Pikmin 3 dabbles in a popular narrative device common in sequels: The story revolves around new protagonists, but the shadow of the old hero looms long over the proceedings. As with Don Corleone in The Godfather Part II or Jason Bourne in The Bourne Legacy, this isn't the story of Captain Olimar... but he's always there, just off-camera.
Thankfully, his replacements manage to come across as likable, memorable characters of their own rather than empty ciphers chasing the shadow of a better lead (in other words, Pikmin 3 hews closer to The Godfather Part II than The Bourne Legacy). As new leads Alph, Brittany, and Charlie unravel the mystery behind the enigmatic traces Olimar has left behind on Planet PNF-404, they reveal their personalities through both journal entries and spoken conversations. Admittedly, those personalities are painted in broad, archetypal strokes, yet you can't help but like them -- especially Brittany, who views the world with a wry, intellectual dispassion betrayed only by her enthusiasm for fruit juice and cuteness.
The protagonists hail from planet Koppai, not Hocotate like Olimar and his partners, which allows Pikmin 3 to preserve the outsider's perspective that suffused the original game. The Koppaian explorers arrive as newcomers to PNF-404, a troublingly desolate version of Earth that manages to be at once post-apocalyptic and pangaean, which means they go through the process of learning the ropes of controlling the tiny creatures called pikmin that thrive in our ruined world from step one. Similarly, they regard the fruit that serves as the game's core collectible with the same naïve freshness with which Olimar described the "treasures" he scavenged in Pikmin 2. I would never have called an Italian eggplant a "dapper blob," but you know, it does kind of look like a little fat guy wearing a hat.
The lead trio serve a much more essential purpose in the game than simply casting a new perspective on things, though. They help bring Pikmin 3 closer to becoming a "true" real-time strategy game than the series has ever come before. By allowing players to change their focus between the three different Koppaians, the game grants a huge range of flexibility to players comfortable with multitasking. You can still win by timidly sticking to a single party except when forced to divide up to clear specific obstacles, but splitting the team and assigning tasks (and making smart use of waypoints and auto-pathfinding) gives Pikmin 3 considerably more strategic depth than either of the previous games. Granted, this is no StarCraft or Company of Heroes -- but then, it's not meant to be.
The core tenets of Pikmin 3 remain true to the game's heritage. Players control a team of tiny astronauts who lead an army of vegetable men called pikmin. The team's "home base" serves as the key tactical point for creating new pikmin from scavenged resources, as well as dropping off collected fruit for storage and sustenance. Pikmin 2 dropped the hard 30-day time limit of the first game, but Pikmin 3 restores it in a sense: The protagonists must collect fruit in order to feed the crew during their excursion. Roughly 100 days' worth of fruit is scattered about the maps, and acquiring certain of them makes for some of the game's most challenging goals. You can effectively play indefinitely if you manage your resources right.
Besides the ability to divide and conquer more effectively with your tiny spacemen, Pikmin 3's greatest asset is easily its absolutely perfect level design. Each of the game's maps sprawls magnificently and provides progressive goals that beg re-traversal and follow-up exploration. As the protagonists' abilities (namely, different pikmin breeds) are meted out one by one, new areas and new prizes come into reach on each map. The selection of pikmin themselves is the series' best to date as well; the ill-considered white and purple pikmin of the second game have been replaced by black and pink ones that serve a number of useful roles. But unlike their kin, they've been designed with care to avoid seeming overpowered or replacing any of the basic three types altogether. Where the purple pikmin supplanted the red ones, black pikmin work best in tandem with reds.
Pikmin 3 has its failings, to be sure. The game doles out new abilities for nearly a month of in-game time, then all too suddenly ends. Rather than letting you stretch a fair bit once you have your full arsenal of tricks in hand, Pikmin 3 instead rushes you to the finale. The game just feels a little short at the end -- not rushed, more like it's missing something. Given the way the ending movie hints at a sequel or, more likely, DLC, it's entirely possible that the "missing" content is actually "cut and being saved for later" content.
And the final map, intricately designed as it may be, turns into something of a slog due to a special condition that affects your trip through the area. Worse, it highlights both the sometimes clumsy camera perspectives that affect your progress and the occasionally awful pathfinding AI. There's nothing more frustrating than cornering a hairpin turn around a body of water only to have your lagging pikmin decide to cut straight through the water despite the fact that they can't swim.
Despite these occasional flaws, Pikmin 3 works. In a medium where the word "sequel" far too often means "last year's game with a few superfluous features added," Pikmin 3 feels downright refreshing. Of course, there was no Pikmin game last year; the last new entry in the series arrived two generations ago, on GameCube, back in 2004 -- but Pikmin 3 offers more as a sequel than just a lengthy time gap.
Rather, this is the platonic ideal of a sequel: Bigger, better, more refined, but nevertheless faithful to what's come before. The game does stumble in a few areas, particularly in the final stretch, but on the whole it builds on the foundation of the first two games to stand as the best entry in the series by a considerable distance. Not only does Pikmin 3 strike a perfect balance between the first game's high-pressure minimalism and the second's languid dungeon-crawling, it also brings the best elements of their Wii remakes into the mix as well. Add some excellent solo and multiplayer extra modes to the best single-player campaign in the series and you have a sequel par excellence.
It's an especially gratifying sight coming from Nintendo, who in recent years has been a paragon of bumming around aimlessly with sequels rather than pushing new boundaries. Sure, games like New Super Mario Bros. U have demonstrated some excellent level design, but on the whole they tend to feel like Nintendo is spinning wheels rather than making advances. The arc of Pikmin, on the other hand, feels more akin to what we saw with classic NES trilogies like Super Mario and Castlevania: A great, if simple, first title; an entertaining follow-up that mixed up its predecessor's conventions both for better and for worse; and a third entry that returns to the first game's principles but with far more substance. Don't get me wrong; I wouldn't quite call this a masterpiece on the level of Super Mario Bros. 3. But it's a significant leap forward for the series, and the most fun I've had on Wii U to date.
Small admission: I never really got into the Pikmin series. Like many gamers looking for a reason to use my GameCube, I gave Pikmin a good run but it never really grabbed me. Mild interest in the original led to complete disinterest in the sequel, fair or unfair. That's why I'm surprised to completely concur with Jeremy's conclusion that this is the best game on the Nintendo Wii U, one that borders on system-seller status.
Jeremy's full review speaks at length about the single-player game, and I agree that it is a wonderful time. The characters are cute but not unbearable, and the maps are really gorgeous. The HD visuals are stunning, with a beautiful use of focus to give the larger-than-life garden worlds a touch of reality. Hell, the post-level closeups of the different fruit you gather gives you some of the most gorgeous visuals I've seen on a home console.
The Wii U GamePad also comes in handy a lot more than I was expecting. Given the fact you have three captains you can control, the GamePad is almost mandatory for effective management as you explore each level's terrain. Even if you're an expert gamer, you'll want to use the "Go Here" feature which allows one of your captains and their squad of pikmin to head to a specific part of the map, giving you a chance to really multitask without giving it much thought past the initial strategy you lay out. One captain heads for a piece of fruit while another helps take down some barriers, and you're free to use the third captain to continue on your main adventure.
The delay may have been frustrating for thirsty Wii U owners, but if that helped lead to the two modes on top of the game's single-player story, it was worth the wait. The first is a mission mode that helps you tackle different objectives on the game's maps, but it's the second, Bingo Battle mode, that makes this a must-have.
Bingo Battle takes place on a screen split vertically, and each player takes control of a captain with their own set of pikmin. Each player has a bingo card with various items to collect in order to mark it, and the first person to make a line across their card wins the match. What starts off as a match full of exploration and getting your bearings quickly turns into a cutthroat game as you try to complete your card, but also try to block your opponents from completing theirs.
This is further complicated by a power-up roulette wheel that occasionally appears to give you items you can use against your opponents. Time them correctly, and you can really gain an advantage. In one match, I found myself doing pretty well and was close to sending @danackerman to his doom. But Dan, sensing the end, made a bee-line for my side of the play field and hit his meteor power-up. Before I could look up in the sky, an interstellar rock flattened not only me and my crew of pikmin, but also Dan and his remaining guys. Assured victory was snatched from my hands in favor of mutual assured destruction. And yes, it was fun.
Slowly but surely, Pikmin 3 began to pique my interest, and the final product has delivered a great experience worthy of top marks. If Nintendo keeps games like Pikmin 3 coming, the Wii U has a real shot of becoming a powerhouse as the year rolls on.
- Visuals: Pikmin 3's graphics won't blow your mind, but that's because the game takes a more subtle approach. The world is full of pastoral beauty, even the dusty desert climes, colorful but muted enough to help your vibrant minions stand out more clearly.
- Audio: Gentle tunes evoke the countryside (Shigeru Miyamoto does love his banjo), with a dynamic audio mix to help alert players to nearing danger. The sound design is nearly perfect, with distinct audio cues to give you a sense of exactly what's happening around you -- and how far away it's happening.
- Interface: Weirdly, the Wii remote interface works much better than the Game Pad. But it works wonderfully, even with the added complexity of managing three different teams.
- Lasting Appeal: The single-player campaign ends somewhat abruptly, but it's still larger than either campaign from the first two games. The bonus mission and competitive modes could come across as tacked-on extras, but they're loads of fun.
Right now, Pikmin 3 is the single best piece of software on Wii U. I don't think it's a system seller by any means -- it's a light strategy game about controlling chirpy carrot-men, after all -- but anyone who owns a Wii U should give it a try. I went from being cooly disinterested in Pikmin 3 to completely smitten in the course of an afternoon. It's one of those games in which everything comes together just right. Olimar would be proud.