Hot on the heels of the Pikmin 1 and 2 HD remasters on Switch, we have a brand new serial entry in Pikmin 4. It’s been a decade of waiting, but in the meantime Nintendo has ditched its in-house engine in favor of Unreal Engine 4, which provides some of the most striking visuals seen on Switch to date. But what graphical leap does it represent over the Wii U version of Pikmin 3, what new visual features have been added, and how does performance hold up?
The extent of Pikmin 4’s reinvention goes deeper than its visuals, of course. Apart from higher fidelity graphics, the game’s long development has also resulted in major overhauls to its mechanics, user interface, and quality of life features. The slider has a lock, for starters, while a rewind function is there in case all your Pikmin perish. And adding an extra dimension to the series’ combat, resource gathering and puzzles, Pikmin 4 of course also includes the Oatchi, a space dog companion. This photogenic dog is able to jump, swim, and charge through obstacles, bringing more variety to the usual Pikmin gameplay loop. It’s a risk that pays off, and if you’ve never played a Pikmin game before, there’s never been a better time to get started; it’s the simplest it’s ever been.
On a technical level, Pikmin 4 benefits enormously from the switch to Unreal Engine. Of course, we’ve seen Nintendo-published games use Epic’s middleware technology before, including Yoshi’s Crafted World on Switch. And while proprietary engines are something to be treasured these days, Unreal at least gives developers a shortcut to high-end rendering features – and at its core, Pikmin 4 still feels like Pikmin, with the same design DNA and philosophy, just with a drastic upgrade in its presentation.
It may be instructive to revisit Pikmin 3 on Wii U for a bit of perspective. This title had significantly better visuals than the two GameCube originals, dropping to a native 720p (but without anti-alising) with higher resolution textures, improved model quality on the Pikmin, enemies and pilots, while effects like depth of field and screen-spatial reflections on water have also been implemented. Although originally developed for the Wii, the game ended up taking great advantage of the Wii U as an HD console and looked great for a 2013 release.
Along with this bump to fidelity, Pikmin 3 also debuted a gameplay and usability overhaul, featuring an always-on map screen on the Wii U GamePad screen, multiple drivers to switch between, and more Pikmin types. to play through the game’s puzzles. Although it only ran at 30 frames per second, a stable presentation over time meant the game was also enjoyable to play. The only real downside was this lack of AA, and perhaps a slightly too stiff camera with no height control.
So, jump forward ten years and Pikmin 4 on Switch is a clear upgrade in many ways. First, the resolution is upped to a dynamic 900p when docked (normally 810p on an outdoor adventure), while handheld gaming runs at a dynamic 720p (normally 600p). Dynamic resolution scaling in response to GPU load wasn’t part of Nintendo’s internal engine, so moving to UE4 allows the game to get a better mix of performance and resolution than a fixed resolution would not allow it. As a bonus, Nintendo is using anti-aliasing here for the first time in the series’ history, a luxury not seen on recent Pikmin 1+2 HD remasters on Switch.
We then get a lot of benefits with Unreal Engine, and it doesn’t stop there. Pikmin 4 is pushing for a much improved depth of field effect to start with, adding a bokeh pattern to just out-of-focus areas, while chromatic aberration is also added to the edges of the screen. And yet, Pikmin 4 does not present a perfect image – especially when it comes to image quality. Although the base native resolutions are now much higher than Pikmin 3’s 720p, and we’re getting a more advanced rendering pipeline through Unreal Engine, the game still suffers from some degree of pixel shimmer, aliasing, and visual noise. This is partly an effect of the dynamic resolution configuration which adjusts the pixel structure on the fly. Pixels can be seen moving on the horizon, especially in large open areas like the Sun Speckled Terrace, while the new bokeh depth of field effect works with a lower resolution buffer than the main image, meaning that aliasing is visible where a background element hits a foreground element that is in focus. So while Pikmin 4 offers a big improvement over Pikmin 3’s AA-free 720p image, there are still obvious limitations to Switch’s end result.
Looking at the actual quality of the ‘Pikmin’ model over the years, from the original all the way up to Pikmin 4, there’s only so much Nintendo really needed to do to increase the levels of detail on its main star. Geometry details are amped up and material lighting gets an unreal overhaul, but the genius here is in the Pikmin’s simplistic design to begin with. This allowed even modest hardware – like the GameCube – to render Pikmin in large numbers and see them as a swarm from afar, a concept Nintendo first debuted with the Super Mario 128 demo.
The biggest upgrade over Pikmin 3 is detailed in the world. From the opening tutorial around the house to flourishing gardens, Nintendo fills the Pikmin universe with beautiful touches. Right away we get new decorative elements like falling petals and volumetric fog on the horizon. Each adds a sense of heft and energy to the air that previous games lacked. Combined with the game’s time of day system and dynamic shadows that have been part of the game’s graphical composition since the original GameCube, there’s now a real sense of a lived-in garden environment.
Needless to say, Pikmin 4’s lighting and geometry is a huge step up from what came before. The variety of materials is enhanced by the Unreal toolset; notably on Oatchi, there’s a fuzzier, fur-like material that scatters oncoming light, while the spacesuit helmets and chitin shells of insectoid enemies have a shiny porcelain finish. The terrain also reacts beautifully to light, from the mossy undergrowth of the opening garden to the rocks of the sub-levels. There’s even a convincing reflective sheen on scratched metals and treasures. A nice extra touch is seeing the details beyond the garden. Even filtered through bokeh depth of field, we now see the house and discarded tires looming. Again, it all helps create that sense of Pikmin 4 action in a miniature scale world.
The final stage is performance, and luckily we can report that the game runs at a locked-in 30fps whether you’re playing in docked or handheld mode. There are minor single frame drops when panning the camera quickly around the garden, but these drops will likely coincide with dynamic resolution adjustments. Overall it’s not too intrusive, although it’s a slight step back from the tight 30fps lock we see in other Pikmin games. As an aside here, Pikmin 4 also momentarily drops to points where transparent elements fill the screen. Otherwise? It’s an absolutely solid experience on that 30fps line.
Pikmin 4 is by far the biggest graphical leap forward for the series – and for Nintendo, it’s a visual tour de force on Switch. Some parts almost look like CG animation in presentation, especially the lighting and character models which benefit from a simple yet effective design. However, other aspects, such as noisy image quality, show the limits of Switch’s ability to push for higher resolutions. Considering all the features Switch has to offer, such as dynamic time of day, screen space reflections and much improved lighting, shadows, materials and character models, it’s inevitable that the resolution or compromise.
It all comes down to Pikmin 4 ranking among the best-looking first-party Switch titles. Based on the results here, Nintendo and Unreal Engine make a pair that I hope we’ll see more of.