|Release Date||July 21, 2023|
The life of a Pikmin fan is…a frustrating one. While the franchise has a history of quality releases, it balances that quality with absolutely ridiculous stretches of time between games. It’s been almost 10 years since the original release of Pikmin 3, and while we did get a deluxe port to Switch in that time, fans have been clamoring for another entry for nearly a decade now. But finally, after years of waiting, the next entry has arrived. Earlier this year, Pikmin 4 bloomed to life on the Nintendo Switch, and…I’m still not sure what to think.
Violence: Your Pikmin meet their ends in various ways, via being crushed, eaten, drowned, burned, electrocuted, poisoned, et cetera. It’s not graphic in any way, and the Pikmin die by turning into little ghost-like puffs of smoke.
Drug Use: To cure the “leaflings,” as they’re called, the team doctor concocts a cure from glow sap, which takes the form of a pill.
Positive Elements: There’s a surprising amount of diversity in the cast. The character creator offers a variety of skin tones, and the cast features people of all skin tones, including a black woman as the leader of the Rescue Corps.
Pikmin 4 begins with the intrepid Captain Olimar, who has, somehow, once again crashed on PNF-404. After a brief prologue where you control the good captain, you’re able to send out a distress call. This call reaches the Rescue Corps, who set out to PNF-404 themselves.
The game then throws you into a first for the series, a character creator. You’re playing as the rookie member of the Rescue Corps, and you’re able to finally create your own Pikmin-styled character. There’s not a ton of options, but it’s still more fleshed out than I was expecting. Once you’ve got your rookie designed, you’re put right smack dab in the middle of the plight of the Rescue Corps. In the grand tradition of the series, upon approaching PNF-404, they promptly crash, scattering the members of the Rescue Corps around the planet. Now, as the rookie of the group, it’s your job to rescue the members of the Rescue Corps, as well as any other space tourists you come across, and repair your ship so you can ultimately do what you came here to do: rescue Captain Olimar.
The first thing I noticed about Pikmin 4 is just how pretty the game is. Nintendo games of late have really been squeezing every inch of power from the underpowered Switch, and it shows. The game, appropriately enough, has a wonderful bloom to it, and the environments are colorful without coming across as cartoony. There’s a reality and groundedness to the visuals that’s been absent from any other game in the series, and it nails home the feeling of exploring the world from the perspective of an ant.
The music, however, is…passable. I’ve always loved the music in Pikmin games, and while the main theme is absolutely gorgeous, the rest of the music is just…bland. Nothing really stuck out to me as particularly notable, except for the remixes of past music. That was a welcome surprise. Other than that, this soundtrack is by far the weakest of the franchise.
After you rescue Collin, the team’s communications operator, you’re able to set up a base, which is a fully explorable area rather than just a menu. From here, you can talk to the various members of the Rescue Corps, as well as the other castaways you rescue along the way. This allows you to access different modes that otherwise would have been relegated to a menu, such as the Piklopedia, (the in-game bestiary,) Treasure Horde, world map, and such.
While on the surface, this sounds like a great change, in practice, I actually feel like this system hurts the user experience. In every Pikmin game thus far, you used a world map to choose your area, overlooking the entire planet. This lent a real sense of scale to your adventures, and every area felt distinct, like you were really exploring different regions of a planet. In Pikmin 4, you’re given a bare-bones menu when you talk to Collin, and the entire game takes place in one backyard. The game does its best to break up the aesthetics, and does so in some pretty clever ways, but it’s still a letdown to look at the menu and realize that you’re stuck in the same place for the entire game. Combine that with the stark, corporate-feeling menus, and a lot of the character of the series is gone before you even pluck a Pikmin. In fact, I’d go so far to say that one of my favorite aspects of the series has been essentially wiped out.
The first game imposed a subtle sense of dread by limiting your entire game run to 30 in-game days. If you didn’t collect all the ship parts by then, it was game over. Pikmin 2 removed that time limit, but introduced randomly-generated caves, which still lent a mysterious and sci-fi-esque environment to the whole experience. Pikmin 3 returned the day limit, but gave the player a lot more agency by rewarding efficient fruit collection with more days to explore. In Pikmin 4, there’s no day limit, and there’s no sense of needing to hurry to make sure you have enough rations to survive. In addition, the returning caves feel much less foreboding, popping open like a drain pipe rather than being introduced with a mysterious fanfare and special cutscene like in Pikmin 2. Whatever sense of survival or fighting against the odds that the previous games had is completely gone, and honestly, I think it’s to the game’s detriment.
Let me put it this way: the first game had one non-Pikmin character: Olimar. You were alone, against the planet. Pikmin 2 gave you a total of three characters, along with the ship’s AI. Pikmin 3 had a total of 5. Pikmin 4 has over 40. Any sense of isolation or survival is removed by this absolute plethora of characters. In addition, every game has given you a recap of sorts after each day. In the first three games, these took the form of logs, letters from home, and, in the case of Pikmin 3, conversations between your three captains. This lent a sense of weight to what you were doing, since it gave you the sense that there was a goal in mind, whether it was getting back home, supporting your family, or saving your planet.
In Pikmin 4, everything is just…bland. Since there are so many characters, none of them really make an impact or have anything of weight to say. Those end-of-day recaps are limited to just a few sentences, rather than a full report or conversation, and they feel random, rather than having anything to do with what actually happened during the day. Instead of going on a grand quest to save a planet, everyone is just asking you, the rookie, to do everything for them. It feels off, and puts a solid nail in the coffin of what is, to me, one of the most defining aspects of the franchise.
But here I am whining about a Nintendo game not being dark and edgy enough. We don’t come to the big N for story, we come to them for gameplay. So how does the gameplay of this latest release hold up? Pikmin 4 seeks to meld all the defining elements from the previous 3 games together in a sort of mishmash. I’ll start with the familiar stuff. Each in-game day, you choose an area, and you’re given a limited amount of time in which you must scour the area for treasures, caves, and castaways. Treasures and creature corpses award you with Sparklium, which will power the ship and unlock new areas for you to explore. Caves are cramped, dungeon-like spaces that offer an entirely different experience from the overworld exploration, and let you find castaways, who in turn will unlock new side missions, and sometimes new game modes.
The caves are a welcome return, in my opinion. I always loved the darker, more claustrophobic areas underground, since they require an entirely different strategy than the overworld. They’re all a lot shorter than they were in Pikmin 2, but that’s not a bad change. Some of the caves in Pikmin 2 were obscenely long. This way, you’re able to hop in, get what you need, and get out, and it’s a fun romp when you really nail down your strategy and clean a cave out quickly. They’ve definitely lost a lot of their creepy edge from the second game, but they’re still a good fit for the series.
That’s all charted territory. What does Pikmin 4 bring new to the table? Quite a lot, actually. First of all: there’s Oatchi, your Rescue Pup companion. Oatchi serves as Pikmin 4’s version of a second captain. He can pluck and command Pikmin just like you can, but he can also jump to reach new areas, charge to break obstacles and stun enemies, and carry Pikmin on his back through hazards like water. You can also command Oatchi to go anywhere on the map and swap to him so you can split your squad of Pikmin between the two of you.
I have mixed feelings about Oatchi. I love his jumping ability, as it makes the areas feel even more open and free to explore. I’ve also always loved the extra captain mechanic, even if it feels like a downgrade to go from 3 captains back down to 2. Oatchi also can’t tell the Pikmin to charge, which means that directing Pikmin to carry something back to your base as Oatchi is a lot more of a hassle than it should be. You have to throw the Pikmin one by one at your target, even though every game before has given you the option to swarm or charge the Pikmin to carry things to base.
Oatchi is also just plain overpowered. Once you get even 40 Pikmin and the base upgrades for Oatchi, a simple charge will take out half of an enemy’s health. And, since all the Pikmin immediately jump on the enemy rather than having to be thrown, they’ll finish the beastie off in no time. It removes a lot of the threat and challenge that even large creatures pose.
And then there are mechanics that outright go against the entire flow of the game. First up: Flarlic. In every Pikmin game so far, you’ve been able to have 100 Pikmin on the field at once from the very beginning of the game. If you’re efficient enough, you can have a formidable army on day 1. In Pikmin 4, you can only take out 20 Pikmin to begin with. In order to raise the limit, you have to find Flarlic, which are tiny Onion-like bulbs hidden over every area. While this does play into the metroidvania style of the rest of the game, it doesn’t feel an upgrade to find a Flarlic bulb. Instead, it feels like a main feature of the game has been artificially locked off, forcing me to waste time building up to something I should have been able to do from the beginning.
The game also introduces another collectible known as raw materials. You’ll find these all over the place, and you can then use them to build structures to unlock more areas of the map. This is a very good addition. Pikmin 3 introduced buildable bridges, but each bridge had a dedicated resource pile that you simply had to find and carry to the bridge. With Pikmin 4’s system, the game rewards exploration with a resource that you can then choose whether or not you’d like to use. Some projects require a ton of raw materials, so it might be worth holding off on building a smaller project until you’ve got enough to do a larger one, which will reward you with a larger area to explore and more raw material to complete the smaller project.
Where this system falls apart, however, is with the upgrade system. Once you rescue Russ, the team scientist, you unlock the ability to purchase upgrades for both yourself and Oatchi. However, these upgrades also require raw material. Since the same resource used to buy these upgrades is also necessary to progress in the game, you could easily purchase a ton of upgrades and find yourself short on raw material to access the next area. Which means forced resource grinding. The whole appeal of the series is exploration and discovering new areas, as well as the real-time strategy that comes from leading a Pikmin squad. You’ve always had the option to grind for more Pikmin or sprays, but it was never forced on you. The last thing I want to do is scour the same area I’ve already cleared to find more raw material just so I can move on. This isn’t an issue if you’re careful with how many upgrades you buy, but then it just feels like I’m missing out on basic quality-of-life upgrades just because I don’t want to get artificially locked out of progressing. In past games, you organically unlocked upgrades by exploring, which fit naturally into the gameplay loop. This system is just clunky for clunky’s sake.
I know it sounds like I’ve been griping…and well, I have. But there are a lot of additions that I really like, like the ability to unlock new base locations around each area. As you explore, you’ll come across circles of red rock. Sometimes, you’ll have to clear the area of enemies, but once you do, you’re able to select that as the location of your base. This means that you’re able to focus on specific areas of the map at a time, carrying treasures and enemies back to base in a more efficient way, then moving on to a different area. It gives each area a lot more depth, and gives the player a lot more agency and forces them to strategize as to how they’re going to explore.
I also really loved the Dandori Challenges. Dandori is the art of completing tasks efficiently, and, as it it turns out, PNF-404 converts anyone who’s stuck on it for too long into a little leaf creature that’s absolutely obsessed with Dandori. To rescue them, you’ll have to follow them underground to a chamber full of creatures and treasure. You’re given a limited amount of time to collect as much as you can as efficiently as you can. If you do well enough, you’ll stun the Leafling enough that you’re able to take them back to your base.
I loved these sections. It’s everything I love about the series condensed into a short, tense challenge. You’ll need to plan your route out down to the minute to get the best score, and being able to swap between Oatchi and your character on the fly to manage multiple squads of Pikmin is a blast. I also love that the game lets you take advantage of the unique attributes of the Pikmin to carry things back to base even faster. This is where the game design really shines.
But what happens when you get those Leaflings back to base? Yonnie, the team doctor, has an idea for a cure for the leaves, but it involves collecting glow sap, a mysterious substance collected from Luminknolls. These anthill-like structures only appear on the planet’s surface at night, and they spawn little ghosts called Glow Pikmin, which are immune to all hazards in the game, but also only show up at night. These night missions are more akin to a tower defense game than the regular exploration-based gameplay. You’re put in charge of protecting the Lumiknolls from the creatures of the night, which get far more aggressive and powerful than during the day. You can set up a network of mini-Lumiknolls called Tricknolls to keep enemies away from your base while you take them out.
These missions are also a ton of fun. They’re fast, frantic, and bring back a little of that unease that’s missing from the rest of the game. You’ll need to swap back and forth between Oatchi to keep a close eye on the main base, and since the Glow Pikmin immediately warp to the active captain, you’re able to multitask very effectively without worrying about transporting your Pikmin squad. And since each mission is less than 5 minutes, they’re perfect if you only have a little time for a gaming session. It, once again, is a great remix of the core gameplay of the series, just with the stakes raised even higher and requiring an entirely new way of thinking about your Pikmin.
Pikmin 4 is at its best when it leans into the frantic real-time army management that made the previous games shine, and at its worst when it artificially locks off things that were a given in the previous games and forces you to weigh progression over basic gameplay upgrades. Combine that with this being the easiest game in the series by a huge margin and losing a lot of the character of the series, and I’m still not sure what to think of it. What I loved about the game, I really loved, from the Dandori Challenges to the visuals to the night missions. But what I disliked about the game left me sore, and made the game as a whole feel less than the sum of its parts. I breezed through most of the game thoughtlessly, with only a couple of the areas really grabbing my attention.
A lot of that difficulty complaint is addressed in the second half of the game after you rescue Captain Olimar. It opens up a few new areas and another game mode that I won’t go into for spoiler reasons, but it’s a nice change of pace from the breezy main game. But it just makes the entire first half of the game feel like a prologue rather than a fully fledged adventure of its own.
I think, if this is your first entry into the series, Pikmin 4 is a good place to begin. I say that because most of my gripes stem from my previous experience with the series. On its own, Pikmin 4 is a fun exploration/real-time strategy game with some gorgeous visuals. But if you’re coming at it from the perspective of a long-time fan, you’re probably going to find a lot here that just rubs you the wrong way. Still, at the end of the day, the core gameplay is the Pikmin we all know and love, and after 10 years, it really was nice to return to PNF-404 one more time, even if some aspects of the journey this time left me feeling a little wilted.
The Bottom Line
While it fails to recapture a lot of what has made the series special and addictive over the years, Pikmin 4 is still a unique and fun experience despite its shortcomings.