With the recent announcement of Pikmin’s first venture into the handheld world, one that will take the property away from its wide-open strategic brand of exploration and transport it into the more restricted sidescrolling environment, Nintendo – to the fury and horror of many – seems to have opted to relentlessly keep on going with its divisive strategy of placing some of its signature characters in unusual gameplay scenarios, a design philosophy whose origin can be traced back to last year’s E3 presentation.
Back then, the Big N went into gaming’s biggest media stage with one theme in mind. As Reggie Fils-Aime put it himself, their goal was to take many of their established franchises out of their respective comfort zones. More than one year later, the results of the show, a anger-inducing experience for much of the fanbase, have materialized in terms of sales figures and review scores, allowing the analysis of the ripples caused by that move on far more solid grounds than those of video dissection and wild assumptions. Unsurprisingly to many, those detours have done poorly in both regards.
Given the average-to-negative outcomes of such experiment, it is not surprising that the new Pikmin game is born with numerous question marks attached to it. After all, Nintendo’s recent attempts to heavily toy with the core concepts of its franchises have mostly backfired. Metroid Prime Federation Force has tanked commercially and has received mixed critical assessments that are certainly far below what one expects from such an important brand; while Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer and Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival have revealed themselves to be the overly simplistic vehicles for the selling of add-ons that many expected them to be.
Even the experiments that did carry some degree of quality ended up not quite living up to the high standards set by the flagship efforts of its family tree. Hyrule Warriors Legends, itself a port of the Wii U original, was a fun addictive mindless grind that had in its shallowness its weakest point. Meanwhile, The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes, a hilariously entertaining challenge when played alongside others – even if the natural issues of online cooperative play are considered, was partially brought down by a bare bones single-player mode that should have either been abolished or polished.
The Nintendo 3DS’ take on the Pikmin universe, however, greatly differs from almost all of these titles in the fact that, like Tri Force Heroes, although it presents a change of heart in terms of how the game is setup, its soul remains intact; it is the very same one that powers its mother series. Federation Force ripped out what made the Metroid franchise remarkable and replaced it with a core that is utterly generic and overly explored, that of an outer-space shooter; Happy Home Designer decided to focus on just one of the hundreds of elements that make Animal Crossing great; Amiibo Festival chose not to even care about such matters, ignoring its source material and transforming Animal Crossing into yet another party board game, when Nintendo itself already has plenty of those under its belt; and Hyrule Warriors was a reskin of a niche idiosyncratic property with the Zelda look.
The new Pikmin is different. Captain Olimar and his army of red, blue, and yellow creatures are still present; moreover, they are still performing the activities that made their adventure so unique. They continue to use pieces to build massive structures that let them progress through natural environments where, given the characters’ diminutive size, everything is giant; they keep on fighting enormous creatures as an organized and disciplined group; and they are still using their specific abilities to handle the dangers the world throws at them and to surpass the smartly placed obstacles.
As far as gameplay goes, it is the same structure thrown into a setting, that of a sidescrolling quest, which is different; something that, in itself, can be an intriguing source of inspiration for new level design tricks, puzzle configurations, and a more action-oriented progression. As far as perception goes, while the Animal Crossing and Metroid reconstructions – or deconstructions – suffered due to the fact new traditional installments in those sagas, especially the latter, were long overdue, the Pikmin franchise has the benefit of a recent release that qualifies as the series’ best outing and the announced on-going development of its sequel, making it come off as a pleasant detour to keep fans busy while the big hitter does not come rather than a bitter reminder of an experience gamers have been claiming for and being denied of.
Theoretically, spin-offs of – or new takes on – Nintendo’s major franchises should be happily welcomed, as the company’s characters are incredibly beloved and the settings of their quests are remarkable. However, as of late, the company has been badly failing in the handling of these efforts. The new Pikmin, after a series of recent disappointments, is the opportunity for a great brand new start in that regard, showing to the company that such projects should not only understand the hearts of the sagas they are tackling, but also be accompanied by a satisfying stream of releases from their main lines of games.