This is a story about hubris—specifically, the hubris of a Nintendo superfan. When I started the new PC and Xbox One adventure game The Wild at Heart, I thought it was an okay-ish Pikmin ripoff. Then I decided to actually reacquaint myself with Pikmin, a Nintendo game series I hadn’t played in many years. After playing both the latest Pikmin and The Wild at Heart in tandem, I found myself having a surprising, near unspeakable revelation: The Wild at Heart is an improvement on the celebrated Nintendo classic.
Last time I played Pikmin, it was on the GameCube. The first game in the series—there are currently three main games and one spinoff—launched in 2001. Although my memories of its combination of real-time strategy and puzzle elements were still a little hazy when I started The Wild at Heart, I picked up on the strong resemblance instantly. In Pikmin games, you play as an astronaut stranded on a foreign planet inhabited by all kinds of plant-like monsters. You want to return home; to do so, you gather up the titular native Pikmin to help you collect resources. You also can throw them at enemies and obstacles, with different classes of Pikmin having unique abilities. The more Pikmin thrown at an obstacle or enemy, the more damage done or progress made.
Meanwhile, in The Wild at Heart, you play as a young boy who runs away from home and finds himself in a magical forest, one whose whimsical adult protectors are under threat from a dark influence called the Never. In place of Pikmin, the boy finds magical Spritelings to help him out. Like Pikmin, Spritelings follow the player-character around; you can throw them at enemies and obstacles to make progress, and you gradually unlock new classes of Spritelings to overcome new obstacles. There’s a cap on how many Spritelings can be controlled at once—just as in the Pikmin games—and the strategy revolves around choosing the right mix to handle upcoming challenges—just as in, you guessed it, the Pikmin games.
While I liked The Wild at Heart from the start, as I played, I continually harkened back to my fond memories of playing the original Pikmin as a child. Surely, I thought, the similar gameplay in Pikmin was superior—it was created by Nintendo, which meant it had that inherent Nintendo magic. Surely Pikmin was longer than this short-ish, independently developed game; Pikmin’s story felt endless when I played as a kid. Pikmin was also incredibly difficult, to my recollection, requiring subtle strategy to make it through the punishing terrain. I was so nostalgic for Pikmin throughout my 16 hours with The Wild at Heart that, shortly after I finished the game, I actually felt inspired to buy the most recent Pikmin game: last year’s Pikmin 3 Deluxe on Nintendo Switch. I wanted to test if my love for those little alien plants withstood the test of time. Well, mea culpa: Pikmin 3 is a good game, if not a particularly fulfilling one; it also doesn’t change up much from that 2001 original I loved so much. But The Wild at Heart is better.
The differences between the two series are subtle, but after playing them back-to-back, I’m convinced that The Wild at Heart’s changes are improvements on Nintendo’s “resource management-plus-cutesy minions” formula. The Wild at Heart’s Spritelings are significantly bigger (they take up more of the screen than the Pikmin aliens do), and you can only have 60 trailing you at a time by the end of the game, as compared to Pikmin’s 100-alien army. This makes it easier to keep track of every single Spriteling, and that helps the game pack much more of an emotional punch when you lose them in combat. I soon found myself playing to try and keep each one alive—something that seemed impossible to even try in Pikmin— which added to the challenge. All that work to save these little lives didn’t quite make The Wild at Heart as challenging as the harder levels of Pikmin, but it makes the game a more consistently satisfying challenge for anyone who likes a lot of difficulty.
Another improvement I found was in the world design. Pikmin is separated into discrete levels. Once you clear an area, you go to a world map to select the next level, the same way you would in a Super Mario game. The Wild at Heart is a take on the very different “Metroidvania” format, however. In these types of games, you can explore freely, but you’re gated out of certain areas by obstacles you lack the ability to tackle yet. As you gain new types of Spritelings, you’re able to pass through more and more of these obstacles until, by the game’s end, you can go everywhere. This is a much more immersive design than what Pikmin offers, and it’s further enhanced by all the charming characters you encounter in the Deep Woods. The funny creatures and clueless adult weirdos are delightful, and although Pikmin’s characters and story aren’t bad for a Nintendo game (narrative is traditionally the company’s weak spot), the points for world-building also have to go to The Wild at Heart.
When it comes to gameplay, I really expected Pikmin to pull away in my comparison, because of my fond memories and the fact that intuitive gameplay is what Nintendo is known for. Instead, the games each have different strengths and weaknesses.. Like Pikmin, The Wild at Heart is smooth and intuitive. Pikmin gives you additional tools that allow you to control your squad in more subtle ways than The Wild at Heart does, and Pikmin likely has more replay value than The Wild at Heart too, due to its high difficulty, optional challenges, and scoring system. However, many of the extra tools at your perusal in Pikmin are confusing to use, difficult to manage, and don’t add much to the overall gameplay. I preferred the way you select Spritelings over scrolling through which Pikmin to choose as well, because I never felt like I was struggling to select the right class of little guys in the heat of combat. I even liked the craftable bomb in The Wild at Heart much more than the bomb rocks held by Pikmin. I’m tempted to say that The Wild at Heart felt a bit better to play overall; however, I will note that I encountered significant bugs in a handful of places. At one point, a difficult enemy flew into an unreachable location and froze there, allowing me to go about my business unhindered, and my game crashed twice. The auto saves were generous, at least, so I never lost my progress due to crashes.
The Wild at Heart’s story mode is about as long as Pikmin 3’s main and side campaigns; it took me 16 hours to play through it, and there were some optional challenges and secrets that I missed. When I started, my expectations of indie games—traditionally shorter smaller than big studio releases—made me think it would be significantly shorter, so I was pleasantly surprised by the length and depth. I also looked up how long the original Pikmin on the Gamecube was, and the internet consensus says it takes 10 hours to complete—much less than I remembered. (Ah, to be a kid again, when 10 hours of gameplay felt endless.)
The Wild at Heart shattered some of my illusions about the supposedly infallible superiority of Nintendo, but I can’t hold that against it, much as I love the House of Mario. After all, Pikmin 4 has been in development since 2015, so it’s nice to have such a worthy, enjoyable romp offering Pikmin fans a take on the alien-throwing puzzle/strategy formula in the meantime. Especially when it’s one that might give Pikmin—and Nintendo—a run for its money, going forward.