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Prepare for Big, Big Fun in ‘Pikmin 4’

Gaming Reviews Videogames

When Nintendo of America sent me download codes for the new Switch versions of classic titles Pikmin and Pikmin 2 shortly after June’s Nintendo Direct presentation, I was overjoyed. As an early GameCube adopter, Pikmin is a franchise I’ve been following since the very beginning, and it’s long been a sentimental favorite.

However, while much of the charm of these early real-time strategy puzzlers still comes through, the dated visuals and the barebones controls did serve to remind me what a huge step forward Pikmin 3—both the original Wii U iteration and its Deluxe Switch version—was for the series. Moreover, revisiting them served to whet my appetite for the upcoming fourth installment.

Once again NOA came through, and a couple of weeks back an early download code for Pikmin 4 landed in my inbox. While I was already primed for another pint-sized adventure in a big, weird world, even the game’s earliest hours indicated that this wasn’t simply a typical Pikmin affair.

Sure, all the earmarks were there—strange new Pikmin (Ice and Glow varieties this time), fearsome monsters, and oversized bosses dropped into ultra-realistic game environments, stranded explorers strewn across perfectly cohesive levels, a positively gorgeous soundtrack—but Pikmin 4 feels wonderfully different.

Old hands will obviously note some of these changes from the trailer alone. As the newest recruit in the Rescue Corps, you must locate Captain Olimar and your fellow corpsmen alike. And while being marooned on an unfamiliar planet is Pikmin 101, getting to customize your own avatar is a series first. This character customization isn’t particularly deep, but the selection of skin tones, body types, facial shapes, and hair/uniform coloring is more than adequate. Players should have no problem finding a look that suits them.

You’re also provided with an indispensable new partner in the form of Oatchi, a two-legged canine who can not only do the same grunt work as your Pikmin (fighting, digging, transporting treasure, etc.) but also serves as a handy mode of transportation for you and your entire colorful army.

Still, as novel as these new features are, it’s the game’s overall mission structure that’s received the most thorough facelift. While a game clock still marks the passage of time, counting down the hours until sundown and up the days of your mission, gone is much of the urgency found in previous Pikmin titles.

Pikmin 4 crew
It really is a big, beautiful world out there. image: NOA

There’s no dwindling food supply to reckon with, no frantic race to collect missing items or harvest energy—although the latter two are still prominent elements in the game. The lack of a need to beat the clock frees Pikmin 4 from the strict, regimented play structure of earlier titles. Even in my initial playthrough, I always felt as though I had ample time to explore the world around me. That’s a luxury I’ve seldom experienced in other Pikmin games.

That said, the Pikmin themselves are still the same as you likely remember; they’re all about getting things from point A to point B.

Your primary objective, obviously, is to track down Olimar, the crew, and the other castaways, but to do this you must harvest Sparklium, the energy source drawn from collected treasures, to expand your search radius, as well as raw materials (often excavated from the earth or harvested from enemies) that can be used for both in-world construction of scalable walls and chasm-spanning bridges or refined into new equipment for both you and Oatchi at the Command Post.

This Command Post serves as a central hub world where you can receive new main story missions, unlock additional side mission requests, and even help Oatchi improve his skills. As you harvest more energy, you’ll open up access to more areas, which in turn affords you the opportunity to discover new Pikmin, rescue more crew members/castaways, and further unravel the mysteries of this strange Earth-like planet.

Glow Pikmin
Night Expeditions are a welcome addition, but note that you can only launch one expedition (day or night) per in-game day. image: NOA

Chief among these mysteries is the existence of hairy humanoids who bear a striking resemblance to your missing cohorts. By participating in Dandori Battles, timed resource-gathering mini-games, against the leaf-headed big cheese of these hirsute horrors, you can rescue additional castaways, and by undertaking Pikmin 4‘s brand-new Night Expeditions, you and your Glow Pikmin can harvest the Glow Sap needed to return tainted characters to their original states.

Taken together all this makes for a wonderfully holistic gameplay experience. Exploring nets you more resources, more Pikmin, and more rescues. These castaways then expand your Command Post hub, offering new side missions with their own unique and helpful rewards. In short, Pikmin 4 continually incentivizes your efforts, helping you become more invested in the narrative simply by moving it forward.

Still, much of the old Pikmin DNA is still present, and while the novelty of Red Pikmin being fire resistant while Blue Pikmin can survive underwater may have worn thin, using your helpful plant buddies to solve clever environmental puzzles still feels fun and engaging. And while those special-purpose Glow Pikmin get most of the press, I found the new Ice Pikmin to be much more robust and exciting.

Ice Pikmin attack
Ice Pikmin are your secret weapon! image: NOA

From stunning enemies with their cold to freezing water to allow safe passage for my hydrophobic Pikmin, these little guys were my true workhorses, and the same can be said for Oatchi… even if I mostly just used him as a two-legged pack mule.

The only real drawback to all these new characters, features, and other content is the related controls, which can get a little overwhelming. (So much so that the game allows you to map your choice of controls to the D-pad, streamlining the process somewhat.) In addition to using your whistle to round up Pikmin, throwing them to fight enemies or collect items, and even splitting your squad up into subgroups so that your character and Oatchi can attack on two fronts, Pikmin 4 offers a mind-numbing number of other options.

Oatchi can sniff out nearby castaways or break small barriers. You can use a Survey Drone to get the lay of the land. You have a special pack full of helpful items (developed by your engineer pal Russ) that can help turn the tide of battle. There are caves and items sets and cleverly concealed paths to discover.

The sheer amount of content borders on overwhelming, but Pikmin 4 makes it work by using these new mechanics in tandem with that classic Pikmin formula we all know and love.

Despite all the new bells and whistles, at the end of every day, there’s still that mad dash to get all your disparate Pikmin back to home base before time runs out, and that crushing tally that reminds you how many of your precious babies you sacrificed to the cause.

There’s also still the limit of three Pikmin types per squad, meaning you may have to huff it back to the Onion yourself to acquire the correct troops to take on a particular task. And regardless of the expanded cast of characters, the bulk of the game is just you, your Pikmin, and your dog-beast making your way through a big, beautiful world.

Oatchi allows you to move all your Pikmin across the water, opening up the level maps in a clever new way. image: NOA

While I’m not quite sure Pikmin 4 will get its Fire Emblem: Three Houses moment—dutifully elevating both the core series and the real-time strategy genre to stunning new heights by increasing its mass appeal—I really feel that it deserves one. Like Three Houses before it, it further refines an already effective formula, and I hope that’s enough to finally bring the joy of Pikmin to the masses.

For anyone paying attention, Pikmin 4‘s big third-act reveal (and, for that matter, its post-game content) shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but there are more than enough other unique turns within its structure and gameplay to make up for that. And besides, plot twists are not strictly the kind of surprises that fans come to a Pikmin game for anyway.

Pikmin is about the joy of discovering a world as it opens up around you, and even with all its new additions, Pikmin 4 never loses sight of that. While the stringent time constraints of previous titles often left me struggling over the finish line, I managed to make it through to the end of this experience in an enjoyable 15ish hours before I happily dove back in for the post-game goodies.

That is, now that I think about it, the perfect way to sum up Pikmin 4; it’s a genuine treat!

A digital copy of Pikmin 4 was provided by Nintendo of America for the purposes of this review. This post contains affiliate links. Those chonky Purple Pikmin are still wildly underrated.

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