Pikmin, as a franchise, is arguably a mid-tier IP for Nintendo - perhaps not in terms of quality, but it is nevertheless refused the same priority and release frequency as other highly successful and profitable Nintendo brands. The Wii / DS generation passed with nothing but re-releases, before Pikmin 3 gave us a timely reminder of the series' qualities on Wii U. Now we have Hey! Pikmin, the first portable entry that's also been developed by Arzest.
As the name makes clear it's very much a spin-off, a smaller project for smaller screens. Dropping the 3D open-area approach of the main series games, in its place we have 2D stage-based design, split into eight worlds (or sectors, as they are here). It's also a relatively rare instance of both screens being used for the main image, giving a vertical portrait view of the playing field.
As a result we have a mix of touch and physical controls. Olimar walks at a serene pace, and on the bottom screen you have touch button for his whistle (to summon Pikmin) and jet-pack, which allows him to elevate and hover rather briefly. You also tap on the touchscreen to manage and throw Pikmin, leaving physical controls for simple movement. Those that hold the stylus right-handed can use the Circle Pad or D-Pad, while lefties can use the ABXY face buttons; it's certainly a manageable control-set either way, more than suitable for the tempo of the game.
Hey! Pikmin is undoubtedly accessible through these controls, suiting players of varying skill levels. While Pikmin 3 could actually be rather challenging at times due to its sizeable stages and the resource management required, the IP's formula is scaled back to suit all-comers here; the strictly 2D approach also aligns with stage-by-stage design that removes all core strategy. With a campaign split into 40+ stages, each is essentially self-contained; Olimar is dropped off with no Pikmin buddies, and he then works with small numbers (typically 20 or less) that he finds throughout the level. Rather than the series norm of puzzling your way around large spaces, here we have specifically designed stages and challenges.
The campaign does a nice job of easing players into the required patterns. Exploration is relatively minimal aside from seeking special items rich in 'Sparklium', a commodity you must gather in big numbers to repair Olimar's ship. In no time you have an optional map to help with this, but it's often simply a case of carefully checking one of two routes in each section, just occasionally discovering you've missed an item by opting to go the wrong way with no return. Finding all of the items in each stage unlocks extra small challenges to obtain more resources, and beyond that it's all about getting from A to B, hopefully keeping most of your newly discovered Pikmin alive in the process.
The game does a generally solid job of introducing and then utilising the various Pikmin types, each with their own environmental capabilities. Red Pikmin are useful for combat and resist fire, Rock Pikmin break ice, Yellow Pikmin can be thrown higher and conduct electricity, and a couple more besides. For those new to the series it's all introduced logically, and in no time players will be swapping between types in order to deal with specific enemies or dangers. The little Pikmin also follow closely for the most part, with just occasional instances where they'll fall unexpectedly or a thrown attack falls short and prompts their demise.
That's all positive, but after reaching the end credits (which took us about 9 hours of playtime) we had a nagging sense that this is an experience that fails to truly take off. It comes back to level design, primarily, which struggles to get beyond rote by-the-numbers construction. Rarely are stage puzzles particularly intelligent or witty, combat often makes the Pikmin feel simply like colourful bullets (especially underwater or with flying Pikmin), and some decent ideas get left under-developed. In part it feels like a game that's fallen for the trap of mistaking accessibility with flat design, offering little challenge or peril, issues exacerbated by the deliberately steady tempo. Gameplay isn't bad as such, and at times is genuinely entertaining, but it struggles to hit the high-points associated with main Pikmin games or indeed Nintendo's broader A-grade franchises.
It's not a game without a great deal of personality, however, with touches that will certainly delight plenty of players. The personality of the Pikmin is emphasized regularly, often through very short cutscenes that show the little creatures interacting with each other and the world around them. Sometimes these sequences are conveying a lesson, but on other occasions they're just included to be cute; either way they're charming. Real world items have quirky names, too, based upon Olimar's confused perception of their purpose, and unlocked Log entries can make for fun reading. Some of the enemy creatures raise a smile, too.
One area that is a minor disappointment, however, is Pikmin Park. The idea is that Pikmin you save in each stage stay here and work in 'zones', accumulating extra resources. It's throwaway busy-work, essentially, which unlocks gradually as you progress through the campaign; you simply assign a type of Pikmin to a zone and move on, there's little real management here.
Visually we have a mixed bag with Hey! Pikmin. Because of the dual screen viewpoint (and possibly the fact this is launching alongside the New Nintendo 2DS XL) there's no autostereoscopic 3D effect at all. While the graphics are decent for a 3DS game, they also try to copy the mix of realism and fantastical beasts seen in the home console games, but don't quite pull it off. Perhaps a stylised cartoon-ish approach would have been more stylistically impressive and suitable for the hardware; the 3DS (including New models) does also struggle to keep up occasionally, with some dips below the target 30fps. Sound has some high-points such as Pikmin and animal noises, though the music is rather forgettable.
There is also amiibo implementation, too, primarily the Super Mario range and some extras (like Splatoon) that can be scanned to trigger in-game statues, a good way to get some free Sparklium. The Pikmin-specific amiibo can also be scanned to summon more of the little creatures in stages, too, for players that are struggling. We managed to play through the entire game without using any amiibo, so they're certainly optional extras. Also of note for those sharing a system, there are three save profiles available.
All told, we finished with Hey! Pikmin with generally positive feelings, albeit in the context of what this is - a placeholder spin-off that can introduce the series to 3DS owners. It offers a pleasing sense of the IP's style, right down to oversized boss battles, while stages can take a little while to work through at a steady pace, reminding us that this is a franchise that can be downright serene at times. That said, it still feels distinctly 'B-Side' when all is said and done.
For fans of the series Hey! Pikmin will undoubtedly be tempting, and it also serves as a cute and accommodating introduction to the franchise for 3DS owners. Despite its strong points, though, it has that feel of a 'second-tier' Nintendo release, not helped by the limitations that 2D play places on the core concept. It's solid but a tad uninspiring, fun but unsurprising, accessible but lacking in witty design. The best Nintendo games achieve the high points with no sacrifices, but it's here that Hey! Pikmin falls slightly short.
Ultimately it's a decent game, and younger gamers in particular - or those that want a gentle introduction to Pikmin - will likely get the most pleasure and mileage out of it. For everyone else it's worth going in with sensible expectations.