Pikmin has always had an odd place in Nintendo’s library of games and franchises. Its creation is credited to Shigeru Miyamoto, the father of Mario and Zelda, which means Nintendo holds it in high esteem, but it’s never quite reached the cultural ubiquity of their other works. And maybe it’s unfair to compare the adorable strategy game about pulling the corpses of defeated enemies into your spaceship to the iconic Plumber and Hero of Time, but Pikmin 4 might be the one that gets the series closer to those legacies. It represents a high point for Pikmin, thanks in large part to Otchi, the helpful dog who can carry you and all of your Pikmin on his back.
Pikmin 4 follows that tough line of welcoming newcomers to the series, while also offering enough references to the past that those who’ve been playing the series since 2001 will be charmed by the returning characters and new lore. To be clear, the story isn’t deep: you must save yourself and others after crash landing on an alien planet with the help of Pikmin, but all the characters (and there are many of them) have unique personalities. It also means, “Are we on earth?” Subtext has always been featured in the series more than ever before, which is an element I’ve always enjoyed.
However, the star of the show is Ochi. He doesn’t particularly look like a dog, but he does act like one, enthusiastically welcoming you to your daily adventure every morning, protecting you from danger, and helping your Pikmin carry items they can’t handle alone. In a game about managing a large group of helpful creatures, Ochi is your awesome assistant manager who does all the heavy lifting. His greatest strength, however, is the ability to transport you and all of your Pikmin with the press of a button. As interesting as it is to watch dozens of Pikmin collect and hurl them at your problems, it always leads to annoying issues of them falling off bridges or getting stuck at corners. Clinging all your Pikmin onto Ochi’s back eliminates this problem and makes everything that much more manageable, so you can focus on having fun.
Finding and creating new routes in traditional Pikmin levels is rewarding to expand your exploration routes in a limited time limit, and the locations are visually distinct, making them much easier to learn. They feel less like a maze, which I appreciate.
The addition of underground caves is another main attraction. While underground, time slows down for reasons that are forgiven with witty dialogue, and you’re free to play Pikmin without fear of the clock. These sections are frequent, enjoyable, and bite-sized. They never overstay their welcome (except for the marathon finale, but I enjoyed that as the last rush of the game), and they encourage you to try new strategies in spaces designed to keep you moving forward creatively.
You can even head out at night for the first time in dedicated battle scenes, where you worry less about losing Pikmin while defending home base from encroaching enemies. Night sections are repetitive but are rarely needed to progress. This is the mode I connected with the least, but I was happy to play them when I wanted a break from normal gameplay.
Dandori sequences mix up the action even further with enjoyable competitive scenarios against AI opponents and sections where you are awarded medals for collecting the most medals in a limited amount of time. The sequences in the former are exciting and often intense, and the latter does a great job of prodding you for that perfect score. I replayed several even though I’d already met the minimum requirement.
Ochi, Caves, and Dandori are all excellent additions to Pikmin, but the new rewind option is arguably the one that most addressed my past frustrations. Rewind lets you turn the clock back a bit if you need a little extra time at the end of the day or against that tough boss. Ochi lets you take care of your Pikmin, and they’re by far the smartest, but I’m still grateful for the rewind option, especially for some of the big challenges near the end. The mechanic is one that I didn’t rely on much, but I was so glad to have it whenever I needed it.
When it comes to iterating over the standard Pikmin gameplay established by the first release, Pikmin 4 is the smoothest, best-controlled, best-looking version, and all the additions are worthwhile and fun to play. The variety of tasks, which you can tackle in the order of your choice, keeps you from doing the same thing for too long, and I enjoyed rescuing other survivors and expanding my home base roster. Pikmin may never top Nintendo, and it’s probably unfair to expect it ever will be, but the latest Pikmin is its best effort yet.