I struggle to think of a Nintendo series that has consistently “found itself” the way Pikmin has.
Few titles get the kind of treatment it has – a myth-like origin story involving Miyamoto in his garden, multiple Japanese pop songs, cameos in unexpected places (data transfer apps? Super Nintendo World?), and even a place amongst Reggie Fils-Aime’s most famous quotes. That’s the “brand” of Pikmin, though. Who could blame Nintendo for making these adorable plant-animals into stars?
With respect to the games however, there’s been a consistent shift in trying to find what works. To find out what Pikmin actually is. The first game embraced the alien nature of its world and creature design while laying on the pressure of a finite time frame for survival. Pikmin 2 eased off the latter and became an exploration filled treasure hunt – albeit one with a plot concerning debt collectors. With Pikmin 3 the idea of multi-tasking took center stage as the scope of its universe became larger still via its trio of Captains from outside the established narrative.
All three can only be described as Pikmin, but what they honed in on (and left behind) from their predecessors shifted with every game, marking a subtle identity crisis that’s only clear when you observe the series as a whole. Each was confident in what it was (“finding itself” yet again with every entry not named Hey! Pikmin) but could never claim to be wholly definitive nor comprehensively iterative.
That has changed with Pikmin 4.
With the series’s first brand new entry on Switch, fans now have an entry they can point to as “the one” for newcomers. Funnily enough it comes along when the entirety of the core series can be found on the console, yet I’d find it hard to recommend a previous entry over this one going forward. Pikmin 4 is that exceptional, and marks a new highpoint for a series that was already consistently great.
All that said, when I began playing I actually went in somewhat apprehensive. Storywise it appeared to recount Olimar’s original expedition while also seemingly retconning it, or perhaps just showing how unlucky the poor guy is with space travel. Now the intrepid Captain is once again stranded on the Pikmin’s home planet, leaving it up to the newly introduced Rescue Corps to travel to PNF-404 and track him down. Unfortunately they too get stranded and separated, putting you in control of your own custom rookie recruit and tasking you with not just the original, Olimar-based mission but the new one of reuniting your crew.
Your greatest asset in those endeavors, and the single most significant change to Pikmin 4, is Oatchi the Rescue Pup. Seemingly replacing the idea of multiple Captains, Oatchi not only satiates your multitasking needs but offers new gameplay possibilities and conveniences. Charging into enemies with him is one of the most reliable techniques for ending fights quickly and without any Pikmin lost. He’s able to ferry you and your squad across water, jump up small ledges, and break certain obstacles for the sake of exploration. Even just riding him around speeds your efforts up, as do the various commands he can be given to act autonomously. All of which is to say he’s a very, very good boy.
Oatchi almost feels too good, but never quite like “cheating”. He does have some restrictions, like being unable to climb up walls. His best skills (like being able to count as several Pikmin for transporting treasure) need to be unlocked over time. The game also does a great job of endearing him to you the player as you spend effectively the whole experience with him. I never knew I needed Oatchi until I had him, and now I never want to Pikmin without a canine companion or something similar.
Your new dog’s tricks make the biggest impact on this adventure, but the game isn’t called Oatchi. It’s the Pikmin and how you direct them that uplifts the series, and they’re just as charming as ever. There are now nine varieties to manage, with all returning species behaving much the same as they did in Pikmin 3. I do feel Yellow are underutilized, and Winged have lost some of their unique pathfinding/time saving elements when it comes to transportation, but reuniting with Purple and White is a definite treat. Everyone gets to shine here – one type more literally than the others even.
Yes, the newcomers Ice and Glow make the greatest impact on Pikmin 4. Ice Pikmin are found fairly early and I don’t think I’d have kept my casualties so low if not for them. As they attack enemies, they build up a freeze meter that will immobilize foes ala past games’ Ultra Bitter Spray. These means swarming without worry of counterattack or being shaken off.
Ostensibly this is held back by their low attack power, but paired with Red Pikmin (or later on Rock and Purple) and a charge from Oatchi generally means you’re a one hit kill machine for the bulk of the game. It makes combat less about maneuvering your squad and making moves when they count and more about getting that Oatchi rush in. Perhaps it’s reductive to have such a dominant strategy, but I never felt it made engagements worse thanks to solid enemy design throughout.
Their other claim to fame is floating in water. This gives Blue Pikmin some degree of aquatic accompaniment, though Ice can’t dive to engage with enemies or gather treasure. With enough in a body of water though, they can outright freeze it, allowing you and the rest of your squad to waltz right over. It’s a neat mechanic, though one that becomes less viable as you get more Pikmin and develop Oatchi’s skillset. I did appreciate some unexpected uses in the late game though, and I seldom traveled without Ice Pikmin at my side.
The added amount of Pikmin variety does mean one notable change to the game. You are now only able to call up to three different types of Pikmin out of the Onion at a time. The game’s good about informing you on what to expect in an area or cave so this rarely feels detrimental. Just know you won’t be marching into the world with an eight color crew any time soon.
I say eight despite the new Pikmin species count including nine varieties. Glow Pikmin are not quite the same as their fellow sprouts and instead facilitate something I never thought I’d see in the series – Night Expeditions. These engagements are more like real time tower defense, tasking you with protecting a phosphorescent dirt mount called a Lumiknoll. It’s from this that the ghostly Glow Pikmin come into play as your sole type durint these moments. They’re purposefully overpowered, having no elemental weaknesses and the ability to float in the air, and rightfully so.
Dealing with ravenous, advancing enemies the whole night through doesn’t exactly live up to the nightmarish reputation past games gave. Instead it’s a twist on the game’s focus on efficient multitasking condensed into smaller chunks of the existing maps with fewer tasks over all. The gradual ramp up in intensity and isolated nature of nighttime makes it feel more like a side mode than a fleshed put part of the experience. That had the side effect of making me feel like I was “wasting” a day even when it was essential to progress, as you can’t venture out during the day and night in the same in-game calender day. Who knew Pikmin would end up sharing that with the Persona series?
More welcome and interwoven is the return of Pikmin 2’s caves. These subterranean sections tend to have a narrower focus than the overworld and isolate you from your Pikmin Onion. That means no reinforcements for the ones you bring in, unless you happen to find some underground. Using the limited group and overcoming each cave’s more unique challenges and bosses stand out as highlights of the game. They may trade out natural beauty for dimly-lit drear but of all features they’re the most welcome returner.
And Pikmin 4 really is a beautiful game from start to finish. The maps are the highlight, seemingly basing themselves around a single house and its surrounding wilderness. The pressence of abandoned playground equipment and an outdoor fireplace make for fantastic setpieces, but it’s the living room/kitchen map that makes the most lasting impression.
All of that is accentuated by the game’s creature design. Familiar foes are looking better than ever (some with more apparent redesigns than others’ light polish) and plenty new ones illicet genuine wonder and terror. I never knew I’d run in fear from an azure crab with human-like limb proportions but here we are.
For all the wonder its world brings on the player, the understated refinements to its control and system are just as praiseworthy. Having a growing hub area for the Rescue Corps and castways beats out the past games’ menus. More subtle tweaks on how Pikmin are directed make the whole experience more convenient, though I never did get used to not being able to “charge” my Pikmin while riding Oatchi. Perhaps the only real complaint I have is that occasionally the camera can get stuck or obscured by certain stage elements, but that’s a small price to pay for all Pikmin 4 did right in the 20 or so hours I put in.
In one fell, Snitchbug-worthy swoop Nintendo has released another must play experience on Switch. If the price for that is subtle obsolescence for previous titles then I’ll take it, because I never want to backtrack from what Pikmin 4 has accomplished. At once something new and sufficiently refined, the wait has certainly been worth it for the series to bloom this spectacularly.
System: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: July 21, 2023