It’s hard to fairly describe a game like Pikmin 3 Deluxe. I said as much when I shared my first impressions, and despite having spent much more time with it since then, I’m still struggling to do it justice. It’s a game that’s not quite like anything else out there, except for its own predecessors, but it’s one that takes the unique premise and really makes it work. The original Pikmin 3 did about as well as a Wii U game could, but a Switch re-release with some welcome tweaks is a perfect opportunity for newcomers and old fans alike to get a taste of Pikmin‘s creative blend of real-time strategy, action-adventure, and puzzle game elements.
Alien yet familiar
Pikmin 3, in both its original and Deluxe incarnations, centres on a group of explorers from the Koppai, a planet wrought by famine due to overpopulation and a lack of planning. Their solution? To take to the stars in search of another source of food, a mission tasked to the three-person crew of the S. S. Drake: Alph, Brittany, and Charlie. A crash-landing on planet PNF-404—which bears a striking similarity to Earth—proves unexpectedly fortuitous thanks to an abundance of native fruit.
But PNF-404 is also home to its own indigenous species, including giant, deadly bugs and cute little plant-like creatures called Pikmin. Individually, these Pikmin are weak and easy prey for the planet’s more dangerous inhabitants, but their strength lies in numbers and their ability to grow like weeds. When the S. S. Drake crew inadvertently saves a small group of Pikmin, the seeds of a (mostly) mutually beneficial relationship are formed—one where the Koppaites and Pikmin, by working together, can survive this planet’s dangers and plunder its resources.
Brittany, Alph, and Charlie are an eccentric bunch, and the source of plenty of humorous interactions—like Brittany’s frequent efforts to skew the food rationing in her favour, or Charlie’s obsession with a prized rubber ducky. The Pikmin themselves don’t speak, but through their emotive body language and quirky noises, they too deliver plenty of fun and laughter. Pikmin 3 may be a story of survival on an alien planet, but it’s certainly without the grim, serious tone that such stories often take.
But the real main character of Pikmin 3 Deluxe, really, is PNF-404 itself. Though it’s presented from the Koppaites’ perspective as an unknown alien planet, it’s decidedly Earth-like in its design. The impression is that this is Earth, but an Earth where humans are no more and nature has reclaimed the world. The environment is mostly made up of lush plants and sparkling water, but with a few remnants of the human society that was: broken pots, pieces of shattered china, batteries hooked up to lightbulbs like a My First Electronics kit, old shopping bags. Against this backdrop, the Koppaites look tiny, maybe a few inches tall—a typical garden pot dwarfs them and then some—and the Pikmin are smaller still.
The fruit you collect are typical Earth fruits—lemons, cherries, watermelon, what have you—that each require a whole squad of Pikmin to lift and carry back to the S. S. Drake. For a particularly humorous touch, they’re given unique names by these alien visitors, who’d have no way of knowing what humans called them, so a lemon becomes a “face wrinkler”. The more hostile creatures that roam the planet’s wilds are more fantastical, but still look and feel like something that could feasibly exist on Earth. A bulborb, with it’s odd round figure, bulbous eyes, and whip-like tongue, isn’t quite like anything you’d expect to find in your backyard, but it’s also not hard to imagine a world where this is an evolutionary line related to frogs or lizards. This all helps to make PNF-404 a planet that is at once familiar and completely alien. It’s Earth, or something like it, but viewed from the perspective of something the size of a mouse.
A unique twist on real-time strategy
Pikmin 3 Deluxe takes these tiny creatures and this familiar-buta-alien world and crafts a captivating strategy / puzzle game around it. The Koppaites and Pikmin quickly form a leader-follower relationship, and as one (or more) of the S. S. Drake’s captains, you’re tasked with gathering a swarm of Pikmin to follow you, help you navigate the world, solve puzzles, and defeat the dangerous creatures you encounter along the way. Again, a single Pikmin is small and weak, but an army of them can move mountains and kill creatures far bigger than themselves.
You’ll only have a handful of Pikmin friends at the start of the game, but they’re creatures that are very good at multiplying. Any slain foe (as well as special “pellets” found in certain flowers) can be carried back to the Pikmin’s spaceship-like “onion”, in turn causing more Pikmin to sprout in the ground nearby. The bigger the creature, the more new Pikmin that spawn, so growing your squad’s numbers is naturally tied to your progress and exploration through the game.
There are five different types of Pikmin, noted by their different colours, and each with unique abilities. Electric Pikmin are resistant to electricity and good conductors, making them helpful for breaking through electric fences or mending damaged wires to turn on a lightbulb in a cave; rock Pikmin are good at breaking hard crystals and resistant to getting crushed; water Pikmin can swim and reach places other Pikmin can’t; and so on. Different puzzles and enemy require different Pikmin to deal with effectively, so building up a good, well-balanced team is key.
It’s a nice, simple twist on the unit creation element that’s so central to your typical real-time strategy game. Strategically building your army with limited resources is at the heart of the game loop, but it’s done in a way that feels much more closely linked to the exploration and puzzle-solving loop. This is true of commanding your squad, too—rather than being some god-figure mysteriously pulling the strings from the shadows, Pikmin 3 Deluxe approaches it more like an action-adventure game. You’re free to run around, explore, and climb things as much as your little Koppaite form allows, with your squad of Pikmin in tow; when it comes time to send them into battle or task them with collecting resources, you simply aim at the target and throw Pikmin at it—literally! (Don’t worry, the throwing doesn’t hurt them, though the situation you’re throwing them into very well could).
This unique setup allows for a fun, creative approach to puzzle and level design that blends elements of action-adventure and strategy elements. Most of your forward momentum comes from finding ways to open up new paths and solve environmental puzzles, but the way to actually do that is to strategically command your Pikmin squad. Sometimes you’ll need to break off into different groups and control them independently by switching between leaders, whether that be to solve a particular puzzle or simply to have one group focusing on making progress while another hunts for fruit or hunts enemies to turn into new Pikmin.
In true Nintendo style, Pikmin 3 takes familiar game systems and finds imaginative ways to put them to use, creating something unique and captivating in the process. A few extra modes beyond the core story mode add another layer to that, letting you undertake score-based missions or play a multiplayer game of bingo with the goal of collecting different objects to fill out your bingo card.
Pikmin 3 Deluxe sports a few welcome improvements over the original Wii U release of Pikmin 3. Chief among these are a couple of new side stories featuring Olimar and Louie of Pikmin and Pikmin 2 fame; they were already an important part of the Pikmin 3 story, but the new chapters make them playable characters, and help to build upon the overarching narrative by seeing things from Olimar and Louie’s perspectives. Story mode also supports two-player co-op now, and there’s a new nightmare difficulty for people who want that extra challenge. The aiming system has been revamped with a new lock-on function, and for those that want them, hints are available in-game about what to do next, should you ever find yourself stuck. It’s a nice collection of new features that really lives up to the Deluxe title.
Environmentalism and colonialism
Whimsy and fun is certainly the main appeal to Pikmin 3, but it also touches—if somewhat lightly—on some important themes. Environmental sustainability is the big one that jumps out right from the game’s premise; the whole inciting incident is the fact that a planet ran its own natural resources dry through overuse. The naturalistic setting is a celebration of the natural world, but it’s also one that’s not completely untainted by the remains of a past population. PNF-404 is a world where humans are long gone, but some remnants of them still remain in the litter that’s found along the way.
There’s also a more troubling subtext to Pikmin 3 in how it relates to colonialism, without ever really engaging with it. Again, the whole premise comes down to a population exhausting its own resources, and then setting out to find some other planet pillage with little regard to that planet’s own indigenous species. Maybe the crew of the S. S. Drake are just take a few fruit back to their home planet, but what happens when Koppai decides it needs more? What happens when the same pattern of overuse and poor planning leads to PNF-404’s resources being overexploited too, to the detriment of its own populations? This is something that Pikmin 3 is never really interested in addressing, or even considering.
The whole concept of the game also relies on an inherent power imbalance between the Drake’s crew and the Pikmin they’re commanding, that mirrors the very real dynamics of colonialism in our own world. It’s a mutually-beneficial situation that brings the Pikmin and Koppaites together, but it doesn’t take long for that to become a very one-sided relationship where the foreigners are the assumed leaders and have the most to gain, while the Pikmin—willing though they appear to be—mostly serve as expendable minions for their masters’ aims.
I don’t think any of this is deliberate or intentional on Nintendo’s part, but that’s concerning in itself. Pikmin 3 is a game that, unintentionally, parallels the unpleasant impact of colonialism, and in not recognising that and exploring it, the creators lose control of what it is that their game is saying, whether or not that was what they wanted it to say.
That also doesn’t mean Pikmin 3 Deluxe isn’t an enjoyable and worthwhile game. It’s an ingenious blend of different genres and influences, fusing real-time strategy, puzzle, and action-adventure elements into this unique, captivating game. Taken as the light-hearted romp it’s meant to be, there’s plenty of fun, humour, and entertainment to be found here. With an enhanced Switch release, there’s no better time to acquaint (or reacquaint) yourself with one of Nintendo’s more unique series’.
Pikmin 3 Deluxe Edition is developed by Nintendo and Eighting, and published by Nintendo. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.