Splatoon is an online multiplayer shooter from Nintendo. Go ahead, roll that idea around in your brain for a moment. It doesn't sound right, does it? Nintendo, purveyor of largely family friendly games, working in a genre mostly known for its ultraviolence and frequently vitriolic online communities? How does that even work?
It works because Splatoon isn't a shooter in the most explicit sense of the word. Yes, your character carries one of several weapons, and you will use that weapon to blast opponents from time to time. More often, however, you will use that weapon to splatter brightly colored ink over the environments you occupy. The guns of Splatoon are less objects of violent death than instruments of competitive coloring. Leave it to Nintendo to make a shooter that isn't actually about shooting people.
Instead, it's about turf wars. Every regular online battle in Splatoon is a race to see whose team of half-squid/half-teen characters can get their assigned ink color on the ground in the greatest volume. Teams are broken up into groups of four, and matches last just a few minutes. The pace of the game is frenetic, with ink flying every which way via splatter guns, giant ink rollers, ink grenades, ink showers, and a variety of other devices your character can acquire over time.
Weapon selection is key, as each weapon type functions fairly differently. The splatter guns are good all-purpose ink drenchers and opponent blasters, while single-shot charge guns are much better at picking off enemies, and the aforementioned rollers are ideal for covering wide swaths of territory in short order. Even though everyone should always be putting as much ink on the ground as they can, you still want to have teammates working to keep opposing players respawning back at their team's entry point if you want to dominate a map.
Intriguingly, there's no way to guarantee a diverse group of weapon wielders when playing--teams are randomly assigned between each match using the eight players in the game lobby. While that might sound like a potential disaster, it rarely plays out that way. I've gone up against all charge weapon teams and gotten completely obliterated purely because all the opposing team's players knew what they were doing. While a diversity of weapons is generally welcomed, the game is balanced in such a way that anyone can be effective with just about any available loadout with a little practice.
In this regard, Splatoon definitely feels like a Nintendo brand of multiplayer game. The randomized teams and mostly even weapon balancing means that even new players should be able to contribute in a match against more seasoned foes. All of your leveling and currency accrual is tied to your performance in each multiplayer match. The amount of ink you have on the ground is tallied and feeds your XP and coinage. Leveling is a bit slow early on as you're learning the best ways to ink up as much turf as you can, but for my part, I got the hang of it after just a handful of matches. I'm someone that often quickly abandons online multiplayer shooters due to a profound lack of the reflexes necessary to do well against seasoned competition. I haven't had that issue at all with Splatoon, even against the most skilled opponents. Even in matches where I've spent most of the time getting bodied by an opposing team, I always felt like there was a chance we could come back and take the win, right up through the final seconds. It didn't always happen, but the ones where it did were some of the most satisfying multiplayer matches I've played in ages.
Splatoon just has a terrific flow to it. As you hop, shoot, and squid your way around the game's handful of maps, everything feels urgent without being overly rushed. It's a lot of little things that contribute to this, though one of the biggest is your characters' squid form. Transforming into a squid makes it possible for you to move at a much higher speed through your own team's ink color, while also allowing you to move stealthily if opponents are nearby. The transition is done with a single button press, so it's incredibly easy to switch between forms, stealthily swimming through your ink until it's time to pop up and smoke someone. It also helps that environments aren't terribly large. After a few plays of each, it becomes apparent where all the nooks and crannies are, and what the best attack strategy will be.
Communicating that strategy may prove a little challenging, as Splatoon doesn't support voice chat of any kind. For the online shooter enthusiast, this probably sounds like a huge problem. Personally, I did not find it to be a problem whatsoever. Between the small-ish maps, and the game's mantra of "always be inking," there isn't a great deal teams need to communicate between one another. If you see a player inking in one direction, maybe you should head in another. If you see on the map that an area is being drenched by the opposition and only one of your teammates is there, maybe go help them. While you probably could spend ample time trying to decide which teammate will camp on a particular sniping point or whatever, that frankly feels like overthinking what Splatoon is going for.
That said, there are areas where Splatoon's stripped-down nature feels less like a welcome divergence than an incomplete experience. The version of Splatoon available at launch only comes with five maps, which are rotated in pairs at regular intervals. Right now, your ability to change gear and weapon loadouts is restricted to pre-match menus--once you get into a lobby, you can't back out to change anything--and there's no way for you to play with friends unless you join a lobby they already happen to be playing in. You can't create private or customized matches either. The only options for multiplayer are regular turf war matches against random players, and ranked matches, which add some variants beyond "splat everything" rulesets for players ranked 10 and above.
Incidentally, that ranked mode wasn't available right at launch, but is coming tonight, according to Nintendo. It seems as though Nintendo plans to address Splatoon's thinness though a series of free post-launch updates like these. Many of the biggest changes are set to be part of a title update in August, but others may come in smaller updates between now and then. In fact, as of this review's posting, Nintendo has already added a new gun and a new map via its first update. If Nintendo manages to keep these updates frequent enough, Splatoon should have no issue staying fresh over the long haul.
The single-player component of Splatoon doesn't do a lot to flesh out the experience. It's actually an enjoyable and rewarding mode, but like everything else in Splatoon, it's a bit lean. Designed as a series of splatter gun-focused challenges, the single player campaign offers a number of brief, but cleverly designed levels and boss battles to tackle. They all take advantage of the game's various ink mechanics--levels focused on squidding your way up walls, or drenching invisible platforms to find your path, and the like. It occasionally repeats ideas--especially the fakey multiplayer levels, where you fight ineffective bots on versions of the multiplayer maps--but most of the main levels and boss battles are quite fun. The whole thing runs maybe four or five hours, and other than a brief difficulty spike near the end, none of it is particularly tough. But it is a fun divergence from the core multiplayer mode that has the added benefit of providing more gear to unlock.
I suspect that gear, and the character customization in general, will be a big draw for a lot of people. In addition to new and better guns, players can add new headgear, clothing, and shoes, each of which come with their own set of gameplay perks. One hat might give you a simple defensive boost, while another might offer the ability to jump stealthily in squid mode. These perks do limit the appeal of the whole customization system, since some of the more visually appealing items might not be a good fit for the weapon loadout you're currently rolling with. That said, it seems like there's a wide variety of stuff to pick up, and again, Nintendo seems bent on adding more as time goes on.
Hopefully Nintendo makes good on all those promises, because even in its base state, Splatoon is a game that shows tremendous potential. Five maps and one multiplayer mode is exactly the kind of set-up that should turn into dull repetition after just a few hours, but Splatoon's core gameplay is strong enough to offset that feeling of familiarity. It didn't matter that I'd memorized Splatoon's first maps just a few hours in. The mixture of the game's frenzied pace, simple mechanics, and ideal gameflow combine to make every match a good time, no matter how many times you've tackled a given map.
As important, if not more so, Splatoon is a tremendously inviting game, the kind of thing just about anyone could easily pick up and play, minus the kinds of barriers that typically prevent folks from digging into many of the most competitive online shooters out there. It's been a minute since a game in this genre felt so vibrantly and positively energetic. That positivity permeates every piece of Splatoon, from its brightly colored, cartoonishly animated visuals, to even its hub world, where Miiverse posts and players' myriad fashion choices are displayed prominently.
Splatoon is simultaneously proof that Nintendo can still deliver tremendously entertaining experiences outside of its usual wheelhouse, and an example of how even the most leaden genres can be twisted to new and delightfully creative ends. If you own a Wii U, you ought to give Splatoon a shot--or, should I say, splat.