Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 20, Pikmin 3

The first two Pikmin games were great, but Pikmin 3 took the concept to another level that justified the long wait between entries.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

Pikmin just doesn’t get the respect that it should. The original Pikmin is remembered, in part, for being one of the reasons there wasn’t a new Mario game ready for the GameCube at launch. It was also criticized for being too short, as basically any game with any kind of score attack element is criticized: as I didn’t hold either of those points against Pikmin, it made this list.

Its sequel, Pikmin 2, was an improvement on the first title, but it was also on a system that, at that point, had fallen well behind in the Console Wars of the day. So it didn’t turn Pikmin into the kind of hit that it deserved to be, either, because there just weren’t enough people out there to buy the thing. Re-releases on the record-smashing Wii helped keep Pikmin in the minds of those who had experienced it before, and to introduce it to some new folks, too, but again, it wasn’t enough to make the series into the kind of smash hit its gameplay merited.

Then, there was Pikmin 3. After a nine-year wait wait following the rapid-fire release of Pikmin and Pikmin 2, Pikmin 3 released… for the Wii U. The system where ideas great, awful, and everything in between went to die a lonely death, the system from Nintendo’s history that, in so many ways, is their Sega Saturn. (And if not for the immediate and substantial success of the Switch, the Wii U might have been like the Saturn in one more way, too.) Like nearly everything else that was first-party and worth playing on the Wii U, Pikmin 3 did get an enhanced Switch port in late-2020, and thanks to this it’s already the best-selling Pikmin game ever: maybe Pikmin 4, made especially for the Switch, with its road paved by Pikmin 3, will finally be the one that gets the series the spotlight it deserves.

If not, though, whether it’s two million or 12 million people buying Pikmin is irrelevant to its quality and your enjoyment of it. And Pikmin 3 is a fantastic leap forward for a series whose previous best effort was already a borderline top-50 ever Nintendo game. The Switch version somehow made an already excellent game even better by making the original version’s downloadable content part of the base package, but there is also a brand new epilogue and prologue featuring the Pikmin characters who weren’t originally playable in Pikmin 3, multiple difficulty levels, and co-op play in story mode instead of just in the side content.

Pikmin 3 introduces not only new Pikmin types — Rock Pikmin are useful for smashing glass and other rocks as well as enemies, and flying type Pikmin open up an entire new world of possibilities for what Pikmin are capable of helping you do — but new enemy types and variants, as well. You’ll need to utilize the abilities of all Pikmin types to make your through those foes: the best fighters, and also impervious to fire, are the Red Pikmin, while Yellow Pikmin can be thrown higher and are immune to electrical shock, and the Blue Pikmin can go underwater to fight enemies and retrieve items without filling your nightmares with the screams of drowning Pikmin in the process.

The bosses are the best in the series so far — huge in size, more puzzle-like and yet more actively dangerous than before, and with some old foes along for the ride as well — and you’re expected to play the game by splitting up into groups more than was necessary in Pikmin 2, where control of two protagonists was introduced. In Pikmin 3, you are responsible for controlling the movements of three protagonists at once, and in their care are up to 100 Pikmin on screen at a time. In order to play the game efficiently, you will need to multitask, and it’s important to play efficiently, because Pikmin 3 reintroduces time limits to the series.

You are not limited to a specific number of days, like in the original Pikmin, where you had 30 days to collect all of the spaceship parts to repair Olimar’s vessel and allow him to head home. In Pikmin 3, your characters — Alph, Brittany, and Captain Charlie of the S.S. Drake — are searching for food for their homeworld of Koppai, which is suffering a food shortage due to a “basic lack of planning.” These diminutive folks crash land on an unknown planet (it’s Earth, just like in the original two Pikmin), where they discover “enormous” fruits like strawberries, and impossibly huge foods like oranges. Fruit is plentiful on Earth, and given the size of the people who need to eat it, it’ll go even further than it does for us.

Food is not plentiful in the ship itself, though: remember, you crash landed onto Earth, scattering yourselves and everything in the ship. Each day, one jar of juice is drank by your crew, and you start with just three jars. You have to collect fruit every day or nearly every day on Earth, or else your crew will run out of it, and then they’ll starve. This means that you need to balance collecting the items that will progress the story — often upgrades for the ship’s ability to communicate or scan further distances — with bringing in enough fruit that you’re not in danger of dying. This is pretty simple to do at times, so long as you don’t waste too much time focusing on just one task at a time, or so long as you aren’t constantly getting your Pikmin mass murdered by predators, causing you to move and explore more slowly and also need to spend more time growing new Pikmin to replenish your ranks.

This juice mechanic brings a much-needed feeling back to the Pikmin series. Pikmin 2 is wonderful, of course, but my own preference is for the day/night cycle to matter. I do appreciate Pikmin 2 switching things up so that all of the tense feelings revolved around whether you’d have enough Pikmin left in a cavern to complete a specific mission since you couldn’t grow any new ones under the Earth’s surface, but I did miss that it removed the day/night cycle and allowed you to move oh so slowly, without a care for how long any task was taking you. Having to plan and enact a plan on the fly because the clock is ticking makes for better Pikmin, and there was so much less of that in Pikmin 2 than in its predecessor.

Pikmin 3 takes the best parts of both games and adds its own twist — the juice — to make something new and superior to its predecessors. The day/night cycle matters again, and if you don’t split your trio of characters up with custom teams of Pikmin that allow them to tackle different areas of the map and different foes they’ll meet, you’ll find every day feels like it was too short. There still are underground caverns that challenge your ability to make it through alive with a set number of Pikmin, but you’ll have to wait for the epilogue to experience the bulk of those: you’ll once again control Olimar and his buffoonish partner Louie in those scenarios, and I agree with the consensus that those 10 missions are some of the best Pikmin levels the series has produced, and easily a justification for grabbing the Deluxe Switch edition of the game even if you’ve already experienced Pikmin 3 in its original form.

Controlling three different groups of Pikmin at once is easier than it sounds, though, it’ll take some practice to get the timing right. Luckily, the game starts you off with just one character, then adds a second to teach you about teamwork, then brings in a third after you’ve conquered a boss that it takes some teamwork to get to and to defeat. The main reason it ends up being a breeze to control three different groups without dooming any of them — well, so long as you remember to check in and pay attention — is because of the “Go Here” map mechanic. Simply select the character you want to send to a specific place on the map, and then, on the map, select “Go Here” at the destination. The character in question and the Pikmin they lead will head to that spot on their own. If there are enemies in their way, they’ll just run by if they can, but be warned, just like with Pikmin carrying a fruit or ship part in a path with enemies on it, there are risk to leaving them unattended. Still, it’s a wonderful way to maintain efficiency, to set a group of Pikmin on a series of tasks, without having them just standing around until you can get back to them with a character that you’re actively controlling.

You spend plenty of time together as a singular group, too, in order to access areas that can’t be reached by just one or even two characters on their own. Maybe there is a height to ascend, and you can only do so by having Alph throw Charlie and Brittany up to the next level with a whole bunch of Pikmin, and then Charlie throws Brittany and those same Pikmin to the highest level, where she can head to whatever your goal was. There are situations like this, as well as puzzles where Pikmin and a controllable character have to work out a system of lifts and weight balancing in order to progress and acquire fruits and ship parts. There are boss fights where you’ll need multiple kinds of Pikmin to succeed with the least amount of life lost possible, and having multiple team captains, as it were, to switch between can help keep your Pikmin in reserve from being trampled while they wait their turn to pounce.

It all works wonderfully together once you get the hang of it all, but you might find it a little on the easy side sometimes if you’re very used to how Pikmin works. Luckily, the Switch edition introduces difficulty levels, so if you’re feeling like Pikmin has lost some of its challenge once you master controlling three groups at once, you can easily find it again. And it should be pointed out that some of the dip in difficulty, at least at first, is due to some quality-of-life improvements, like the ability to lock on to a target, whether it be item or foe, and being able to just press the X button to send an entire group of Pikmin charging at an obstacle or enemy at once. Removing frustration is the right kind of difficulty balancing, and these changes do that.

It should be pointed out, too, that the game is going to eventually take all your juice away from you, at a point when the environment hates you a lot more than it does early on in your adventure. You’ll still need more juice to survive, and you’ll have to build your supply back up at a time when it’s much more difficult and intense to acquire them. There is challenge here, especially in some of the later boss fights where the game is not shy about creating situations where you can lose one-third of your Pikmin in one fell swoop if you aren’t paying attention or planning accordingly.

One last note on difficulty: the game includes a mission mode, where you’re awarded medals for completing specific tasks in the fastest time possible. Getting the best ranks there is where some of the toughest challenge in Pikmin lives, especially since it’s the kind of stuff you need to do in one go, and in the case of the boss fights, with the Pikmin you have. If you want more Pikmin and tougher, this is the place to go, if you don’t necessarily want to start an entire new game on a tougher difficulty. Plus, these missions are great training for when you do want to tackle the campaign on the most punishing difficulty level.

Pikmin 3 also features the single greatest set piece in the entire franchise, and that is its final area. It’s a stunning example of a level that expects you to deploy all that you’ve learned to that point in a game, while also adjusting to completely new elements that you should, if you’ve been paying attention, be able to reason out as well. You’ll have to do so on the fly, though, and while under duress: the stage is a massive complex that has both underground and above ground elements, and the entire time you’re navigating this labyrinth full of puzzles, obstacles, enemies, and danger, you’re also being chased by a massive, near-impervious… blob. And that blob can swallow up your Pikmin whole simply by making contact with them, dissolving them in the process. It’s like Pikmin meets Resident Evil 2, if the Mr. X Tyrant kept eating Claire Redfield’s body parts while she was trying to puzzle her way through the police station protecting Sherry.

It’s not as simple as just solving puzzles while avoiding this creature that always, always knows where you are and uses all of its energy to find you as quickly as possible. One of your three characters is always on Olimar duty here, guiding a group of Pikmin dedicated to carrying the unconscious Hocotatian around the level and away from the massive blob that is pursuing you because it is pursuing him. If Olimar is captured by the blob, it attempts to retreat with its prize, and you need to drop everything you’re doing to temporarily incapacitate the blob and recover Olimar before running off once more. Like with Pikmin 2’s caverns, you just have the Pikmin you bring into the level here, and you probably lost some when Olimar was kidnapped. You also probably lost some just navigating the non-blob dangers of the labyrinth, which will take you multiple days to complete — yes, you’re underground, but the day/night cycle persists in what is a perfect synthesis of what makes the first two Pikmin games work in their own ways. And since you’ll need to build up a substantial supply of juice to make it through this final area, it’s really a synthesis of the constraints of all three Pikmin titles. Just fantastic design, really.

This last area could realistically be its own game. Not a $60 game like Pikmin 3, mind you, but if the exact same thing released as a $15 digital-only release, it would be praised for its complexity and difficulty and progression. Of course, in that scenario, you would be learning how the entirety of Pikmin works on your own without hours and hours of education coming before you’re thrust into this situation, but that would be its own kind of fun, no? To puzzle out just what kind of Pikmin is needed to overcome this glass wall, or this concrete structure, or this room that’s mostly on fire or underwater. It’s really just an amazing piece of Pikmin, that on its own jumped my opinion of the game substantially… and I was already enjoying myself plenty before then.

Pikmin 3 is a beautiful game, one that brings the series’ balance of realistic looking environments with a cartoonish edge to them into high definition. The game and its creatures are all superbly animated, with wonderful sounds to complement their movements and actions and behaviors. There is a certain sense to the enemy designs, a logic that lets you figure out which Pikmin are best suited for taking them on, and the game’s focus on the circle of life and the positive impact of, uh, recycling, remains as strong as ever. Pikmin is a pretty dark and realistic game in a lot of ways, but it’s also very cute and bright and colorful, and that’s not only why it’s so effective, but also why you feel so attached to it all.

Pikmin 3 combines some of the breakneck pacing of the original game with the more thoughtful, well-paced design of its sequel, to create something so wonderful that it feels like this was always what Pikmin was supposed to be. The Deluxe Switch port deserves to call itself that, as it somehow made it so that I didn’t miss the Wii U Game Pad and its excellent mapping features, and then threw additional game modes and chapters on top of it. Pikmin 3 is just a brilliant game, an underrated classic and high point for the franchise that got a second chance on the Switch, and seems to have, deservedly, thrived given the opportunity. If you liked the previous Pikmin games even a little bit, you need to give yourself and this game a chance, too.

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