I have to admit, when I heard Nintendo was making a shooter, I smelt an air of desperation to the move. With dismal Wii U sales and a shrinking handheld market that’s running for phones and tablets, Splatoon seemed to me a way for Nintendo to say “Hey, you want games with guns? We can make a game with guns!” It only took moments for me to have my doubts completely erased, save for some issues.
Splatoon on the surface is a 4v4 three-minute per match online multiplayer arena shooter, but it’s with Nintendo’s signature charm and attention to detail that keeps this game from feeling so typical. Even from the onset of the game, where I was asked to design an inkling — the name of the species that serve as the characters in this world — it felt like someone over at Nintendo HQ finally managed to inject some fresh ideas into the notoriously conservative company. It’s an interesting choice to essentially leave what is being treated like a new tent-pole franchise without a main protagonist. That’s certainly not what Nintendo’s known for, brining us the most memorable video game characters in the last 30 years, many of whom don’t speak a word. Mario, Yoshi, Toad, Link, Star Fox, Samus, Pikachu, Donkey Kong, Olimar, Captain Falcon, Kirby, and more. The options for customization however are limited, and mainly retain the look recognizable and feel of the original inkling design.
The world here needs little to no establishment, the only context given is through the form of a TV network that’s broadcasting to your the latest news, and encouraging you to jump into a match as fast as possible, and reminding you to “Stay Fresh!”. The initial pass with the TV hosts is welcoming, but after seeing it every single time I play, and sometimes in the middle of play, it becomes a tired device that I wish I could just skip.
The name of the game in Splatoon is getting messy; Pistols, shotguns, and snipers have been swapped out for Paintballs, Rollers, Brushes and more, some with classic shooter equivalents, others feel entirely unique. I found myself gravitating toward the Paint Roller, as I enjoyed plowing over bad guys and covering large swaths of the map in ink. You can shoot and kill the players on the other team, who are literally dubbed “bad guys” in contrast to your team— the “good guys” — but Splatoon puts a heavy emphasis on painting the map. Missing spots with a shoddy paint job can be the difference between a win and a loss, of course your team has to stay alive if they hope to accomplish the goal of painting the map, but painting always seems like the goal, with combat seemingly a device to support you in accomplishing it.
Some players do elect to play the game like a more traditional competitive shooter and leave the painting to their teammates. In my time with Splatoon, I found that matches filled with a team that’s after bloodlust often resulted in an experience I would only describe as one sided and not at all fun. Which is a shame, because, under it’s typical circumstances Splatoon’s multiplayer is very, very fun with Nintendo’s choice of the three-minute match time feeling perfect, fair, and frantic all at once.
As you might expect, it’s in the services and organization where Splatoon stumbles. Jumping into a match is easy, albeit not quite what modern gamers are use to from services like PSN and Xbox Live. You’re thrown into a room with seven other people, with no audio chat, and what seems to be little or no matching system. I sometimes found myself with people who were much lower level than I was, and frequently with people who were level 20, the maximum achievable level for a character at the time of this review. The teams also didn’t seem to be balanced, often a team of low level players will find themselves going up against a team of much higher level players, and since you cant leave a match once it’s begun, vote to kick, or surrender, there’s nothing you can do about it save for waiting to be beaten, and saying you don’t want to play again.
Something interesting does happen however, which is, if you play enough matches in a row, and the group you’re playing with stays relatively consistent, you start to develop common strategies, and almost develop an un-spoken communication system. Pairs of people sticking together, and covering for each other, teams pushing into enemy territory and simply nominating yourself as someone who’s job it is to cover every single square foot of your teams base in ink. The lack of communication features can add an air of excitement, what a match begins the two teams are introduced for the first time and you learn learn which of the seven strangers have ended up on your side, and what they're sporting in terms of weapons and equipment.
You’ll of course have to recognize weapons and armor by the way they look, because there's no way to inspect another player, even reach out after a match is complete to asked him a question or add them as a friend. To use people from around the world means that you do get an global and varied player base but I can't help but feel like it's covering for holes with lack of an install base.
At least if you're stuck waiting for match to begin and fill up with players, You're treated to and eight bit doodle jump style game designed by Nintendo called Squid Jump. Is no downtime here, even waiting is a game, it's a smart move and I would not be surprised to see adopted by other developers. Since the game’s on Wii U, and I’m one of the only people I know with the console, I was unable to test out the “play with friends” feature offered up by the game. Thankfully these feature shortcomings are really the only part of the experience that I found fell in terms of thoughtfulness and quality, and I do think it’s healthy to challenge the necessity of every single feature that’s been added to multiplayer games over the years.
Game design is where Splatoon gets it right. Nintendo’s strong sense of art direction is present, with an aesthetic that feels soaked in 1990’s Nickelodeon, even down to the writing. Full disclosure: I grew up in the 90’s and expected to be “cheesed-out” by the look and feel, but it’s simultaneously so charming and disarming that it’s hard not to fall in love with the palette and character design choices. From the weapon design, which always feels mechanical, light-hearted, and almost like a nerf arsenal, to the shopkeepers from which you buy different clothes and gear that give your character extra stats and abilities, each distinct character in Splatoon feels well realized, and belonging to the established world. I can already picture the inklings making their way into Super Smash Brothers.
The palette is pushed to the limits with the core concept of two teams painting their way to victory. Maps that start off as fairly interesting industrial looking Tony Hawk-esq levels, quickly become painted with complementary colors that's serve as both and eye pleaser, and an indicator of how successful your team is performing. You can peek down at your game pad at any point to see just what the level of paint coverages on the map, this feature creates tension as it knowingly distracts you from the task at hand. Splatoon's choice of colors always seemingly works. Fuchsias, cyans, mint greens, golds, oranges, electric yellows, deep reds, and perfect blues, are selected and assigned to each team, splattered down, and start to fill the world like a Jackson Pollock painting. Only Nintendo could create a game that is both focused on combat and beauty.
There’s also so much more than I was expecting in terms of content. The multiplayer mode is a one V one battle arena mode, a robust and fairly long single player, , with fun and creative boss battles, and mechanics that are entirely separate from the multiplayer experience, and completing campaign levels unlocks challenges that you can participate in if you're an Amiibo owner. The mechanics contained within single player we're compelling enough that I couldn't help but wish they find their way into the multiplayer note of the game, and while that might be planned they’re not at this time. Nintendo is also evolving their business models with things like DLC, timed release of free content, an interesting mechanics like globally rotating what maps are being used by the community every four hours. Since its release it's had a steady stream of content, with hopefully more to come. A particular favorite of mine is the ink gun that has been designed after the original Duck-Hunt pistol from Nintendo entertainment system.
This is what kills me: Splatoon on Wii U we'll never be appreciated by the number of people that it should be. Instead, thousands of people will be spending time with the grey and brown multiplayer shooters, devoid of any personality, and lacking distinct art direction, and copying each others features. It's a game on a console that is been out for two years and was surpassed in sales by Xbox One and Playstation 4 within months of their respective releases, and without a doubt and Nintendo seems to be in an isolation chamber with the way they design matchmaking, communication, menu organization, and other features that have been invented and refined by competitors over the years. Maybe they were too busy designing casual experiences and 2.5 D Mario games.
In the end, the flaws don't hold this game back from being great. I hope we sees Splatoon again, whether that's a Nintendo's next console or some other place, because you should buy it and you should play it. Splatoon is a brand-new instant classic. It's a testament to the quality and craftsmanship that Nintendo imbues in every single piece of software that they create. It doesn't just prove that Nintendo still has “it”, it’s definitive proof that they never lost it.