Platform: Wii U
Author's note: I apologise for the lateness of this review, but Nintendo only dispatched a loan copy well after Pikmin 3 launched. We can only work with what we've got. - Jonathan
It's easy to look at Pikmin 3 and ask, "why now?" Having missed the Wii U's launch window, when it would have served as a superb showcase for the GamePad peripheral, Nintendo's most niche of exclusives finds itself standing alone in a summer that should be dominated by big-hitting system sellers. Pikmin has rarely shifted consoles despite being a wholly worthwhile franchise, throwing the lack of Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros, Metroid and other major fan favourites into sharp relief. Of all the first-party titles that Nintendo could have loosed in the Wii U's first year, the adorable yet stressful strategy game barely dented our wishlist. Personally, I also suspect that the delayed project monopolised Shigeru Miyamoto's attention rather than freeing him up to concentrate on new titles.
Pikmin 3 may not be the game the Wii U really needs right now, but - and here's the important thing - that doesn't make it any less brilliant. For those of us who bought into the Wii U at launch, Nintendo have delivered one of the stand-out games of summer 2013.
Controlling three intrepid explorers on a mission to send smoothies back to their thirsty home planet (this is a Pikmin game, just run with it), players are quickly introduced to the same 'easy to learn but sensationally nuanced to master' light strategic gameplay that made the series so enduring. As you explore five sprawling environments stuffed with obstacles, hazards and succulent fruit, you'll quickly marshal small armies of indigenous critters using little more than a convenient whistle and your own two hands: the titular Pikmin who act as your primary method of interacting with the world. A quick blast of the whistle is enough to attract nearby Pikmin to your location, while they can be thrown quick-fire at your cursor with a simple tap of a button. This simple setup underpins the entire game, but like the best puzzle games Pikmin 3 relies on using its accessible mechanics in ever more surprising ways.
Superb context-sensitive AI means that thrown Pikmin will automatically work out what you want them to do, then set about doing it. Throw Pikmin at an enemy and they'll engage with extreme prejudice before carrying the corpse back to their nest to create more troops - Darwin would be shocked and appalled at these ant-like opportunistic predators. Lob them at fruit and they'll carry it back to the ship, faster if you deploy more than you need. As levels increase in complexity, you'll use them to construct bridges, destroy barriers, balance out pendulums and battle enormous hulking bosses (if you don't sneak past them, that is). Though there's plenty of micro-management to consider, the simple controls and impressive degree of automation makes sure that you'll spend your time planning and doing rather than sweating the small stuff.
Naturally this is just the tip of a strategic iceberg, which primarily hinges around the differences between Pikmin species. The vanilla Red, Blue and Yellow species make a welcome return with their commensurate strengths and weaknesses (Red Pikmin are resistant to fire, for example, while Blue Pikmin can swim in water rather than flail and drown). Choosing between different types is as easy as pressing a button, and rewards you tightly controlling their ratios and gradually growing a balanced force to suit the situation at hand. However, the new Rock and Flying Pikmin bring extra flavour to the party, whether it's massive durability and damage if you throw them directly at a foe, or an affinity for totally ignoring obstacles that would have brought you screeching to a halt in any previous series entry. As your army and skill increases, you'll return to familiar environments armed with the ability to get just a little bit further, or interpret a previously impossible challenge in a totally different way.
In terms of genuinely new features, Pikmin 3 thoughtfully throws teamwork into the equation. You now control three commanders instead of the lonesome Captain Olimar, and doing so presents brand new strategic opportunities. When split into teams, each character can lead their own squad of Pikmin, and ordered to automatically move to specific locations using intuitive touchscreen controls - allowing you to pursue three separate objectives or plan pincer manoeuvres. Conversely, if partnered up in the same squad, commanders can throw each other to access lofty vantage points or otherwise inaccessible areas. As the days tick past, the squad mechanics are leveraged into increasingly devious puzzles, all of which you'll master through experimentation rather than being browbeaten with obnoxious tutorials.
The Wii U GamePad certainly makes the Pikmin experience more convenient, but that doesn't mean you'll be in for a cakewalk. Far from it, since Pikmin 3 is still one of the most stressful and panic-inducing games on the market. The adorable critters and big friendly levels mask a ruthless time limit that limits your activities from dawn to dusk, at which point any Pikmin who don't make it back to your ship safely get permanently devoured by dangerous nocturnal predators. There's never enough time. As such, expect plenty of heart-stopping sprints back to the start of the level, and last-ditch attempts to complete objectives before the day is done. Followed by watching replays on your GamePad to learn how to be just a little bit better next time, and how to best defeat a boss without losing quite so many of your colourful pals.
And that's the point, really. We can always do better, and Pikmin 3 finally allows us to wind back the clock and start previous days again. Because fruit supplies are persistent and dwindle daily as the crew consume their rations, you're encouraged to excel, strive for bigger hauls and return to wipe the slate clean once you've realised what a hash you were making of some of the earlier challenges. Casual players will glean intense satisfaction from just completing levels and finally beating the lengthy campaign, but perfectionists now have a perfect playground to pursue just one more perfect run, with one more bit of fruit in the bank at the end of the day.
Graphically-speaking, Pikmin 3 is unquestionably the best-looking game on Nintendo's new hardware. It's a symphony of glorious colour and pin-sharp detail, neatly sidestepping the Wii U's questionable horsepower with its vibrant palette and impressive particle effects. They've found a perfect balance between simplified caricature and high-definition realism, resulting in one of the most attractive games we've tested in quite some time. Critically, environments are visually rich and dense without ever becoming fussy or obscuring the action, which is always a concern when you're marshaling an army of hundreds of drones against the clock.
Pikmin 3 shrugs off all but the most pedantic of nitpicking observations when it comes to criticism. It's possible to argue that the GamePad's analogue sticks don't provide the precision of a WiiMote and Nunchuck, but you can optionally use either control scheme and the powerful touchscreen map more than makes up for any shortcomings. Perhaps the third game in the series plays things a bit too safe, but then again, it's a natural evolution of a series that's already out there when compared to 90% of the shooters and racing games on rival home consoles. Maybe its local multiplayer modes are a bit on the limited side, but frankly, you'll get massive value out of the RRP without ever touching them.
In fact, my only major criticism is that it isn't Metroid. Meaning, basically, that Wii U owners should add an essential purchase to their shopping list. Though chances are you've probably already bought it.
- Accessible yet stressful strategic gameplay and puzzle solving
- Relatively freeform structure supports multiple play-styles, solutions and skill levels
- Eyecatching HD transition; looks fantastic
- Best played on WiiMote and Nunchuck rather than Gamepad
- Evolutionary rather than truly revolutionary (ugh, trite but true)
- Sometimes genuinely nerve-wracking
The Short Version: Pikmin 3 is superb, compelling, deep and more than a little stressful. If you own a Wii U, you should probably be playing this on it.