Believe it or not, there is a first-party Nintendo gaming franchise that struggles with breaking out in the mainstream. Since its debut in 2001, the Pikmin series performed modestly, selling around 7 million units overall. That’s a tally of four main entries and two spinoff games, across five Nintendo consoles. For a series created by Shigeru Miyamoto, the father of Mario, those numbers are rookie numbers. Considering how fans usually devour anything and everything Nintendo, it’s puzzling to see the relatively flat response to it. But why is that? “I think people find Pikmin difficult for two reasons: the controls and the depth of gameplay”, Miyamoto famously said in an interview.
Can it be that complex? Pikmin 4 was going to be my first Pikmin game, I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself in front of my kids, massively involved in the review process of all console games I bring home from work. And what about the controls Mr. Miyamoto mentioned? I mean, it’s a Nintendo game, they surely wouldn’t ship the game with some zany, arcane input method, right?
Player-friendly, cute, and weird
Of course, they wouldn’t. Turns out that Pikmin is a very approachable, player-friendly game without any frightening “gameplay depths” and impossible control schemes. The more probable reason for the lack of meteoric commercial success is the weirdness. Pikmin 4 is weird as hell. It’s also cute, but the weirdness is, at least for me, the chief point of potential friction. Commanding an army of color-coded sentient mini-plants, siccing them on oversized insects, and watching them comically devour them is a rather wild experience. It should feel like horror, but it isn’t. It’s hard to explain.
Pikmin 4 tells a story about evacuation from a strange planet full of big shiny things and deadly insectoid threats. That’s good ol’ Earth in the eyes of tiny humanoid aliens shipwrecked on it. Responding to the SOS signal from a famed captain Olimar, the Galactic Rescue Corps vessel itself becomes marooned on the PNF-404, which is the alien name for our big blue marble. Playing as a rookie operative, it would be your task to save everyone else and end this embarrassment. You won’t have to do it alone, though. Besides the trusty dog-like creature Oatchi, you’ll command an ever-growing army of Pikmin, sentient, mobile plants that unquestionably do your bidding.
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
Pikmin 4 takes a cue from “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”, a family/ adventure movie from 1989, by taking place in a suburban backyard. For our intrepid micro astronaut, however, the yard is a terra incognita, a dangerous environment full of deadly monsters and secrets. Somewhere, the rest of the squad is hiding, awaiting rescue, and the ship itself needs repairs and fuel. Thankfully, the everyday objects lost in the yard can be “liberated” and disenchanted into Sparklium, the energy source for interstellar travel. Sparklium also powers the ship’s radar, opening more zones as you reach collecting thresholds.
The game has a semi-open structure. Every zone exists as a separate environment, full of simple puzzles, things to find, and people to save. During each day in the game, you’ll have limited time to explore and score. In every zone, however, exist several subterranean caves where time doesn’t tick. Those are essentially multi-level dungeons with a much tighter layout and a greater number of puzzles and challenges. Later in the game, you’ll get the opportunity to venture out at night, performing a series of tower defense missions instead of non-linear exploration.
Tiny sci-fi warlock and his battle plants
The crux of all the fun in the game is Pikmin. They will haul shinies toward your ship, battle numerous hostile bugs, and assist in solving environmental puzzles. Pikmin come in several colors, signifying their elemental affinity at first glance. Starting red Pikmin, for instance, are immune to fire, and can happily clear any fire-based obstacle you may face. You will also command yellow Pikmin (immune to electricity), blue (can swim), light blue (can freeze water and mobs), and so on. Like a tiny sci-fi warlock, you will gather them around you and send them on the job/target with a click. The interface for commanding Pikmin is remarkably simple. Ninety percent of the time, you will either launch them somewhere or blow the summoning whistle, gathering them around you.
They can also ride Oatchi with you, which helps surmount some obstacles, such as water. The number of Pikmin you have and can control is limited, but ever-increasing as the game progresses. By finding the special “onion” artifacts and hauling them to your ship, you can increase the variety of deployable Pikmin. There are eight types overall, but you can bring and control only three at the same time. Without this limitation, the game would be insanely easy.
Not that the game is hard anyway. In fact, Pikmin 4 will be too forgiving for any moderately experienced gamer. You can explore at a relaxed pace and experiment at will, as you can rewind time and reverse any setback you may have. Boss fights are practically the only events where you need to pay attention and not send your Pikmin into suicidal rushes. But, since those can also be rewound in case of failure, they are mostly stress-free.
Pikmin 4 supports cooperative gameplay in a very limited capacity. Besides running around and throwing rocks at mobs, the second player can’t do much else. This can work if player two is a small child who needs to participate without screwing up something. Simply give the second gamepad to your toddler and watch him go. There’s also a local multiplayer called Dandori, where two players battle each other for points in simple arenas. Sadly, there’s no online component to it.
Should you get Pikmin 4? If you wish to introduce your pre-teens to more complex hybrid games, this could be it. Eleven-year-olds are the perfect audience for it, but your mileage might slightly vary. If you are picking it up for yourself, do it only if you search for zen instead of a challenge.
- Accessible mix of RTS and environmental puzzles.
- Extremely cute with a substantial dose of weirdness.
- Stress-free gameplay due to the time-rewind feature.
- Way too easy for a moderately experienced gamer.
- Co-op gameplay needs to be much more substantial.