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Pikmin 3 Preview: Nintendo's Cruellest Series Returns

Red in tooth and claw.

It was, in case you missed it, an E3 filled with grisly violence and torture porn. Here's Lara Croft falling on sticks and fighting off rapists! There's Agent whatnot pummelling some nuns! How did Nintendo decide to kick off its conference, then? Kirby yanking a rusty nail out of his foot? Muddy Mole - Google him - punching an old lady out of a skyscraper and onto the spinning blades of a passing chopper? Nope. Nintendo set things rolling with what still feels like its most disturbing franchise ever - Pikmin.

I mean: Pikmin. Pikmin's not so sweet, is it? It's all about landing on some quiet, pleasant sort of planet, enslaving most of the population, and then treating them as mere resources in order to get what you want. Does anyone else out there find Captain Olimar a little hard to love with all his slave driving and mass hypnotism? It's all, "go here, carry this, fight that thing to the death." Then he's off on his spaceship with a nod and wink. I fear for the dark day that he discovers planet Earth.

Nintendo gets away with it, though, because it dresses this miserable parable of colonialism up in such bright colours and bucolic textures. Also, because I'm reading too much into it and it's all just good family-friendly fun in the first place. Deep breath.

Olimar wasn't present in the post-E3 hands-on demo, anyway. He was replaced by a mysterious Olimar surrogate who's no doubt just as cruel and imperious. What's that all about? Nobody's telling just yet. Olimar surrogate: I am watching you.

You know what else wasn't present? The Wii U Game Pad - and this is a bit weird, as it's kind of the console's biggest selling point. Instead, I was told that the Game Pad will probably show maps and things like that - and I seem to remember it's also going to allow you to launch your Pikmin with a swipe or two. With the pad itself out of bounds, I was given the old Nunchuk and Wii remote combo, and then I was off foraging in the wilderness and I mostly forgot it wasn't there, if that makes sense.

The wilderness is super pretty this time. Pikmin's always been a fairly attractive sort of game, the odd over-stretched grass texture aside, but on Wii U it's a real looker: water babbles and gurgles, plant stems sway in the breeze, and when you direct your Pikmin to a pile of rocks and order them to build you a bridge the pile of rocks are wonderful little fragments of china and the bridge you end up with could have been put together by Gaudi.

You are still ordering people to make you bridges, though, and directing them to fight those funny little frog monsters too, or collect trinkets - cherries and strawberries in this case - to bring back to your shuttle for fun and profit. For the first five minutes, the current demo's exploration section feels a touch too familiar, in fact - it's lovely and detailed and filled with little rewards, perhaps, but it's still more of the same old stuff.

Look deeper, though, and there are subtle changes. Even a quarter of an hour's play suggests this is probably going to lean more heavily on tactics than the first two games. Playing with a limited set of red Pikmin, there's an awful lot of fruit to collect, and if you're going to get it all back to the ship in good time, you're going to have to direct your troops judiciously. Just enough to carry that cherry, just enough to knock down that wall. Perfect! That leaves me a handful to throw at that monster, and then some of them can carry his body back to the ship - ick - and the others can tackle that last strawberry.

Even with a Nunchuk and Remote it's easy to move your troops around. If you played the Wii version you'll be right at home.

It's Pikmin, then, but with much more of a racing line than usual - a sensation that's only reinforced, in fact, when the day ends, and you receive a breakdown of your actions, along with a real-time top-down replay, so you can see where you're getting yourself bogged down and where you're missing a trick or two. Efficiency! For all its hippyish tree stumps and petals, for all its talking carrots and marooned space folk, Pikmin's often concerned with Fordism, really: breaking jobs down into smaller jobs, and making sure the production line's running smoothly. Pikmin 3 could be a bit of a taskmaster, and I like that idea a lot.

As for the new additions, so far, they come in the form of the new rock Pikmin. Rock Pikmin are little, sharp edged chunks of silvery stone, and they're hard-nuts, too: real tough guys. Throw them at the strongest barriers and they'll have them down in seconds, and they can smash through crystal to boot - a trait that's much in evidence during the boss battle section of the current demo.

The boss in question is absolutely massive - a huge, blue caterpillar type thing with mandibles twitching and horrible wriggling legs. It can crawl up walls and over the ceiling, and its back is covered in a hard crystal armour that you'll need to smash through with rock troops before your red guys can get to the warm flesh lying beneath. It's surprisingly stressful going as you race around, rallying your army, separating them, and then making sure you fling the right one when the moment to attack finally arrives. A classic Pikmin set-up, in other words: hectic, strategic, and quietly bloodthirsty.

There are still plenty of things we don't know about Pikmin 3, of course. What's the game's overall structure going to be like? How will it feel with a Game Pad in your hands? What's with that pink Pikmin that's been shown but not properly revealed yet, and how will multiplayer shape up? What is apparent, though, is that Nintendo's not making a particularly casual game here - it's making something race-tuned, tricksy and pleasantly tough to master. Olimar may be missing in action, in other words, but his reign of brilliant cruelty continues.