Pik of the litter
I’ll never forget when Nintendo announced the very first Pikmin game. It was exciting to see a brand-new IP from Nintendo, but I was also quite apprehensive about it. Earlier in my gaming career, I was quite nervous to step outside of a few select genres. When I saw that Nintendo was making a real-time strategy, I worried that I would be completely out of my element and have no idea how to play. Still, if anyone was going to get me out of my genre comfort zone, it would be Nintendo.
I’m forever grateful that I decided to give Pikmin a go, as it quickly became an upper-tier Nintendo franchise for me. Nintendo’s approach to real-time strategy wasn’t anywhere near as scary as I expected, and Pikmin managed to offer the feeling I expected from Nintendo games, but with a whole new approach. That first installment made me a diehard Pikmin fan, and I’ve followed every release since.
It seems quite a few Nintendo fans and gamers in general might have felt the same apprehension about Pikmin that I did, as the series has famously struggled to cultivate a “Nintendo-like audience,” as Nintendo themselves would say. The unique genre mixed with the pressure to keep your Pikmin alive seemed to be the perfect one-two punch in the gut from a sales perspective. Nintendo has been trying ever since the second installment to woo gamers to Pikmin, but they’ve never pushed as hard as they have with Pikmin 4.
While Nintendo might not say it publicly, it’s very clear that Pikmin 4 is meant as a reset for the franchise in general. This latest installment looks to entice newcomers by including a very detailed onboarding process, new features to take the pressure off, and an incredibly welcoming atmosphere in many regards. Nintendo has also been spreading the word on Pikmin 4 everywhere they can, and in multiple ways. The Big N has absolutely gone above and beyond in explaining what Pikmin 4 is all about, and that’s included a basic breakdown of the Pikmin franchise in general.
It’s easy to see that Nintendo believes Pikmin is worthy of attention, and they feel Pikmin 4 could be the game to break through. While a true tally of the game’s sales is yet to be shared, various figures from around the world point to an incredibly successful launch. Having played an insane amount of Pikmin 4 so far, I can definitely see why people appear to be jumping into the series for the first time. Nintendo has somehow managed to create a Pikmin experience that offers a ton for longtime fans to adore while also building something that even the most trepidatious player can fall in love with.
For those who don’t know, the main gameplay loop in any Pikmin game involves growing Pikmin, taking them out on missions, fighting enemies and collecting loot. You complete that routine day in and day out, uncovering more of the landscape as time rolls on. You never know what adventure awaits around the corner, and it could bring the thrill of victory or agony of defeat.
The most impressive thing that Pikmin 4 does is retain those core Pikmin mechanics while both refining and adding to them. You’ll see this when you set out with a group of Pikmin to explore the world around you, as now it’s easier than ever to get the little guys to do what you want. Throwing out Pikmin to snag items or attack enemies works flawlessly, and a soft lock-on element makes sure your army is going right where you want them to. As always, picking up treasures or fallen enemies requires a specific amount of Pikmin to carry them back to your ship. This time around, the game momentarily locks you out of throwing more Pikmin once you’ve dished out the number needed for the job. It’s just a slight pause when you hit that target number, but it’s a great introduction that keeps you from over-throwing Pikmin, or even worse, tossing the wrong type into a dangerous situation.
The refinement of Pikmin gameplay goes even further with Oatchi, the new dog-like companion you have on your journey. Without a doubt, Oatchi is the greatest addition the Pikmin series has seen since its inception. Oatchi makes your adventure so much easier in a litany of ways, and it’s just a joy to have the creature at your side. You and your Pikmin can ride Oatchi for faster travel, you can send him out to fight battles or collect valuables, you can use him as a floatation device to travel across water, and so much more. The ways that Oatchi improves literally every aspect of the Pikmin experience makes him absolutely invaluable, and if a series vet like me recognizes that, you know newcomers will deeply appreciate what the pseudo-pup has to offer.
Oatchi’s vast array of abilities goes hand-in-hand with the new upgrades that you can unlock for both your avatar and Oatchi. There’s an incredible amount of upgrades and enhancements you can purchase throughout the game, and they change up gameplay in a multitude of ways, all for the better. Through in-game currency, you’ll be able to upgrade your overall speed, increase your resistance to certain environmental hazards, call lost Pikmin no matter how far away they are, and so on. I honestly couldn’t believe how many upgrades Pikmin 4 throws at you, and the way they take the pressure off during exploration to make for a more enjoyable experience in general is staggering.
All these upgrades make a huge difference in exploration as well, as there’s plenty to do and see. While it might not seem like there’s too many areas to work your way through at the start, Pikmin 4 fools you with how astonishingly dense each location is. Even if you’re the best Pikmin player out there, you’re going to need quite a few days to clear a stage 100%. There’s so many nooks and crannies to dig through along the way, and you’ll feel the pull to investigate them all. A treasure on a hill in the distance, a giant enemy begging for a fight, an electrified wall asking to be destroyed; there’s so much to interact with that it’s legitimately hard to pick what to tackle next.
Of particular interest to me were the underground sections of Pikmin 4. As you travel across a map, you’ll see various pipes that you can take a trip down. You’ll have a certain limit on the amount of Pikmin you can take with you, and what awaits below is a multi-level challenge that can really test your skills. You never know how deep an underground section will go, and while you can travel back to the surface at any time, you’ll constantly feel the urge to take things one level deeper.
In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom, I am an absolute Shrine junkie. It doesn’t matter how many Shrines there are, as I want to find them all and explore every single bit. I am truly addicted to the Shrines in those two Zelda games, and that’s exactly the same feeling I get from the underground sections in Pikmin 4. When I hop into a pipe and realize I’m in an underground lair 8 levels deep, I couldn’t be happier. Even more so than topside, you never know what’s going to be hiding in the depths of the underground. Sure, there will be treasures to collect, but what crazy enemies are going to be blocking your big payday? Even better, these underground sections have various themes to them, whereas Shrines in Zelda all loosely look the same. This visual/environmental variety combined with the puzzles and mystery of these underground areas scratches a very deep itch in my brain, and I’ll never get enough.
When you’re down in the depths snooping around, you might happen upon a lost explorer. It turns out Pikmin 4 is absolutely teeming with adventurers from other planets, and all of them need your help. Should you manage to complete an underground section and emerge victorious from a battle, you can use your Pikmin to carry a lost traveler back to your home base. Doing this will expand the local community of friendlies, and plenty of them will give you unique challenges to take on. From collecting fruit to beating a certain number of enemies, these newfound pals will also give you some helpful resources for completing their side-missions.
Every once in a while, you’ll happen upon a traveler who’s been afflicted with a mystery ailment that covers them in fauna. Sometimes you’ll carry these voyagers back to your home base for help, and other times you’ll have to battle them in a special challenge. Both of these situations go a long way in showing how Pikmin 4 offers a surprising amount of variety in gameplay mechanics, truly letting you pick what you want to do with your time.
If you’re interested in helping out a traveler with their sickness, you’ll have to take on a nighttime mission. A first for the series, Pikmin 4 lets you travel out and about when the sun sets. Any longtime Pikmin fan knows that you’re forced to leave the planet when daylight fades, as the environment becomes far too harsh at night for survival. This time around, in the name of helping a fallen ally, you’ll have to land your ship in enemy territory during the dark of night.
These night missions take place in a smaller portion of one of the daytime areas, and they play out in a tower defense-adjacent fashion. At night, you’ll have the brand-new Glow Pikmin at your disposal, and the goal is to make sure their Lumiknoll homes survive through the night. Unfortunately for you, daytime enemies lose their minds at night and become enraged, and the one thing they want to do is destroy every Lumiknoll in sight. Amass a big enough group of Glow Pikmin and plan out a strategy to make sure the Lumiknolls stand until day breaks, and you’ll be rewarded with a cure to help out one of the sickly crewmen you’ve recovered.
In the other instance where you happen upon a bushy brethren, you’ll be tasked with taking on a Dandori Battle. In these missions, you’ll either be going up against a clock or the mysterious opponent. In clock battles, you’ll be given a specific Sparklium target to reach (every enemy or treasure you collect has a Sparklium value). If you can reach one of the target goals (bronze, gold, silver), the Dandori Battle is considered a win. The other Dandori Battle has you not only going up against a clock, but a computer-controlled opponent as well. Whoever has the highest Sparlium total at the end is declared the winner, so you’ll need to make smart use of your time and Pikmin to reach that goal. You can also mess with your opponent by using Mario Kart-esque items or by throwing your Pikmin at the rival Oatchi to knock them off their feet. The further you get into the game, the tougher both types of Dandori Battles will get, and they’ll eventually put all your skills to the test.
This variety in gameplay makes Pikmin 4 an absolute blast to play. Feeling too pressured to explore a massive new area? Take on a Dandori Battle instead and hone your skills. You can even look to improve upon your best score to try and reach a higher medal value. Need a break from timed Dandori challenges? Set out on a few night missions and see if you can survive until daytime. The ability to bounce back and forth between all of these gameplay types only adds to the enjoyment of Pikmin 4, letting you relax and refocus whenever you’re feeling the heat from a particular mission or task.
Truthfully, there’s definitely plenty of stress to be felt in Pikmin 4, but it’s quite hard to be consumed by it due to the game’s presentation. Pikmin games have always been quite the lookers, but Pikmin 4 is hands-down the best looking Pikmin game, and by a considerable amount. While graphics don’t really matter to me at all in the long run, I can recognize a gorgeous game when I see one, and Pikmin 4 is definitely that. In reality, Pikmin 4 might be one of the most visually impressive games Nintendo has ever created, with an unbelievably cute design for the cast of characters, and lush, colorful, and downright gorgeous environments to explore.
The beautiful visuals are only enhanced by the game’s soundtrack, which once again brings a vibe you only get from Pikmin games. There’s something so unique about the music in Pikmin titles, as it’s a very interesting mix of melodic tunes, environmental noises and ambient sounds. The surface stages tend to give you a bit more in the way of ‘traditional’ tunes, but even those are sparse when compared to what you’d hear in other Nintendo games. It’s a sparseness that really works though, as it helps drive home the feeling of being in a strange new world that also feels familiar. Things get even more atmospheric and somewhat spooky when you head underground, with the music coming across like a character rather than just a backing track. Couple these elements together with classic Pikmin jingles like the end-of-day/start-of-day songs, and the audio package in Pikmin 4 is alluring on a level that’s hard to explain.
If you couldn’t tell by now, Pikmin 4 is a shining achievement for the franchise. It shows how Nintendo has evolved and expanded the idea of what a Pikmin game can be, and also their desire for it to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their other big-name games. I find most Nintendo games to have a level of polish that really wows me, but that level is off the charts with Pikmin 4. This entry in the series feels like a realization of what Nintendo tried to achieve with Pikmin decades ago, and it paints an incredibly bright picture for the future.
While Pikmin 4 won’t reach the sales heights of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Tears of the Kingdom, it’s clear that this installment is very much the ‘Zelda’ moment for Pikmin games. If there were ever an entry in the Pikmin series that showed the evolution of ideas and the potential for a breakthrough to a greater audience, this is without a doubt that installment. Nintendo fans have long since embraced Mario, Zelda, Kirby, Animal Crossing and so on. With Pikmin 4, Nintendo has more than proven that it’s time for Nintendo followers the world over to give this franchise a shot. I sincerely can’t fathom how anyone would be even the slightest bit disappointed with what this game has to offer.