Nintendo’s Pikmin franchise, as favourably as it’s always been received by the gaming media, and as much as it has a very passionate fanbase, has never quite managed to establish a proper foothold in what could be considered the mainstream gaming space.

The original Pikmin adventure arrived perfectly formed on GameCube, serving up a unique real-time strategy experience that utterly bewitched us back in 2001. Its 2004 sequel, Pikmin 2, removed the somewhat divisive time mechanic from its predecessor and added a bunch of dungeons, improving the core experience and giving players a meatier, if somewhat more relaxed experience to dig into. Then 2013’s Pikmin 3, as fine as it was, added a few too many moving parts to the mix, removed the dungeons and, overall, ended up feeling like the best-looking but least focused experience of the bunch.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Across all three games, the one constant is that they’ve never managed to attract the same sort of crowd numbers as most of their Nintendo stablemates. Pikmin has always felt like a bit of a cult thing really, and so it’s no surprise to see Pikmin 4 arrive with its sights set on finally breaking through and grabbing the attention of a wider audience. And how do you go about attracting the attention of a wider audience in the year of our lord 2023? Well, you add a cute doggo, of course.

Yes, Pikmin 4 adds plenty of new elements to the traditional Pikmin mix across its hefty 30+ hour running time, but it’s your new furry friend, Oatchi, who’s the real star of the show for us. Giving you the ability to bound around environments quickly — whilst your Pikmin cling on comically for dear life — Oatchi is a thoroughly delightful addition who feeds into the core puzzle gameplay in several clever ways. He can sniff out the scent of nearby treasures and castaways, carry Pikmin across bodies of water, jump onto high ledges, rush through dirt walls and enemies and, eventually, power up to provide the pulling prowess of a whole army of Pikmin.

Did we just say power up? Indeed, we did. Another fundamental change here is light RPG elements that allow you to upgrade Oatchi’s abilities, as well as furnish your all-new customisable Rescue Corps ranger with lots of fancy tech and gizmos. Removing you from the boots of series stalwart Captain Olimar, this time around you play as a member of a rescue team who’ve managed to go and crash their ship whilst attempting to rescue the good captain from his own unfortunate accident. This shift to a blank-slate protagonist is a definite attempt to entice new players and bring the action more in line with contemporary adventure experiences, popping you in a character creation suite before introducing a base camp populated by an array of NPCs from which to purchase upgrades between stories.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Nintendo is definitely taking some risks here. It feels much bigger, busier, and noisier than ever before but, thankfully, everything that’s been added, from Oatchi to upgradable abilities and a handful of new Pikmin, works superbly well. The constant flow of new items and gear keeps things feeling fresh and all of this feeds into core gameplay that has very wisely returned to the series highs of Pikmin 2 for most of its inspiration. If you hated the fact that Pikmin 3 removed dungeons, well, you can relax this time around, as they’ve not just returned, they’re easily the best we’ve seen in the franchise thus far.

The underground caverns and lairs that you’ll dive into here make up the most challenging aspects of the overall gameplay, providing multiple sublevels of focused puzzling that rein in the more freeform exploration you’ll indulge in on the surface in favour of classic Pikmin action and a handful of fun boss battles. Of course, there’s been a huge step up visually, too, and we’re treated to a wide variety of locales both above and below ground, all of which look stunning whether you’re playing in docked or handheld mode.

There’s some clever use of depth-of-field effects and scale, making the giant houses and gardens, sandcastles, and lush forests that you traverse a dizzying joy to explore. In fact, Pikmin 4 is right up there with the very best-looking games we’ve seen on Switch. There’s some surprisingly detailed texturing on surfaces, superb lighting effects, and a huge roster of creatively designed enemies that run that gamut from simple bugs to…well…we wouldn’t want to spoil anything, but it gets pretty inventive.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

We’ve also got to mention the Pikmin themselves here. From the good old reds, blues, and yellows through to the new Ice and Glow varieties, these little fellas have never been so full of life and character. They sing and dance, laze around, play together and react to pretty much every scenario that’s presented in entertaining ways. If you ever felt bad for getting a bunch of these little guys killed in previous outings, prepare to feel doubly bad in Pikmin 4. Oatchi also bounds around and reacts to your whistles in lovingly detailed good boy fashion, very eager to please and always ready and waiting to devour a scrummy bone when he deserves one.

There really is as much fun to be found in just blasting around this game’s wonderfully detailed environs with your tiny pals in tow as there is in progressing the plot. Round every corner you’ll find some gently taxing environmental conundrum to solve, from reaching submerged goodies to working through enemy-infested sections, mending climbing routes and bridges, or switching up your Pikmin to deal with any number of elemental obstacles. One minute you’ll be fighting a great big armoured crab in a muddy bog and the next you’ll be romping your way across a shiny kitchen surface, gliding over chasms on airstreams, or running after a bunch of screaming Pikmin who’ve just had their tiny heads set on fire. It’s a game that begs to have every nook and cranny of its world explored and pored over.

To this end, whilst there is a time mechanic in effect that sees days pass in roughly 20-minute intervals, there’s no return to the more stressful fail state of Pikmin 1. Unless you’re personally looking to complete things in a certain amount of time, there’s no need to rush it here, especially in underground areas where the clock slows to a complete crawl. Of course, this will be a divisive aspect of the game, some fans prefer the stress of the original over the more relaxed nature of subsequent entries, but for our money it feels like the right way to go, especially when you’re looking to welcome new players to the fold.

There’s also a rewind mechanic introduced in Pikmin 4 that allows you to retrace your steps to several previous auto-save points, reversing mistakes and giving you the opportunity to rescue Pikmin who’ve come a cropper, or perhaps rerun an area armed with knowledge that helps things transpire more smoothly. It’s another design choice that will no doubt cause debate, not that it’s completely new to the series, but it 100% fits in with the overarching sense of a game that’s attempting to give fans what they want whilst also appealing to a much wider gamut of gamers. And really, at the end of the day, you can just ignore the mechanic if it’s not your bag.

More problematic perhaps, and our main sticking point with the game personally, is that it never feels like it properly digs down into providing situations where all the upgrades, gadgets, gizmos, and abilities that you unlock become completely essential to your survival. Indeed, during our review playthrough we barely ever reached for our sprays or bombs and actually didn’t use quite a few of the unlockable distractions and offensive capabilities on offer. If you simply must keep every single Pikmin alive you'll likely experiment more, and a fairly good balance has been struck between accessibility and challenge for the most part, but we can’t help but feel it could have burrowed further down into giving you situations where your entire inventory needed to be explored in order to navigate the obstacles in your path.

Without dual protagonists and a need to properly divide and conquer with your Pikmin forces, you're left with a game that, for the most part, feels much less pointed in its desire to place you into situations where you're rushing desperately against the dwindling daylight hours to get all of your team through multiple objectives and back to base in time. There's less stress here, it feels as much about gentle exploration as it does about puzzling, and hence you're just never pushed to the point of needing to examine all of your options.

Whilst we’re being slightly negative, we’re also disappointed with the game’s co-operative campaign offering. Having a second player along to fire projectiles is a far cry from a proper two-player experience, and it’s a shame we can’t blast through the main campaign’s action by fully sharing commands and working together properly with a pal. Is it still fun with a younger player in tow? Well, this writer's six-year-old certainly had a good time, but for seasoned players it's an easily skippable experience.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Offsetting this disappointment is the excellent Dandori Battles mode. Dandori battles are introduced in the main campaign and can be played straight from the start menu, allowing for solo and two-player shenanigans. We’ve already had an absolute blast with these battles and, as good as they are solo, facing off against a human opponent makes for some surprisingly ferocious, and often hilarious encounters, where organising your troops, utilising lots of silly powers, and getting down to some good old tug of wars over treasures is the order of the day.

The final major new addition to the Pik-mix here is night missions which see you revisit areas in order to play wave defence-style rounds where you accumulate Glow Pikmin by gathering pellets and delivering them to a Lumiknoll. The Lumiknoll must be protected from the advances of unusually angry nighttime creatures, and so you’ll need to balance scoping out pellets, which give you more Pikmin, with defending your base from attack. It’s a nice addition to the overall flow of proceedings and, as the difficulty level rises, things do get quite frantic here and there, with some fairly large foes to take down in later rounds.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

We should also mention that this is easily the slickest Pikmin game we’ve played in terms of how it controls. Alongside motion controls and some lovely HD Rumble effects, the addition of gentle aim-assist to direct your Pikmin to objects and a lovely feeling of weight and heft to how Oatchi moves, it’s an experience that never frustrates, even when all of your plans have fallen apart and your Pikmin are in complete disarray. The more you play, the more nice little quality-of-life improvements you'll unlock too, such as easier detection of treasures, quicker movement, a louder whistle, and the ability to have all idle Pikmin come running to your location. Over our entire playtime we didn’t have a single issue with any sort of bugs (beyond the garden variety) and the Pikmin themselves show an impressive awareness of their surroundings at all times, always managing to reach you when you whistle, even when you’re in a super tight spot.

Overall, whilst we do wish the campaign forced you to experiment a tad more, and that co-op mode is 100% a disappointment, we're still left with what is, for our money, the best and most comprehensive entry in the Pikmin franchise thus far. This is a sumptuous game in terms of presentation, a lovingly crafted adventure that’s packed full of good-natured character, atmosphere, and imagination. There are plenty of surprises and some sweet new modes that unlock post-credits, a great big Piklopedia to fill with creatures and discoveries, some of the best-looking stages we’ve seen in a Switch game, and lots of replayability packed into a campaign that constantly delighted us with its inventiveness. All this and it still manages to run almost flawlessly on Nintendo’s six-year-old console.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

If the aim was to make a Pikmin title that mostly delivers the goods for fans whilst serving up a strategy game that appeals to a much wider audience than previous entries in the series, Nintendo has pretty much nailed it. Despite some minor disappointments, Pikmin 4 is effortlessly essential stuff.

Conclusion

Pikmin 4 is a sumptuous strategy adventure that serves up tons of fun for returning fans of the franchise whilst also adding lots to entice new players into giving it a try. Oatchi is the star of the show in our eyes, a very good boy who is woven cleverly into the core of the puzzle action. Series-best dungeons, a hugely inventive overworld, night missions, Dandori battles, and post-credit goodies only sweeten the deal. Yes, the co-op is disappointing, and the campaign's not gonna be challenging enough for some diehard fans, but overall Nintendo has nailed it here, serving up a magical Pikmin adventure that we reckon could see the series finally getting all of the attention it fully deserves.