I was quite taken aback by just how wordy Pikmin 4 is in the beginning.
In Pikmin 4, you are the brand new member of a well-staffed space exploration crew, who have all crashed landed and been separated on a mysterious planet (Earth) in a bid to rescue original series protagonist, Captain Olimar. As both a newcomer to the world and a rookie in the team, you have a lot of learning to do – about the individual members of your team, their roles and services, about the planet itself, and of course, about the helpful plant-like creatures called Pikmin.
As someone who is very familiar with the series, the extended, long-winded tutorial feels quite dragged out through the game’s first two major areas – the picturesque garden locales of the Sun-Speckled Terrace and Blossoming Arcadia.
But as someone who also thinks more people need to play Pikmin, it’s clear that this slow onramp – which features lengthy conversations between characters about minute aspect of this whole universe – is in service of attempting to ease series newcomers, as well as a new generation of
Pikmin’s core mechanics are largely still the same. As a tiny space explorer, you’ll command an army of Pikmin to explore a real-world environment and collect gigantic, mundane objects. You’ll micromanage your Pikmin by assigning them to perform specific tasks, like busting through walls, carrying resources back to your ship, or assaulting one of the several giant-bug enemies.
Different coloured Pikmin excel at certain tasks, and much of the satisfaction of the game comes from deftly juggling several objectives at once, and getting everything done in the most efficient and Pikmin-friendly manner possible. It’s a philosophy that Pikmin 4 now also makes a much larger point of encouraging, with frequent references to ‘Dandori‘, a Japanese term relating to planning and arrangement. Again, it feels like a concerted effort to acclimatise newcomers to its particular style of play.
This also serves as a reintroduction for returning players, as the overall structure of the game has also seen a dramatic change in service of a gentler, more approachable and relaxing experience – so much so that you could well call this a soft reboot of the series.
Pikmin 4‘s stages have been greatly expanded into large, expansive environments, with less time pressure imposed on you than previous entries. These areas are filled with twisting paths and tantalising, just-out-of-reach rewards that can’t be accessed until you gain certain abilities later. They feed into that Metroid style of design that insidiously taps into the completionist parts of your brain. The locations are designed to be revisited multiple times, as opposed to previous games, which took a more level-like structure.
Those shorter-burst puzzle strategy experiences are still there however, with individual small to mid-scale levels existing discretely within those grander environments, accessed through various portals.
In between runs, your team of explorers will help outfit you with new items and ability upgrades, many of which revolve around a key new element, a space dog companion called Oatchi. Oatchi is a very handy companion who can help perform the work of several Pikmin – like carrying objects or attacking enemies – in a far more robust package. No matter how many of your Pikmin die, you’ll always have Oatchi to rely on in a pinch, and while he does have a health bar, you’ll need to be particularly neglectful to let him succumb.
Oatchi’s existence also helps with making the larger environments more interesting, too. Your space dog can ram through breakable ceramics, knock things off ledges, and you and your Pikmin can all ride him together, which can help get the gang through tricky or elevated terrain, thanks to Oatchi’s ability to dash and jump.
Small but meaningful changes like an improved targeting and lock-on system smooth out some of the friction that was present in previous titles, while also making things a tad more approachable for a new audience. In the same vein, a more dynamic camera system, which lets you zoom right into the action on the ground (as well as pull back for the traditional bird’s-eye-view), helps Pikmin 4 feel more like an action game at times – especially when you’re riding on the back of Oatchi, wreaking havoc on bugs.
But perhaps the most striking thing the new camera system affords is a much more detailed and personal view of Pikmin 4’s beautiful world, finally hitting those evocative Honey, I Shrunk the Kids moments the series has always tried to foster. As you run around the dirt, dwarfed by flowers, garden ornaments, and household objects, you can’t help but take in the gorgeous dappled light through the blades of grass, as the sun sets for the day.
The onboarding for Pikmin 4 has been slow, but that’s likely exacerbated for me because of an eagerness to dive straight into the intriguing new approach the series has decided to take – so far, the game has shown me that the charm and challenge of the series is still here, despite its new format.
I’m hoping that past first two areas of the game, Pikmin 4 will tear the shackles off, take me to some exciting new locations, and let me charge headfirst into the big challenges that I know the series is capable of, with my plant friends and space dog in tow.