For better or worse, the first wave of Nintendo-developed Wii U games needs to educate players about the varied new opportunities provided by the tablet Gamepad. That great big touchscreen just begs to be used as an informative map, displaying vital tactical information on the fly and granting players realtime knowledge of their surroundings. The gyroscope wants to be waggled, and married to the thumbsticks to create a hybrid control scheme. And all that without alienating casual gamers or patronising us more experienced players to distraction. What the Wii U absolutely demands, then, is a game that can somehow blend deep strategy with immediate accessibility, ageless cuteness and an recognisable mascot for the fans to go crazy over. Surely that's an impossible ask?
Not for Pikmin. Despite being tiny, the colourful critters could well be some of the biggest dogs on Nintendo campus when the Wii U releases this Christmas, thanks to the classic Gamecube franchise being brought into a new decade in sensational style.
In keeping with the previous Pikmin games, Pikmin 3 casts players as a diminutive astronaut who has to rely on collecting and a small army of the titular creatures, all of whom boast different skills in both in combat and exploration. The big bad world is a terrifying place for such small inhabitants, but by utilising each breed effectively (i.e. by throwing them at targets, tactically rallying your troops and letting context-sensitive AI take care of the rest). Simple mechanics go hand in hand with high level strategic decision-making and triage, creating a tactical experience tha anyone can enjoy, yet armchair generals can choose to master.
In an intriguing twist, protagonist Olimar is nowhere to be seen; replaced by a team of four new heroes who can all cooperate and work together on the same maps. Our bet is currently on the mysterious quartet being family members on a search and rescue mission, but we'll learn more story details down the line.
Functionally, much remains unchanged, down to perspective and core gameplay. It seems to be a retooling rather than a revolution, but the first major improvement makes its appearance known within scant seconds. Pikmin 3 looks absolutely gorgeous - and while much of the visual impact is down to the charming and vibrant art direction, the shiny HD textures, lush foliage and detailed personality-laden animations of your frolicking charges really helps to illustrate the step up in power from Wii to Wii U.
Rock Pikmin are another new feature, and while superficiallly similar to their purple brethren, they back an enormous punch thanks to their massive bulk and armoured exoskeletons.
The WiiMote and Nunchuck setup resembles Pikmin's 'New Play Control' re-releases, with the motion controller moving an on-screen reticule. Marshalling and throwing Pikmin is as easy and throughly satisfying as we're used to, while switching between them is now much easier thanks to a simple dedicated button. While playing, the Gamepad's touchscreen displays an overhead map that can be zoomed at will, or tapped in order to instantly snap the camera to a particular location.
When used as a dedicated controller, however, a few cracks start to show. Manipulating your Captain and the camera with the thumbsticks is comfortable enough, but tilting the pad to guide the reticule takes some getting used to. More work may be necessary to fully realise the control concept, and I'd personally like to see the tilt replaced by the right thumbstick. In tight quarters, it's easy to wish for a Wavebird, though your fingers' proximity to the touchscreen map is a powerful point in the tablet's favour. In another considerate touch, end-mission replays take place on the Gamepad screen, allowing you to study your movements, successes and failures in real time and decide how best to improve on them in subsequent playthroughs.
The first mode on show at E3 was a seven-minute point attack minigame, in which I was thrown into a compact map with the aim of collecting as much fruit and pickups as possible. Bulbous anteaters, amorphous floating jellyfish and other nasties roamed around the arena, requiring red and rock Pikmin to be deployed in order to both damage them and carry their comatose forms back to the rocket in order to score extra points. Though simple, the intricate zone contained several walls that needed to be shredded by massed red attacks or concerted Rock throws, and a bridge that Pikmin could construct to vastly reduce travel time. Choosing which elements to concentrate on first, as well as the right Pikmin for the job, was paramount, making the Gamepad replays essential viewing for perfectionists. The short play time should make for an addictive extra mode with some serious longevity, and Nintendo has plenty of different challenge maps in the offing.
The second hands-on section locked me in a fight to the death with an enormous armoured boss parasite. This millipede-like nasty sported thick armour plates and wicked mandibles capable of scooping up hordes of Pikmin in a single swipe, making tight coordination and manoeuvring the key to survival. Its rocky segmented carapace proved impervious to the plucky yet ineffectual Red Pikmin, but each plate (including the head armour and even the jaws) could be shattered by Rock-types. Bare skin was perfect fodder for the tenacious Reds, who grabbed on and pummelled away for all they were worth while I desperately guided the rest of my troops out of the rampaging beast's path. It was a short and sweet demonstration, but an effective one nonetheless.
It's clear that Miyamoto is still holding a lot back about Pikmin 3, but it's also clear that he's picked the right franchise to act as an ambassador for the Wii U. The adorable visuals, clever strategy and low barriers to entry should make for a game that entrances newcomers, entertains the hardcore and whips hardcore fans into a frenzy - all while showing off the new tech to advantage. Though there may be a couple of bigger names on the launch title roster, Pikmin 3 is already punching well above its weight.