Pikmin 3 preview: Nintendo's adorably dark sci-fi dystopia

By Kat Bailey, Jul 11, 2013 12:00pm PDT

One of Nintendo's more underrated qualities is its knack for producing interesting science fiction. Both Metroid and Pikmin have unique settings and creatures, the kind of stuff that settles into your mind and stays there. They're both surprisingly dark as well--much darker than you would expect a Nintendo game to be.



Consider the first few moments of Pikmin 3. In its opening, we learn that the three main characters are members of a race that has exhausted its food supply and must now search the stars for new sources of nourishment. That in of itself is kind of grim for a Nintendo game. Cute as they might be, Alph, Charlie, and Brittany are members of a dying race, like the Ewoks after the destruction of the Death Star.



The Pikmin, meanwhile, are constantly under threat by hungry predators. So much so, in fact, that they seem in danger of extinction themselves. Forget to evacuate a Pikmin before night rolls around, and you're forced to watch as the poor little guy becomes dinner. For a game supposedly meant to appeal to Japanese high school girls, it pulls surprisingly few punches, and that, in a nutshell, is what I find appealing about the setting.



With that in mind, I can't help being sucked in by the plight of Alph, Charlie, and Brittany. Trapped on an alien planet, they have to rely on one another, and whatever Pikmin they find, for survival. The tutorial takes you through their initial hours on the mysterious Pikmin planet, their first encounters with the natives, and their search for each other, all with the clock ticking ominously downward. After all, they aren't just on the hook to save their planet. If they run out of berry juice--their primary source of sustenance--they will die to starvation as well, so the race is on.

Berry juice helps relax the constricting time limit of the original Pikmin, while adding a sense of panic lost in its sequel. The time limit of Pikmin 3 isn't strict, since it's always possible to find more berries and refill the fruit juice that keep Charlie and company alive. Another key change is the ability to go back in time to whatever day you want at the expense of your saved progress. In Pikmin 3, if you're a victim of a Pikmin bloodbath, as I was when facing down the Armored Mawdad, it's easy to go back and simply try again. It's a far more palpable solution over having to start all over, as in the original game. 


Pikmin 3 adds many other subtle tweaks that improve the overall experience: from the ability to auto-direct friendly characters using the map screen on the GamePad, to the app that keeps track of stray Pikmin so they don't get eaten at the end of the day.

The interface is thoughtful and intelligently designed, and it really eases the burden of directing a million Pikmin at once. Perhaps the most annoying thing about playing Pikmin on Wii U was having to balance the GamePad on my lap while playing the game with the Nunchuk and Wii Remote. While one could just play with the GamePad alone, I would much rather have the control afforded by the Wii's motion controls. It's simply more cumbersome to use the analog sticks than to "point and click." Pikmin was practically made for the Wii Remote.



By far the biggest addition to Pikmin 3 is the fact that there are three characters now, rather than just one. Captain Olimar makes his presence known with research notes scattered around the planet. But this is Alph, Charlie, and Brittany's show, and each of them have a valuable part to play.

 For example, after rescuing Brittany and uncovering the Rock Pikmin, I had to build a bridge. The materials I needed were across a river. So using Alph, I picked up Brittany and tossed her to the other side, then tossed over a few Pikmin to help. Moments later, I had a bridge, and I was able to continue my quest.



Obviously, the addition of multiple characters has huge ramifications for Pikmin's design. With three characters at your disposal, it's possible to get all kinds of things finished over the course of a day, especially if you're efficient. It also obviously affects the puzzle design, as was demonstrated with the bridge challenge. Again, it's a great idea that feels like a natural progression from Pikmin 1 and 2.



But as much as I like all these clever new ideas, all of which represent Nintendo at its creative best, it's still the setting that grabs me most. It's just so fun and different from everything else on the market right now that it can't help but capture my attention. The humorous and yet surprisingly dark setting is just the tip of the iceberg. It extends to the creatures, the design, the world... everything.

 And for the first time in the franchise, it's all rendered in HD.

Whereas other key franchises in Nintendo's slate have begun to feel just the slightest bit stale, Pikmin still feels fresh and vibrant. Not only that, but in a landscape dominated by drab shooters and zombies, Pikmin's bright palette and quirky characters can't help but stand out. It's such a weird, fun, and creative game that fully realizes Miyamoto's vision from 2001. We need more games like that, not just from Nintendo, but everyone.

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