After diligently playing and writing about Pikmin 3 level-by-level, it’s time to siphon my thoughts down into the shallow, quantifiable, clickbaity realm of ranking. Below is my list of Pikmin 3’s levels from worst to best. I devised the final ranking based on two ephemeral and subjective criteria: how good it is and how much I liked it. Feel free to praise or critique my list in the comments, but feel even freer to post your own list. Opinions are just opinions and I’d like to see how my thoughts and feelings compare to your equally valid ones! And check out longer analyses here.
The Tropical Wilds is one of Pikmin 3’s low points. Because Pikmin 3’s core gameplay is so delightful, many players probably breeze through this level without noticing its many blemishes. But upon closer examination, it feels unusually lazy for a level made by Nintendo EAD. It is a wonder why one of the game’s five levels would so intimately ape aspects of other levels’ design. And in almost every regard, from narrative, to thematic integration, to art direction, to enemy design, there is significant room for improvement. Whether this is the case due to a lack of direction, development crunch, or merely a series of innocent mistakes, the Tropical Wilds is a disappointing region despite an exceptional boss battle.
As a whole, the Formidable Oak largely accomplishes what it sets out to do. It is oppressive, tightly wound, and a hefty final push. And while it largely delivers as an experience, it often feels less cohesive than it could have been with some relatively minor changes. The surrounding world, the cave the player plays in, the general tone, and the boss all often seem at odds with each other, and at odds with the game’s ethos as a whole. It’s a somewhat conventional final level experience for a game that largely bucks convention, so even though it succeeds in its aspirations, those aspirations are conspicuous. In some regards, the ways in which the level stumbles are indicative of some of the game’s larger issues: A lack of narrative oomph, stylistic mismatching, combat that gets messy once the going gets tough. But at the same time, the Formidable Oak succeeds at being a one-of-a-kind level in a one-of-a-kind series. At its best, it offers some of the most evocative and experimental gameplay in the game, and it provides a hint at what future games in the franchise might look like should they choose to ditch some of the design standards that hold the series back.
The Distant Tundra is a memorable change of pace that never fully commits to itself. The superficial integration of the wintry theme into its design is a substantial disappointment, and some underwhelming enemies make parts of the map more of a hassle than they should be. At the same time, much of the eminently navigable map is optional, especially its weaker regions. And its boss battle, items, and aesthetic details make up for some of these design-related missteps to make the Distant Tundra a generally pleasant experience.
In a game with a strong environmental message, the Garden of Hope is an evolving and enveloping backyard hearth worth fighting for. As a first glimpse at HD Pikmin, its environments, fruits, and wildlife all validate their own existence merely through their vivid visual depiction. But generally strong design on nearly every front buttresses the level’s warm aesthetic appeal by making it feel like a level worth coming back to. Despite some minor stumbles in combat and visual design (many of which persist throughout the game), and some less elegant scenarios in the level’s southern second half, the Garden of Hope is a suitably homey start whose design constantly underscores where you started and how far you’ve come.
Truth be told, I wasn’t anticipating Twilight River to hold up as well as it does upon closer scrutiny. On most playthroughs, the level breezes by without me taking much notice, the only bumps in the roads being some unclear visual signage about the lily pads, the poor placement of the Scorch Guard, and the inevitable loss of some Winged Pikmin to Arachnodes on their way back to the Onion. But perhaps my not taking much notice of the level is testament to the immersion and flow it inspires, despite its many similarities to the Garden of Hope (a flaw shared with almost every level in the game). Indeed, the Twilight River manages to be a highlight in spite of these similarities because of the precision and intentionality of its design. The setting, enemies, Winged Pikmin, and level design merge together for a surprisingly cohesive experience that marks one of the game’s high points.