Pikmin is one of Nintendo’s series that often gets forgotten about, but it’s a real gem — and its Wii U installment is no exception.
Often (arguably) erroneously decribed as a “real time strategy” game, the games are actually more akin to puzzle adventures, in which you explore a world and figure out the best ways to proceed and defeat the enemies in front of you. In the grand tradition of games that feature sprawling, huge maps, too, there are plenty of shortcuts to unlock and lots of revisiting earlier areas with new abilities to find hidden secrets.
And the whole thing is tied together with a delightfully cute aesthetic that fits the tone of the experience perfectly.
In Pikmin 3, you take on the role of intrepid space explorers Alph, Brittany and Charlie as they set out to find a new source of food for their home planet. They eventually crash-land on a planet that is conveniently full of fruit (which, to them, being tiny, is absolutely massive) and encounter the Pikmin, small plant-like creatures that are perhaps a little too trusting of anyone with a whistle.
The trio’s quest then begins: firstly, they have to reunite with one another; secondly, they have to secure sufficient food while they’re stranded on the planet, both for their own survival and to take back home; and thirdly, they need to recover a vital component for their spacecraft, without which they’re never going to be able to leave the planet.
In Pikmin 3, you take direct control of one of the three main characters at a time, and can either bring the other two along with you — assuming they’re present — or split them up into separate parties to accomplish tasks independently. This ability to multi-task is where the “real-time strategy” comparisons tend to come in, but in practice there’s not really a whole lot of actual strategy involved, save for perhaps calculating the most efficient way to get everything done.
The three main characters are actually pretty useless by themselves, which is where the Pikmin come in. Up to 100 Pikmin can be in the field at once, and they can be drawn into one big party or split into groups. Additional Pikmin can be created by taking numbered pellets from flowers or dead enemies back to their “onion” home, and different colours of Pikmin have different abilities: red Pikmin, for example, are good at attacking, while yellow Pikmin conduct electricity and can be thrown further.
Much of your interaction with the game world involves picking the right Pikmin for the job and then flinging them at something you want them to do something with using either the GamePad touchscreen or the Wii Remote. It’s a simple, intuitive control scheme, and the Pikmin are smart enough to figure out what you want them to do in most circumstances: chuck them at a piece of fruit and you probably want them to carry it back to your base; chuck them at an enemy and you probably want them to attack it.
Most of the fun in Pikmin 3 comes from figuring out exactly how you’re going to navigate around certain obstacles. The three spacefarers can’t even jump, for instance, so even a small step up is troublesome for them — though they can throw one another like Pikmin, meaning you can get an entertaining “chain” situation going on if you plan carefully.
In true Nintendo tradition, the game introduces its various concepts to the player gradually without feeling like it’s being patronising or slow-paced; on the contrary, the way the game is constructed means that you’re always discovering something new, be it a new type of obstacle, a new colour of Pikmin or a new, creative way to make use of your assembled Pikmin to accomplish a particular task. The game shakes things up with occasional boss fights, too, which all require observation of attack patterns and sensible use of Pikmin to proceed. These sequences are the most “action game” that Pikmin 3 gets, but they’re perfectly manageable for even the most cack-handed players.
Much of Pikmin 3’s charm comes from its overall atmosphere and sense of personality. Unlike many other Nintendo games, where everyone is generally fairly “nice” — even, in many cases, the villains — the three protagonists in Pikmin 3 are total dicks, frequently bickering with one another and scheming behind each other’s backs to get a bigger share of the daily fruit juice rations. This never really crosses the line into outright maliciousness, however; it’s presented as an amusing rivalry between the main characters — or perhaps more accurately, between Charlie (who fancies Brittany) and Brittany (who wants nothing to do with Charlie) while Alph looks on, faintly bewildered by the whole situation.
The protagonists’ very “human” — i.e. flawed — behaviour is a stark contrast to that of the Pikmin, who are absolutely adorable and loyal to a fault. Perpetually cheerful and gleefully performing any task the protagonists throw them at, you almost feel bad for the little creatures, until you realise that it’s clear that they’re deriving intense joy from everything they do. It’s absolutely infectious; it’s impossible to watch them attempting to tear down a sandy wall or rebuild a cobbled bridge without a big smile on your face — and it’s impossible not to feel a gut-wrenching sense of guilt and shame whenever they die with a pathetic little squeak, their “ghost” rising up into the sky, never to be seen again.
Yes, things actually die in Pikmin 3, and the overall sense of “nature is cruel, but life goes on” is the core message at the heart of the whole experience. Whether it’s the Pikmin joyfully carrying away the carcass of a recently defeated boss, or the unceremonious way in which it’s possible to “fail” the game by running out of food (although you can just go back to an earlier “day” in your save file and try again rather than having to start over), the world of Pikmin 3 is a surprisingly harsh one, with plenty of lessons to learn along the way.
This isn’t to say the game has a particularly heavy-handed environmental message, mind you — it’s simply a fun game with an adorable aesthetic that has something a little more profound to say beneath the surface. And it’s hard not to love it for that.
Wii U Essentials is a series of articles that each focus on a single retail game from the Wii U’s library. These articles aim to build a comprehensive record of this turbulent period in Nintendo’s history: a time when the company released some of its very finest games, yet it struggled to recapture popular attention and commercial success in the same way as the original Wii did.
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