Pikmin always seemed like one of those Nintendo franchises destined to be little more than a historical curiosity, consigned to the same dusty IP warehouse where the company has stuffed the likes of other beloved cult classics like Earthbound and Golden Sun. Yet despite regularly disappointing sales, Pikmin keeps getting second chances. As a fan since the launch of the original game 22 years ago, I couldn’t be happier about that fact, and with Pikmin 4 the series has finally gotten the sequel it truly deserves.
I’m honestly a bit surprised to be typing those words, since for most of Pikmin 4’s early hours I simply liked it – I hadn’t yet fallen in love. The game has a slow start, heavy on tutorials and explanatory dialog, and even once you’ve got full control over the action, it’s not particularly demanding. The action of directing your Pikmin and managing their tasks over the course of each day is engaging all on its own, but there’s not quite enough pressure in the early stages of Pikmin 4 to force you to truly manage your time well and make the most of the game’s systems.
Pikmin has been back and forth over how much it demands of your time management skills over the course of the series. Pikmin 1 had a strict time limit of 30 in-game days for you to complete its story, but Pikmin 2 got rid of the overarching time limit in an effort to court players intimidated by the restriction. In an official interview released last week, Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto noted that at the time of the original two games, “players were divided as to which game they preferred, and some people even talked in terms of being either a ‘Pikmin 1 person’ or a ‘Pikmin 2 person.'”
Folks, I am a Pikmin 1 person. There’s nothing I find more satisfying than running up against an encroaching time limit, and doing efficient work to build a buffer against the looming threat of a crushing deadline – which is maybe why I got a career in online media. I was afraid that Pikmin 4, despite a lot of fun design and smart tweaks to small gameplay systems, was really just going to be Pikmin 2 again, another branch on a series that’s struggled to fully settle its identity. I only found out I was wrong after the credits rolled. Pikmin 4 is the game the series has been building to for over two decades.
You’ll reach Pikmin 4’s ending well before the game is over. Without delving to deep into spoilers, there’s a post-credits stinger that adds a ‘but wait, there’s more‘ epilogue to the story, and having accomplished your previous narrative goals, you’re given a set of new ones, complete with more challenging levels and a whole new mode that serves as a prequel to Pikmin 4.
That prequel mode is exactly what I thought Pikmin 4 was missing. It’s basically a soft remake of the original game, once again putting you in Olimar’s tiny space boots in order to recover the parts of his crashed vessel before life support runs out. It’s just that here, it takes place in remixed versions of Pikmin 4’s levels, and comes with an even tighter time constraint: 15 days versus the original game’s 30.
It’s a great addition, and it made me realize that all those time constraints are actually way more satisfying to work through after you’ve become familiar with the structure of all the levels you’re exploring. By the time you get to Olimar’s quest, you’ve gotten the opportunity to know these levels forwards and back, and the shorter time limit offers even more encouragement to perfect each day and complete the quest in the shortest timespan you can manage.
I don’t want to overstate how hard Pikmin actually is – even the games with the strictest time constraints are hardly likely to make you break a sweat – but the real appeal of the series is the way its gentle pressures force you to challenge yourself to complete tasks efficiently. By the time I got to dive into the Olimar mode and the other post-game challenges, I was retroactively starting to appreciate those opening hours a whole lot more. It was as if Pikmin 4 was building and refining my Pikmin-leading skills over the course of a dozen or so hours, shaping me into the commander I’d have to be to take on these endgame challenges at maximum efficiency. It turns out that’s exactly what Nintendo had in mind.
“There have been three games in the series until now, from Pikmin to Pikmin 3,” Miyamoto said in another part of that interview, “and personally I’ve always wondered, ‘Why haven’t they exploded more in sales even though they’re so much fun to play? Why do people think they’re so difficult?'” I’m guessing Miyamoto’s interest in those questions is why Pikmin keeps making comebacks – it’s the only reason I can come up with for how Pikmin Bloom managed to be greenlit – and I think this is a big part of why Pikmin 4 has so thoroughly focused on outright explaining the fun of the series.
The Japanese word ‘Dandori’ is all over Pikmin 4, meaning something along the lines of ‘making plans to efficiently complete tasks in a timely way.’ That’s an incredible way of describing exactly what’s fun about Pikmin, and it’s a term that hadn’t been used in the series – at least the English-language releases – up until now. But now there are Dandori battles, Dandori challenges, regular reminders to practice Dandori well, and even a sweet little loading screen message reminding you to use Dandori in your everyday life.
Pikmin 4 is packed with excellent quality-of-life features, and planning director Yutaka Hiramuki noted that the team felt it was “important to lower the barrier to entry for new players by implementing features that make it easier to play, and then let the fun of Dandori sink in naturally.” Looking at the ride to Pikmin 4’s first ending, I’m pretty sure ‘let the fun of Dandori sink in naturally’ was the design ethos for that entire stretch of the game, letting players build up their skill until they’re ready for the real Pikmin experiences in the post-game.
A more perfect Pikmin
But the joys of Dandori were there from the start. While I hadn’t yet gotten over my disappointment over Pikmin 4’s lack of a meta time limit, I was still getting drawn into all different types of time management. The game’s varied modes each offer their own specific type of Dandori. Dandori challenges give you scored challenges that really test your ability to work fast. Dandori battles pit you against an AI opponent whose plans you can mess with. Night levels offer tower defense challenges where the pressure of the time limit is inverted, so that the end of the timer is a relief. The traditional daytime exploration ends up becoming a sort of practice mode for everything else the game has to offer.
With Pikmin 4, Nintendo has finally found the way to extract every good idea the series has ever had and mix them all together in a way that feels satisfying even for longtime fans like me. By naming the Dandori concept and building out so many new modes around that idea, Pikmin 4 offers the most expansive and inclusive game in a series that’s up until now been known for disparate entries with contradictory gameplay styles. Pikmin 4 is a perfect synthesis of everything the series has offered up to this point.
Check out our Pikmin 4 review to find out why this is the most approachable Pikmin entry ever.