Pikmin 3 is nothing if not wholesome. Teamwork, nutrition, the wonders of biodiversity, the limitations of non-renewable resources, and a respect for foreign colours and creeds are all core to the Pikmin philosophy. The third in Nintendo’s foremost post-millennial IP expands upon and refines the previous two titles and as such, even the most stubborn parent would struggle to argue that Pikmin 3 isn’t in some small way nourishing to the soul.
Players take control of Brittany, Alph, and Captain Charlie, three spacefaring humanoids from the planet Koppai. Not dissimilar our own planet, Koppai lacks enough food to nourish its inhabitants. While Captain Olimar from prior Pikmin titles explored to save his business, this altruistic trio are rocketed away to scout for alien fruits that can be juiced into the sweet fluid the Koppaites need to survive.
An uncharted planet named PNF-404 is where their ship, the Drake, crash lands, and where they are greeted by the eponymous animal-plant hybrids. Pikmin are adorable – relentlessly so – not just because of their wide-eyed and monochromatic character models, bouncy animations, or their chirpy yips and mournful yaaaws, but because of their infectious desperation to risk it all in aiding a few helpless extra-terrestrials. They are ultimate role models, not strong or clever, but hard working and compassionate.
Charm soaks through Pikmin 3. Like many of Nintendo’s iconic universes such as that of Pokémon, PNF-404 is clearly inspired by the easily-missed but thriving ecosystems nestled at the roots of blades of grass or found in the silt of seaside rock-pools.
Hostile lifeforms have a gorgeous and distinctive Pikmin style, toeing the line between adorable and monstrous. The snorts and whistles of these alien creatures – as well as the background music and the garbled speech of the Koppaites – are of a similarly high standard.
As anyone familiar with classic Nintendo might imagine, Pikmin are the sentient colony version of items from The Legend of Zelda or Metroid games. Blue Pikmin can move through water without drowning and let you dredge up fruit from ponds earlier in the game, while yellow Pikmin are critical for defeating the boss closest to where they are first located thanks to their electrical conductivity. Meanwhile, swarms of fire-resistant reds are hardy fighters.
The puzzles here are seldom difficult, or even tremendously creative. The overwhelming majority of the time the mere act of exploring the traversable area around the Drake and chucking a handful of the appropriate Pikmin type at what are often colour-coded obstacles will be sufficient to collect some fruit.
Sometimes the player must toss one of three crew members onto a higher ledge and throw Pikmin up after them, and weighted scale puzzles change things up, but nothing is awfully difficult.
This isn’t a flaw per se. The suite of terrific moral statements as well as the colourful art style and conspicuous lack of dismemberment make Pikmin 3 a perfect choice for young children.
Even the most hardened adults should feel a tremendous sense of Zen satisfaction and perhaps even pride as a dozen or so Pikmin enthusiastically cart a juicy chunk of watermelon back to the ship for processing.
That said, even a Hyrule temple would better serve players wishing to induce lateral or analytical thinking in themselves.
Combat is a touch more involved. Pikmin are not independent, and will remain stock-still to be devoured by a bipedal anteater/salamander thing if they aren’t prompted. Here, positioning is paramount. Casting Pikmin at the backside of a beast rather than the front can be the difference between a bloodless coup and a Pikmin massacre.
The latter circumstance has the affected Pikmin emit an upsetting wailing noise before transforming into a forlorn-looking Pikmin-sized ghost. It’s heartbreaking. Boss encounters aren’t strictly difficult, but can last a long time, with sheer force of numbers usually securing an eventual victory.
Those who play Pikmin 3 with a Wii-remote and Nunchuck will wonder how anybody coped before the release of New Play Control! Pikmin in 2009. It’s perfect for Nintendo’s previous generation control system, and trying to aim with the GamePad control stick during combat is a pain.
However, Pikmin 3 cannot be played without that chunky tablet as it displays the game’s map and some helpful menus. As a result, the clumsiness of employing two-point-five controllers will prove irritating for some.
There are other minor control issues. For one, Pikmin will occasionally become trapped behind sharp corners and separate from a squad without the player realising it. Dozens more can be inadvertently lost during a boss fight on a slope thanks to dodgy pickup detection and other odd control quirks.
In addition, while the game encourages players to split their squad into three smaller units to cover more terrain before nightfall, there’s no way of knowing which Pikmin or crewmembers are required to traverse a certain area before each destination has been reached.
Pikmin 3 also has local multiplayer that cleverly transplants the singleplayer gameplay into a competitive context. Its numerous maps – all crafted specifically for the multiplayer portion – are as varied and charming as those in the campaign. A game is won when one player collects four fruits or enemy bodies to fill a line of a bingo-style grid. Suddenly, everything that was straightforward and relaxed in the campaign becomes strategic and tense.
Should valuable time be spent breeding more Pikmin to steal goals away from an opponent? Should forces be split into smaller, weaker squads to accomplish two goals at once? Or should the sole focus be on stealing the instant-win macaroon from an opponent’s base? Items that allow actions such as lightning bolt strikes or bingo grid reshuffles add further depth.
There’s nothing quite like Pikmin. The endearing little title characters are the absolute stars, but every aspect of the game is rich in character and spirit. Its gameplay is mostly simple and charming in singleplayer, but it becomes strategic and many-layered in a competitive context. As a result, Pikmin 3 is the most essential game in the Wii U’s current library by quite a comfortable margin.