I cried the first time a Pikmin died.
Is anything sadder in games? Maybe when the pug dies in Spelunky. Each Pikmin death is unexpected, but especially that first one. I hear them cry and think they’re just calling out to me like they’ve done many times in the past. Nope—they’re telling me that they’re dying. Those are cries of anguish. They are in pain to the point where they can no longer continue to exist. And then they disappear and their little tiny Pikmin souls float up to the top of the screen. It’s incredibly sad.
I cried the first time a Pikmin died on the GameCube, I cried the first time it happened on the Wii (where I first played Pikmin 2), and, even though I was fully prepared for the moment, I cried a little the first time it happened on the Wii U. (But then I’m a crier. I cried at the last episode of Night Court.)
Losing a Pikmin is like losing a pet. They’re these tiny little flower creatures that exist solely to please and serve me. They put their faith and trust in me and it’s my responsibility to protect them. But I can’t always protect them. Eventually they will die. A bug will eat them or they will drown or they will catch on fire. Sometimes I have to abandon them at the end of the day, only to watch their panic as they realize they’ve been left behind to be eaten by Bulborbs. They will die directly at my command, as I send them out to tear down a wall or build a bridge or swarm a giant armored worm with pincers until it also dies (leaving behind an 80s mobile phone, for some reason.) Pikmin exist to die and it’s basically my job to kill them and that’s just so unspeakably sad.
I killed many Pikmin in Pikmin 3. The first to die was a red Pikmin, one of the grunts of the flower force. He might have even been the first Pikmin I met in the game—they’re hard to tell apart. I lost a herd of Rock Pikmin, tiny living stones good at breaking glass or for hurling at bad guys, to an electricity-spouting Bearded Amprat. The electricity conducting Yellow Pikmin could’ve resisted its attack, but they couldn’t resist that Pyroclasmic Slooch that roasted them alive. When I close my eyes I see their souls drifting towards Pikmin heaven.
Pikmin 3 is the first Pikmin for the Wii U, and thus the first Pikmin in HD. My guilt looks beautiful in 1080p. It plays much like the first two—the only benefit of the GamePad is a constant map in my lap—but the Pikmin formula is such a distinctive take on real-time strategy that it doesn’t feel old or repetitive. I control a team of explorers stranded on a far future Earth reclaimed by nature. The only way to directly interact with my environment is with the help of the various native species of Pikmin, who collect fruit for my survival, fight off any hungry animals that might target them for a meal, and carry electrical equipment back to my ship for repairs. The play cycle is broken into days that last for roughly fifteen minutes, during which I have to corral that mass of differently-abled Pikmin for a variety of tasks. I can control up to three playable characters, including a female scientist, so it’s a bit more inclusive than the previous games. These characters can each maintain their own legion of Pikmin, and it’s both simple to swap between them and crucial to overcoming many of the game’s obstacles.
It might feel simplistic compared to other real-time strategy games, but Pikmin 3 weighs you down with tasks and new enemies and so many side goals along the way that I constantly fret over my time management. Did I gather enough fruit today? If not I’ll starve to death. Did I grow enough new Pikmin today, or will I have to start my next day by repopulating my Onion? (That makes sense if you’ve played the game.) What’s the best combo of Pikmin to take for any task? Since the Pikmin are helpless when they’re alone, it’s important to grab the ones best suited for whatever task I plan on tackling at the start of each day—it’s a huge waste of time to return to my ship multiple times to swap out my Pikmin.
Some of the annoyances of previous Pikmin games return. Pikmin will still get stuck in corners or tight spaces, leading to regular rescue missions for stranded and hard-to-see Pikmin as the clock is winding down. Controlling and recalling Pikmin on the field can still be inexact—it’s not always easy to aim precisely, it’s a little too easy to accidentally throw the wrong type of Pikmin after running through my entire allotment of another type, and I have to blow the whistle used to recall them a few times to make sure every last Pikmin in a group responds.
I can handle those minor hang-ups, though. I can even handle the loss. I can take the sadness because it happens in such a bright and lovingly realized world, with its lush fields and its colorful creatures and these weird little plant-animals known as Pikmin. Part of knowing these adorable little critters that regularly give their lives to help me out is knowing how to say goodbye to them. Yesterday Maddy Myers called Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us “Dad simulators”. Pikmin 3 isn’t just a strategy game but a pet simulator, with all the joy and pain that comes with owning a real pet.
Garrett Martin is Paste’s games editor and the Boston Herald’s games critic.