Put on your war paint
It’s not all that often that Nintendo decides to commit to trying something completely new. The big N is a bit of a stickler for tradition. They know what they’re good at, and they stick to it. Sure, series can have new landmark entries despite their deep history; one might even say we’re in a high point for such things, between games like Super Mario 3D World and Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. But no matter how many times they reinvent a series, the call always comes for them to make something new.
The thing about Nintendo is that, above all and no matter what, they really do listen. Now more than ever, they keep one ear tuned to the voices of their devote fans at all times, and they take certain strides accordingly. So here comes Splatoon, emerging from the ink as a great example of what the teams at Nintendo can do when they bend to the will of their consumers and make something new. For a first voyage, Splatoon‘s colors are stylish, bright, and hopeful.
Splatoon puts its players in the cool, flashy sneakers of Inklings, squid-children with the power to change between kid and squid forms. In the city of Inkopolis, ink-based turf war firefights are all the rage, to the point where they’ve become a competitive sport. Inklings clash in four-on-four matches, where painting as much terrain as possible is the ultimate goal. Incapacitation is still a factor, though, as players can kill (excuse me, “splat”) enemies with their weapons as well. Essentially, Nintendo finally took a shot at making a shooter, but took it in a whole new direction; Splatoon is like a game of extreme paintball.
Splatoon has an innovative and unique concept, but in some ways it plays things kind of simple. As of this review, only two multiplayer modes are available, with more planned for release at some nonspecific point later this summer. The regular turf war mode gives both teams of colorful Inklings full reign on one of the game’s six maps, in a race to see who can make their team’s color cover most of the terrain in a three-minute span. The other mode is ranked play, where players fight for a rise in the ranks by fighting for control of “splat zones,” smaller, concentrated control areas inside the larger maps. This Team Fortress 2-reminiscent mode is a bit more intense, as the smaller area of desired real estate turns into an utter hot bed of colors and furious tentacle-children.
To put it simply, Splatoon is a fishing boat full of fun. Covering territory with ink and engaging with colorful prepubescent foes is a fast-paced and engaging process, but the real icing on this calamari-flavored cake is the ability to turn into a squid at will. Using this power, players can swim quickly through any surface plastered in their color of ink, be it floor or wall. This allows for fast traversal, and again, more use of each arena to the player’s advantage. See ink coming down from above? Someone must have found a way up a wall, and into a nice little perch from which to screw up everyone else’s day.
Playing online requires use of the Gamepad, making full use of the screen as a map. Players can jump at will across the map, to any point where a teammate is inking it up. The map is also useful because of the clear contrast of ink colors displayed in real-time, always showing players what areas need their attention most urgently. The control scheme defaults to semi-motion control mode, where the Gamepad controls the camera’s vertical axis while the right control stick controls the horizontal. This (understandably) might sound like a shoehorned use of motion controls at first glance, but the system actually becomes very intuitive after a while. Depending on the way one plays, it might be of benefit to at least try getting used to the default for a while before switching to stick-only.
Splatoon‘s map selection right now is small – five at launch, with a sixth unveiled alongside ranked mode a few days later – but holds a lot of complexity within what it has. Each map is large, and each plays a little bit differently. Splatoon is a game where each weapon has an essential relationship with the environment, and some maps will favor certain weapons better than others. For example, the roller weapon class is a giant paint roller that a player will roll out in front of them, streaking the map with thick paths of ink. Some stages, like Saltspray Rig, have a lot of bridges and pathways designed to favor such a class. Blackbelly Skatepark, on the other hand, features curves and hills in its design that make the roller, a class reliant on flat land, a bit less of an asset. Subweapons range from garden sprinklers and stationary walls of ink to grenades, and can also become useless or essential depending on the stage. No map will screw a class over, but it will change the way the player thinks about their role in the team.
Each map has enough going on in it that none of them get boring, despite their low head count. Simplifying matters further is the fact that each mode will feature only two maps at any given time. Every four hours, pop idol squid sisters Callie and Marie will announce two maps for the normal and ranked turf wars, allowing the player to begin tracking their win/loss streak over that span of time. Players can accumulate a score ranging from 0 to 9.5, which carries over between both modes. Tracking ones progress in one map span can be a compelling reason to keep playing for longer.
Splatoon‘s level system is the meter by which new weapons and articles of clothing are unlocked. Players gain experience in all normal turf war battles, and only their victories in ranked. Money is won in all matches, and can be spent in Splatoon‘s hub of Inkopolis Plaza. A weapon vendor sells new weapon combinations, starting with all-new items and eventually expanding to already-familiar main weapons with different sub and special features. The one disappointment here is the lack of any option to build a custom loadout, but the breadth of selections available is hearty enough to keep that from being a huge issue. Clothing shops will sell you new shoes, outfits, and headgear, all of which are both incredibly stylish and quite practical in battle. Each clothing item will come equipped with a special ability, such as quicker ink refills or swift speed while swimming around in ink. These items level up as well, and will unlock more randomly-assigned powerups as they do. The higher level the item can be accessed at, the more abilities it can unlock. It also helps that the selection is stylish as can be.
Inkopolis has more to offer than just shops. In addition to being a hub for all of the game’s local and online modes, the plaza is also unique in its use of the Wii U’s Miiverse service. Other combatants from a player’s region will show up in the plaza, along with whatever they’ve commented or drawn in Miiverse as of late. It’s actually been quite entertaining to watch the pseudo-conversations that can result, even when nobody is directly talking to each other. Every player met here will be wearing the current outfit they’re playing with online, and even give the player the option of ordering an article of clothing they like. Unfortunately, the abilities such items come with will be completely random, so the feature doesn’t really do much to help from a tactical standpoint.
Whenever squid soldiers get tired of the tye-dye firefight online, they can take a break with Splatoon‘s single-player mode. This campaign mode presents players with the task of fighting against the forces of the Octarians, an evil invading force bent on destroying all of squidkind. The selection of levels only last about four hours, but are a ton of fun and very creative, culminating in a truly excellent final boss fight. Each level has its own twist to learn and overcome, and the breadth of mechanics that result include a few that could actually have seen some splat-tastic use in Splatoon‘s multiplayer maps. Each boss defeated at the end of a series of single-player maps will unlock a plan for a new weapon usable in multiplayer, which can be unlocked as soon as the player is leveled high enough. The Splatoon Amiibo figures also interact with single-player maps, offering unlockable outfits for the Inklings to those who can conquer single-player levels with unconventional weapon choices.
Those hoping to engage in full-on turf war in local multilayer are in for something of a disappointment, but aren’t left in the dust (or the swamp, in this case). The only local multiplayer Splatoon has to offer is the 1-on-1 Battle Dojo, which pits players against each other in a battle to pop shifting balloon targets Mario Kart-style. Its understandable that full 8-player turf wars couldn’t be facilitated locally, but some kind of more equal substitute would have been nice, especially for players whose internet connection might not be stable enough to allow for smooth online ink-soaking.
The most standout thing about Splatoon, other than its seemingly unstoppable fun factor and clever mechanics, is its impressive charm. For a first entry in what will hopefully become a new franchise, Splatoon has an impressively enticing world that players will want to visit again and again. Adorable character designs, bright and colorful art, and arguably one of the best soundtracks of 2015 so far make up a game more soaked in style than its suburban battlefields are with blue and orange ink.
Splatoon has room to grow, but Nintendo shows every indication that it will. Its core mechanics are clever and fun, with a variety of weapons that actually suit a smaller map count just fine. The selection of arenas is still quite small, but each is large enough that they don’t seem to get old quickly; even if they begin to, Nintendo has made it clear that more will be released over the summer, along with more weapons and game modes. Be it in normal or ranked mode, players will keep coming back to get ink all over their clothes over and over again. The lack of options for local multiplayer are disappointing, and the weapon selection is certainly in need of an option for custom loadouts. Despite its fairly light content load, though, Splatoon is a bright jetstream of fast-paced action, full of some of the most charm and energy Nintendo has pumped into a game this year.I rate it 4 squids who are aldo kids out of 5.
Final verdict: 4/5
Available on: Wii U (Reviewed); Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: Nintendo; Players: 1-8; Released: May 28, 2015 ; ESRB: E for Everyone; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: this review was written based on a full retail copy of the game, including updates made up to June 4th, 2015.