It's been pleasing for 3DS owners to see that, while a shiny alternative is on the market, the successful family of portables continues to have an important role in Nintendo's plans. With titles like Metroid: Samus Returns and of course Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon on the way, the era of dual screens and some stereoscopic 3D isn't over yet - the New 2DS XL ignores the latter, of course.
So where does Hey! Pikmin fit in? Is it a key release and a worthy continuation of a loved series, or a throwaway spin-off? Perhaps it's not quite in either camp - we've been playing the final build for a while and, though it's not quite review time yet, we are allowed to share some thoughts based on more than the brief demo showcased earlier in the year.
As for the series itself, it's an interesting case study of how Nintendo manages some IPs. Created by and a passion project of Shigeru Miyamoto, we had two GameCube titles before the series went on a hiatus, only getting re-releases on Wii to utilise the Remote. After rumours that the then-new 3DS would get an entry, we instead eventually got the rather marvellous Pikmin 3 on Wii U, which also showed what Nintendo could do once it had figured out HD development. Lovely and charming, it was also relatively challenging (in this writer's opinion, at least), with multiple areas that felt sizeable and interesting to explore.
Hey! Pikmin is a spin-off, of course, a 2D title developed by Arzest - a company that previous worked on titles like Wii Play and Yoshi's New Island. We've seen a few franchises given the 2D treatment on 3DS, but after carefully directing and managing the Pikmin brand in the 'main' games this is certainly a diversion. Rather than carefully herding up to 100 little creatures you now have up to about 20 following behind you, depending on how many you find in each individual stage. Different Pikmin still have specific strengths, but they're a little less prevalent than before. Ultimately you use Pikmin for three things - as projectiles to attack enemies, to fetch objects out of reach, or to act as weights to trigger platforms. We've been playing for quite a few hours and, so far, that's the extent of their functionality; that said, we expect a few more tricks with the likes of flying Pikmin later in the game.
This isn't a 2D platformer, of course, as that wouldn't really 'work' in the context of the series. Olimar walks along at a fairly pedestrian pace, can climb some vines and ladders and traverse narrow gaps with a jetpack. The key hook revolves around using the Pikmin for fighting and reaching items, and so throwing these with accuracy is done with the touchscreen. As a result the game uses both screens to show the stage, meaning that it's all strictly 2D; unsurprisingly this game is being timed to launch alongside the New Nintendo 2DS XL.
To Arzest's credit the controls work pretty well, with Olimar's jetpack and familiar whistle activated with taps on the bottom screen. Basic movement is carried out with either the Circle Pad or the face buttons, the latter suiting lefties like your scribe. The steady pace of the game has meant that we've never struggled with the controls in any way, and it's a comfortable enough way to play.
That does tap into a key point, though. In a good number of hours and probably about 40-50% into the campaign we haven't felt challenged, at all. That will suit young or less experienced gamers fine, but the lack of peril so far has meant we've struggled to feel truly engaged or excited about the game. You start every stage with no Pikmin, with the accumulation of companions being heavily scripted. Boss fights, as another example, are by-the-numbers so far and not particularly innovative or tense. We don't lose many of our trusty little Pikmin, if any, and without that fear this game lacks the motivational factor that shone in Pikmin 3.
This feels, in part, down to the compromise of taking a concept like Pikmin and fitting it into a 2D template. You're no longer exploring a world, but rather taking on individual stages (some of which take a little while to clear, in fairness) across different zones. Stages are relatively linear so far, with some hidden areas and tricks hiding collectibles, though in some recent levels we've seen hints at some smarter design ideas and increased verticality. We're keen to see whether more is done to make the dual screen view more relevant, as opposed to a decision taken simply to accommodate touch controls. As it is we've only experienced a handful of moments that haven't felt like join-the-dots design.
As you can no doubt tell, then, we're somewhat on the fence at this stage. This is partly because the weight of the game's experience is reliant on the campaign doing all the lifting. The 'Pikmin Park' element, in which Pikmin you find work away at harvesting the resources you need, is a bit of a non-event. You assign Pikmin to their obvious zones, and after beating a few levels they give you a small amount of the 'Sparklium' you need. In the 'area select' section where you progress the campaign, meanwhile, bonus stages occasionally appear in the form of puzzle rooms or a repetitive minigame to gather more resources.
They're nice but unremarkable touches, and we're a little disappointed that the amiibo-themed stages (small puzzle rooms with handy resources) are so limited in support. Super Mario amiibo are supported, for example, but the pixel Mario or Yarn Yoshi figures only earn you a consolation prize as they're not in the formal 'supported' line-up. You can also use the series amiibo to call in more Pikmin during a stage if you're caught short, but we haven't needed this to date.
This may seem rather doom and gloom, but it is all about context. We're generally enjoying our steady journey through the game, primarily as a relaxing and low stress bit of gaming. The IP's charms are present and correct too, with cute little animations to introduce puzzles and new Pikmin, along with a nice range of enemy creatures that add some richness to the worlds. Visually decent by 3DS standards and with much appreciated touches of personality, it's a game that aims to showcase the welcoming vibes of the series.
And yet, we're waiting to see how we feel once the end credits roll. It's not a game that wows immediately or delivers lovely surprises on a frequent basis; we just need to see whether the steady accumulation of Pikmin buddies leaves us with a warm feeling when all is said and done.