Hands-on with Pikmin 3, darling of the Wii U lineup

I waited eight years to play Pikmin 3. The last time we saw a Pikmin title was in '04, when the second game in the series came out for the Wii. Well, at E3 2012, the fanboy in me was given sweet release. Here's what I thought.

On the one hand, this is a game that I missed. The Pikmin series is charming, adorable, strategic and brutally Darwinist. In what proves to be a dichotomous case, however, the game has not changed much. While that's Nintendo's modus operandi — it refines consistently, and re-invents only occasionally — Pikmin 3 seemed a bit conservative, even for Nintendo.

Not A New Way to Play

Control is where this conservative problem starts. Pikmin 3's E3 demo controlled solely with the Wii Remote and Nunchuk. The GamePad was non-functional, but more on that in a second. The method of playing the game was identical to the New Play Control versions of the first two games in the series that were re-launched on the Wii. Make no mistake, these controls do work exceptionally well. Aiming with the IR pointer to throw your Pikmin is equal parts accurate and satisfying. It's one of the few cases where the Wii Remote proves to be not only adequate, but exceptional at controlling a rather complicated game. That's great news, but it feels a bit lame to be writing about the Wiimote in 2012, at what's ostensibly the Wii U's coming out party.

Which brings me to why the GamePad was unusable. It was E3 day two, and I learned that the GamePad had caused problems throughout demos given the previous day. Thus, the GamePad would be shelved for the rest of Pikmin 3's E3 showing. A shame really, as it is the GamePad functionality that enables Pikmin 3's larger playable levels and cooperative gameplay. Luckily, but still disappointingly (the dichotomies continue), for the purposes of the two small stages shown at E3 this didn't much matter.

Rock Pikmin Scissors

This is the much more favorable part of the Pikmin 3 preview. Pikmin games have never looked better than they do now. The natural setting, creative character design, and classic Nintendo style compound with the Wii U's added horsepower to deliver a stunning game. It's crisp, clean and relentlessly adorable. While playing, I was driven to explore not only by the game mechanics, but by a desire to see more of the environment. The franchise has always boiled over with visual creativity and that has not changed here.

The first mode on offer was a time attack. The objective was to collect as many resources as possible in a five-minute time limit. This is a returning mode from earlier in the series, but what it truly smacked of was the series hallmark of forcing the player to work quickly. It's an idea that has permeated the entire series. The metaphor that time creates is perfect for Pikmin. The race to collect resources, evade or kill predators, and race against the ever waning daylight reflects the Darwinian structure where no creature is special. They must survive totally of their own accord, unless they're Pikmin, that is.

The map is littered with both enemies and resources like bottle caps, gold, batteries and more. Since the player is nearly always charged with a large number of Pikmin, it is their job to prioritize between vanquishing predators and sending booty-carrying Pikmin back to base. Every choice a commander makes carries a risk. Let's say that a level start with fifty Pikmin to wield, and four die in battle as the player presses forward. Then the player decides to task Pikmin with carrying the corpse of the enemy and the valuable treasure that is now unguarded. Suddenly, only 60% of the original force remains. Then the true question comes up. Does the player press forward with what Pikmin remain, or does one return to base, wasting valuable time but re-collecting the carrier Pikmin for the drive onward? The element of risk versus reward is embedded in every game mechanic. Like all Nintendo designs, Pikmin 3 is watertight.

The latter stage was nothing more than a bossfight. It served to show off the attributes of the new Rock Pikmin. The boss, the Armored Mawdad, was an armored caterpillar with the face of a whale. That face, however, had two giant pincers that opened wide, corralling Pikmin for chowing on. The fight proceeded about how you'd expect: the Mawdad charges across the stage, attempting to eat your Pikmin. The player is tasked with breaking the individual armor plates off of the Mawdad using Rock Pikmin, then tossing Red Pikmin onto the exposed flesh to damage to the beast. It wasn't a complicated battle, but one poor movement could leave you with severely depleted forces. Vanquishing the beast yields a satisfying and comical death animation.

The demo concludes with a text scroll that says "Thanks for playing!" A few Pikmin and a backlog of eight years of nostalgia followed the words onto the screen.

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