Pikmin has always been a strange series to pursue as a major tentpole franchise. It's a busy game, with lots of moving pieces — both on a mechanical and visual level. It's a deeply, surprisingly complex strategy game, a genre that Nintendo's not especially well-known for, and a genre that its casual-leaning audience doesn't have much crossover interest in. Despite those assumptions, Pikmin has a huge and devout fanship that's been waiting on its next installment since Pikmin 2, which was released nearly a decade ago.
Pikmin 3 was first announced in 2008
Shigeru Miyamoto is among that fanbase. In an interview with Polygon, Nintendo of America's Bill Trinen — who translated for Miyamoto — said Pikmin 3 was one of Miyamoto's favorite games that he's ever created. So why has he kept it in development for as long as it has been? Miyamoto revealed the title to the world in 2008, when he first revealed that a new installment in the strategy series was in the works. It disappeared for several years before resurfacing in 2011, when Miyamoto announced during Nintendo's E3 press conference that it had shifted from being a Wii game to a Wii U project.
The hardware evolution was too tempting to deny, Miyamoto said, not just the evolution from Wii to Wii U, but the addition of the Motion Plus peripheral for the original Wii's controller.
"Well, of course back in the early days, we were working on it based on the Wii hardware," Miyamoto said. "What we quickly found was, particularly for the controls in Pikmin, not just the basic Wii Remote but the Wii Remote with the Motion Plus technology really made the controls more intuitive, and much more precise and accurate for us. That was a big change when we shifted from standard Wii Remote and nunchuck to Motion Plus.
"The other was, particularly when we were looking at what would be possible on the Wii U hardware, one of the big things was just the HD visuals and the ability to draw the detailed graphics. The other was, of course, the use of the subscreen on the GamePad. As soon as we saw the convergence of these different elements, we felt that we'd be able to do a much better job if we took this game and put it on the Wii U."
"they hear the name Wii U, and because it shares the Wii name, the assumption is, 'Oh, it would be very easy to take whatever was on Wii and just move it to Wii U'"
Many of its fans assumed Pikmin 3 would be a launch title on Nintendo's new hardware, given that it was announced a full year and a half before the console was released. It missed the launch window by a significant margin; the Wii U will be almost nine months old when Pikmin 3 launches on August 4. I asked Miyamoto if he wished Nintendo had gotten Pikmin 3 out sooner, to bolster the first-party presence on the Wii U during its launch.
"I did want to release it sooner," Miyamoto said, laughing.
"One of the big challenges was that I think that a lot of people, they hear the name Wii U, and because it shares the Wii name, the assumption is, 'Oh, it would be very easy to take whatever was on Wii and just move it to Wii U,'" Miyamoto said. "But in fact, the jump in a hardware standpoint, both from the development structure and the chipset within the system, it was such a dramatic change from what we had with Wii that development of the game, we had to recreate it to move it over to Wii U. So that was one of the challenges."
Another challenge, Miyamoto explained, was that Pikmin 3 was being developed alongside the Wii U hardware itself. Nintendo's development teams were putting a lot of their time and resources on building some of the Wii U's integral functionality, leaving them less time to spend on gaming software.
"I look at it less in terms of Pikmin 3 was delayed, and more in terms of our development was shifted," Miyamoto said. Pikmin 3 was in development almost the entire time the Wii U was in development. Creating a game for a console that's in the process of being created is like hitting a moving target.
"It's actually always like that for us," Miyamoto said. "In fact, people are always telling us, 'Oh, you're so lucky because you're the first ones that get to work with the new hardware,' and our response is always, 'Well, yes, but actually trying to work with a piece of hardware that's not done yet can be quite challenging.'"
MAKING PIKMIN A HIT
Pikmin certainly has its fans, but it's far from Nintendo's most iconic franchise. The game had a major presence at Nintendo's booth this year, but that's likely because of Pikmin 3's incredibly imminent release — in past years, Zelda, Mario, Metroid and Donkey Kong were way bigger stars of the show.
We asked Miyamoto if Pikmin 3 would be the title that put the series on the map in a more ubiquitous sense.
"There really isn't anything else you can compare Pikmin to," Miyamoto said. "I think even the Pikmin characters are really cute and appealing, and I think there may be opportunities for them to appear not just in games, but in movies and animation or something. I really want people to get the sense that Pikmin could appear anywhere."
He points to his shirt pocket. From that pocket, three Pikmin pins are emerging. Trinen's wearing them too.
"The other thing we've done with Pikmin 3 that we feel is very important is we've created it in a way that has a very broad entry point," Miyamoto said. "So, people who've never played the game before can use the pointer controls, with the simple action of calling the Pikmin and throwing the Pikmin, and that's the basic action of the game. Using that basic action, even people who are new to the series, they can eventually get through the game using that basic technique.
"Simultaneously, we've built the game so there's a tremendous amount of depth for people who are very avid and experienced gamers, and there's a tremendous amount of freedom in how you play the game — both in terms of devising your strategies in how you get through it, but also in terms of deciding what your objective is in clearing it. You can kind of set your own goals. Do I want to try to play through the game and reach the end without having a single Pikmin die, or is my focus going to be on trying to clear the game in as few game days as possible, or is it, am I going to limit myself in never going above a certain number of Pikmin?"
AN AI ACTION GAME
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons Pikmin hasn't excelled like its first-party contemporaries is its genre. Strategy games are clearly capable of being best-sellers — StarCraft 2 being a prime example of the genre's profitability — but it doesn't seem like an ideal match with the semi-casual gamer that Nintendo courted in the last console generation.
"Even the word 'strategy' makes it seem difficult — that's why we're calling it an AI action game," Miyamoto said, laughing. "Because in this game, the Pikmin essentially are thinking of half of what needs to be done. So the player is able to look at what the Pikmin are able to do, and then simply assign them tasks so they can do it on their own.
"Actually, I tend to like strategy games," Miyamoto said. "There were a lot of PC strategy games back in the day, but it's true that until Pikmin I never really managed to take that strategy genre and turn it into a product I thought we could release. I had worked and helped out a little bit on the early Fire Emblem games, which are turn-based strategy, and in terms of the more simulation side of strategy, there was the SimCity port that I worked on, but it's true that I had never before worked on a strategy game myself."
A PORTABLE PIKMIN?
Of course, Pikmin might just be behind the Zelda, Metroid and Donkey Kong franchises because it hasn't been nearly as prolific as those series. Why haven't there been more entries in the series — better yet, why haven't there been any handheld Pikmin games? Its score-chasing formula and approachable gameplay seem like they'd match up with Nintendo's portable consoles.
Miyamoto explained that Nintendo has actually experimented with bringing Pikmin to handhelds since the generation of the Game Boy Advance.
"We experimented with Pikmin on the DS, and actually, we experimented with a Pikmin game on Game Boy Advance, but we really felt that the portable machine simply didn't have the capabilities to create the Pikmin gameplay in a way that we felt like it needed to be represented," Miyamoto said.
He explained that while Nintendo could probably get a single element of the series in a handheld game, it would be difficult to realize the sum total of its parts without more powerful technology. Even on 3DS — which he hasn't been able to test the series on, due to Nintendo's being busy on developing for Wii U —some of the intricacies of Pikmin 3 might be lost, he said.
"There's actually one particular facet of this game that we were very focused in on, which was building bridges in Pikmin 3," Miyamoto said. "If you look at it, the bridges are made out of these little tile pieces, and each tile piece is shaped kind of differently, and each individual Pikmin might pick it up and hold the piece in a different way.
"We could be able to take something like that element of the Pikmin gameplay and try to do it on a portable, probably what would end up happening is you would have to make all the pieces the same size and shape, and they'd have to carry them the same way," Miyamoto said. "But just like ants, when you watch them carrying leaves, sticks and things all at different angles, that's sort of what makes it cute, and so that was an area that I really focused on in Pikmin 3, and I really tried to bring it to life in the Pikmin.
"Without that," he added, "it really doesn't feel like Pikmin."
"We experimented with Pikmin on the DS, and actually, we experimented with a Pikmin game on Game Boy Advance"
The Pikmin franchise has always been focused on a cerebral single-player experience first and foremost, and that doesn't look to change with Pikmin 3, the series' upcoming installment for the Wii U. However, the game does have options for two players hoping to have a simultaneous, arboreal experience, including an expanded co-op offering.
Pikmin 3's co-op mode is something of an evolution of Pikmin 2's challenge mode, tasking two players to work together to secure as much loot as they can within each level's time limit. Those two players are actually in charge of managing three captains — Alph, Charlie and Brittany — simultaneously, but each can only control one at a time. They're able to swap between their active captain and the reserve at will, allowing them to coordinate some tricky maneuvers to explore each level.
For example, while playing as Alph, I was able to pick up Charlie and toss him to a higher platform, then swap to Charlie, who was able to yank some formerly unreachable Pikmin from the ground. There are more advanced strategies to utilize with this scheme as well, like assigning the utilitarian (but relatively weak) Flying Pikmin to your reserve unit, swapping to them only when you need that particular brand of plant.
Those Flying Pikmin are also new to the series' third installment, and come with their own set of advantages and disadvantages. Their ability to hover over hazards is an obvious perk; drowning's not a concern for Flyers like it is for Reds, and even some enemy attacks will swipe ineffectively under their feet. However, they're not especially powerful melee attackers, and their ability to transport cargo can become a little counterintuitive — if you have ground-based Pikmin trying to pull fruit while your Flyers are trying to lift it, it's going to go absolutely nowhere.
If the entire game-playing populace of the world was as enthusiastic about Pikmin as Miyamoto, it would probably be the best-selling game franchise of all time. That enthusiasm is contagious in talking to him, but is lost a bit in translation through gaming's usual marketing channels.
Fortunately, Pikmin 3 is positioned well to be the franchise's biggest and most successful installment yet. It's not just the most technologically powerful entry in the franchise, it's also kicking off a chain of first-party titles coming to the Wii U, titles that Nintendo is banking on to move hardware. The next year is going to be crucial for Nintendo if it wants to stay in the console manufacturing game, and Pikmin 3 is going to be a crucial jumpstart for that year.
Much like its ant-like protagonists, Pikmin 3 is going to carry the weight of the world on its shoulders.
Editing: Chris Grant, Chris Plante
Image Credits: Nintendo
Design/ Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan