It’s no longer strange to see the concept of genres challenged by unusual games, but Splatoon is a special case. It’s a lighthearted, sugar-coated game that’s landed on the back of today’s dark and gritty shooters (Battlefield, Call of Duty, Wolfenstein, and Titanfall come to mind). Splatoon is special because it redefines the rules of shooters, stripping away realistic violence and aggression in the name of innocent fun. More than that, its rules make you look at your environment and opponents in new ways. There’s so much to love about Splatoon that it’s stripped-down multiplayer support systems are forgivable, because as long as I’m playing in Splatoon’s world, I’m a happy camper.
Splatoon is the perfect game for people who want the experience of playing a shooter without all of the killing and such. Because it lacks mainstays of the shooter genre, people question its identity. That speaks volumes about how bog-standard shooters have become in some respects, further highlighting why Splatoon is so refreshing. It’s joyful atmosphere is uplifting, and it plays like a dream, with a unique movement system that permeates every moment and match. Splatoon isn’t another hardened shooter, and that’s a good thing, especially when the risk pays off as well as it has here.
Splatoon’s locale is the hip and colorful city of Inkopolis, which is run by hybrid beings known as Inklings. These guys and gals can take the form of either a squid or a human on command, and to them, ink is everything. Inklings arm themselves for work and play not with guns that shoot bullets, but with weapons like squirt guns and paint rollers. These are used to paint the environment and knock out opponents during multiplayer matches. Ink splotches are also great for swimming and hiding, granting you much needed speed and stealth during hectic matches. Need more ammo? Turn into a squid and take a dip to watch your tank on your back fill up.
Splatoon’s ink-based mechanics are the crux of what makes playing it so great, and running on foot feels stale once you get used to dipping in and out of ink in quick succession, partially because it’s empowering and snappy, but also because it’s such an effective tactic. Transformations occur quickly, allowing you to react to an impending threat or a chance at victory in a flash. Matches typically begin with teams laying down plots and strips of ink to swim through and hide in, but by the time things heat up, it’s a tie-dyed mess of opportunities with people sinking into ink, jumping to safety, then reappearing when you least expect it with their sights trained on your location. No worries, because if you’re quick enough, you can dip into ink and slink away into a corner, too, only to re-emerge when your opponent comes looking for you. It’s a cycle that plays out dozens of times in a match, and when the timer ends, you get the itch to jump back in as soon as you can.
Multiplayer is Splatoon’s bread and butter, but there’s trouble afoot in Inkopolis and your efforts are needed outside of the arena, too. Inkopolis’s source of power, the Great Zap Fish, is being held captive by the invading Octarians. You guessed it: Octarians are octopus-human hybrids. There are roughly thirty stages between you and the Great Zap Fish, which sounds like a lot, but it doesn’t take very long to get the job done because most levels are on the short side. Still, the mix of combat and platforming is an enjoyable diversion that feels very different than multiplayer, with unique obstacles and challenges in addition to five bosses that fit nicely within Nintendo’s repertoire of quirky baddies. The campaign at large is also a great way to familiarize yourself with the unusual GamePad controls. Though you can disable the GamePad’s motion detection and stick to moving your character and the camera with analog sticks alone, using motion detection to adjust the camera ends up being really helpful, and it only takes a few matches before doing so becomes second nature.
The unique touches in the campaign are fun, but the pacing and variety of challenges leaves you hungry for more. Sure, you’re still playing with and discovering new ways to move and shoot, which is rewarding in and of itself, but the chances are that you’ll move on once you’ve fixed Inkopolis. If you pick up some of Nintendo’s Splatoon amiibos, you can use them to unlock special challenges that will net you new gear, but you’re essentially playing the same levels over again with unique constraints. These stages are fun, but being asked to pick up real world toys and to replay levels is a big ask, and it’s too bad, because the gear locked away behind amiibo challenges is the most interesting looking gear in the game.
Splatoon is ultimately about multiplayer, where you are required to begin your playtime in Turf Wars. The goal is to paint as much of the map in your team’s ink before a three minute timer runs out. Inking new ground, stealing coverage from your enemies, and knocking out opponents makes these matches fun, and because there are so many ways to make a difference, rather than by being a sharpshooter alone, Splatoon rewards you with a constant flow of small wins.
As long as I’m playing in Splatoon’s world, I’m a happy camper.
Once you hit level 10 you can dive into ranked matches, which currently feature one new match type: Splat Zones. Two teams fight for control over a small area within the middle of a map, and whichever team controls the area by covering it in ink for 100 seconds is declared the winner. Unlike Turf War matches, where everyone earns points to level up and purchase gear, in ranked battles, to the winners only go the spoils. Ranking is determined by your individual performance, represented by a grade like A or C-, for example. These grades are used to populate teams during ranked matches, which create a much more balanced affair when compared to the anything goes arrangement of levels and skill in Turf Wars.
Given that Splatoon’s multiplayer is exclusively team-based, it’s frustrating that it’s impossible to strategize as a team. Voice chat is non-existent, likely as a measure to defend against casual harassment from other players. Unfortunately, this is an excuse that harms people who don’t share Nintendo’s concerns. A quick glance at the GamePad gives you a bird’s eye view of the map, including the distribution of ink and the location of your teammates, but you can’t easily discern where your enemies are and what they’re doing. There’s an item you can place that will highlight their location for a time, but there’s no way of guaranteeing that someone on your team will come equipped with it when they head into battle because teams in Turf Wars are randomly assigned, and you never have a chance to see who’s packing what items. Because entire loadouts (primary weapons, secondary weapons, and a special weapon) are determined by the primary weapon you choose before heading into a lobby, and teams are assigned randomly, you may end up on a team where every player has the same loadout. In a situation where your team is homogenous, your fate is practically sealed from the get go.
You earn points during matches that you can spend on new headgear, guns, footwear, and shirts. These points also determine how fast you level up, which unlocks new gear that you can purchase in the Inkopolis’s shops. Gear comes with bonuses that boost things such as speed, power, and defense, so while you may want to look as fresh as possible, it’s important to keep your eye on what that new shirt actually does besides looking cool. The outfits in Splatoon are evidence of Nintendo’s attempt to capture the essence of streetwear, with beanies and Chuck Taylor hightops available to accentuate Inklings, but it feels heavy-handed at times, especially with characters that spout nautical puns woven into lines that could have come from the script of a teen Disney show.
Between Turf Wars, Splat Zones, and unlocking gear, not to mention the single player content, there’s a lot to chew on in Splatoon, yet it still feels a tad light. Don’t get me wrong: Splatoon is so fun to play that you rarely care. I want more single player content to explore and control over multiplayer so that I can craft specific types of multiplayer matches, rather than taking whatever comes my way. I want more Splatoon because I like it, but also because there’s not enough variety in the things you can do over a long period of time.
The same could be said of the selection of maps. There are only five, and to compound the issue, Splatoon only lets you play one of three maps for the better part of a day before a new lot are selected, and you don’t even get to choose which map to play on. This seems to be in the name of stress free matchmaking, where constraints would otherwise make it more challenging to find a compatible match. When only a couple of the five maps in Splatoon truly stand out, a little control over which you get to play on would go a long to way ensure that you can play in an environment that you actually like.
Nintendo’s foray into shooter territory stumbles on occasion, but when I’m swimming through ink, covering environments in neon, and drinking in the quirky city of Inkopolis, I’m far more aware of how unique its mechanics are, and how enjoyable it is to play one match after another. In these moments–which is pretty much anytime I’m playing Splatoon–I forget about the lacking multiplayer features. Online matches are the core of the game, so it may seem weird that it’s so easy to overlook things like missing voice chat, but I would be a fool to let missing features get in the way of the readily available joy I feel from simply swimming and shooting.
I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with shooters, not because I can’t handle gritty, war torn worlds and battle cries, but because I grow tired of them after the tenth game in a row. Splatoon is the antithesis to the modern shooter, but it primarily deserves recognition for what it is, not what it isn’t. It’s a wonderful game with charm and inventive ideas that work and pave the way for new experiences in an otherwise stale category of games.