a game of throwing a sufficient quantity of one Pikmin colour at an enemy or object and waiting until it’s either destroyed, rebuilt or transported back to your ship. Luckily, it’s a core loop that still delights. You destroy barriers so you can build bridges; you kill things to bring others to life. And when you fail, and their wispy souls vanish into the ether, there’s not a gruesome death rattle or anguished scream but a soft, plaintive sort of sigh that’s still the most heartbreaking sound effect in videogames.
Familiarity is both the worst and best thing about Pikmin 3. Twelve years after the original and nine after the sequel, little has changed – but little really needed to. It may not sell systems on its own, but it’s a fine addition to a sparse software library that brings one of Nintendo’s most vibrantly characterful series into the HD era and, critically, makes convincing use of the GamePad. And that, pending the arrival of a true system seller, is what Wii U needs most of all.