For the past month, I’d been delving into the Pikmin series in anticipation of Pikmin 4 and rediscovering just how quaint and peaceful it is. Pikmin has always stood apart from previous Nintendo franchises just for how chill and relaxed it has been, something that no other Nintendo franchise has been able to effectively replicate since. It’s a franchise that I can sit back and play while listening to music, content with collecting as many items as efficiently as possible.
Needless to say, most of that is still here in Pikmin 4. The environments are still wonderful and the satisfaction I feel collecting all of the treasures available in each of the game’s many environments is pure bliss. Many elements from previous games are expanded and refined ever so slightly, making this probably the smoothest Pikmin game to play. In a world where Dandori is life, I have embraced it at every turn and love all of the simple quiet moments the game has to offer. It even makes caves somewhat bearable! I mean, they still kind of suck and slow the pace of the game to a crawl, but at least they’re not the worst thing in the game.
No, the worst thing in Pikmin 4 is the endless dialogue. As early as the tutorial, it seems like at every point, someone on the Rescue Team, or even just a random NPC that I rescued, has something to say that rips me straight from my immersive bliss and reminds me that there’s actually a point to this operation I’m partaking in. I can’t go one single mission without someone chiming in with something to say, and it gives off the impression that Nintendo doesn’t trust me enough to read my environment for dangers or threats. This goes beyond just a weak tutorial that over-explains things, something that Nintendo has recently had issues with. It’s a problem that directly runs counter to the appeal that this series has had up until now.
Building on ideas present in Pikmin 3, you are part of a team that is off to explore PNF-404 in search of the missing Captain Olimar, but while Pikmin 3 had a small group of three explorers with somewhat defined personalities and unique appearances, Pikmin 4 gives you dozens upon dozens of explorers that are all cut from the same character creator. A mere six of these NPCs are core Rescue Officers, but that’s still twice as many people present as in Pikmin 3. And these characters have almost nothing worthwhile to say, even in cutscenes. Collin and Shepherd, your Comms Operator and Captain respectively, will chime in when you’re on missions to remind you that some Pikmin aren’t doing anything, they’re in trouble, what the status of your new pet dog Oatchi is, or how much time is left before each day of exploration ends.
On paper, their friendly reminders are welcome. Their purpose is to help you keep everything organized as you may be pulled in several different directions per day and can lose track of the little things. However, the frequency with which they occur is annoying, and the fact they speak in a much more limited version of Banjo-Kazooie‘s jargon gets old real quick. They speak just often enough that it comes across as if they don’t expect me to handle anything without their guidance. There was an instance when I was exploring a cave in the second area when a single Pikmin died and Collin immediately hopped on the comms to let me know a Pikmin was dying, like I was oblivious to the fact that an enemy ate it in front of my eyes.
It actually made certain situations worse due to their just adding more to the noise and chaos on screen. While I was in the third area, the Serene Shores, I went to explore a cave that had a giant disco ball spider down at the bottom to fight. This boss was pretty large, with several legs skittering around and its core changing colors, which in turn changed the pace of its walk cycle. It let out some strange gas I wanted nothing to do with, and the constant music it was blaring made me slightly stressed out. With all of that happening, I did not need Shepherd coming on the comms, right in the middle of the screen where the boss was stationed, telling me that Oatchi was in trouble. This caused me to lose my focus for a split second, causing a massive leg to stomp down on my Pikmin, killing 20 of them. Thank you, Shepherd, for letting me know that my invincible dog was in trouble. It was greatly appreciated. The only thing I was genuinely surprised at was that Collin didn’t also simultaneously reach out to me letting me know that a bunch of my Pikmin were dying.
I’ve noticed that I’ve become a lot more annoyed with unnecessary dialogue in my games recently. As I was playing through Final Fantasy XVI, I was mashing through the dialogue for sidequests because it just served to keep me from actually playing the game despite how well written it was. Sure, I wanted to experience the story, but the story of Final Fantasy XVI wasn’t hinging on whether I helped train a new recruit. Unless the story hooks me and I want to be engaged with it, I want to simply play my games. Needless to say, Pikmin 4‘s plot does not hook me in the slightest. If I don’t care about the stakes of the plot, then why would I grow attached to its characters and their needless prattling?
Pikmin is not a series known for its stories. Each game sets up its conflict fairly quickly, then just lets the player do whatever they want to accomplish it. The only bits of dialogue we would get in the earlier games would come at the end of the day, which would summarize major information learned over the course of the day or provide some insight into the characters and who they are. Those sequences are still here in Pikmin 4, with your crew going into your spaceship at the end of the day to engage in them, but we don’t need all of the extra fluff throughout the day. We just need to explore the PNF-404 in silence, letting the world and environment tell the story for us.
Here’s how the average day in Pikmin 4 works: You wake up and most likely have a cutscene where Shepherd tells your crew what the goal they need to accomplish is. You then walk around and talk to the dozens of NPCs just so you can either begin or end certain sidequests, then speak with Collin to choose a location. Once you arrive, you’ll explore with Collin and Shepherd informing you of every little development you are doing, and then you return back home and repeat the process the next day. As the game progresses, the frequency of their interruptions does decrease slightly, but they’ll still have something to say if even the slightest thing goes wrong. They even try to explain the nonsensical game mechanics, like how time can be slowed by 1/6th in caves, which just completely rips me out of what little immersion I had left. I don’t want to think about how these things inside the game are possible. I just want to play the game!
For a game with such easygoing vibes, I find it harder to zone out to Pikmin 4 than with any other game in the series. There are plenty of new mechanics I enjoy about the game, like having a dedicated rewind feature to go back and try new strategies (or save Pikmin), constructing my army of Pikmin with now nine different types of Pikmin each with their own unique characteristics, and getting Platinum medals on Dandori Challenges and Battles. These new additions are fun, and I still love that feeling when I’m able to secure a treasure with just seconds remaining in the day. But when everyone decides to over-explain each and every element and offer reminders and suggestions on how to better utilize my time, I feel like I’m being backseat-gamed by a bunch of NPCs and not left to trial-and-error my way through the game like I’d like to.
In that regard, I would argue that the original Pikmin is a better game if only because Pikmin kept things clean with its world and setting. Outside of the silent Pikmin, you were utterly alone, which only served to enhance the feeling of discovery and wonder present. Pikmin trusted players to understand what it was going for, but Pikmin 4 seemed to have missed the memo. It labors details to the point where the whimsy, wonder, and terror feel boring. If there was a way to turn off all unnecessary NPC dialogue, I would be enjoying myself way more than I am currently. As it stands, I’m enjoying my time with the mechanics and the world in spite of the game’s nonstop jabbering and cutscenes.