This is usually the part where I go on a multi-paragraph tangent to set up “context”, but let’s not dilly-dally this time. So, let me say this to start: SPACE IS AWESOME. There may still be plenty of mysteries left here on Earth, but the stars are the premiere source of adventure in both fiction and real life. Anything could be out there, but the one surefire thing is the potential for exploration.
Space can scratch that itch, and take us to whole new places. Admittedly, that adventure is only possible with some hyper-rigorous training and skill in real life (a sobering truth for six-year-old Voltech), but a good story can compensate with ease. And of course, the same thing applies to a good game.
Which brings us to Pikmin 3 -- the game you should have played already if you love games. And/or space.
Here’s the skinny. The planet Koppai is in the middle of a food shortage, and in a desperate attempt to survive, expeditions are led to the far reaches of space. That puts you in control of three explorers: the dorky yet good-natured Alph, sharp-tongued botanist Brittany, and macho captain Charlie. Well, in theory, at least; as Pikmin games tend to go, the touchdown on new soil goes awry and leaves the crew separated. You start off as Alph, and -- with the help of the native Pikmin you meet early on -- your adventure amidst the worst (and best) nature has to offer begins.
Still, there’s an important wrinkle to the story and gameplay alike. See, the three explorers only have a finite level of resources -- which is to say, they’re low on food. With each completed day in Pikmin 3, the team (be it one, two, or three members) consumes one stock of food -- or juice in this case -- from their reserves. So keeping the game going is made possible by finding fruit in the field; you can apparently go back to an earlier point in your journey if you put yourself in an unwinnable situation, but the point still stands. If you don’t keep finding food, your team will die of starvation.
Sooooooo...Pikmin 3: rated E for Everlasting Nightmares.
You can think of the game’s plot as a three-pronged mission. Obviously, the immediate objective is to keep gathering fruit so your crew stays alive. But on top of that, Alph and the others will have to keep scouring the land for clues on Olimar’s whereabouts -- because the way things are looking, the only way they’ll be able to return home is if they get some of his parts/data.
And of course, there’s the whole reason the crew blasted off in the first place: they need to find a solution to the hunger crisis. Given how the game plays out, I’m guessing that if the crew’s going to save their home, they’ll have to
be saved by the plot find some hidden bonanza that’ll offer up sustenance on a global scale.
In any case, I’m actually kind of surprised by how much I like the story -- and the characters, more than anything. Nintendo’s not usually the one you think of when it comes to sprawling tales (remember the Other M debacle?), and while what’s here is…slight, more or less, it’s full of charm. Alph is the straight-laced smart guy of the group, but he’s dedicated to the captain to a feverish degree, to the point where he tried to copy his hairstyle.
Brittany’s very goal-oriented, and while she’s just as curious about this alien planet as Alph (maybe more so), several of her lines imply she has been -- or is -- considering mutiny. Captain Charlie’s a macho, macho man with plenty of confidence and bravado…which lets him shrug off getting carted off by a flying monster minutes after touching down on the planet’s surface. They sell themselves with their dialogues in the field, but what I really appreciate is how you can have them talk to one another before starting a new day. Party synergy is simply the best.
If for some reason you’ve never known how Pikmin works -- in which case I wonder why you’re even here -- here’s a rundown. You play as an explorer and take command of the planet’s indigenous creatures, the Pikmin -- bipedal plant-men of varying properties, but with furious loyalty and the work ethic of the average assembly line. You can travel around with a squad of up to a hundred of them, so they’ll fight on your behalf, clear obstacles, and cart resources back to the home base centered on your ship.
In exchange, you’ll give the Pikmin commands and keep their numbers strong by feeding their Onion (their personal ship) pellets and downed enemies. Pull the seeds that pop out from the ground, and you’ve got more soldiers. Or leave them in the Onion and build up a reserve in case something goes wrong. Chances are that you’ll need some reserves, especially if a Beady Long Legs catches you unaware.
Man, I hate those guys and all their kind. The bastards are like death incarnate.
The big wrinkle in the gameplay is that you’ll be controlling all three explorers simultaneously -- or maybe “asynchronously” is the word I’m looking for. While Alph, Brittany, and Charlie all play identically (as far as I know), each one is capable of taking control of a fragmented Pikmin team to complete separate objectives. So if you want Alph to hang back and harvest pellets while Brittany tends to a wall and Charlie builds a bridge, then you can do that. In fact, that’s pretty much how the game will play, even before you fully reunite the team; multi-tasking ensures that you get the most done in a single day.
It’s worth noting, though, that you’ll have to use your explorers to clear certain obstacles -- to the point where you can’t progress in some early areas until you’ve got a team of three. You can forcibly separate them by tossing your other two teammates as you would any other Pikmin, and toss some Pikmin to them so they can continue on the other end. To be fair, that mechanic was a part of Pikmin 2 with the Olimar/Louie duo, but it’s nice to see that it’s back again and taken to the next step…even if that next step was just “the same, but more.”
I was thinking about calling Pikmin 3 “industrious”, but now I’m not so sure if that fits. Sure, when you’ve got all your pieces moving, you’re a hundred-three-man machine. But being industrious implies being surrounded by and dependent on technology -- and while you do make use of it (in-universe and out of it), the emphasis is on nature. And as it stands, that might be the secret to the game’s quality; even if you don’t exactly get to go from planet to planet, or use space as much more than a safe haven (in-universe) and a level select screen (out of it), it’s still the game that makes you into an explorer. An adventurer. A player who can walk away with some REAL experiences, not just the buzzword version thrown around these days.
It’d be downright silly to call Pikmin 3 an open-world game, because even if its areas are surprisingly large (I constantly find myself thinking, “Wait, you mean there’s MORE?!”), they’re self-contained stages with challenges and obstacles to call their own. Still, that’s something that helps keep the focus; you go out in search of fruit, figure out what needs to be done, and do it with your Pikmin squad. Considering that the explorers are technically no bigger than a quarter, the levels aren’t just window dressing; they’re puzzles to be solved, even if they are broken into dozens of spread-out micro-challenges.
It’s true that there are deadly creatures you have to deal with in your quest for fruit -- including story-advancing boss battles -- but there’s a de-emphasis on combat in general. The game puts more focus on nature, and treats that as the enemy instead of some alien horror. Really, that’s how it should be; generally speaking, beating enemies comes down to “throw Pikmin at it until it stops breathing”.
And technically that’s true for a lot of the obstacles in the field, but there are still plenty of things you have to manage and plan out and solve on the fly. That’s a form of conflict you don’t see every day in games; you can’t beat nature, especially in Pikmin 3. Instead, you have to maneuver through it. You have to be wary of it. You have to make use of it, and even change it -- however slightly -- so that it suits your fancy.
It’s a conceit that works wonders for the gameplay. You’re discovering new things on a regular basis, whether it’s a new obstacle to overcome or a new sight to be beheld as you fill in an area’s map. It should go without saying that the environments are beautiful, but the world feels alive in more ways than just “Yo, check all this nature, bro”.
I think this is the game that best sells Nintendo’s design philosophy -- or to be more precise, its intentions with the Wii U GamePad. As always, it’s not detrimental to gameplay, or the player’s hands; it’s true that it’s larger and weightier than the average controller, but it has yet to hamper my ability to play any given title. More to the point, it adds more than it takes away, especially in Pikmin 3.
The most common use, for me at least, is to use the touch screen to send a B-team Pikmin squad to a different area while the A-team (under my command) went somewhere else. Coordinated attack patterns, and all that -- the perfect way to solve a puzzle or position my forces without the hassle of sifting through menus and button presses. (It certainly helps that the action is paused whenever you get ready to do it, or when you’re just checking the GamePad map.)
There’s some additional stuff, of course. If you’re looking for more in-depth stats and data, you can check all that on the touch screen just as you would the map. You’ll be able to find info on the enemies you’ve faced, tips on getting the most out of your Pikmin, and info from Olimar, just to name a few things. On top of that, every now and then -- i.e. in story moments -- you’ll be asked to look at the touch screen to receive messages from your teammates or your ship. So if you’re talking to Brittany (as much as one can) via the GamePad, Alph will be doing the same in-game on his “KopPad”, AKA his all-purpose explorer’s tool. It’s a cute little touch that helps the player synergize with the game.
The more I think about it, the more I realize Pikmin 3 has a hidden element that can really resonate: being able to take pictures in-game. At first I didn’t think much of it, and just showed some friends that you can take Pikmin selfies with the GamePad as your camera (however strange it may feel). But now I realize that it’s part of the mindset. It’s not just about taking selfies; it’s about making the player feel even more like an explorer, and even more like a part of some strange alien world. But you can claim ownership of tiny slices of it -- turn the sights you see into digitized memories.
Take away the conflict in this game and what do you have? A straight-up expedition. An adventure. And guess who’s holding the scrapbook?
That really is the best way to play it. Alph, Brittany, and Charlie have a reason to be on that planet: to find a way to survive, to escape, and ensure that their planet survives in kind. That’s their mission -- but it’s not yours. Even if you can identify with them and synergize with them, you don’t have any reason to care about the fate of their world. You’re only there as an observer -- as a way to have fun. It sounds selfish, but really, even the best, most engrossing video games have that as their core conceit.
But Pikmin 3 makes true on its understood promise. The player wants an experience, so it provides. It gives you an opportunity to explore, and learn, and discover new things, and -- maybe most of all -- see mundane, everyday things in a whole new light. Why else would you be able to see grapes rendered lovingly in HD with full camera control as computers scan each piece? Why would there be an entire subsection of the menu dedicated to analyzing beasts and fruits alike, and have it be awesome?
Hey, can you tell I love this game yet?
I suppose for completion’s sake I should talk about the combat. Like I said, you can resolve a lot of conflicts just by throwing enough Pikmin at an enemy -- so with that in mind, you can play the button-mashing card and nobody would fault you. A big change from the other Pikmin games is that (as far as I know) you can’t move your soldiers around with just the right stick. It’s a strange choice, and while it does feel like a loss sometimes, it’s not a game-breaking one. You can still toss out and call back Pikmin, and one of the most notable additions is the ability to dodge roll your entire squad to escape from trouble. Makes me wonder if someone on the dev team is a fan of Kingdom Hearts 1.
What this means is that battles are chaotic as all get out -- in a good way, and a bad one. It’s good in the sense that, in a lot of cases, you can’t just sit around and hammer that button; you have to stay mobile, bobbing and weaving as you avoid enemy attacks and pick up Pikmin that get tossed around (or worse). Couple that with the need to take advantage of specific Pikmin abilities at times, AND targeting certain body parts/sides, and there are some strategic wrinkles to combat. One of the early bosses has you taking on an armored worm, meaning that you have to toss heavy-hitting Rock Pikmin to shatter its shell pieces, and throw damage-dealing Red Pikmin at the soft spots you uncover. Don’t expect said boss to make that easy for you, though.
Still, I’m not a hundred percent sold on some of the underlying mechanics. In normal situations -- in a fight and out of it -- you have to manually aim Pikmin to where you want to throw them, as shown by a bright reticle and trajectory arc. It works, for sure, but at times it doesn’t exactly feel the most precise; that lack of precision -- and the general need to aim -- is the last thing you want when you’ve got some massive beast trying to chew you up like a doggy treat.
You can make things a lot easier on yourself by using a lock-on feature, but at times it felt as if I had to switch between lock-on and lock-off in order to get the exact tosses I wanted. It could be that I just need to adjust to the learning curve, and that’s where the skill in the game comes on. Even if that’s true, though, is Pikmin 3 really the sort of game where you’d want a learning curve to the controls?
Still, I’m not about to dock metaphorical points at this stage. Even if there are flaws, what I’m concerned with most right now is the core concept. It’s the design philosophy that the game is built around -- and excels at selling that philosophy to the player.
Here’s the interesting bit. When you find files out there in the field, you won’t just get tips from Olimar; you’ll find his personal logs, detailing his expedition of the planet. I know it’s hard to imagine Olimar as anything more than a silent protagonist -- he has a whopping zero voice clips in Smash Bros. Brawl -- but the logs show just what sort of person he is, at least right now. He’s a die-hard treasure hunter, and there’s a level of fervor to his words that suggest maybe, just maybe, he’s gone off the rails. He’s willing to brave the risks of the planet for the sake of some new trinkets…which might be a problem because as far as I can tell, there aren’t any salvageable treasures in Pikmin 3.
It seems strange to make Olimar’s side story a straight-up retread of Pikmin 2 -- that is, until you realize that it’s a way for Pikmin 3 to completely disown the philosophy of Pikmin 2. Taken as-is, Pikmin 3 can be interpreted as a way to completely refute the loot-fests spread throughout the gaming canon.
Am I reaching here? Probably. But hear me out. Destiny (or its marketing at least) promised us the stars, but in the end it boils down to “shoot aliens and get loot”. It’s a disservice to the extreme amount of effort and resources from an army of artists and programmers. Worse yet, it railroads players even without sticking them in some endless hallway or set of corridors; the only thing that matters, however subtly, is getting better stuff so you can…get better stuff again. And again. And again.
The stuff in games needs to matter again. It needs to do more than just make players go through the motions -- and that’s what Pikmin 3 strives for. Olimar’s story is there to remind players that they’re not on that planet just for glory; they’re on a mission, and a dangerous one full of traps and terrors. If you screw around, you will die. The “loot” in this case isn’t something you can use as a symbol of prestige; at most, you can find utilities that give you more HP or the aforementioned dodge roll. You’re using that loot to stay alive, and earn the right to continue your perilous journey -- a journey that may very well put your explorers’ home on the line.
All of that makes Pikmin 3 sound like some harrowing, desperate struggle. It is, but that’s only one side of the coin. The intent with this game, no doubt, is to make that expedition into something fantastic; the weight of danger, failure, and doom are there to make the positives shine that much brighter. You can discover some horrible monsters, but there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from finding glistening fruit, and hear the delight of your explorers as they wonder how it tastes.
There’s nothing stopping you from appreciating a gentle snowfall as you toss your soldiers back and forth across a shifting creek. There’s nothing stopping you from listening to the chants of your Pikmin squad as you trot amongst towering foliage, with the sun beaming overhead, as you uncover new and yet-unexplored territories on the map. And meeting a new color of Pikmin for the first time may as well be its own reward.
You’re not adventuring for the loot. You’re looting for the adventure. And that right there is the secret brilliance of Pikmin 3.
Frankly, I’m surprised a game like this even exists. Against all odds, it’s the game I’ve more or less been asking for since I realized, “Hey, maybe focusing a game around bland, run-of-the-mill murder is pretty dumb.” This one game has given me more than plenty of other games in the past few years, almost without trying. Obviously, it’s given me a more exciting world than Destiny. But it’s given me more frightening moments than The Evil Within. It’s gotten me to care more about its cast than Infamous: Second Son. I’d bet that if it had hacking, it’d do it better than Watch Dogs -- but I suppose it’ll have to settle for being better than Watch Dogs in every other conceivable way.
I’m not so star-struck as to say that Pikmin 3 is the greatest game I’ve ever played. But taken as-is? It’s thoughtful, rewarding, enticing, surprising, and most of all fun. It’s a game that can say a few words once every hour or so and still stay full of meaning -- all while letting you dig in your heels and put your leaf-headed soldiers to work. Given all that, it’s hard for me to walk away unsatisfied. And I’m hoping that if you decide to pick it up, you’ll feel the same way.
Because, as discussed, SPACE IS AWESOME.