There’s a common perception that the future of Nintendo relies on Splatoon being as successful as their other, more popular IPs. It’s their first attempt in a while at a game without the safety net of their usual cast of characters, after all, and therefore represents a significant moment in the company’s history. Can they replicate that Nintendo feeling without Mario’s distinctive red and blue outfit, and can they hit the nail on the head when it comes to online play?
When you finally play Splatoon, about two minutes into your first online match, all of those thoughts will be forgotten. Like many of Nintendo’s other great franchises, Splatoon seems to exist in a world where worries simply don’t, and where fun – and vibrant colours – are the name of the game. Splatoon is the antidote to all things harsh in the world, in a lovely package which simultaneously feels as fresh and as homely as something can possibly be.
Splatoon’s hub world of Inkopolis Plaza is where you’ll find yourself every time you start up the game. This space is filled with other Inklings, sharing messages and drawings over Miiverse – which will even show up as graffiti on the surrounding walls – and it’s from here that you’ll access the multiplayer and single player portions of the game, as well as shops to purchase new weapons and gear. It’s a cityspace which sets the tone for the rest of the game – futuristic, hip, and with plenty of (modern) Japanese influence. It doesn’t introduce you to the main focus of the game – ink – as it’s an entirely clean and splat-free zone.
The five battlefields are a completely different affair, however, and after a three minute Turf War match they’ll be almost entirely covered in coloured ink. That’s the game, you see; while shooting other players does play a part in it, your main goal is to cover as much of the map as you can in your team’s coloured ink, using a variety of weapons, grenades, and gadgets. All of this is quite impressively rendered in real-time to every player.
It’s not your usual online shooter, then, and it’s certainly more child-friendly than most of these types of games, but it’s also just a hell of a lot of fun, no matter your age, and can become a really tactical affair when you get down to it. If your (strictly) four player team is using all the same weapons, or aren’t splitting up enough to cover more grounds, you’ll soon be overwhelmed and see your coloured ink consumed by the enemy team’s shade.
Rounds are short, but about as engaging as you can get in a multiplayer shooter, given that you’re not only firing when you see an enemy, but pretty much all the time, as you try to cover more turf. The three minute limit for Turf War matches may seem short, but it also feels like a perfect length, with the last minute being particularly intense – the music ramps up noticeably in a trick that Nintendo have previously employed with Mario Kart.
Splatoon isn’t only about covering the turf with ink, but using that ink to your advantage – the press of a button will transform your Inkling from a humanoid to a squid form that can dive into and travel much faster through your own coloured ink (even up walls or through grates), all the while recharging your weapon’s power. You’ll only be stopped by either uncovered ground or enemy ink. If you do find yourself in front of an enemy, then covering them in enough of your ink will make them burst your colour with a satisfying pop, covering even more of the ground for your team.
The maps are all perfectly symmetrical as to not give one team a turf advantage, but feature ramps and half-pipes to aid your squid-form traversal, with one of these actually taking the form of a skatepark. An oil rig, a mall, a warehouse, and an underpass make up the other maps at launch, all of which feel extremely well designed but often become a fight for the middle-ground – unless you’re smart enough to flank and take the enemy team’s turf for your own. When one of you gets past, that becomes a lot easier due to you being able to tap any of your team mates on the GamePad to squid-jump to their location.
The five maps circulate in a rotation, which does make them feel less stale, with two in regular battle and two in ranked at any time, switching every four hours. Unfortunately, every time these change or any time you start up the game, you’ll have to sit through an annoying “news flash” which lasts far longer than it should, and is repeated elsewhere.
Unlocked once you reach level 10, ranked battles feature a different mode – Splat Zones – which is based around keeping certain points of the map under your team’s control. Naturally this is done by covering the zone with ink and so it’s not entirely unlike Turf War, but there’s no chance of flanking here, and being focused on a specific area of the map causes even more mayhem. Matches here are generally longer, as your timer goes down while the enemies goes up as you’re holding the zone and vice versa, with the five minutes on the clock often extended with bonus time. It’s a more objective-based affair, and all the better for it.
Waiting for players is never much of an issue, and matches start up pretty much instantly when there’s eight of you, but you can’t back out of the lobbies once you’re in them, which seems a bit of an oddity. Thankfully, there’s a brilliant little retro-styled Doodle Jump-esque minigame that you’ll be able to play on the GamePad in between bouts of inky warfare, which makes any lobbied waiting much less of an annoyance.
Since the ink colours is randomly chosen each time, and colour schemes automatically adjust, character customisation options are based around the actual look of your character, and you’ll be able to choose from tons of different clothing options which also provide passive bonuses in-game. You’ll have to unlock extra bonuses by using these, which adds to the progression of the game.
Otherwise, you’ll be trying to up your level – which is advanced with your ink coverage in each match acting as XP – or, in ranked matches, keep your rank up by consistently winning. New levels unlock new weapons, such as paint rollers, high-pressure snipers, launchers, and more, but these weapons actually form different loadouts, having their own specials – such as Inkzookas, air strikes, or shields – and subs – such as grenades, mines, and portable cover.
You’ll want a good mix of these on your team, as I mentioned earlier, with rollers to get in close and cover more ground, standard splattershots to speedily dispatch of enemies and cover turf mid-range, and longer ranged snipers to keep the enemy forces at bay. It’s a great set-up, but only being able to change loadouts in the lobby and not during play – particularly when you can’t just back out of a lobby – is a bit of an oversight, to say the least.
Five maps and two modes might seem like somewhat of a lack in terms of online content, but the progression is balanced enough to keep you coming back, and the modes themselves offer plenty of replayability for the time being. Thankfully, Nintendo plan to support Splatoon with a raft of free maps, weapons, and modes, having already laid out promising plans for the next two months. Their plans seem to be bringing new content when you will feel like you need it rather than oversaturating the game at launch.
As an online game though, it’s still full of little oddities that show Nintendo isn’t quite getting it just yet. There’s the aforementioned news flashes, lack of switching equipment, and difficulty in exiting lobbies, but the greatest sin is the lack of voice chat anywhere in the game – the two “Nice!” and “To me” options on the D-pad could never replace that. Whether you want to be tactical, or just want to converse, this will be sorely missed. It feels like a mismeasured child safety option, but it’s really disappointing, particularly since the Wii U doesn’t have a system-wide alternative. Hopefully the upcoming party system will make some effort to fix this issue.
There’s also a local multiplayer option – this is a Nintendo game, after all – which pits one player on the GamePad against another using a classic or pro controller on the TV, as you battle it out to destroy balloons which appear across the map. It’s hardly the meatiest mode, but worth a look into for those with an affinity towards same console gameplay. It’s quite odd that this doesn’t appear as a further online option, though.
Beyond those multiplayer modes lies a rather fun and intriguing single player portion, which may seem like a bit of an oddity at first, but will soon have you hooked. It’s in this part of the game that Nintendo are most confident and at home, with dozens of challenges awaiting, each with a distinct mechanic which helps keep the gameplay fresh.
You’ll be tasked with finding the entrances to each area in an open, platform-filled setting, and then once every mission in the area has been cleared, you’ll be able to move onto the boss. There are platforming orientated missions, but there are also ones which will focus on combat, or speedily getting to the other side of the map, and these all take place on some brilliantly zany environments, comprised of platforms floating in mid-air, as you use your squid jump to fly from section to section.
There’s just loads of variety here, with plenty of unique mechanics that don’t play a part in the multiplayer, and an enemy force which supports the surprisingly brilliant backstory of the world. It’s a real treat, and while the Nintendo influence is most clear, it also feels reminiscent of Ratchet & Clank at times, with the platformer/shooter gameplay. Even if it’s over quicker than you’d like, there’s plenty to go back and collect, and plenty of reasons to want to get the collectibles.
It’s the boss battles that really makes this mode, though, with some wonderful moments of game design that really uses your splattershot as much more than just a means of dispatching enemies. While multiplayer may be the main attraction of Splatoon, the single player should by no means be forgotten about.
The sound mix, while fine in multiplayer, often feels a bit off in the solo portion, with quiet enemies and loud music removing a good portion of the atmosphere. Thankfully, the soundtrack in Splatoon is brilliantly crafted, featuring an eclectic mix of genres – often within a single track – while remaining quite electronic-focused. It’s all tied together really well with different tunes popping up in each match, and though they’re not tied to multiplayer maps as Mario Kart’s melodies are to its circuits, they work in each situation just as well.
Visually, Splatoon is extremely satisfying. Not only in that it runs at a smooth 60 frames per second without dropping a beat, but that covering the environment in different, vibrant colours of ink is simply delightful to see in action. It may be a little rough around the edges – particularly in the Inkopolis hub world – but it’s a beautifully colourful game, and it’s the art direction that really stands out here.
In almost all respects, Splatoon is a satisfying game. It’s an online game which is incredibly fun to play, and one which runs really smoothly despite tracking a lot of endlessly changing information. It’s backed up by a really enjoyable single player portion, and from here you can see how people can pour countless hours into this game. It’s all about covering the environment in coloured ink, and yet it’s also so much more than that. It shows, if anything, that even a departure from their main cast can’t stop the streak Nintendo are on right now when it comes to high-quality games.