Since the arrival of the Wii U eight months ago, early adopters have been thirsting for a killer app, that one game that shows off the flair and imagination for which Nintendo’s best-loved hits — such as “Super Mario Galaxy” or “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” — are known.
“Pikmin 3” (Nintendo, for the Wii U, $59.99) is not that game.
It’s a solid, amusing adventure that will please fans of the long-dormant series. But it doesn’t bring much new to the franchise, and if you didn’t care for “Pikmin” and “Pikmin 2,” you won’t get much out of this high-definition upgrade.
As “Pikmin 3” begins, three astronauts — Alph, Brittany and Charlie — are searching for a new food source for their dying home planet, Koppai. The lush PNF-404 looks promising, but a crash landing turns their mission from exploration to survival. They have three goals: find each other, find food to live on and find the parts to fix their broken spaceship.
Alph quickly discovers that the native Pikmin are happy to help. Individually, they’re scrawny, vulnerable creatures, but if you throw enough of them at a problem — say, building a bridge or getting rid of flaming snails — they can usually handle it. And I mean “throw” literally; the astronauts control the Pikmin by tossing them toward their objectives.
You start off with just a few of the little guys, but you can spawn up to 100 by feeding certain objects into an “onion,” a bulbous craft that also serves as home to your Pikmin. There are five types. Red ones can withstand fire, blue ones can swim and yellow ones can conduct electricity. New to the series are rock Pikmin, which can smash through crystals, and winged Pikmin, which can fly.
The core gameplay — exploring PNF-404, battling predators and gathering fruit — is rewarding, so it’s frustrating that “Pikmin 3” gets bogged down by a restraint that’s been part of the series since its beginning. Each sojourn into the planet’s verdant forests lasts a day, or about 15 minutes in game time. That’s not enough time to comfortably explore this expansive world; whenever you’re on the verge of solving a clever puzzle or taking down a resilient monster, you’ll be summoned back to the spaceship.
You can better budget your time by dividing up your party, sending one group of Pikmin to mindlessly harvest fruit while you tackle more demanding challenges. But I resented the artificial 15-minute limit and remain baffled by Nintendo’s insistence on regularly interrupting the fun parts with boring screens of text and statistics telling me how badly I’d just failed.
The enjoyment is also compromised by a complicated control scheme. You need to use the old-fashioned “Wiimote” to survive the more intense battles, pointing at the enemy and flinging Pikmin with the A button. But you also need the Wii U GamePad, which displays maps and other vital information.
“Pikmin 3” is a strange beast. It’s a simplified take on strategy games like “XCOM” and “StarCraft” that, at times, feels unnecessarily convoluted. And while it’s cute enough to appeal to kids, its story — humans arrive, enslave or kill the natives and steal all the resources — reads like a vicious satire of colonialism. I’m not sure if that was Nintendo’s intention, but it’s something to ponder while you’re hurling dozens of screaming Pikmin to their deaths. Two-and-a-half stars out of four.