“The first time I saw my home planet from space, I thought this: the people down there... they're all part of a single living organism. No, we'll never completely eradicate conflict. Still, I hope a day will come when people understand what I understood in that moment. I hope a day will come when they look at the person beside them and see themselves.” -Erma Shephard
Pikmin 4, the latest entry in Nintendo’s underrated oddball franchise, is a masterpiece. It perfectly captures the charm of its creator’s finest works: irreverent personality, slim narrative but a beating heart, ingenious and thoughtful design choices, and a fun core gameplay loop. Like in every Pikmin game, you play as a one inch tall space explorer finding treasures with the help of an army of plant-like creatures called pikmin. Each day has a set amount of time between sunrise and sunset, in which you can explore the surface and take on imposing monsters through strategy and focus.
Beyond that, a lot has changed. The fourth mainline game introduces a character creator, a hub zone with a team of associates, upgrades, quests, and lots of side game modes to provide more diversity to your play. Now you can compete in tower-defense night expeditions using ghost-like glow pikmin, or compete against leaf covered zombies in duels to see who can capture the most treasure, or take on timed challenges in which you must collect every item in a set zone. All of this has been wrapped up in a new buzzword: Dandori. Essentially a Japanese word for efficiency, I like to think of it as a sort of meditative focus. The spotlight on dandori, and the variations on Pikmin’s core gameplay, is all in an attempt to capture and emphasize what is so fun about the series. To say the developers succeeded is to put it lightly; Pikmin 4 seems to be the best selling game of the franchise by far.
To focus too much on dandori would be to miss the relevance of this game to the blog. As I’ve written about before, this game works because of its eccentric contradictions and its bright outlook towards our world and towards nature. These traits are on full display more than ever. The shifting rhythm and tone is emphasized by the new game modes, and the most expansive cast of characters yet gives us a lot of added personality and perspectives through which to appreciate the mysterious (definitely not Earth) planet we’ve found ourselves on. As a new recruit for the Rescue Corps, you must track down and save countless crew members, explorers, and tourists who have crashed onto the surface. As much as I enjoy Olimar’s working man plight, this mission feels more pressing than ever before and it gives the game a fundamental sense of compassion.
This compassion extends well past the explorers. You’re accompanied by a Rescue Pup named Oatchi, a strange looking bipedal dog with beady eyes and droopy jowls who I have fallen deeply in love with. He revolutionizes gameplay as both a super-strong pikmin but also as a mount and even as a secondary commander. The heart at the center of this entire game is that all creatures are deserving of peace and respect, not just people. Your leader, Erma Shephard, comes from a long line of Rescue Pup trainers, and believes passionately that all living beings are in this together. It’s why she loves helping people, and why she loves animals. When the credits roll, she commands the crew to turn back around so they can help Oatchi who has fallen ill. Thus begins an entirely new campaign of post-game content, built entirely around making sure every person on the planet is saved and that even the dog can go home healthy and happy.
This love of all living things is poured into every level of design. Based on where your camera is pointing during gameplay, you might hear ambient nature sounds or the pitter patter footsteps of your pikmin. The scenery is gorgeous and lush with butterflies and dynamic environments. Every single creature you find is given a common name, a scientific name, a field guide description from an animal expert, a behavioral assessment from Captain Olimar, and even advice on how to cook and eat it from Olimar’s chaotic sidekick Louie. In the Piklopedia you can study what families the species belongs to, watch it live in its habitat, and even experiment with it using items and pikmin. The treasures you track down are given similar attention, as the forgotten bits and bobs of human life are treated as mysterious and precious oddities worthy of myth and awe. These logs are sometimes funny, sometimes cute, and sometimes genuinely touching. Olimar especially uses our little knick knacks as jumping off points to memories of his curious childhood watching the stars or his favorite parts of being a husband and father. Joy is baked into this game so thoroughly.
It’s not all about small things, though. You also have a rescue journal, full of tutorial tips and reminders as well as Captain’s Logs from Erma Shephard and her various ancestors. These serve as heartfelt reminders of the ethos for your mission as a member of the Rescue Corps, and by extension the philosophy of this game: discovery is beautiful, life is precious, we’re all connected. This game is built to get you to slow down, take a deep breath, and really think about where you are and what you’re doing. Not just in the game, but in your everyday life. It does this spectacularly well, while also crafting an addicting, gorgeous, and incredibly pleasant gameplay experience.
The team behind Pikmin 4 knows how easy it is to feel overwhelmed. Our world has lots of complex and scary problems, and this is a video game about literally hundreds of moving parts that you have to keep track of. How does it manage to avoid making me anxious, let alone actually relax me? By reminding me of how capable we are when we focus, and by showing me how much beauty is hiding behind the clouds of our stress. Through compassion, teamwork, curiosity, and a little dandori, we can confront big problems together.
In the words of Erma Shephard: “People who are incapable of caring about those around them or about living creatures in general... They'll never save anyone.”
But we, those who care, can save everyone.