Pikmin 3 is an adventure game developed and published by Nintendo for the Wii U. It released in August of 2013. A deluxe version with all the DLC, a new co-op feature, and additional story chapters released for the Nintendo Switch on October 30, 2020. I played the Switch version.
I need to address this first. Most reviewers call Pikmin 3 Deluxe a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game. I don’t agree with them. At first glance it may look like one, but in the end, I find that description about as helpful as calling guacamole a sauce. You’re close, but you’re bypassing the whole chip-dipping feature, the main reason why people like the green stuff.
There are certainly RTS elements there — you manage and grow the Pikmin population as well as fight enemies and bosses, but it’s just a slice of the game’s appeal. To me, Pikmin 3 Deluxe is all about exploration and time-management. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as planning your day, multitasking jobs, and carrying out all your goals before the day ends. In most RTS games, fighting is the main point; but in Pikmin, fighting is a means to a different end altogether. It has more in common with Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley than it does with Starcraft and Command & Conquer.
I think that’s an important distinction to make, because I believe more people would try the game if they really knew what it was about. And just maybe it could become more mainstream like Luigi’s Mansion, Animal Crossing, and my other beloved GameCube darlings.
Pikmin 3 Deluxe opens with the planet Koppai on the verge of an ecological collapse. Koppai’s natural resources are running out, and so the citizens of Koppai send out a three-crew team to search the stars and find more food for them. The team discovers the planet PNF-404 filled with fruit. As the crew attempt to land, however, the ship crashes and the three crew members become separated. It’s up to you to reunite the crew, find fruit to send home to Koppai, and repair the ship so they can make the return trip.
On the planet the crew discover Pikmin, a species that’s half-plant, half-animal, and has at least some emerging intelligence. As my wife helped point out, there’s a bit of a conceptual problem with Pikmin and your relationship with them. The game portrays this relationship like a parent and child, or at least like a general and their soldiers. The Pikmin willingly follow you around, carry out tasks, and take orders from you, despite having never seen you before in their lives. Why do they do this? I have no idea. Perhaps they think you’re a god sent from the heavens?
Whatever the reason, the little creatures put themselves entirely at your mercy. If you’re a good leader, then their population explodes and they’re able to survive against large predators. But if you’re not, then their demise is entirely your fault. It’s a compelling way to make you feel responsible for them. It’s heartwarming when they overcome a challenge, but also terrifying when they’re eaten. When paired with the serene landscapes, realistic foliage, and ambient sounds, it feels like you’re playing a nature documentary. And as you know, Mother Nature is both beautiful and chillingly indifferent. It’s a bizarre tone for a video game.
There are other questions that remain unanswered as well – is it moral to make Pikmin the dominant species of this planet? They may in fact not be native to it themselves, and the fact that we’re plundering it of fruit makes it feel like “Baby’s First Taste of Imperialism.” It’s like Pokemon where if you really think about the game’s premise, there’s some dubious morality that you might be able to justify away.
Ah, dang it. I started out trying to sell you on this game, and I ended up in yet another existential dilemma. This is why I never became a salesman.
Let’s reel it back to the gameplay. Like I said earlier, there are fruit scattered around the map, and it’s up to you to find them and bring them back to your base. It’s easier said than done – the level design will put enemies in your way, or a river to cross, or a ledge to find your way around. There are even some good environmental puzzles. Pikmin 3 Deluxe gives you that Metroidvania feeling of exploring an environment, finding your way to the loot, and making a shortcut home. You can even backtrack with new kinds of Pikmin to access areas that were blocked off before. These sorts of games exert a strong magnetic force on me – I need to explore every path, find every treasure, and optimize every day. At the end of each day, I feel immensely satisfied looking at the data summary, showing things like the number of new Pikmin grown or new things I had found. I ended up in a Stardew Valley mindset, telling myself “just one more day” until suddenly I’ve played for an hour longer than I intended.
Each Pikmin type has different skills to help you meet your goals — Red Pikmin are immune to fire, Blue Pikmin can breathe underwater, etc. In addition, your two other crew members can separate from you and be sent out to do their own tasks. You can play this way in co-op or on your own, letting the AI do some basic tasks. Up to 100 Pikmin can be out at a time, so it’s up to you to decide how you’ll divide and conquer everything on the map.
Controlling Pikmin feels quite intuitive, thanks to several quality-of-life improvements. First off, there are comprehensive control options! In a Nintendo game! I ended up with the default hybrid approach of analog stick aiming with gyro fine-tuning. It felt rather precise. There’s a lock-on feature that’s rather helpful if you’re struggling with getting the Pikmin in just the right spot, though if there are multiple enemies on screen it can be a it difficult cycling through them all with the lock-on. The controls also make the way you divide up Pikmin to select specific colors very quick and painless.
The control options, co-op, and forgiving nature of Normal difficulty make Pikmin 3 Deluxe the most accessible game in the series. You can even put down hint markers to tell you where to go if you’re lost. For someone new to the series, I’d definitely recommend playing this game first. Don’t worry, you won’t even miss out on much story, and it doesn’t really spoil anything from the previous games. All you gotta know is that Olimar exists, he’s a treasure hunter, and he has an inept sidekick named Louie.
That being said, the story isn’t much to write to your home planet about. The game begins a bit tense as you seek out the other crewmates, but then it has some contrived plot points to keep the drama going. I did appreciate the brisk pacing, though, and there’s enough of a mystery present that you’ll want to know more. The final boss is also a tense experience, but if you play on Normal mode you should be fine.
Following Story mode, you have a Mission mode with timed challenges — either collect so much treasure lying about, defeat so many monsters, or beat a boss. These begin with a set amount of Pikmin in a set level layout. These are the 100 Meter Dash event of the game — you sprint to the end and then receive a score based on how well you did; it’s very arcade-like in structure. Most of these play on unique maps, which helped make it worth a look. If you beat the first 10 missions, you’ll unlock the game’s 5 DLC maps from the Wii U version for free. These are incredibly charming to play and well worth the effort; my favorite was probably the Christmas-themed one.
New to the Switch version is a Side Story mode, which contains both a prologue and an epilogue involving Olimar and Louie. All that a new player really would need to know about Olimar and the “lore” of the series can be gained from this mode. The gameplay involves more Mission challenges where you complete a variety of objectives in a short period of time. Most of the “story” happens within Olimar’s journal entries. It’s not quite as impressive as a cutscene, but there’s a certain melancholic charm to Olimar’s writing that I enjoy.
I have a few annoyances with the game. First off, the sound effects. Sometimes the Pikmin sound cute, like when they wave to you or they mumble “hup-two, hup-two” when carrying an object, but I’d forgotten how grating they can sound when you throw them. It drove my wife crazy. Second, while the Pikmin’s AI is better this time around, I still had some Pikmin get stuck on the level geometry and fall behind, slowing me down on my march for
planet domination fruit collecting. Finally, as you throw Pikmin, you will throw all of one color before automatically moving on to the next. It makes sense, but I wish there was a way to stop you from throwing the next color in line. All too often I’d throw all of my red Pikmin and then accidentally throw a blue one into fire, or a yellow one into water. I was usually able to bring them back with my whistle, but that also meant some Pikmin of the color I’d wanted would come back as well. They’re all minor things, but they still got on my nerves.
Pikmin 3 Deluxe isn’t a long game — after playing through all of the modes, my total play time went between 15 to 20 hours. To me, that’s an ideal length for an adventure like this. It’s enough to fully flesh out the game’s mechanics, but not enough to overstay its welcome. You’d probably get more out of it with the multiplayer modes such as co-op and Bingo Battle — a competitive mode where you try and complete objectives on a bingo card before your opponent does. At any rate, Pikmin games are the kind of games you replay over and over again. For example, I’ve started a new playthrough on the new Ultra-Spicy difficulty mode, and it’s significantly changed my approach to the game. I also want to collect all the fruit, or try playing in a shorter amount of days… even the Story mode is arcade-like in nature. And thankfully the Deluxe version also introduces its own achievement system to give you more to accomplish.
The quirky nature of Pikmin 3 Deluxe‘s gameplay certainly won’t be for everyone. But then again, there was once a time where I thought Animal Crossing wasn’t for everyone, or Luigi’s Mansion wasn’t for everyone. And look at those series now — New Horizons has sold over 26 million units, and Luigi’s Mansion 3 has sold over 7 million. I hope for a day that the Pikmin games can reach at least a Luigi’s Mansion 3 kind of status, because in my opinion, this was the best game on the Wii U. I’m so happy I get to play it on the Switch now. Granted, I’ve yet to play Xenoblade Chronicles X, or Super Mario 3D World, so I may change my mind, but for the time being I’ll stick to that claim.