Thu 29th Jun, 2023 09:30 BST - Updated with some gameplay videos. Enjoy!

Prior to the September 2022 Nintendo Direct showcase, you would be forgiven for having given up hope that Pikmin 4 even exists. This was a seed that was planted by Shigeru Miyamoto way back in 2015, after all, and despite being drip-fed small updates over the ensuing seven years, we were beginning to think that perhaps the fourth mainline entry in the series had fallen onto the pile of cancelled Nintendo projects that would never see the light of day.

When that September Direct happened, everything changed. We knew the game was real and that it would come to Switch in 2023. That was just about all of the information that we got at the time, but it was a start. A slow but steady stream of Pikmin 4 details followed, with release dates and trailers sprouting at random intervals as if to comfortably remind us all that the game is actually coming out this time.

With a little under a month until Pikmin 4 blooms onto Switch, we have been able to play through the opening section of the game to see if Nintendo has plucked out a winner. And, from our limited playtime, the answer appears to be in the affirmative, achieving a balancing act between what many would consider 'classic Pikmin' and something that feels a whole lot more modern.

Pikmin 4 Preview Screenshot
Image: Nintendo

Pikmin 4 takes everything that made the prior three mainline entries in the series great and throws in a handful of new features to put the focus back on exploration first and foremost. Time constraints are lessened, paths are more clearly laid out, there's a new rewind mechanic (though we didn't end up using it in our playtime) and a number of new companions ensure that your journey across the mysterious planet is yours to map out whichever way you please.

For those who have played a Pikmin game before, the set-up to this fourth entry will come as no surprise. You play as a new member of the Rescue Corps (fully customisable this time), sent out on a mission to a distant planet to help find the crew of a crashed spaceship. Our preview did not cover the very early elements of the game, but from where we picked up, our explorer was safely on the ground, had control over a handful of Pikmin, and had been introduced to Oatchi — your space dog companion.

And so began our exploration of this new, curious world — a world that felt huge. It is difficult to know whether the planet's surface is actually that much bigger than what's come before, or if it is all just an illusion brought about by the new lower camera angle that makes your team of planet explorers feel tiny compared to the towering environments. Either way, we were immediately impressed by the number of routes that were laid out in front of us.

This was Nintendo's first in-house foray into the world of Unreal Engine — previously also used in Good-Feel's Yoshi's Crafted World — and the visual improvements are clear from the get-go. The ground looks tactile, the sunlight bounces off the ripples in the water and the fruit that you set about collecting looks shinier and tastier than ever before. In short, them Pikmin do be pretty.

But this is also a world with added depth. Literally. Caverns return in a big way in Pikmin 4 after having been somewhat absent in Pikmin 3, providing you with ample opportunities to dive beneath the lush surface and see what horrors await below. Much like Pikmin 2, these caverns are multi-layered, providing an element of dungeon exploration that we missed in the Wii U title.

What's more, there are loads of them. In the hour or so that we played, we stumbled across a multitude of different cavern systems in the first area which contained rewards so helpful — a crew member, large treasures, new Pikmin — that we were even more determined to head down into each one that we came across. The thought of more spoils was simply too tempting and it was hard to pull us out of the caves as a result.

In Pikmin 2, no time passed in these caves, which took away the heat of the game's survival elements in the process. Pikmin 4 has tweaked the formula in just the right direction. After your first cavern, the game establishes that time moves differently while you are underground (think Interstellar but, you know... Pikmin) so while you are free to spend more time exploring, the day's clock is still ticking away in the background, just at a much slower rate.

Once the day is up and you have recovered from the trauma of seeing any Pikmin you were unfortunate enough to leave behind get eaten by the native creatures (spoiler: it's still heartbreaking), the game brings you into a brand new hub world where you can talk to the rescued crew members that you have saved up until this point and upgrade your abilities.

With each crew member that you find, you are given an extra option in this hub world — be that learning more about your environment, embarking on new missions or gaining new pieces of tech. It is a feature that we never would have said was missing from previous Pikmin games, though we've only had a chance to tinker around with it after an early point in the game. However, it certainly makes for a nice addition, especially when you gain the relevant crew member to begin some puppy training...

Pikmin 4 Oatchi
Image: Nintendo

Yes, it's time to address the dog in the room. Oatchi is your new canine companion in this game (apparently "Pupmin" didn't stick) and to put it simply, we love him. When we first entered the game, this new member of the team operated in much the same way as an individual Pikmin — he tagged along behind, carrying items back to the ship, and fighting the odd enemy — but we soon learned that this fluffy friend could undergo training and learn skills to better help us on our journey.

We didn't have a chance to see all of Oatchi's abilities in action, but from the moment that we could ride on Oatchi's back and use him to hop up small embankments, there was no doubt that he would be a game-changer. You can even pile on all of your Pikmin and have him wade through water with his crew in tow. No, you cannot pet the dog (unfortunately), but he is a certified good boy.

Of course, the other big signing this time around is the addition of two brand-new Pikmin. Ice Pikmin were revealed back in the February 2023 Direct, while we had to wait until the June showcase for a first peak at the new Glow Pikmin. We were only able to see the former of these in our preview (the latter appears later in the game, we were told) but we could quickly see them becoming a staple of our exploration party.

Chucking an Ice Pikmin at a nearby enemy will freeze it, giving you the chance to switch over to another version of the species (we used Red) to charge in and finish it off. You can also throw this new member of the team into a body of water, freezing the liquid into a solid and allowing you to move your entire party (even the non-swimming members) over it unharmed.

This isn't going to be an option all of the time (we ventured into a cavern that was full of lava creatures which proved to be not the best fit for our icy teammates), but that's where careful planning comes in. You need to ensure that you have the right Pikmin in your party for the job at all times, though you can always make your way back to the Onion ship (which, gloriously, you are now able to move around the planet with you) to swap out party members if you need to.

All of this adds up to an experience that feels distinctly Pikmin, but the new features and tweaks to the central mechanics mean that the game will make a nice starting point for those who are new to the series. In our hour or so of playtime, we explored high and low, collecting items and travelling as far as we could with the skills that we had at our disposal at the time, yet we still feel like we have only seen the game's first shoot of what we imagine will grow to become much, much bigger.

Night exploration, two-player co-op and collection-based 'Dandori Battles' are still all on the table and we are excited to see what they look like in action, but from what we have seen so far, this is a game that really excels in letting you explore whichever way you want. The timer is still there, of course, so a certain level of strategy and planning is required to achieve everything that the game throws at you, but Pikmin 4 still manages to feel like a relaxed experience, regardless of these loose limits.

It is too early to definitively say where this lands on the list of 'Best Pikmin Games of all Time', but if the rewards and upgrades continue to come as thick and fast as those we saw in our preview, then we would certainly say that there is a great journey ahead.

Pikmin 4 launches on 21st July for £49.99 / $59.99. A free demo will be available from the 28th June, letting you check out the game's first main area and then carry all of your save data over to the full game.

Will you be jetting off for some space exploration next month? Take to the comments below and let us know.