Pikmin 4’s streamlined gameplay gives the series a fresh start

With Immortals of Aveum getting a last-second delay, July belongs to Pikmin 4. Nintendo’s next big Switch exclusive looks to bring one of the company’s more eccentric franchises to a console that’s done wonders for oddball GameCube contemporaries like Animal Crossing. It may be the fourth installment of the series, but there’s a good chance it’ll act as an entry point for a fair amount of Switch owners.

That puts the sequel in a tough position considering it’s always been one of Nintendo’s more complex properties. Despite the cute visuals and bubbly voices, it’s still a real-time strategy game that involves a lot of multitasking. How do you make that formula a little easier for new players to understand without messing with what makes the series special? Based on what I’ve played, Pikmin 4 has a lot of smart answers to that problem.

Following last week’s Nintendo Direct, I went hands-on with Pikmin 4playing an hour of its single-player mode and a few rounds of its multiplayer Dandori battles. In that short slice, I’m already finding a visually pleasant return to the series that’s been streamlined in some welcome ways. That should plant the seed for a more family-friendly installment that newcomers of all ages can dig into.

Quality-of-life changes

My demo would begin shortly after the full game’s tutorial introduction. I’m already in control of a bite-sized astronaut, I have a ship full of red Pikmin, and my dog companion, Oatchi, is happily bounding alongside me. My overarching goal is to find Captain Olimar, though my first task will be saving a few other lost astronauts scattered around the first explorable area, Sun-Speckled Terrace.

It’s there that I get a strong sense of Pikmin 4’s new art style, which feels a little brighter and more cartoony than in previous games. The first three Pikmin games play around with more realistic nature settings, with environments often painted in grounded green and browns. That is still present, but there’s a little more whimsy to the world. Sun-Speckled Terrace essentially looks like it was pulled out of Honey, I Shrunk the Kidsturning a lively suburban backyard into a playground. It’s a subtle tonal shift that might not appeal to longtime fans that love the uncanny weirdness of the original. Instead, this version brings Pikmin’s visual style more in line with franchises like Mario or Yoshi.

An astronaut summons red Pikmin in Pikmin 4.

That move feels like a way to make Pikmin look and feel more familiar to new players, and it’s something I immediately notice when learning its controls. Pikmin direction is much more straightforward that previous games, as I don’t have to manually move around a line to direct my pals. Instead, pressing the right trigger brings up a straight red line that easily snaps onto interactable objects. Within seconds, I’m directing my army of red Pikmin to beat down small enemies and carry objects back to my ship faster than ever before.

That stays pretty easy even after I start finding some new friends. It’s not too long until I meet one of the game’s two new creature types: ice Pikmin. These handy creatures can freeze enemies by attacking them (they’ll also freeze an enemy if they’re eaten), giving me a chance to send in more powerful Pikmin to safely attack. Not long after, I discover yellow Pikmin, which can withstand electricity. With a quick tap of the Joy-Con’s right bumper, I can select what type of Pikmin I want to command and start throwing. That, combined with the snappy pace, makes it much easier to multitask and have multiple mini-squads carrying out several tasks at once. In one underground section, I had a group of yellow Pikmin breaking down an electric wall while a few red ones were clearing out a fiery path on the other side. It all feels a little smoother overall, though I do miss having the ability to arc my Pikmin with the intent of getting them up a tall ledge.

It also seems like there’s a way to map specific Pikmin commands to the D-pad, according to a tooltip I saw during the demo, though I didn’t get to test that out. What I do know is that there is a command menu in the game that lets players use specific tools or order Oatchi to pick up a scent. I assume they can be quickly mapped to those buttons, which should make it even easier to execute actions. There’s also a rewind time option, which will allow players to absolve themselves of their sins after accidentally drowning 30 Pikmin.

A menu in Pikmin 4 shows different commands.

Other quality-of-life improvements revolve around materials. In previous games, Pikmin would build bridges and other structures by hunting for nearby materials and carrying them over. Here, those materials are scattered around environments and can be brought back to the ship and permanently stored there. If I direct my creatures to build a bridge, they’ll automatically grab any clay I have stored in the ship and start building. To make that even easier, I can quickly move my ship at any time by setting up camp in multiple set locations around a map. It all makes some of the series’ basic gameplay flows much easier to execute.

Aside from crafting materials, I found all the usual Pikmin staples scattered around the world, from fruits to trinkets. The progression hook is that every object brought back to the ship grants players with a sort of universal material, and getting enough of it unlocks the next area. There are more specific quests within each area, but that straightforward gameplay loop made perfect sense by the end of my hourlong demo. It’s less about hunting down specific items and more about optimizing time as much as possible to get the most out of a day.

New features

While that whole loop is familiar, Pikmin 4 introduces some very new ideas to the series that shake up the established formula. For one, there’s Oatchi. The yellow dog acts as a versatile companion that can help dig up treasure, carry objects, or easily break big objects. I can select and direct him like a Pikmin, as well as command him to launch forward by holding down the X button. More importantly, I can ride him and all of my Pikmin adorably cling onto his butt when I do (though Nintendo confirms that, sadly, you can not pet the dog).

At the end of my demo, I’d learn that Oatchi can be upgraded, which is where Pikmin 4 really gets different. After saving a few astronauts, I’d unlock a handful of tools and progression hooks. First, I can upgrade Oatchi’s stats to make him more effective at certain tasks. For instance, I spent some currency to upgrade his “buff” stat, making it easier to break objects. Also, another NPC would open a shop that would restock with new gear from time to time, including a drone that lets me scout areas out. Both are small, but nice touches that seem to keep the core strategy hook changing a bit throughout.

Yellow Pikmin build a bridge in Pikmin 4.

Like Pikmin 2 and 3underground areas also mix things up. During my adventure, I find two different mini-dungeons full of additional treasures. These are shorter, bite-sized challenges that will put my knowledge of each Pikmin type to the test if I’m going to grab every treasure from them. In one fire-themed area, I need to use my red Pikmin to create walkable paths over magma and toss yellow Pikmin to grab high-up objects that only they can reach. Also notable is that these areas contain multiple sublevels, returning to the formula used in Pikmin 2.

The only thing I didn’t get a chance to see was Pikmin 4’s new nighttime sections, which were shown during June’s Nintendo Direct. All we know so far is that they contain a new green “glow” Pikmin that’s exclusive to those sections and function like a bit of a tower defense game. It sounds like another clever change of pace that’ll diversify what players do during the story, but I’ll have to wait and see how it fits in.

Dandori battles

The last piece of the puzzle is Pikmin 4’s multiplayer component. There’s some form of co-op available in the main game, but there’s also a surprisingly fun competitive mode. Dandori battles place two players in a small arena full of treasures to collect and enemies to fight. The idea is that two people compete to collect the most stuff within a few minutes, and they can try to sabotage one another along the way.

It’s a mode that gets surprisingly competitive. If I see my opponent trying to drag a massive orange back to their ship, I can try to steal it by them by commanding my Pikmin to grab it instead. Is that worth my limited resources, or is it smarter to split my team up and grab some other smaller items around the battlefield? Those are the on-the-fly decisions I have to make during battles, which makes for a fun test of resource management.

Dandori battles seemingly take some inspiration from Mario Kart too, as players can grab different items that mess with their opponent. I could rain down meteors on my foe or teleport them to a different section of the arena. Bombs will even spawn on the map from time to time, and I can command my Pikmin to grab one and drag it to my opponent’s ship. I usually judge a multiplayer game like this by how much I feel compelled to trash talk, and I’m sure the Nintendo representative I played against will confirm that it turned me into an arrogant monster … just how I like it.

Red Pikmin pick up a treasure in Pikmin 4.

While fans of the GameCube originals may find the new installment a little too streamlined at the expense of more precise strategy gameplay, Pikmin 4 feels like a smart way to retool the series for newcomers. It’s easier to control, there’s less pressure during missions, and there’s a more varied range of content included. During an introduction before the demo, a representative told the press on hand to ignore the 4 in the game’s title. Nintendo wants people to see this as a fresh start for the series that anyone can jump into. Based on what I’ve played, it looks like Pikmin 4 will accomplish exactly that, even if it doesn’t propel the series to sudden stardom.

Pikmin 4 launches on July 21 for Nintendo Switch.

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