Even though it doesn’t star Mario or Link or Samus Aran, Splatoon is the quintessential Nintendo game. Starring a race of shapeshifting human/squid creatures known as Inklings, the game’s bright colors and relentlessly cheery attitude place it firmly within Nintendo’s wheelhouse. But Splatoon is also unlike your typical Nintendo game in that it’s a shooter, albeit one that uses squid ink instead of bullets and is more concerned with area control than racking up killstreaks.
It’s also the best shooter I’ve played in a very long time.
Platforms: Wii U
Genre: Team-Based Shooter… With Ink and Squids
Release Date: May 29, 2015
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players are dropped into the world of Splatoon via Inkopolis Plaza, a bustling part of the city where all the cool squids hang out. The massive Inkopolis Tower stands in the distance, and it’s here where players can enter the arena to take part in a Turf War or control the Splat Zones in a Ranked Battle. Both modes feature a rotating series of maps that are introduced every few hours by the Squid Sisters, a pair of hip television personalities. They’re ridiculous, but also ridiculously entertaining. Splatoon’s hub is bursting with personality and isn’t just a way station to ferry people into matches.
Splatoon’s online multiplayer modes are the meat of the game, and once you decide to trek into the arena, Turf War will be your first destination. Turf War matches are 4v4 and teams are given three minutes to take control of the map and cover the majority of the floor with their ink color. An overhead view of the map on the Wii U GamePad allows players to see how the match is going at all times, and tapping a teammate’s name will allow your Inkling to jump right to that spot. Mastering Splatoon’s methods of transportation are vital to winning, as players are also able to transform into a squid to swim along the ground (if it’s been inked), which refills their ink reserves. The squid form even adds an element of stealth to the matches as your opponents can’t see you if you’re hiding in ink.
This is all well and good, but how’s a squid supposed to ink the ground? Many of Splatoon’s weapons resemble squirt guns, but they can be sorted into three main categories. “Shooter” weapons are machine gun and shotgun-like implements that push out ink in a rapid-fire manner or in a more concentrated blast, while “Charger” weapons operate very similarly to sniper rifles. But it’s the third type, “Roller” weapons, that help transform Splatoon into a unique beast. Rollers can quickly cover an area with ink, but they’re terrible in a head-to-head fight (Rollers are basically melee weapons). Players who use Rollers will lose when confronted by an opponent in a stand-up fight, making the stealth powers of squid transformation very important. When you add in special items such as ink bombs or ink tornadoes, you might think the game devolves into utter chaos. But like a Pollack painting, there is order in the ink, and strategic tactics becomes necessary.
While “splatting” your enemies is a viable strategy, the ultimate goal of Turf War makes that a secondary concern. But there’s nothing stopping a player from going in guns blazing, and there’s nothing stopping a second player from going off alone to ink the map in solitude. With an assist from Nintendo’s unparalleled art department, Splatoon’s ability to accommodate multiple play styles is what makes it special. From there, the short duration of Turf War matches lends the game an addictive quality that makes the hours just tick away. Nintendo has somehow built a game that is cute and cuddly, masking the deep strategy required to win behind a (literal) wall of bright colors and bouncy music.
After going a few rounds in the arena, players will venture back into Inkopolis Plaza to investigate new weapons and gear at Booyah Base, a local row of shops. It’s here that you’ll learn about “freshness,” Splatoon’s version of cool. Players with higher levels are considered more “fresh” and can purchase better weapons and gear (which offers bonuses like more speed, faster access to special weapons, and the like). Splatoon is so endearingly dorky that it’s constant obsession with coolness almost comes across as satire. It’s as if Nintendo is winking at its devoted audience, telling them Splatoon is not the kind of shooter the cool kids would normally care about. In lesser hands, it could be irritating, but Nintendo somehow made the catchphrase-spouting crustaceans that run the shops into an essential part of the game.
If Turf War was Splatoon’s only mode, I think I’d still love it. But Inkopolis Plaza holds more secrets, including an awesome 8-bit minigame known as Squid Jump (which is also playable while waiting for an online match to start), and the gateway to Octo Valley, a sprawling single-player campaign that a lot of players ignore entirely. However, that would be a mistake, as Octo Valley features more than 30 stages of puzzle platforming based around Splatoon’s inky weaponry. Turf War is, without a doubt, the game’s main mode, but Octo Valley is perfect when looking for a little more adventure in the world of Splatoon. And Splat Zones mode (an online battle very similar to king of the hill) has its charms, but you must be at Level 10 to access it.
Since its release, Nintendo has added a handful of new maps and half a dozen new weapons to Splatoon, with a major game update, scheduled for sometime in August, that will add new game modes and custom Turf War battles. All of these updates are or will be free and, in a way, Splatoon could be considered Nintendo’s first foray into the world of “Early Access.” Splatoon wasn’t exactly brimming with content on day one, but it has always been fun, and these additions continue to make a good game that much better.
However, one thing Nintendo has no plans to add is voice chat. Splatoon launched without a way for players to verbally communicate with each other, and this can feel limiting at times, but it also adds to the strategic element in its own way. Players are forced to use the tools at their disposal (including the overhead map and special items like the Echolocator) to coordinate a team-based attack, further giving Splatoon its own place in the pantheon of popular shooters. And once the August update is available, I can see the eSports community grabbing on to Splatoon with both hands.
After sitting down to play a few rounds of Splatoon, my opinion of Nintendo’s first shooter quickly changed from “an interesting curiosity” to “potential game of the year.” Nintendo’s most ardent fans will be wowed by the art style and Nintendo’s “fresh” take on the genre, while shooter fans will be pulled in by the deep tactics and unique battlegrounds. It might be unbelievable, but a game featuring humanoid children, who can also morph into squids and fling ink around, is the perfect game for everyone.
Review Disclosure: A retail copy of Splatoon was purchased by Warp Zoned for the purposes of this review.