I can't review Pikmin 3 just once. I won't. I'm going to review it seven times.
Before I get to the reviewing, though, let me do some explaining. In case you don't know.
Pikmin games are made by Nintendo and were dreamt up by Shigeru Miyamoto, the man credited with inventing Mario and Zelda. Pikmin came to him while he was thinking about gardening, or so the story goes. It was released in 2001.
When people get on Nintendo's case for supposedly not making anything new for the past decade (not technically true), they cite Pikmin as the last original thing Miyamoto did. This is a Pikmin review, not a treatise on Nintendo and its fans, but let's just agree that that critique is partially a veiled compliment about how terrific the first Pikmin was.
The first Pikmin game put GameCube players in control of a crash-landed spaceman named Captain Olimar. The Captain was tiny. Maybe thumb-sized. He may have crashed on Earth but, for him, flowers might as well have been trees. Bugs and spiders were massive monsters.
Thankfully, Olimar discovered the Pikmin. These little color-coded plant-men could be plucked from the ground and then swarm behind Olimar, ready to be tossed at those relatively massive monsters and fell them like Lilliputians felling Gulliver—and then haul the carcass back to Olimar's space-ship to transform it into more Pikmin sprouts. Red Pikmin were ace fighters; yellows could jump higher; blues wouldn't drown. Oh, and the Pikmin were good at hauling spaceship parts and treasure back to Olimar's ship, too.
The basic flow of the game involved amassing a lot of Pikmin in order to go fight the bad guys and grab treasure, probably losing a few Pikmin in the process, growing new ones, and rushing back into battle again. The whole thing controlled unusually well for what was essentially a real-time strategy game on a console.
Pikmin 1 was great. The look and feel of controlling 100 little minions—of having them climb a giant daddy long legs' legs and peck it to death—was marvelous, macabre, and joyful. So good.
Pikmin 2, released on the GameCube in 2004, was like Pikmin 1, but with some new Pikmin types, tough underground sections and multiplayer.
Pikmin 3 is like Pikmin 1 and 2, but with some newer Pikmin types (pink flying Pikmin! black rock Pikmin!), new multiplayer modes, and a touch-sensitive overhead map rendered on the Wii U GamePad. There isn't one captain/explorer any more. There are three who you can swap through on each map for dividing and conquering. GTA V sure isn't the only summer 2013 game with map-hopping with triple-protagonists. And! You're not collecting spaceship parts any more. Nope. You're collecting... fruit.
On with the reviews of this game...
Pikmin 3 as a Sequel, If You Expect Sequels to Feel New
That's it, Nintendo? Really?
Nine years of waiting and we get two new Pikmin types? Plus a campaign that rolls credits within nine hours and 21 minutes?
And we're still just in gardens? We couldn't have gone to the city? Or had our Pikmin climb through a car? (I think that a swarm of them could shift one in gear, press the accelerator and steer. I really do.)
The solo campaign omits two of the Pikmin types from the previous games to make room for the new ones. We get three new captains and a map on the Wii U gamepad. And HD graphics. We also get a lot of the same sound effects and similar music as last time. We're still restricted to playing only during daylight. Still can't run around at night.
There's no forced end to the game, unlike Pikmin 1 and just like Pikmin 2. You can play forever. But...we're fighting enemies from the older games more than half the time. The bird-snake one, the daddy-long-legs one, all those wobbly round guys with the spotted backs who munch on my little Pikmin.
Was the inclusion of a boss battle mode, 10 discrete timed missions and a competitive multiplayer mode supposed to make up for a campaign that's barely different than the ones before it? We're collecting fruit this time. Wow? That's more interesting than collecting relatively giant-sized versions of real-world objects like batteries and yogurt lids? No. It's less interesting.
Pikmin 3 as a Sequel, If You Expect Sequels to Feel Refined
This is how you polish a video game series! This is how you take all the ideas that were so novel in Pikmin 1 and make a game that does them all better.
Chief Pikmin architect Shigeru Miyamoto was right. He/we/you should feel sorry for those of us who played the first Pikmin. That game's been rendered obsolete by this new one. The original game did the work of being so new. It was the one that was so full of great ideas and enemies and characters. It gave you the ants-slaying-the-elephant feeling.
This third one ain't doing much that's brand-new (see above) but it sure is making it all work better.
With three explorers in the field at once, players really can use their 100-Pikmin squad much more effectively. The old games forced you to either abandon a lot of your Pikmin or keep too many in a crowd. The new one lets you dispatch little teams of Pikmin, each led by a captain. This can even be automated, as I so happily discovered by tapping the overhead map on the Wii U GamePad and commanding one explorer and his squad to march to one place while controlling another (NOTE: this might be the most important skill to learn in the new game, so learn it!). Since players can warp from one captain to the next with a button-tap, you can feel like you're playing an entire map at once.
Previous Pikmin games felt like you were exploring one part of a map at a time. They felt like strategy games turned into character-based action games. This game lets you jump from one corner of the map to the next while taking control of one or another explorer to command the Pikmin to fight/dig/carry/etc. As a result, Pikmin 3 feels like a proper strategy game. For lack of a better way of putting it, it's the most PC-style game I've ever played from Nintendo.
Pikmin 3's designers have tidied things up, streamlining the Pikmin re-generating system by consolidating onions (series fans will understand) and by providing wonderfully-clear after-action reports for each day along with full replays of each day rendered on the GamePad's tactical map. Ideally, you'll play this game with the precision command of the Wii Remote and Nunchuck and with the nearby GamePad as a tappable map interface (my preference), but you can clear the whole game, as I did, just playing on the GamePad.
The competitive multiplayer is also a lot of fun. Watch me trounce Kotaku's Steve Marinconz in it:
The campaign flows well with comprehensible, albeit familiar main missions, tricky sidequests and tough boss battles. The side content of five timed treasure hunt maps and five timed enemy-battling maps provide even greater challenges.
Altogether, the game is so much better suited than its predecessors for intense, serious, complex strategy gaming while still being super-fun.
Pikmin 3 as a Game on the Game-Starved Wii U
It feels like it should have been a day-one game. There's so much that is done well here, but there is so little that feels fresh. It's confusing that it took so much time to make a game that feels predictably good.
Players desperate for a new Wii U game are going to blow through the campaign in a few days. They are going to have to want to 100% it or will need to have friends to play the game with in order to not feel like this is a small drink of water through the Wii U's year-one game-barren desert.
Pikmin 3 as a Multiplayer Game
Co-operative Pikmin 3 play reveals a game optimized for intensely serious strategy sessions. We're talking intense pre-mission planning. We gather around the level map on the Wii U GamePad like generals planning a beach landing: "You harvest yellows. I'll attack enemies with reds. When there are two minutes to go, bring your yellows to this point and attack."
In-game, two human players juggle control of up to three explorers and their dozens of Pikmin, assigning clusters of Pikmin to bash down barricades, haul treasure, attack enemies, build bridges and more.
The two players can keep the third explorer marching around with one of the others, meaning that players can run through the level with just one squad of Pikmin and explorer(s) each. But that's about as masterful and satisfying as juggling with just two tennis balls.
The joy comes from juggling all three explorers across two human players. I send Alph to escort a squad of white Pikmin on a treasure run. You have Brittany take the blues into underwater combat. I leave Alph to his task in order to command Charlie to harvest yellows. While I do, you leave Brittany and her blues in mid-combat with the pond monsters, assuming they can handle themselves and you warp to Alph to have him step away from the whites—they have their orders—and go fetch purples. (If you play these timed missions solo, or if you're playing the campaign, you demonstrate your Pikmin 3 mastery by doing all of juggling on their own.)
This is not hypothetical. Here are two Pikmin 3 masters playing one of the game's co-op missions:
After the match, you huddle around the GamePad with your co-op partner. That GamePad map doesn't just show the final position of all explorers, Pikmin, remaining enemies and items. It is scrubbable. You can see the position of any of those things from any time in the match and replay or rewind to figure out what happened and what can be done better.
You getting this? Pikmin 3 is the Wii U's StarCraft. It's a damn shame you can't play it online.
Pikmin 3 as an Online Multiplayer Game
Ha ha. It's not. Why? Nintendo only knows. To quote another review of Pikmin 3: "Pikmin 3 is the Wii U's StarCraft. It's a damn shame you can't play it online."
Pikmin 3 as a Showcase For Good Nintendo Games-Writing
Read the in-game explorers' descriptions of the fruit. Really. They're funny. They're good.
Example: They have no clue what an apple is, so they classify it as an an "Insect Condo." Explorer Brittany's description:
"That smell! I can't tear my nose away from that smell! I'd dive right in and start eating, but something about this name the computer supplied makes me just a touch suspicious about what's going on inside this thing..."
To put this another way... hey, Pikmin 2 fans, the Piklopedia is sort of back. That's good!
Pikmin 3 as a Game You Can Play In the Daytona Beach, Florida Airport By Plugging the Wii U Into a Wall Socket And Playing the Whole Thing On The GamePad
(Don't ask me what the sockless guy was doing. Note: I originally wrote that this happend in the Charlotte airport. I remembered wrong. Daytona Beach International! Right next to the Speedway and before I made a connection later that day through Charlotte.)