Pikmin 3 Preview

Alien life excites and astounds the imagination.

I've always felt like the possibility of alien life is more horrifying and electrifying than anything else. If they see us on our little ball of blue, do they pass by? Do they investigate? How far away are they? How do they travel the incredible distances between planets, between systems? My brain boils with the mathematical probability that we're not alone, but you'd never think extraterrestrial life would look like a cute, little plant… bug… thing.

You can imagine the feeling I got watching the opening cutscene for Nintendo's next Pikmin game, which describes the plight of an entire civilization who's overeaten their supplies and now sent explorers into space to find sustenance. Imagine how I felt controlling Charlie as he makes first contact with this unknown alien race he commands in the game. Then imagine my relief when he realizes that the Pikmin are more intent on helping Nintendo's trio of protagonists, as opposed to eating or zapping them with a plant ray gun. In the immediate symbiotic relationship formed with alien plant people in Pikmin 3, there's no fear, no foreboding sense of dread, only fun.

Pikmin uses a day-night cycle to determine the time you have to complete missions and objectives. In the first game, you could have failed the game prematurely if you fell victim to sunset, but Pikmin 3 uses a hybrid of previous games to allow players both the freedom to explore and the impetus to get things done. This change is mostly in service of the game's trio of protagonists. I got to the fifth "day" in my hands-on time and got control over two explorers simultaneously.

Alph and Brittany were intent on finding the third explorer Charlie, but in order to progress forward, I had to learn how to solve puzzles and fight indigenous creatures with both simultaneously. Alph and Brittany were separated by a river and had to command separate tribes of Pikmin to rebuild structures, fight off enemies, and gather fruit. Fruit allows you to continue your mission, sending seeds and other information back to the home planet, while the three explorers subside on cans of juice every day you play.

Using the Wii-mote and Nunchuk, you can steer your explorer with the analog stick, round up Pikmin with the pointer and B trigger, and then toss the alien plant people at objectives and enemies. Hitting the C button on the Nunchuk determines which type of Pikmin (and fellow explorer) you throw, while the Minus button gives you control over each individual space-traveller. Nintendo's hybrid action/strategy game puts these abilities to practical use early in the campaign.

One early level put a strawberry on a high ledge, and in order to collect it and reap the juice that would allow me to play another day, I had to toss Brittany up one step and then provide her with a few Pikmin. I switched to Brittany and tossed those Pikmin onto the fruit, securing it for passage back to the Drake, your interstellar spacecraft. I switched back to Alph and let Brittany wander around as I followed the fruit back to my ship.

Eventually, you won't be able to be as, shall I say, single-minded as I was in that situation. After the Pikmin unite to solve a similar puzzle in later levels, you'll have to divide your horde of Pikmin immediately across explorers and direct each to different objectives. Switching between space-travelers takes little time, so moving between each and maintaining a steady pressure to complete objectives and fight enemies will play a huge part in Pikmin 3's campaign.

With the Wii U GamePad, you can also direct explorers outside of your control with the touchscreen. I ordered Brittany to a distant point and focused on the objective at hand with Alph; pretty soon I was rounding up stray Pikmin, ordering fruit back to the ship, and switching between different-colored creatures to complete different tasks. Playing it felt like juggling lots of different objects. Occasionally an enemy called for my attention, but it wouldn't take long for Brittany's contingent of Pikmin to finish their task.

Still, tossing single Pikmin at a time made for messy work and I started to use the Charge technique a lot more. With that, you can lock on to an object or enemy and send the full force of your Pikmin squad at it. This being Nintendo's first HD console, the effect is awesome. It's like giving one quick fist-pump to rally a horde of chirping, chattering mad men, all dressed in outfits as weird as Tingle's.

At the end of a level, the timer started to tick down and I had left a few red Pikmin stranded. With no time to go fetch them, the Drake took off as the little critters came running up followed closely by Grub-Dogs. You'll be rated on every level based on how fast you were, how complete you were in scrounging for enemies and fruit, and how many Pikmin you let die. Still, the little screams of helpful friends left behind hung with greater emotional weight than any stat on a menu.

The Pikmin I used weren't a threat. They weren't invaders from another plant planet armed with probes. They were my friends and they relied on me as much as I relied on them. With two multiplayer modes, a handful of Miiverse functions for sharing with friends, and a lengthy play-as-you-like campaign, Pikmin 3 seems to be worth the long wait early adopters have suffered.

Nintendo will release Pikmin 3 exclusively for Wii U on August 4th.