Nintendo has two key advantages over any of its competitors in the game space.
One, its core properties such as “Donkey Kong,” “Super Mario Bros.” and “The Legend of Zelda” are instantly recognizable to gamers and non-gamers alike. Two, all of those brands have all been shaped by Shigeru Miyamoto, a legendary designer who continues to challenge himself and the company he helped build.
The prolific gamemaker, who works in some capacity on much of what Nintendo releases, returns this week as general producer of the patient, surreal strategy game “Pikmin 3,” one of the odder, more understated works of his career. Starring doughy astronaut explorers who need the help of workaholic, ant-like extraterrestrials, “Pikmin 3” resurrects a lesser-known Nintendo franchise that hasn’t seen a new game since 2004.
It was a surprise when Nintendo revealed that “Pikmin 3,” a marriage of easy exploration and occasionally brutal puzzles, would be one of the first major titles to show off its new HD console, the Wii U. Consider it akin to Disney and Lucasfilm declaring they would revisit “Radioland Murders” before tackling a new “Star Wars” saga.
The plot is loose, as Miyamoto is a designer who uses setup and exaggeratedly drawn characters as devices. Those characters, such as the itty-bitty colorful aliens known as Pikmin, exist more to encourage a player to interact with the game environment rather than tell a straight-ahead story. As Nintendo’s console competitors move toward cinematic, scripted experiences, Miyamoto’s best works increasingly feel abstract and experimental rather than old-fashioned.
Here, three astronauts have gone in search of a planet in which they can raid its natural resources because their home world is dying due to what we’re told is “a booming population growth, booming appetites and a basic lack of planning.” (Sound familiar?)
They crash-land on a world that may or may not have once been Earth — you’ll eventually uncover giant cellphones — and now it’s inhabited by tiny life forms that complete tasks by whacking things with a leaf or flower growing out of their heads. These are Pikmin.
The Pikmin are eager to serve the wide-eyed explorers, the latter of whom find the Pikmin planet overrun with giant fruit christened with cutesy names (a cherry, for instance, is “A Cupid’s Grenade”). Like Angelenos and New Yorkers just informed of a new fad diet, our three happy-go-lucky explorers eagerly turn these fruits into juice for survival.
It sounds lighthearted, and “Pikmin 3” has fun with its sci-fi-meets-health-food themes, as it is, on its surface, a quest for fruit and a way home. There’s humor too. “Eating all this great fruit has pretty much cleared up that weird blotchiness you had,” exclaims explorer Brittany to her fellow astronaut Alph.
But there’s far more than charm at work here.
Dating all the way back to “Donkey Kong” and the first “Super Mario Bros.,” Miyamoto’s games are often instantly accessible and boast minimalistic control schemes. Whistling, for example, brings your Pikmin closer, and tossing them assigns them a task, be it building a bridge or attacking a big-eyed creature such as the Bulborb. It’s also quickly clear what a Pikmin does just by looking at it. Red Pikmin are fire-resistant while a static-infused yellow Pikmin can transmit electricity.
Eventually, however, Miyamoto’s works take a turn for the difficult. “Pikmin 3” is no different.
Putting all the various Pikmin to work, and doing so in the allotted time, has “Pikmin 3” toggling back and forth from a serene experience to one of high stakes strategy. The game gives you control of three astronauts at once, allowing you to split up and assign various Pikmin all sorts of different tasks.
The game is broken into short, approximately 15-minute days rather than levels, and one can spend as many “days” traversing an area as desired, as long your characters don’t run out of fruit juice. Since the planet becomes inhospitable after sundown, a game session comes to an end at nightfall, as our astronauts and Pikmin will need to find shelter in orbit at dusk.
But get in over your head by trying to do too much, and you’re soon watching your Pikmin die a tear-jerking death, or getting a “game over” screen as your characters starve in a spaceship. All this happens as a soundtrack of retro-futuristic, French-inspired electro-pop plays in the background at the end of one of the game’s days.
If you kill too many Pikmin pals or find yourself low on nectar, the game allows you to go back in time and pick any day to try again. Expect to replay a day numerous times as it’s often difficult to form a strategy until the full terrain has been revealed and plans likely won’t be concocted before the nighttime creatures come out to feast on Pikmin.
Though it seems counter-intuitive in the era of the next-new-thing and blockbuster sequel, Nintendo’s decision to dig deep into its catalog has paid off, particularly in terms of delivering a game with surprising depth and gorgeous landscapes. The Wii U’s touchpad-like controller the GamePad is also vital here, as maximizing time can’t be done without using the GPS-like touchscreen abilities.
More enticing than any game mechanic, however, is simply the joy of exploring a large, outer-space universe lovingly crafted by Miyamoto. This is a game of discovery rather than action, and what’s revealed is a peek into the mind of a master designer at play.
– Todd Martens | @toddmartens
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