The original Pikmin may have been a cute, approachable take on the real-time strategy genre, but man was it stressful. I'm the kind of person who likes to take his time playing a game, and Pikmin's omnipresent 30-day countdown really wore on me. In the end, I finished the game before time elapsed, but I didn't earn the best ending; it was more a case of limping sadly away from the planet.
Pikmin 2 did away with the time limit and made loot-hunting the core of the adventure. This shifted the overall feel away from RTS and more toward dungeon crawler, emphasizing cautious adventuring as players took their parties ever deeper into the caves and wilderness in search of treasure. It was less harrowing, but the lack of an overarching limitation also made it less intense.
Now, with Pikmin 3, Nintendo seems determined to strike a balance between the two games. It's a race against a deadline this time, but a less harrowing one than before. Not as inflexible a limitation as the original Pikmin's, but something to provide more motivation than Pikmin 2's lack of long-term concerns. The crucial factor this time around draws on the conventions of the increasingly popular roguelike format: Hunger. Unlike Captain Olimar, the three protagonists of Pikmin 3 have managed to figure out how to eke a living from the mysterious planet they've landed on -- they're on a juice diet, basically -- so as long as you can find fruit for them to smash up, they can continue exploring almost indefinitely (there should be roughly enough fruit for 100 days of in-game time, I'm told).
So, as you're exploring the planet in an attempt to find seeds for replenishing planet Hocotate's food stocks and hunting down fragments of the heroes starship, the Drake, you're also seeking out sustenance to power your team. Should you allow your larder to run dry, that's the game: Your explorers starve, game over, just like the time limit in the first game.
This time around, however, if you fail the overall quest you can jump back to any previous day of the adventure (not just redo the previous day), and all details -- your quest progress, your Pikmin stock, even the location of items you've carried partway to the ship and dropped -- will be as you left them the first time around. The downside to this detailed personal history is that the game offers only a single save file, so once you page back and record your new attempt, all future dates are wiped clean. Time travel, you know. Alternate reality overwrites the prime timeline, and all that.
Speaking of the mysterious planet and Captain Olimar, his presence looms over the game despite the fact that no one on the crew has heard of him, and the planet doesn't show up in Hocotate's star charts. So as you're exploring planet PNF-404 (yes, the planet is actually named Page Not Found 404; I asked), you uncover fragments of data Olimar has left behind, which will help you on your way. Which is strange, when you stop to think about it: When did Olimar encounter rock- and flying-type Pikmin? Is it a recton? Plot twist? Nanomachines?
The addition of these new Pikmin types, along with the need to control three captains at once (they can be split into three separate teams to handle multiple tasks for that authentic RTS feel), make Pikmin 3 far and away the most complex game in the series. Surprisingly, Nintendo seemingly intends the game to be played with the Wii remote and nunchuk rather than the Wii U Game Pad -- perhaps a sign of just how long this game has been in the works. The Game Pad does work nicely as a field map, and Nintendo has tacked on some superfluous nonsense (such as a camera mode) to make their expensive controller feel less lonely, but the game really does work best with the point-and-whistle directness of the Wii remote. I'm sure there's an uncharitable editorial about the Game Pad to be written here, but someone else can write it. As far as Pikmin 3 goes, the important takeaway is that you'll want to dust off your Wii controllers.
The real test of how well the control setup works came for me with the first boss encounter, the rock-encrusted crustacean Nintendo has shown off in multiple demos for the game over the past year or so. In all the appointments, demos, and conventions I've attended, I'd never seen anyone take down the boss within the time limit. Being thrust into a tough battle with multiple Pikmin types to juggle invariably left players feeling overwhelmed -- myself included. But when I began from the start of the game and eased myself into the fight, I had no trouble at all. Aside from an early goof where I moved too slowly and let it wipe out about 20 Pikmin in a single blow, I found that managing my team to strike its vulnerable points -- rock Pikmin to crack its shell, red Pikmin to cling to and attack its soft innards -- felt effortless and natural. I took it down with no trouble and watched with satisfaction as my little minions marched it back to the ship as propagation fodder.
With the added complexity of the game mechanics comes a more intricately designed world. The level layouts are one area in which Pikmin 3 definitely does not resemble a roguelike. Far from leaving level design to the dumb luck of a random number generator, Nintendo has crafted involved, multi-tiered spaces that require cautious traversal and a touch of puzzle-solving. In the first two areas of the game alone, I saw a crystal wall that would need to be dismantled by rock Pikmin long before I'd acquired any of that type, an electric fence that the yellow Pikmin who appear in the third section could deactivate, and more.
In 90 minutes of hands-on time with Pikmin 3, I saw a game that appears much more elaborate than the original, yet far more urgent than its sequel. Fans have been waiting a seeming eternity for this game to finally come to fruition (as the control scheme suggests), but the lengthy development time looks like it will pay off. Nintendo tends to shy away from intricacy in favor of accessibility, but this time they've hopefully managed to accomplish both. And I haven't even gotten into the extensive multiplayer stuff....