Pikmin 3 review: juiced up

By Andrew Yoon, Jul 31, 2013 10:00am PDT

No other franchise created by Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto is as hardcore as Pikmin. While Mario and Zelda may have amassed generations of fans, neither series deals with death as a currency. Like other real-time strategy games, Pikmin 3 is all about resource management. Except this time, the resource is measured mostly by the lives of the game's adorable titular characters.

For the uninitiated, Pikmin 3's grim story and morbid gameplay may come as a surprise. Assuming control of Alph, Brittany, and Charlie--members of an alien race that faces mass extinction due to hunger. Their quest to find a sustainable source of nourishment brings them to the Pikmin--an odd species that inexplicably follows the trio's order, even to their doom.

Not starving is the name of the game in Pikmin 3. Your mission tasks you to find fruit, not only to preserve seeds to send back home, but to simply survive. The game starts with your rations nearly decimated, and Game Over lurks with every passing day. If strategy games are inherently about resource management, Pikmin does a commendable job of adding a sense of urgency to it all. Perhaps no resource is as scarce as time.

The main gameplay of Pikmin centers around exploiting the different abilities of the Pikmin. In classic Nintendo fashion, the game slowly introduces you to new kinds of Pikmin, each with their unique abilities. You'll discover that Red Pikmin are not only resistant to fire, but the best fighters. Yellow Pikmin are not only resistant to electricity, but can be thrown the highest and can dig the fastest. As you discover these abilities, the game tests your ability to divvy up tasks quickly, as the threat of time is ever-present.

You may encounter a glass wall that needs to be shattered with Rock Pikmin. You throw a few to take care of that task, then switch to another character to deal with collecting the materials necessary to build a bridge. Knowing that past the bridge is a hardened enemy, you use Yellow Pikmin to dig up bombs on a different part of the map. All the while, you might have a pack of Red Pikmin carrying a piece of unearthed fruit through a maze of fiery enemies. If this sounds like busywork, it's because it is. And that is largely its appeal.

For better and for worse, Pikmin 3 does little to change the core of the franchise. If you've played previous games in the franchise, you'll know what to expect. In spite of a nearly a decade-long gap from the last entry, playing Pikmin 3 feels entirely familiar. Instead of a revolution, Nintendo has simply tweaked the formula a bit, making it a smoother experience overall. The changes are mostly minor: the Onions now merge into one, days can be rewound and replayed, and there are three playable characters versus two. The juice system is a fantastic compromise of Pikmin 1 and 2, adding a sense of urgency like in the first game, but making it far easier to manage.

The story is buffed up significantly as well, with a lengthy narrative that introduces interesting new objectives throughout the adventure. The fate of Koppai is oddly intriguing, especially thanks to the Treehouse's winning localization. The way it ties into the previous two Pikmin games is quite a treat for series regulars, too.

While there's a much greater sense of polish in Pikmin 3 than in its previous two entries, there are still a number of issues that mar the overall experience. Cycling through the various Pikmin types is too time-consuming, especially as later levels demand rapidly switching between the types. The whistling mechanic to select Pikmin is a bit laborious, and can be frustrating when trying to divvy up your squad by Pikmin type. The lack of any "quick select" option adds an unnecessary barrier to fast-paced "pro" play. The occasional glitchiness in pathing is also disappointing--losing Pikmin because they randomly decided to stop following your lead isn't the end of the world, but feels like something that could have been avoided. Finally, the lock-on system proves to be quite problematic at times--especially during boss fights.

Many of these annoyances could have been alleviated had Nintendo used the GamePad in a meaningful way. For example, being able to quickly select Pikmin type via virtual button on the touch screen would have been appreciated. When splitting up the crew, why not offer a view of what the other members are doing? The second screen would have been perfect in showing exactly what kind of danger a crew member is in. Imagine: being able to simply touch that portion of the screen to jump to that character immediately. Instead, the GamePad is relegated to being an always-on map, and not an especially helpful one, at that.

It's clear that Pikmin 3 was not designed with the GamePad in mind. Even in our review guide, Nintendo recommends playing with the Wii Remote and Nunchuck. Controlling the virtual cursor becomes much easier the Wii Remote, and alleviates many of the camera control issues you may face when playing with just the GamePad or Pro Controller.

Given how ideally suited a touch screen is for the RTS genre, it's disappointing to see Nintendo approach the GamePad with so little ingenuity. In fact, taking advantage of the second screen might have offered the "freshness" that's missing from Pikmin's return from dormancy. At the end of the day, Pikmin 3 is more of the same--a great game that happens to be on Wii U. However, what Nintendo needs most of all right now is a great Wii U game. [7]


This review is based on early downloadable Wii U code provided by the publisher. Pikmin 3 will be available at retail and on the Nintendo eShop on August 4th for $59.99. The game is rated E10+.

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