In Pikmin 3, players control three astronauts from the planet Koppai, named Alph, Brittany, and Captain Charlie. On a quest to find nourishing fruit for the inhabitants of their starving planet, they crash land on PNF-404 (a planet that curiously resembles earth), losing their all-important cosmic drive key, as well as each other, in the process.
As could be expected, the inclusion of three playable astronauts instead of just the one or two found in previous Pikmin adventures, adds new levels of depth to the game. Players can split their squad of Pikmin into three separate controllable units, assigning different groups to tasks in multiple parts of a level. It’s a great feature, but one that can also make the gameplay frantic and confusing. While the multi-astronaut dynamic allows for increased strategy and unique gameplay, the real stars, of course, are the Pikmin. Pikmin 3 introduces two new species to the colorful plant-animal creatures: rock Pikmin and pink, flying Pikmin. The rock Pikmin can break glass and cannot be killed by being crushed, while the airborne variety excel at fighting winged enemies and can carry objects over water. Returning are the red, blue, and yellow Pikmin, who each possess their own unique abilities that have been carried over from the previous games in the series.
The gameplay is tactical, but also quick and fun for a game typically categorized as a strategy title. Throwing Pikmin to accomplish tasks like breaking down walls or defeating enemies is a fluid, addicting exercise, most easily done by tapping the giant “A” button of the Wiimote + Nunchuck combo, though playing with the gamepad is not a chore as other reviewers have implied. One of the biggest disappointments of the game, however, is a glaring lack of gamepad integration. Yes, maps, menus, and notes can be accessed on the gamepad screen, and players have the option of using it as their controller; but if the player chooses the more optimal Wiimote + Nunchuck, the physical process of viewing maps and memos on the gamepad while waving around the Wiimote can be burdensome. Nintendo’s promise of a gamepad-instigated revolution in gameplay is not yet apparent in Pikmin 3, as its incorporation of the device feels more like a side note than an organic, necessary enhancement.
Perhaps LEAST disappointing of all are the game’s graphics and level design. Each new world is a sight to behold, overflowing with crisp, beautiful foliage and remarkably intricate terrain. But while the landscapes may be beautiful and alluring, Pikmin 3’s time-based narrative may make players feel hard-pressed to enjoy exploring them. Rather than the traditional set-up of a small number of lives that are chipped away at by taking damage, the continuation of gameplay rests on the player’s ability to locate and collect fruit. A timer in the form of a setting sun scrolls across the top of the screen, ticking away each day (one day equaling about 13 minutes of gameplay time). At the end of every day, the Koppaites must return to their spaceship for the night, forfeiting any stray Pikmin to the clutches of nocturnal predators, then consuming one bottle from their inventory of fruit-derived juice. Thus, the player is constantly racing against the clock to round up Pikmin and find more fruit. Without fruit, he or she cannot make juice and advance to the next day. This all results in a gameplay dynamic that can be characterized as ingenious, incredibly rewarding, but also quite stressful.
Despite its cons, the time-oriented gameplay of Pikmin 3 sets it apart from the crowd, making the gameplay experience refreshing and inherently versatile. It also allows the game to recycle only a handful of worlds (there are essentially four in all), forcing players to revisit them multiple times without becoming repetitive. The gorgeous levels and the utterly unique, fruit-collecting-as-sustenance gameplay system, are features that have begun to test the boundaries of the Wii U’s capabilities. Shigeru Miyamoto and his team have delivered another power star of a game that has enough replay value to keep Nintendo fans playing their beloved brand for even more decades to come. The first undeniable reason to pick up a Wii U and fire up a shiny new gamepad is this: Pikmin 3 is only a click away.