Splatoon is a curious beast in that it represents both the Nintendo we’ve always known, and a Nintendo we never knew. Ultimately, Splatoon is a “multiplayer focused online shooter”, four words that have rarely, if ever, been associated with the house of Mario. On the other hand, Splatoon is also a stark reminder that Nintendo has always succeeded at taking established genres, breaking them down, and building them back up in a way that is approachable, unique, and fun.
Yet, because this is Nintendo’s take on a more than established genre, in many ways, Splatoon feels late to the discussion. There are plenty of modern conventions we’ve taken advantage of for the past 14 years that are missing here, some of which can be easily over looked, and others that are inexcusable. But in spite of all its short comings, Splatoon still easily joins the ranks of Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart as being among Nintendo’s best multiplayer titles ever developed.
The basic concept of Splatoon’s online multiplayer is centered around the primary objective of claiming turf. You play as teenage/preteen Inklings (some in which exude a strange hint of uncomfortable seduction that the internet has ran wild with), where the goal is to spray and cover each map in as much of your team’s ink as possible. Splatoon – being the competitive shooter that it is – still offers player choice in the form of ‘what type of ink gun is best suited for splatting their enemies’, however all of your choices have to be in complete service of ensuring that your team paints the most territory.
Among the more conventional weapon selections such as the “assault rifle” and “sub-machine gun” variants, stats such as “firing rate” and “range” have a more explicit effect on your playstyle here than in other shooters. While range literally dictates how far your super ink soaker can shoot, firing rate determines how long it’ll take for the ground to be covered. I favored both maximum range and firing rate because I can have the advantage of splatting enemy players at a distance while covering a wide area in my teams ink fairly quickly.
Splatoon’s arsenal also offers weapons that accommodate for both high level and entry level players. The Ink Roller is a great starter weapon for those who are intimidated by direct conflict as it forgoes accuracy for inking efficiency by covering a solid wide area, making it the most effective weapon for claiming turf. As someone who has spent a lot of time in competitive games, I spent plenty of time trying to master its devastating short range flick, and building tactics to sneak up behind enemies to steamroll them for an insta-kill. On the other end, you have the Splat Charger, Splatoon’s sniper rifle variant that doesn’t contribute a whole lot in terms of turf, but with good aim, you can one-shot kill enemies at a distance. Now I typically favor assault weapons over single shot long ranged ones, however even I was able to make use of the Splat Charger with Splatoon’s motion controls which offer that extra much needed precision.
Aside from shooting, these Inklings have the ability to turn into squids, a form in which allows them to dive under their own ink where they can swim much faster than they can move on foot, and refill their ink tanks at the same time. Using this as a means of traversal is incredibly versatile since there are various offensive and defensive manoeuvres that can be used to snuff out the competition. Tactful players will take advantage of periods in which they can hide from and ambush the opposing team (including swimming up and/or hiding in inked walls), they can use it as a safer means of observing their surroundings for enemies and ink tagging opportunities, or they can adopt it as a move set by dodging incoming projectiles in a fire fight.
We’ve seen titles such as Call of Duty and Titanfall introduce their own forms of heightened mobility, however their methods of movement is a means to success rather than a sign of it like it is here in Splatoon. The game’s mobility is uniquely relevant because the freedom of movement is tied directly to shooting – the more turf you spray and claim, the more ground you can cover and, ultimately, the more control of the map you have. This turf war often concentrates to widening your territory so that you can limit the enemy’s traversal options and hopefully corner them into submission.
Between traversing around the map claiming territory and splatting players at a moment’s notice, Splatoon moves incredibly fast and is consistently engaging. Every player ranging from all skill levels brings something to the table. Whether it’s shooting enemies or laying down ink, every second you hold down the left trigger, you’re contributing to your team’s score. But even when you happen to be in the rare instance of downtime either after being splatted and have to respawn, or just being too far away from where all the action is, with just a simple touch on the live feed map on the game pad, you can jump to one of your teammates and get right into the action.
Jumping back in is crucial because, in Splatoon, every drop of ink counts. As opposed to almost every other shooter where matches could be decided three quarters of the way in, here, I’ve seen Turf War games turn around completely within the last 15 seconds. This isn’t only thanks to the territorial objective focus, it’s also a byproduct of Splatoon matches clocking in at the sweet spot of 3 minutes. With its tight duration and persistent opportunities to stay active in matches, Splatoon is easily the best paced shooter I’ve ever played. Full stop.
Aside from the fully accomplished gameplay aspect, Splatoon has curiously adopted some modern shooter trends that have created a sort-of meta game outside of the Turf Wars. In Splatoon, I’ve spent almost as much time its hub (the Plaza) as I have in the frighteningly similar Tower found in Destiny. Here, among other attractions, you’ll find stores in which you can purchase weapons (which are disappointingly non-customizable) along with new gear that grant you various buffs for your character. However, I eventually got caught up in the habit of viewing the gear, which can be special ordered for your character (for a high price and a full day’s wait of course). The hook is that each piece of gear can have up to 4 potential buffs where all except one is randomized, which opens the doors for an almost endless pursuit of new items. It’s both strange and pleasantly surprising to see Nintendo succeed at creating a level of persistence in an online game.
The Plaza may be a win for Splatoon as a hub for online character progression, but nearly all of the game’s other online features (or lack thereof) fall short of the expected standard for a 2015 title. Nothing about Splatoon’s matchmaking is friendly for those who want to play together, whether it’s the amount of hassle it takes to join a game with friends, the unreasonable lack of voice chat, or the lack of corresponding colors for members of the same team. (Check out this let’s play video to watch PUG’s JD Schmidt and I become utterly bewildered at the fact that our team saw two different colors).
Splatoon looks even more dated as an online title once you find out that there’s no way you can change your loadout without jumping completely out of matchmaking, or when you have to shut the console off if matchmaking freezes. On the plus side, Splatoon features little arcade games (three of the four that can only be unlocked with Splatoon amiibos) that can be played on the gamepad during matchmaking. While this is anot ingenious distraction from the long load times, a game of Squid Jump is merely a small band-aid that fails to cover the gaping hole of Splatoon’s online infrastructure.
One could hope that Nintendo would at least patch some of these shortcomings over time, and there’s little reason not to believe so after their surprising onslaught of post release content since the game’s launch. Three new weapons, two new maps (bringing the small map roster to 7), and a new game mode have become available in the 2 weeks following Splatoons release, all in which are making the game incrementally more robust. Out of all the post release content, Rank Battles, which introduced the new mode Splat Zones, has been the most significant addition to Splatoon.
In Splat Zones, players have to dominate small hot zones that are carefully selected around the map. This takes all the intensity of Turf Wars, and concentrates them to a fine point, making each match relentlessly competitive and moves at an even faster pace. As for the term ‘Ranked Battles’, it’s exactly as it sounds: with every match you win, you increase rank; lose a game, and your rank will decline. These matches aren’t for the faint of heart mind either, as you could very well earn zero experience points or cash if you lose. Being that we’ve seen this much content after Splatoon has been released, I’m very curious to see what other additions will come about in the coming months.
With all of its online features, successful or not, it’s easy to forget that Splatoon has a single player mode, and a good one at that. Splatoon’s single player takes the skeleton of a Mario game, and dons it in ink-splatting flesh. This is because the game is built around an overworld that’s more interactive than any Mario title that’s come before, and a structural pacing that’s undeniably influenced by the Galaxy series. Each of the levels are appropriately themed and follows Nintendo’s tried and true philosophy of mechanical introduction, application, and mastery, all in which grows stronger and stronger the deeper into the campaign you get. Levels that are more focused on shooting than platforming, however, are among the best stages in the game, and the Zelda-esque boss designs are actually very strong and achingly original (I want to give a special shout out to Splatoon’s final boss, which has quickly become my favorite Nintendo designed boss of all time). The single player is short, sweet, and like Splatoon’s multiplayer, it provides a strong foundation for something with much greater potential in the future.
Splatoon is an incredibly tight and focused online multiplayer experience that shockingly comes in the form of something that’s not a platformer or an action adventure. It’s a shooter for crying out loud! The intricacies of the design fit the Nintendo bill of offering both complexity and approachability in a genre that’s otherwise intimidating, which is why Splatoon is just as good as almost any Smash Bros. or Mario Kart out there. Still, one cannot ignore that it has profound issues that are only apparent because of the online focus, dating itself over 10 years behind present day networking conventions. In spite of all that, they simply do not detract away from what has instantly become one of Nintendo’s best franchises.
And you thought Nintendo couldn't make a good online shooter.