What is Pikmin? It’s a question that Nintendo has struggled to answer since the franchise first premiered back in 2001, where the idiosyncratic survival-strategy series–the last Nintendo franchise to be directly created by legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto–premiered on Gamecube and would go on to struggle in sales numbers. Twenty-two years later and Nintendo is back with a new iteration on the Switch, flush with cash and a console so successful that even niche games can sell better. Is this, at last, the game that will make Pikmin go mainstream?
The short answer is: probably not, because Pikmin 4 is as odd and difficult to describe as any other game in the franchise. But that doesn’t mean that Nintendo hasn’t made something wonderful regardless.
Pikmin 4 opens with a typical setup for the series: long-time series protagonist Captain Olimar is once again stranded on PNF-404, the mysterious, uncharted world where the pikmin hail from (and which the series has implied is Earth millions of years in the future). The tutorial is a brief segment where Olimar explores a human household, learning the controls and repairing his ever-battered spaceship enough to send a rescue signal. Unfortunately, the interplanetary Rescue Corps crash in their attempt to save him. The game proper begins when the player character–a custom avatar this time around–arrives to rescue their fellow Rescue Corps members, Olimar, and, as it turns out, a whole gaggle of other alien castaways who have found themselves stranded on PNF-404.
Muster the Troops
Like other games in the series, Pikmin 4 focuses primarily on managing a swarm of pikmin, plant-like creatures that come in a variety of types. The alien protagonists are hardy, thanks to their spacesuits, but are feeble and generally incapable of doing much. To rescue the castaways, pikmin must be gathered up and ordered to carry them back to the safety of the ship. And to get more pikmin, food–in the form of “pellets” from special flowers or the carcasses of defeated foes–must be delivered back to the pikmin’s nest, amusingly called an “onion” for its vegetable-like shape, so that it can be converted into fresh pikmin of whatever type hauled it back. Treasure must also be collected to be converted into energy for the ship’s radar, which unlocks new areas to explore.
And so the gameplay loop of Pikmin 4 reveals itself: explore, gather pikmin, save the castaways, and gather treasure to unlock more areas. It’s a simple enough formula, with clear, understandable goals. But of course, there are complications. Environmental obstacles and hazards are everywhere, from something as simple as a soil barrier to something as dangerous as patches of flame. To bypass these obstacles, players must utilize the unique properties of the many types of pikmin–nine in total–at their disposal.
Controlling the pikmin is a simple affair. The player moves through the environment using the left and right sticks in traditional 3D, third-person style. The most obvious difference is the presence of a cursor projecting out from the character. The B button is used to whistle, which grabs the attention of idle pikmin and musters them behind the player. The left and right shoulder buttons allow the player to cycle through their available pikmin, and the A button will have the player character throw one of the pikmin in that group wherever the cursor is pointing. The pikmin’s behavior is dependent on the target: it will attack an enemy, dig up a buried item, pick up an object, or whatever else contextually makes sense. Players don’t have to babysit their pikmin, either, as the pikmin will complete their task on their own, including carrying valuables back to the base automatically, allowing the player to go elsewhere and issue more commands as needed.
One of the more distinctive and divisive elements of the Pikmin series is its emphasis on time management. The game is played in in-game days, each of which lasts for 15 or 20 minutes. A prominent timer in the corner tracks the current time, and at the end of the day, the player and their pikmin return to the Rescue Corps base, as the world of PNF-404 is quite dangerous at night. Any pikmin that are not in the squad or in the designated safe zone will be eaten at the end of the day.
The time element has been divisive because Pikmin has an affection for using it to impose strict time limits on the player. In the original game, players had only 30 in-game days to repair Olimar’s spaceship. At the end of that time, his life support would run out, and so he would have to attempt to escape, whether his ship was fully repaired or not. While not the hardest game ever made, this life-or-death pressure (on top of the life-or-death struggles of managing their cute little pikmin) proved far too stressful for some players. The series has wrestled with how to respond ever since. Time pressure was a core element of the first game, and some kind of pressure has clearly been viewed by Nintendo as essential to the franchise, whether it’s time, debt, or supplies.
Pikmin 4’s answer to the pressure question is to dispense with it entirely. You have as long as you need to explore the planet and achieve the objectives of the story. You still play the game in-game day by in-game day, but you can have as many days as you’d like.
To offset the dramatic reduction in time pressure, Pikmin 4 brings back another divisive element that originated in Pikmin 2: caves. Caves are, essentially, dungeons. The player enters through a trap door on the surface and finds themselves in a tiny maze of obstacles and enemies. The only pikmin they have access to are those they bring with them from the surface and those they find within the cave itself, and each cave additionally limits the types of pikmin that the player can bring with them. Time passes at 1/6th the rate as on the surface, but this is only applied once you leave the cave; you might find the day almost over when you exit a cave, but you can take as long as you need in the cave itself and will never be forced to leave.
Caves were divisive in Pikmin 2 because they were the bulk of the game and often little more than miserable combat gauntlets. They could also be brutally unfair, particularly in the back half of the game, with the kinds of surprise ambushes and traps that would make even a patient player shout, “Bullshit!” at the TV. They were also randomized to a degree, making it difficult to know what to expect and to prepare accordingly, and if you needed to return to a cave for a piece of lost treasure or something, you had to slog through every floor every time you returned.
Pikmin 4 is much gentler in its approach to caves. I don’t know if there’s any randomization, but if there is any, it fits within the game’s very gentle difficulty curve. You can return to the surface whenever you like and, if you return to a cave, you can go to any floor of the cave and pick up where you left off. Enemies will not respawn until you have cleared a cave, so you don’t have to worry about slogging through anything you’ve already done. Furthermore, the design of the caves is simply a lot better. While the later caves can be challenging, they are all carefully tuned and constructed, almost like little Zelda dungeons, and it never feels unfair even if it sometimes feels a bit tough. Notably, enemy density has been dialed down significantly, and there is a much greater emphasis on environmental obstacles and puzzles over violence.
The Art of Dandori
Caves provide Pikmin 4 with an opportunity to bring back time pressure in a much less imposing form. Pikmin 4 spends a lot of time talking about “dandori,” which is apparently a Japanese term for the art of efficiency. I guess. The concept never came up in earlier games, so whether this is an accurate reflection of Japanese culture or Nintendo trying to generate a buzzword to make the game more succinctly describable, I can’t say. Either way, players will encounter two types of Dandori-focused caves: Challenges and Battles.
Dandori Challenges give the player a limited selection of pikmin and task them with gathering as much treasure in the cave as they can within the time limit (usually seven minutes). To clear these caves, players must achieve at least a Bronze rating, with the Platinum rating reserved for players who can gather every last bit of treasure before the time runs out. These range from “extremely easy” to “completely uncompromising,” but players who struggle can request assistance (although I confess I do not know what form this assistance takes).
Dandori Battles are very similar, but the player is pitted against an AI opponent who is attempting to gather more treasure within the time limit. These maps feature respawning enemies and treasure, as well as some surprise twists. They are hectic and strange, but fun, and players who like them can actually engage in head-to-head Dandori Battles against their friends via splitscreen multiplayer (there is no online or local wireless functionality). Like the Dandori Challenges, Dandori Battles can eventually get tricky, but assistance is available for players who need it.
Whether you’re doing the Challenges or the Battles, Dandori caves push the player to really explore what they can do with pikmin beyond simply throwing them at something. Racing around and having squads of pikmin working on different tasks might sound stressful, but in these bite-sized trials the hectic fun and the sense of being a very clever person who can juggle many tasks shine through in a non-punishing way that the series has occasionally struggled with in the past.
Pikmin 4 is the first game in the series to feature a mode of gameplay that takes place at night. These are not normal missions. Your goal is to survive for a period of time (much shorter than an in-game day) and defend the nest of a new pikmin type: the Glow Pikmin, which is very clearly just some kind of pikmin ghost. Glow Pikmin are the only type of pikmin available to you in these missions, and they have a number of unique properties that make them radically different from every other variety. Most notably, they are immune to all standard elemental damage, allowing them to deal with any hazard, and they immediately teleport back to you upon finishing a task.
I won’t say anything else about these missions. They are mostly fairly easy, and it’s worth poking around yourself to see what they offer. Their most interesting reward is glow seeds: these can be used in caves to conjure up Glow Pikmin, who cannot venture out into the sunlight. Stockpiling glow seeds and using them in tricky caves can be a lifesaver if you find yourself having lost all the pikmin you would need to bypass some specific obstacle, and I found myself grateful for the option while deep in the most dangerous caves.
Pikmin’s Best Friend
One of the headline new features of Pikmin 4 is the introduction of Oatchi, your loyal space dog. Oatchi is a dog in the most general sense, resembling a sort of dog-jerboa-hamster hybrid more than any real dog (although you may find an explanation for this if you poke around in the game’s supplemental data files…), but he is still a potent tool in your arsenal.
Oatchi can be ridden like a horse, with all your pikmin clinging to his back. He can charge forward, smashing through certain obstacles (or enemies), he can ferry pikmin safely across water (most cannot swim and easily drown), he can jump, and he can do nearly anything a pikmin can do. The player can even switch to Oatchi to allow him to take his own squad of pikmin somewhere, allowing them to do multiple tasks simultaneously.
Oatchi fits into a broader upgrade system in the game. As you explore, you’ll discover “raw materials,” chips of a glass-like substance. These can be converted into clay to allow pikmin to build structures–such as bridges or ramps–to gain access to otherwise unreachable areas or to simply make traversal easier. However, raw materials can also be spent at the Rescue Corps HQ to purchase upgrades and expendable items. These upgrades open up a lot of functionality for the player that can make the game easier, and of particular note are upgrades for Oatchi that can make him immune to elemental damage types, allowing him to perform tasks that would otherwise require specific pikmin types. The expendable items, meanwhile, include the likes of bombs and mines that can make combat situations dramatically easier.
Oatchi also has a separate upgrade system. Each rescued castaway grants the player a single point, and with enough points the player can purchase upgrades for Oatchi’s abilities, from how much he can carry to how strong his attack is and more. Oatchi is ultimately a Swiss Army knife, able to be molded to do whatever the player wants him to do, and he can make life much easier as a result.
Give Me a Challenge
Pikmin 4’s difficulty has proven to be a sticking point for some critics. Without the time pressure, it is substantially easier than Pikmin 1. With better cave design, it’s easier than Pikmin 2. Pikmin 3 was pretty easy, but it had multiple difficulty settings, and it was possible for a player to run out of supplies and get a bad ending. And yes, if you stick to just the critical path, Pikmin 4 is not a particularly difficult game.
But Pikmin 4 is also a much larger game than any of the others, and in fact has a large amount of optional content. You don’t have to go into very many caves at all to complete the game, though you’ll miss out on reams of the most interesting and challenging content. There is a substantial amount of post-game content that pushes far past what the rest of the game offers, and a single playthrough can exceed 30 hours for completionists or those seeking the toughest challenges. Unfortunately, it does take a long while to reach that point, so if you need Pikmin to have more of a bite, you may find that it comes too late in the experience.
But on the flipside, this is easily the most accessible Pikmin yet. There are loads of different gameplay modes, lots of ways to make the game easier for those who need it, and an unparalleled amount of content for those who just like the gameplay. While it’s not a Pikmin title that asks an enormous amount from anyone who just wants to see the credits roll, it’s not afraid to bare its teeth at times, and there’s a fantastic opportunity for a new player to go from total novice to pikmin master simply by being open to whatever the game offers up.
This is the first (new) Pikmin title to release on the Switch, and it’s the best the series has ever looked. PNF-404 is weirder, wilder, and wetter than ever before, teeming with creatures that skitter and crawl and caper and bellow. The Switch is the weakest console currently on the market, but Nintendo’s expert art direction gives the whole thing a strangely photorealistic quality that looks better than many games that aim for realism. The various aquatic creatures in particular are gorgeously animated.
The biggest change to the visuals, however, comes from the new camera. While you can pull it back to the more overhead position of the earlier games, by default it is pushed in much closer to the player character, showcasing more of the surrounding environment from a ground-level perspective. I was concerned about this at first, but the levels have all been designed to be bigger and wider, making it a breeze to navigate without ever becoming cumbersome. The controls are even tighter than in Pikmin 3, and the pikmin pathfinding (perhaps coupled with the generally wider level design) is better than ever.
End of Day
Pikmin 4 is a charming, surprisingly vast adventure that brings a lot of new things to the Pikmin franchise while also, remarkably, containing absolutely everything that was great in the previous games. It may take awhile for the most hardened and impatient veterans to see that, but for everyone else this is simply the best Pikmin game yet. If you haven’t played it yet, I give it a full-throated recommendation. There’s even a demo that lets you play the beginning of the game and carry over your progress! It’s one of the best games I’ve played this year, and with all four games in the franchise (except for that 3DS spin-off) available on the Switch, there’s never been a better time to be a Pikmin fan.