I have to be honest: I’ve never played Pikmin before, nor have I really had any inclination to. I never had a GameCube, so Pikmin and Pikmin 2 never even crossed my radar, and none of the nostalgic attachment when Pikmin 3 came out almost a decade later. All I saw was these weird, creepy-looking flower alien things in all the promotional material and a game variously described as some sort of real-time strategy / puzzle game hybrid—neither of which gave me any desire to play. So Pikmin 3, too, passed me by.
But I’ve been playing Pikmin 3 Deluxe lately, and finally know what I’ve been missing out on all these years. “Real-time strategy puzzle game” is an accurate description of Pikmin‘s basic game loop, but it also doesn’t really capture the magic of what makes it tick—it’s a game that defies such easy genre categorisation. Even those little aliens, though still weird and a little bit creepy, are weird and creepy in an endearing way.
Pikmin 3 puts you in control of a group of three humanoid aliens on a mission to find a source of food for their famine-plagued home planet, Koppai. They crash land on a mysterious planet called PNF-404, which conveniently has an abundance of fruit. But it’s also home to lots of deadly creatures, as well as a very helpful indigenous species—the titular Pikmin.
These little humanoid plant creatures seem only too happy to help their Koppaite visitors. Individually they’re fairly weak, but in big groups they can lift fruits far bigger than themselves, fend off attacks from other creatures, and help their newfound friends to get around. Pikmin 3 revolves around amassing a squad of up to 100 of these little plant-folk and using their numbers and unique abilities to get around, solve environmental puzzles, and collect fruit to take back home.
So yes, “real-time strategy puzzle game” fits, but it doesn’t do justice to the charm of the little moments that keep Pikmin 3 ticking along. Initially, you’ll only have a handful of Pikmin, but you can grow more by sending those few out to harvest pellets from flowers and meat from defeated enemies, which in turn allow you to grow more Pikmin and bolster your numbers. Spawning new units is as core to real-time strategy as possible, but I’ve never seen such a unique approach to it as this.
Puzzles are not overly taxing, but very creative in how they use the unique qualities of the five different types of Pikmin you’ll meet. The different colours denote different special abilities: red Pikmin are resistant to fire, blue Pikmin can swim, yellow can conduct electricity, and so on. The different puzzles ask you to use all your different-coloured Pikmin cooperatively in order to open new paths forward or get access to out-of-reach fruit. Pikmin 3 isn’t the sort of puzzle game that wants to really stretch your brainpower, but it’s satisfying all the same to direct your squads of different Pikmin in concert with one another.
And if you do get stuck, one of the welcome new features in Pikmin 3 Deluxe is a hint feature. At the press of a button, you can pull up a hint about what to do next, and even pull up a path in-game to point you in the right direction. You can also disable this entirely if you prefer, so that you’re not even tempted to press the hint button in a moment of being stuck. Beyond that, Pikmin 3 Deluxe comes with a number of other improvements over the original, like improved aiming and lock-on functions, as well as some new side-stories involving Olimar (from the first two Pikmin games) and the inclusion of all DLC for the original Pikmin 3.
But for all Pikmin 3‘s charms, there’s an uncomfortable colonialist undercurrent to it—at least in what I’ve played so far. The entire premise revolves around a group of aliens landing on an unknown planet and happily plundering its resources. And sure, the indigenous Pikmin are willing participants in all this, but there’s still a fundamental power imbalance between them and the more technologically-advanced visitors. I’m sure this isn’t intentional, but it’s an unfortunate subtext all the same—and something that’s been an issue with previously with games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It’s possible that the later parts of the game could at least try to address this, but I’m not holding out too much hope.
If you can look past that subtext, Pikmin 3 Deluxe is a far more enchanting game than “real-time strategy puzzle game” might make you think—or at least, than it made me think. Nintendo’s strategy of porting just about every Wii U game to Switch, and thus opening them up to whole new audiences thanks to the Switch’s runaway popularity, is working. I’m sure I won’t be the only newly-minted Pikmin fan thanks to Pikmin 3 Deluxe.
Pikmin 3 Deluxe launches October 30, exclusive to Nintendo Switch. There’s a demo available on Nintendo eShop.