When Nintendo moved their games into 3D spaces, one of the first things their internal development teams started playing around with was the pull of the horizon. This pull is perhaps best realised in their Zelda games, which are often about the discoveries made while one journeys towards a distant landmark, although the thrill of exploration and arrival was a reoccurring theme even when the technology wasn’t there to support this vision quite so fully. Think back to the earlier Metroid games for instance – you’d see a path, or an object, and you’d know that if you preserved that scene in the back of your mind the game would eventually reward you.
That’s what Pikmin is all about too, exploring the world at a micro-level and eventually finding your way to those distant objects you spied some time ago. If Zelda is about the adventures Miyamoto imagined having when he played as a child, Pikmin is closer to the adventures he would have actually had, dealing with creepy-crawlies and making sure you get done as much as possible before the sun goes down.
The set-up is the same as the previous two games, except with three heroes leading your army of Pikmin instead of ol’ Olimar. You explore a world that, while alien to the protagonists, is very familiar to the player, collecting Pikmin to help you traverse through the world’s obstacles, and this time you can split them off into smaller groups to tackle multiple areas on the map at once.
Pikmin 3’s puzzles and battles rarely amount to much more than throwing the right Pikmin at the right places or enemies, but it manages to keep things exciting by demanding exploration and constant revisitation of old areas. The level design will constantly alert you to areas you can’t access yet, drawing your eyes towards Nintendo’s beloved horizons, to try and get you thinking about possible pathways. By the end of the game you’ll feel like a conqueror who has mastered the game’s harsh ecosystem.
There’s a wonderful sense of tension to proceedings too. The first Pikmin took things a bit far, giving you a time limit to finish the game within, and the second abolished it, but the third gets the balance right. You need to collect fruit, lest your three heroes starve to death, but even if you build up a huge backlog the fear of returning to the ship without anything new to eat is palpable.
More troublesome still is the sun setting – any Pikmin not under your control at the end of the day will die, and since the game rather traumatically makes you watch them get eaten, so it’s in your best interests to keep them alive. This all means that you always need a plan, and that plan needs to be adjusting constantly, which makes the map displayed on the GamePad come in very handy. I found that the game was best controlled with a Wii remote and nunchuk, the GamePad in my lap or on the floor in front of me; this limits your camera control rather significantly but also allows you to hurl Pikmin with better precision, which helps a lot during boss fights..
Pikmin 3 is the fourth game Nintendo has developed and published for the Wii U, but in many ways it feels like the first real ‘big’ Wii U game from them. Great as New Super Mario Bros U was, it wasn’t a title that many people got excited about – it was more of the same, but better looking. Pikmin 2 was nine years ago, and 3 comes with the bells and whistles that the new console has afforded, although it is also held back, visually, by the developer’s inexperience with high definition. Environments are lovely and the Pikmin themselves are as delightful as ever, but textures are muddy and generally lacking in detail. Still, there’s a giddy excitement to playing a Nintendo game in HD that doesn’t dissipate.
Pikmin 3 is quintessential, classic Nintendo, the Nintendo we know and love, the one that makes us buy every console regardless of our doubts and hang-ups. It’s not the killer app the system is begging for, but if you have shelled out for Nintendo’s new console it’s the best exclusive currently available.