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Pikmin 4 review: tiny tactics, a rescue dog and a fresh face

Nintendo

There I was, at the bottom of a cave. Just me, my dog, and about 70 Pikmin, enjoying a funky beat while a disco ball shone directly overhead ...wait, I'm definitely misremembering.

There I was scrambling with my dog and about 70 Pikmin, trying not to get squashed by a gigantic daddy long-legs with a disco ball for a head. About par for the course for Thursday afternoon.

But while I was fighting for my life, the experience was as fun as a disco party. It's just one example of the chaos bursting out of Nintendo's new Pikmin 4, the latest in a real-time strategy series that hasn't seen an original console release in a decade. Franchise fans might find it too streamlined, but its innovations make it easy to pick up, especially for new players.

But what are Pikmin, again?

Originally released in 2001, Pikmin centered around the spacefaring freight employee Olimar, who found himself marooned on a strange planet with no way to reclaim his ship parts and with his life support system slowly failing. To his great fortune, he stumbles upon the titular Pikmin, small plant-like creatures that grow from seeds and move in troops at the blow of a whistle.

Pikmin 4 lets you choose your skin tone, body type, hair, facial features and gender presentation.
/ Nintendo
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Nintendo
Pikmin 4 lets you choose your skin tone, body type, hair, facial features and gender presentation.

Olimar is incredibly small, about two centimeters, and the Pikmin are even smaller. Their planet resembles ours but humans don't seem to be around. You'll use your tiny army of leafy helpers to pull random items from the earth, including coins, pieces of food, and even various Nintendo memorabilia, like Game Boy games. Once Pikmin carry them back to your ship, they'll become materials that aid your eventual escape.

Two decades later, the series is back with Pikmin 4. Only this time, you're not Olimar: you've got your own fully-customizable avatar.

Star of the show

You play a member of an elite rescue squad responding to a SOS beacon launched by Olimar, who has (once again) been shipwrecked on the now-familiar planet, referred to as PNF-404. Upon your arrival, however, you find yourself stranded and separated from your crew. To make matters worse, you quickly learn you weren't the only one traveling to PNF-404.

Hordes of others have responded to Olimar's beacon with their own motives, and through their own terrible luck, have also crashed and become castaways awaiting rescue (you'd think everyone would have learned to avoid the planet by now!).

This time around, your ship is mostly intact, but out of power. Your mission is to explore the areas surrounding your landing site to recover the items that contain "sparklium," an element that serves as fuel. You'll also search for Olimar and other castaways with the help of Pikmin and Oatchi, your dog companion. But be careful to return home by the end of the day, as the fauna grows more aggressive at night!

Ghostly "Glow Pikmin" confront a hostile critter.
/ Nintendo
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Nintendo
Ghostly "Glow Pikmin" confront a hostile critter.

More Pikmin, more problems

The game adds two new types of Pikmin — Ice and Glow — bringing the number of unique Pikmin to nine. Their varied abilities assist you in discovering the many areas of PNF404, which range from backyard gardens, to beach-like sandboxes, to the inside of a house. For example, yellow Pikmin resist electricity and can knock down small electrified walls, unlocking you new shortcuts and passage to previously-inaccessible locations. But the design decision to limit you to three types of Pikmin at a time feels like a missed opportunity for more creative exploration options.

You're also joined by a faithful rescue dog, Oatchi. In a departure from previous games, you're able to ride atop him, with Pikmin hopping on his sides. This allows you to jump, charge at enemies, and throw Pikmin into battle from the safety of his back. You can even have him carry items to your ship himself, making life quite easy, as any good boy does. Like the game's other quality-of-life improvements, it's designed to hook newer Pikmin players who may feel daunted by on-foot exploration within the short day/night cycle.

Two new modes

As you explore the world with your Pikmin, you'll encounter strange beings your crew calls "leaflings." They'll challenge you to "Dandori Battles," short (2-7 minutes) one-on-one competitions to grow your Pikmin crew and collect as many things as possible against a CPU-controlled opponent. It's also a separate game mode on its own, and is a fast, fun player-versus-player option.

A tight timer makes competitive modes absolutely frantic.
/ Nintendo
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Nintendo
A tight timer makes competitive modes absolutely frantic.

There's also Night Expeditions, a timed tower defense mini game where you collect and command the floating, eerie Glow Pikmin, to protect their knolls from hordes of hungry adversaries. If you succeed in holding them back until the morning, you're rewarded with glowing sap, which is useful to your crew's medic.

Out of this world

It's all incredibly engaging, to the point that I'd run straight to my Switch whenever I had a spare bit of time. Since the Pikmin 4's exploration timeline is measured in days (which take about 15 real-world minutes), it's perfect to play in short bursts.

The game gives you all the time you need while still making you respect the urgency of your mission. I finished its story in a leisurely two dozen hours, but there's plenty more content after credits roll.

All in all, Pikmin 4 feels like a game determined to play all of the hits, but its new offerings make it worthwhile for seasoned crew members and new explorers alike.

Pikmin 4 releases July 21st exclusively on the Nintendo Switch.

James Perkins Mastromarino contributed to this story. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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