Pikmin 3 is a game about collectivism, and the fragility of the individual. In pursuit of your goals, you’ll send dozens if not hundreds of the titular creatures to their deaths, and though they look like plants they panic and shriek and die like animals, leaving naught behind but a tiny, fleeting ghost. The game has no explicit circle of life message to ease the blow either, just the tale of three explorers from a planet suffering from an ecological disaster, looking for food and a way to get it home to save their starving species. Their goal is perhaps more noble than that with which Olimar found himself in Pikmin 2, but it still requires the use of the indigenous population of the planet on which they’ve crash-landed as pack mules, construction workers, and cannon fodder.
Pikmin 3 will turn you into a Machiavellian dictator, but it’s so compelling that you just won’t care.
To coax you through the game, this sequel has taken the formula from its predecessors and fine-tuned it with care. Where Pikmin 1 and 2 each had a singular goal – in the former to recover the parts of the Dolphin spaceship before Olimar’s oxygen ran out, and in the latter to find enough treasure to pay off a debt – Pikmin 3 has several, and balances them with limitations that sit somewhere between the strict deadline of Pikmin 1 and the free rein of Pikmin 2. The explorers must find enough fruit both to use the seeds for repopulation of their home planet’s flora and to feed themselves one per day as they go, and while you’ll almost certainly finish the game before they’ve managed to consume all of the fruit they could gather (which is hopefully not all of the fruit available on the planet, or PNF-404 will end up like Koppai), the need to maintain a food supply prevents you from ploughing through the story without a care.
As is traditional in the series, you can also only get a certain amount done before sunset, at which point you have to gather up any stray Pikmin – who’ll become supper if they can’t get back to their “Onion” home before the nighttime predators arrive – and fly up into orbit for the night. Another limitation lies in your Pikmin population: you start with a few of each colour and will soon build up a sizeable army plus overstock (since you’re only allowed to let 100 roam free on the surface at any one time), but environmental hazards and those relatively gigantic predators can cut through swathes of the critters in no time. So you have to be mindful of multiple variables, but then that’s what makes for a good strategy game.
Plot-wise, Pikmin 3 also offers more of a progression than the first two games. Though most of your actions – gathering a population of Pikmin, locating the different varieties of fruit – are largely self-determined, the story is split into key moments that are helpfully explained in one-line directives on your log screen: “Defeat the Vehemoth Phosbat!” “Follow the Mystery Signal!” and so on. Your first task is to help Alph to find his fellow crew members, Brittany the Botanist and Charlie the Captain, who’ve each landed in a different region of the planet. Exploration of those regions and the reunion of the colleagues will take a few in-game days, and then you’ll spend a good deal of time extending your reach across the four main territories of the game. Some way in, you’ll encounter a challenge that changes the pace and leads into the climax that preludes the end to this basic three-act structure.
At the end of each day, one of the crew members will write a brief journal entry that describes their goals or what actions they undertook that day, and the game is clever enough that these entries will closely reflect what choices you made. If you came across one of the boss creatures but didn’t manage to defeat it that day, for example, the crew member will write about the attempt and pledge to try again tomorrow. The crew can chat in their spaceship at the end of the day too, which happens automatically when something major happens in the story but is optional otherwise, though it’s a shame to skip the opportunity, as both the journal entries and these conversations serve to make the game feel more personal to the player, reactive as they are to his or her actions.
Labelled objectives aside, the bulk of the game lies in that exploration of uncharted territories, blacked out on your map until you’ve found a way to get to them. And the PNF-404 of Pikmin 3 is a world that begs to be toured. Pikmin 1 looked beautiful because it was so different from other games, set in a world of giant flowers and insects and tin cans. Pikmin 3 looks beautiful because the power of the Wii U has allowed for high-definition shimmering water and rustling leaves, and a much improved collection of animations for the Pikmin themselves. If you’re not careful, you might waste valuable time watching them carry fragments of pottery like ants carry leaves, marching along with their oversized cargo held aloft. And the fruit is so attractive it’ll make you want to go and eat some in real life, which can only be a good thing.
The lure of the great unknown and the promise of more fruit lying around the bend pull you through the game, and in fact you won’t actually uncover every corner of these lands until the end. That’s the other clever limitation of this game, as with each in the series: the fact that each type of Pikmin, discovered at intervals throughout the game, allows you to overcome particular obstacles and reach new areas. Red Pikmin can walk through flames, Yellow Pikmin through electricity, and Blue Pikmin through water. Rock Pikmin can break through tough barriers, and Flying Pikmin can lift objects into the air. Some fans of Pikmin 2 might be disappointed to discover that Purple Pikmin and White Pikmin haven’t made it into the campaign (though they are in the additional modes) but the two new species provide the variety needed to prevent this sequel from feeling stale, and seven unit types would have been just too many for a game like this.
As it is, five unit types is a lot for one character to manage, which is presumably why Pikmin 3 has taken the multitasking element from Pikmin 2 and expanded upon it. Instead of Olimar and Louie, you now have three characters to control (we can only assume that Pikmin 4 will have a gang of four), each of whom can be doing a different thing at the same time. So you might set Alph to get the Rock Pikmin started on breaking down a solid wall, then switch to Brittany and have her lead a troop of Blue Pikmin to collect a piece of fruit from the riverbed, all while Charlie keeps watch over the rest as they collect pottery fragments to build a bridge. As well as adding an extra layer of strategy, this tactic fits well with our modern, multitasking lives. Just as we are no longer content to wait for a bus without playing on our phones, you don’t have to spend time with nothing to do but watch your Pikmin carry out their tasks and can instead switch to another character to keep things moving. Given this ability to have three separate characters focusing on disparate tasks, it seems cooperative multiplayer would have been a natural fit, but unfortunately the campaign is single-player only. Perhaps Nintendo is banking on players being poor at multitasking and thinks that co-op would remove too much of the challenge.
This single-player multitasking is, however, made easier by a new “Go here!” function that makes use of the GamePad. The map displayed on the screen of the controller is useful anyway because it’s convenient to glance down rather than pressing a button to bring up a map on the television screen, but it also enables you to trace a path for a character to follow automatically. As you drag your finger across the map, you’ll see a top-down view of the world move around on the television screen (unless you’re playing on TV-off mode, which is happily an option), so you can follow the path yourself while the game is paused to make sure that no threats lie in the character’s way, and then send them off with a gaggle of Pikmin and forget about them until they let you know they’ve arrived.
You can play with the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, and that does make it easier to aim when throwing Pikmin at a target or rounding them up with a whistle, but the “Go here!” feature makes it more convenient to play with the GamePad. It’s more than just a map, too. Your version of the “KopPads” carried by the crew members, the GamePad can provide you with information on your Pikmin population, the fruit you’ve gathered, and the data files (left behind by a previous explorer) you’ve found. It also doubles as a camera with zoom and focus and flash, so you can take screenshots and post them to the Miiverse.
Other improvements to the Pikmin formula include the expansion of the additional game modes, each level of which contains levels set in a variant on one of the worlds from the campaign. Fortunately, these modes can be played with a friend. In fact, “Bingo Battle” is multiplayer only, as you and your opponent scrabble to collect four items to make a row on your bingo cards or – if you’ve gone for the option to win this way – nab each other’s macaroons, à la Capture The Flag. You can see what your opponent is doing, but then they can see what you’re up to as well, so the game isn’t unbalanced. The other additional mode, “Mission”, is split into three kinds of challenges with multiple unlockable levels in each: treasure collection, creature annihilation, and boss battles. You can tackle these alone, but they’re much easier – and more enjoyable – in co-op.
These additional modes are a lot of fun, providing as they do bite-size portions of Pikmin action that you can enjoy with a friend, and definitely give you a reason to keep coming back to the game. But honestly, the campaign has so many nooks and crannies to explore and hidden fruit and data files to find that once you’ve reached the end of the story you’ll want to jump back in straight away. This time, you’ll say, I’ll find everything. This time, I won’t let so many Pikmin die.