It was January of this year that, after an absence of around twenty years, I re-joined the world of Nintendo. After years of Playstations and Xboxes something told me I needed an alternative. Something unique that can only be supplied by Mario and his entourage. That intangible feeling of joy that is to video games as Disney is to movies.
So I dove head first into franchises I remember playing decades earlier as a small child. Mario is more captivating than ever, Link is rescuing Zelda in bigger and better ways, Mario Kart is now the best racing game in existence, Metroid has gone all FPS, Donkey Kong’s got a family, and now Mario can fight Sonic the Hedgehog in Super Smash Bros.
A lot has changed in the world of Nintendo. But, of course, a lot has stayed the same. Aside from a handful of new franchises the big guns are still as they always were. Mario is still king, Link, Donkey Kong and Samus are still among his primary supporting cast. With Nintendo’s mastery of reinvention none of these old names feel old in the slightest.
But what happens when Nintendo attempt to introduce a brand new franchise by reinventing an entire genre?
Splatoon. That’s what happens.
A fast paced four-on-four re-imagining of the online shooter. Machine guns are replaced by ink-spraying super-soakers. Soldiers are replaced by kids who become squids. And frowning intensity is replaced by wide-eyed joyfulness. The rules are simple and allow the fun to take centre stage. It’s immediate, it’s accessible and it’s exciting.
Two teams of four spray two different colours of ink and are given three minutes to cover as much ground as they can in a mode known as Turf Wars. Once you and your ‘Splatoon’ have laid down a path of ink you can then transform your Inkling boy or girl into a Squid with a touch of a button. Swimming through ink puddles with ease.
This simple transformation from ‘kid now’ to ‘squid now’ is just one example of the depth of tactics and strategy that are available in Splatoon. A simple game to learn, but like all great Nintendo games, very difficult to master. The primary function of Squid form is to be an equivalent to sprinting. But only if you stay in your own colour of ink trail. Stray into enemy ink and you will slow to a halt. Provided you do stay in your own ink squid form will also reload your ink supply. A vital element to master. Maintaining the balance between covering ground and keeping your ink cannister topped-up is a fascinating balancing act. Transforming into a squid will also effectively hide you from opponents. A great way of ambushing and disorientating them. Once you put all of these functions together you can make the colourful battlefield your own. It’s at moments when you manage this that an absurd ink-splattering platform-action game becomes a tactical shooter to rival any on the market.
That transforming into a squid hides you is, I suspect, a design choice that has reasons beyond being able to ambush your foes though. Nintendo are ever-aware of the fact that their audience isn’t entirely made up of the battle-hardened group of shooter fans who have traipsed the war torn landscapes of Call of Duty, Battlefield, Counterstrike, Gears of War and the like. Being able to hide and take a second or two out is, I imagine, a great feature for people of all ages who are new to the frenetic world of online shooting. It is with these people in mind that Nintendo have also omitted voice chat from Splatoon’s feature list. I can personally attest to how toxic and unwelcoming the environment of online shooters can be. Hordes of mic’d up mini Rambo’s ranting into your ear makes up 90% of the voice chat I have encountered in years of online multiplayer shooters. Nintendo, in my opinion, made the right choice in leaving out voice chat. Splatoon is a happy place. Those who wish to make it an intense and angry one have been blocked off quickly and efficiently.
But those who want a deeper more thoughtful experience aren’t ignored. It isn’t all throwaway frivolity. Just as transforming into a squid gives you strategic gameplay options Splatoon gives you Inkopolis. A central hub in which you can purchase gear and weapons with varying abilities, power-ups, secondary weapons and specials.
You are started off with a basic gun called the Splattershot Jr, a basic automatic weapon that is easy to handle and to understand. With Splat Bombs as a secondary weapon, and a protective shield called the Bubbler as your Special which becomes available after a meter has been filled.
From there, with each rank, you unlock new load outs. Sniper rifles and shotguns are both represented with paint-filled equivalents. The Splat Roller is perhaps Splatoon’s most singular weapon. A giant paint roller that covers ground quickly and efficiently. Imagine any type of weapon you have seen or handled in shooting games before and Splatoon will likely have it’s own version. Secondaries come in the form of things like the Splash Wall which can block off routes for the bad guys, or the Sprayer which is all about covering ground with ink. Splat Bombs and Ink Mines only cover a small radius with ink but are deadly to unsuspecting foes.
Specials are available once you have amassed enough points in one life. The Ink Strike is a deadly air-strike that is both deadly and great for inking up areas of the battlefield defended by the opposing team. Or the more thoughtful Echolocator. Which brings up the location of all of your foes allowing you to hunt them or steer clear of them. Just two examples of the tide-turning options available when you have filled your meter.
And then you have the fashion of Inkopolis. Clothes are not just for show. Each headpiece, outfit and pair of shoes comes with one locked-in ability, such as faster respawning or ink saving among others, and then up to three more abilities that are unlocked as your rank up each item. Find the right combination and your Inkling will walk into battle looking good and packing a tactical advantage.
Are you a front-line squid killer? A master of the choke-point massacre? Only interested in the objective? Or just want to help out your team mates? Whatever your style of play Splatoon has a variety of options to suit.
Splatoon also has a single player mode which shouldn’t be ignored. It’s short and sweet and feels not unlike Super Mario Galaxy with paint guns. A mixture of shooting, puzzles, and platforming that serves to get you up to speed with the basics of the game. It is unmistakably Nintendo which is to say funny, clever and engaging.
Of course, joyous though Splatoon is, it’s not all perfect. There are just two multiplayer modes, and a mere six maps – available two at a time on a four hour rotation. This lack of content will be remedied over the coming weeks as promised free DLC arrives to fill out the games suite of options (already the game has seen the addition of Splat Zones, a Domination-style mode, and a new map.) Switching up weapons and gear can be a frustrating counter-intuitive task as well. In service of Splatoon’s fast paced all-action nature any option to agonise over loadouts is removed between rounds. Forcing you to exit back out to the main menu to re-fit your Inkling. It’s a sign that Splatoon is an online shooter from a company who don’t make them. But it’s about the only indicator you’ll find that this is Nintendo’s first real crack at the genre.
Some may also turn their nose up at the motion controls used in the game. Though I would personally recommend sticking out the learning curve. Because once it clicks it feels like the only way to play the game. It’s a design choice born from the fact that the game, first and foremost, tasks you with covering ground with Ink. The precision required to eliminate enemies will come in time, but motion controls lend themselves to the vast sweeps needed to ink the floor and win Turf Wars.
I have played mountains of multiplayer shooters. I have left piles and piles of virtual dead in my wake across the worlds of Call of Duty, Battlefield and Gears or War among others. I have loved almost every second of those games. And though I recognised the saturation in the market I never felt any less eager to play the newest iteration of those games. I am a fan of the shooter. And aside from anything else this is why I love Splatoon. It reinvents and reinvigorates the genre, it makes a grey and brown world of death and decay a brand new one filled with colour, life and vitality. At the end of each round when a fat dancing cat named Judd informs you of a win or a loss you won’t realise it, because it all feels so new, but you are playing a fantastically well-realised shooting game. A rival. Not an alternative. And this is why I have played it for hours and will continue to play it for days, weeks, months and years. Not because it is a cute diversion or a cheeky pastiche of a genre. But because it is a fantastic representation of a genre that marches to the beat of it’s own drum.
This was why I came back to Nintendo after so long. That is Splatoon in a nutshell. Not, as I thought, to find an alternative. But to find games that wear fun as a badge of pride and back it up with quality.