Whether it was handcrafted or created by some serendipitous elemental collision, this much about life is plain: It’s messy as hell. It’s grubby and beautiful and perfect. We came from muck. Nintendo used to know that. The company’s always been good at making fun games, but it forgot how to make dirty ones. The sticky critters in Metroid and the nasty swamps of The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past have yielded to an all-encompassing sterility in recent years.
But there are signs of life at the big N. Pikmin 3 is dirty in all the best ways, a game that feels more alive than anything ever made by Nintendo’s EAD Group 4—the team behind the polyurethane playpen of New Super Mario Bros. U. Here they’ve turned in a juicy, unwashed peach of a game.
The planet Koppai is in a heap of trouble. In the face of starvation brought on by overpopulation and dwindling resources, its citizens are scouring the universe for planets with untapped assets. They discover a distant, unexplored world that may hold the sweet goods the lilliputian Koppaites need to survive, so an exploratory team is deployed to see what they can find. The landing goes awry, and the three-person crew is spread across this strange land of giants with no idea how to find each other or their ship. Lucky for them, the planet is populated by a race of even tinier plant people called Pikmin who are eager to help.
Seeing the bulbous little Koppaite crew crash-land beside muddy streams, surrounded by fat bugs and lizards, gives an urgency to Pikmin 3 right out of the gate. The stakes are high. Far from home and on the brink of starvation, your first task is to dig around for something to eat. When you run into a bright strawberry in one of the game’s first levels, it’s exciting. It’s your salvation.
The fruit you find is enormous, though. The Koppaites—Alph, Brittany, and their stoic captain—are themselves grape-sized, so transporting the fruit back to the ship requires Pikmin assistance. The squeaky big-eyed weirdoes are immediately endearing. They have a leafy, waxy sheen; you can practically smell the aloe that would come off of them. You can command up to 100 Pikmin at a time, but you start off with just a few—tossing them at the fruit you want carried back to the ship or at big beasties that are giving you trouble. Pikmin are fragile critters and prone to panic, but you can afford to be rough: Most everything you pick up that isn’t fruit is converted into new Pikmin.
The goals feel natural, ramping up slowly as you get into the game. In the short term, you have from sunup to sundown to explore, collect food, and, at the beginning, find your ship and shipmates. Every day, you use up one bottle of juice, and if you waste days just looking for fun stuff without stocking up, it’s game over. Having goals this imperative makes Pikmin 3 more engaging than its predecessors, which sometimes felt like arbitrary outings where you mostly dug up junk.
Figuring out how to reach each piece of fruit and get back home to Koppai are the long-term goals. For that, you’ll need the help of a diverse Pikmin army. Each type of Pikmin has its own specialty. Big-eared yellow Pikmin conduct electricity—handy for bringing down garden fences—and rock Pikmin are good for squashing bugs and cracking crystal. It takes some thought to reach a giant ripe mango on a riverbank, and the same goes for the confrontations with big predators. Your second boss fight, against a furry slavering bat, requires you to split the team of pilots into two groups while using yellow Pikmin to juice up old light bulbs. The Wii U gamepad, with its prominent touchscreen, is a boon for this multitasking, letting you look down at a sprawling map to see where everyone is. You can even tap a point on the map to send one team off on an errand, rather than controlling them directly and splitting your attention.
There are some small worms in the fruit. Sometimes the Pikmin are uncooperative, getting hung up on corners while they follow you around. That problem compounded by the finicky camera, which struggles to show you the world. For every problem, though, there is an extra spark of life, like the crew’s diary entries at the end of the day. “Everyone’s got juice mouths!” says Brittany, evoking memories of pounding a well-earned drink at the end of a hard day’s work, when you’re all sweaty and nasty. “Filth is my life,” Divine said in Pink Flamingos. Nintendo has taken that mentality to heart with Pikmin 3. It’s filthy and lively and all the better for it.