Nintendo takes the plunge into the online shooter arena- do they sink like a kid, or swim like a squid?
You may have noticed the lateness of this review. Splatoon originally came out on May 29 this year, and our initial plan was to have a review up within the week- but shortly after its launch, Nintendo added an update that significantly changed the game, and changed it significantly. A few of those updates later, it became clear that Splatoon was very much a work still in progress- a game that was getting legitimately important content and feature rich updates on a stupefyingly quick basis, so that it was almost hard to keep up with all the changes.
And so, we waited. We decided to wait until the major August update had dropped, and we decided to give the game a good go after that update- after this update, Nintendo had promised, any content updates would be additional icing on the cake, but the cake itself would be all baked and ready to go. No more dramatic shifts, no more changes to the recipe.
So here we are- three months after Splatoon first released, we have a review for what might just be the most important game Nintendo has released since Wii Sports in 2006. Is it any good? Let’s find out.
"It’s a third person shooter, but because it’s a third person shooter by Nintendo, it’s a typically whimsical and unconventional take on the genre."
Honestly, at this point, you probably know the deal with Splatoon. It’s a third person shooter, but because it’s a third person shooter by Nintendo, it’s a typically whimsical and unconventional take on the genre. Splatoon is the rare (possibly only) shooter that does not emphasize violence or killing- instead, the entire game is about territory control, or some variation of the concept. Essentially, think of it as King of the Hill played with paintball guns, and you get the idea.
You shoot, yes, but you shoot color, and you don’t shoot it at people, you shoot it at the map. You shoot it on the floor, on the walls, you shoot it everywhere. The more you color of the map, the more of it you control, and the team controlling more of the map at the end of the game wins.
Coloring and controlling the map has other advantages and benefits, too. You see, for starters, stepping into a pool of ink that is the enemy team’s color is lethal to you. It causes a loss of health, and can directly lead to your death. So it’s in your best interest to paint everything in your team’s colors, literally.
But the biggest reason to paint the map in your colors is possibly tied to Splatoon’s most important, most whimsical innovation, a gameplay mechanic that completely differentiates it from any other shooter on the market, and makes it a joy to play. You see, in Splatoon, you play as these teenager kids, who can… turn into squids spontaneously.
… look, don’t look at me all weird, I didn’t come up with it.
"Splatoon makes the simple act of navigation a joy. Nintendo are, after all, the masters of the platforming genre, and platforming is all about movement. That experience carries over to Splatoon."
The point is, when you are a squid, you can move around the map at more than twice your speed in human form, you can stay completely hidden and out of sight, you can go through grates and up walls, and you can jump to a teammate’s rescue. The only kicker? You are limited by the color on the map. You can only do any of this stuff as long as the relevant part of the map is colored in your team’s colors. Try speeding as a squid through enemy controlled territory, and you’ll lose health, at an alarmingly faster rate than usual too.
This means that Splatoon makes the simple act of navigation a joy. Nintendo are, after all, the masters of the platforming genre, and platforming is all about movement. That experience carries over to Splatoon, and it shines- just something as simple as moving through the map is an absolute joy, and the squid to kid transformation is effortless, and something that becomes second nature, intrinsically tied into how you play the game.
Splatoon is also the rare game that has actually managed to use the Wii U’s controversial Gamepad controller properly. I can’t say it makes a compelling case for it (the game could have been done without the Gamepad, but Splatoon’s usage of it is exemplary nonetheless), but it embraces it and makes it a part of the experience nonetheless. Ostensibly, Splatoon just displays the map that you are playing on on the Gamepad screen. It’s something a lot of other games have done, but no other game is Splatoon- the map is of an incredible example in Splatoon, you see. The touch screen map is updated in real time, so you always know just how much of the map your team is controlling, just where there are chokepoints that you may need to go take care of, where there may be a lone enemy sniper or player that you can go take care of, and where a teammate may be in danger, or in an ambush. The Gamepad also lets you teleport to any point on the map where your team member is, simply by touching that point.
All of these mechanics come together beautifully- moving is a joy, the squid to kid to squid transformation is a legitimate game changer, and there is something starkly visceral and primal, albeit in a completely non violent way, that elicits huge satisfaction from seeing the thick, gooey ink of your team’s colors getting sprayed all over the map.
Winning in Splatoon gets you experience, which you garner to level up. The higher the level, the more weapons and accessories you can get. Better weapons mean better sub weapons (these can be ink bombs or motion sensors to point out enemy locations on the map) and better perks (these can be an indestructible squid transformation that you get temporarily, or a horn that launches a massive tornado of your team colors across the map). Better accessories give you better bonuses, from higher movement speed, a higher rate of reloading, faster respawn times, and quicker access to your perks. It becomes a self perpetuating grind, playing the game to get better gear to play the game better to get better gear… but the moment to moment gameplay of Splatoon is simply so much fun, it doesn’t even matter.
"Of course, it still is a Nintendo game, so there are a fair few quirks and baffling design oversights here too."
In a game that is as online focused as Splatoon, it would suck if Nintendo’s traditional incompetence with online gameplay came into play. Happily, that is largely not the case here. Splatoon plays extremely well online, with absolutely no lag. The game has a healthy selection of modes, spread across ranked and unranked, and in a pleasant surprise for a Nintendo game, there is more to do online than offline. Both, the unranked modes and ranked modes are a joy to play, and ranked modes provide for some legitimate challenge and demand strategy and tactical planning.
Of course, it still is a Nintendo game, so there are a fair few quirks and baffling design oversights here too. The biggest, and most publicized, one is the omission of voice chat. Nintendo claims that Splatoon’s lack of voice chat works in the game’s favor, and is compensated for by the Gamepad map overview; it also claims that this makes the game a far more child friendly environment. Personally, while I may be inclined to agree, I also think that the game should have at least provided for an option for voice chat, even if it defaulted to off. When the game is as teamwork oriented as Splatoon is, not being able to communicate with your teammates takes some wind out of its sails.
There are other questionable design choices, too. Splatoon does not let you pick maps or even a playlist- it cycles through two maps every two hours, and if you are playing the game, you have to play on the two maps that are currently on offer, or you’re out of luck for two hours. It is even more annoying in Ranked Mode, as the game not only cycles through maps there, but also through modes- since there are three ranked modes (Tower Control, Splat Zone, Rainmaker), you not only have to hope for the correct mode to be on offer when you feel like playing, but also the correct map.
"Splatoon is the best game on the Wii U, and the future of Nintendo- and what a glorious future it is."
Happily, a lot of this is not as bad in practice as it sounds- while these are definite problems with the way the game is structured, ones that are hopefully addressed in future updates, or in the inevitable sequel, the moment to moment gameplay in Splatoon is fun enough that you can derive fun no matter what map or mode is on offer. Every single Splatoon map is meticulously crafted, and all Ranked modes ultimately require the same kinds of strategy, albeit implemented in differing degrees, so while your specific favorite map may not be on offer at any given time, you can still have a whole lot of fun playing Splatoon.
There are other minor quibbles, too- the game lacks a proper local multiplayer mode (which is really shocking for a Nintendo multiplayer game), and its single player campaign, while excellent, is very short. The game locks you into your loadout once you select it, unless you exit the lobby entirely, change your loadout, and then find a match again. There is also some questionable Amiibo locking in play here, but at least the content there is not substantive enough to really matter.
The issues are all there, they all exist, but they stop mattering once you play Splatoon. It may be hard to understand exactly why the game is as enamoring as it is, but once you play it, you can lose yourself in it for hours. The repetition of the maps, or the needless locking or gating of content stops mattering- simply turning into a squid and moving through the map and shooting ink at everything is too darned fun for you to care.
It helps that Splatoon reeks of style, and is a joy to look at and listen to. It’s no technical marvel, but a very strong and bright artstyle gives it a distinct feel, like that of a Saturday morning cartoon, or a late 90s Sega game, such as Jet Set Radio. The music is similarly great, with an eccentric and bizarre mix of techno and… squid pop?… that just wriggles its way into your mind and stays there, keeping your mind on Splatoon at all times.
Splatoon also benefits from one of the best content policies I have seen in a game for a very long time- it is truly an exemplary instance of a game as a service, and one without being abusive. Regular and frequent updates, which add new weapons, new equipment, new maps, and even new modes, come at a dizzying pace, and just when you start to get bored, there’s more new content just around the corner. A lot of it at the beginning was content that the game needed (Splatoon launched in a dismal, barebones state, with just five maps on rotation and one multiplayer mode), but that has long since ceased to be a problem- Splatoon has enough content now, but clearly it’s not enough, because you’re going to keep getting more. As far as value for money propositions in gaming go, there is not a whole lot out there that beats Splatoon.
It’s amazing to play a Nintendo game that is so focused on online, in the third person shooter genre, that largely gets everything right. Stellar map design, great mechanics, joyous moment to moment gameplay, a whole host of modes and content, lagless online play, beautiful to look at, catchy to listen to, incredibly intuitive controls, and a great content policy, Splatoon is the best game on the Wii U, and the future of Nintendo- and what a glorious future it is.
This game was reviewed on Wii U.
Stellar map design, excellent implementation of the Wii U Gamepad, great mechanics, joyous moment to moment gameplay, a whole host of modes and content, lagless online play, beautiful to look at, catchy to listen to, incredibly intuitive controls, and a great content policy
Quirks and eccentricities abound- lack of voice chat, bizarre map and mode rotation policy, lack of quick loadout changing, lack of true local multiplayer
Splatoon is the best game on the Wii U.