Disclaimer: This review was written based on my review gameplay hosted on separate pre-release servers. The review will be updated when the final version is released and retail servers can be tested.
Splatoon is Nintendo’s first real entry in a genre that has, for the past decade it seems, taken over the entire video game industry. With Splatoon, Nintendo is hoping to add their special Nintendo secret sauce to it — they hope it will be to the shooter what Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. were to the racing and fighting genres — a mainstream, beginner-friendly entry into a gaming scene that is typically very hardcore.
Nintendo, well known for their family friendly game library, would of course never sully the world’s children with blood and bullets. Their twist on the shooter uses colorful paint and anthropomorphized squid children/skater punks, and the object of the game isn’t to kill your opponents, but rather to paint the ground. Even though it sounds ridiculous, Splatoon is actually one of the most original and unique titles Nintendo has put out in years, and it feels like a breath of fresh air.
In fact, nothing describes Splatoon better than the word “fresh.” Whenever I think about the game, I can’t help but think how absolutely new it feels — the Nintendo who dominated the market with the Wii would never have released a game this bold and strange. Splatoon is a mark in the changed atmosphere at Nintendo, a mark of their desperation to try anything to regain their lost dominance. And it is Nintendo’s first huge attempt to appeal to the western audiences it has always put second behind its homeland of Japan.
And Splatoon isn’t only Nintendo’s first foray into a new genre, but it’s also their first game made with online gaming as a forethought. The game was first announced as online 4-on-4 arena shooter, with the local co-op and single player modes announced later. So, when we were first shown footage at E3 2014, I was blown away that Nintendo was finally going to join Microsoft and Sony in the 21st century by creating a game with an online experience that didn’t feel tacked on.
Splatoon is also the first new IP that Nintendo’s flagship development team, EAD Kyoto, has put out in 13 years. Pikmin, released in 2002, was their last new creation. Although the main characters in Splatoon are just customizable avatars, the 90’s skater-punk style and colorful charm feels both incredibly un-Nintendo, and yet familiar in all the best ways.
So yes, there is a lot that’s new and a lot to be excited about, but how does the game actually play? Does it live up to the hype and deliver on its promises as a fully-fledged, robust online shooter experience?
Well… depends on your definition of fully-fledged. The online held up great (in separate test servers just for journalists using pre-release copies) and I experienced very few problems in my over 10 hours of online play. The character design, level design, and music were charming as could be, and the frenetic gameplay kept me coming back again and again. Despite all this though, there were a few major design choices that prevented Splatoon from becoming the instant classic it was meant to be.
At its core, Splatoon is a shooter unlike any other. The main mechanic is to cover any horizontal surface with as much ink as you possibly can, shot from a gun that looks suspiciously similar to a Super Soaker. Ever single square foot of ground that you cover scores you points, while shooting at your opponents doesn’t score you a thing (Ok, that’s kind of a lie… when you shoot an opponent they explode in a burst of your color, which can cover a small patch of ground). Also, in other crazy Nintendo twist, once you lay down ink, you can press a button to turn into a squid and swim at much faster speeds. Swimming in your own colored ink also makes you invisible — you can pop out at the right moment and kill an opponent in a surprise attack. You can also spray walls and swim up them to reach precious high ground, where you can rain ink down on all your enemies. Also, if you end up walking or swimming in enemy ink, your character’s movement is slowed to a crawl and takes slight damage. All these seemingly ridiculous elements lead to a super fast-paced and chaotic territory-control based shooter that is amazingly fun.
The mode that will steal the majority of your time is called “Turf Wars.” It gives you three minutes to cover as much ground with paint as possible in a symmetrical arena. Your team of four “inklings” (the squid/kid avatars) starts in one corner, and your opponent’s team of four in the other. When the timer runs down, the team with the most color on the ground wins. It seems simple enough, and it is — but with over 20 separate weapons, and dozens of pieces of gear that can slightly adjust your stats (from baseball caps to T-shirts to your flashy Converse look-alikes), this mode has a ton of depth.
There are sniper rifles if you want to focus on picking off your opponents, or big – but heavy – paint-rollers for you to spread huge swaths of paint quickly and easily. There are automatic weapons like the Splattershot and Splattershot Junior that efficiently spread ink around, but they lack in killing power and accuracy. There are other automatics like the .96 gallon that shoots huge, inkling-destroying globs of paint at a slower rate of fire. Each weapon comes with a specific sub-weapon and special weapon. These cannot be customized or transferred to another weapon set, each sub-weapon and special weapon is tied to a main weapon. Sub weapons range from homing grenades to sprinklers, while special weapons include bubble shields, bazookas, and one where you can even turn into a Kraken.
The gear you wear can also change the tide of battle. Each individual piece (you can wear one piece of headgear, one shirt, and one pair of shoes) can have up to four stat boosts. These boosts range from decreasing spawn time after dying, to increasing running speed, to even increasing attack power. These buffs are subtle, but noticeable — and can be stacked if you have multiple pieces of gear with the same ability. The gear and abilities can definitely influence your battles, but won’t ruin matches for those players who are new and haven’t unlocked any good ones yet.
“Turf Wars” is the main mode of the game and it shows, it has been polished so much I feel like I can see my reflection in it. The way it feels to spray ink everywhere and cover the grungy skate parks and metallic, industrial levels with huge globs of neon ink can be described in no other way but pure fun.
Every single match online nets you both experience points and coins to use to purchase all the precious gear and weapons. Experience points will level you up, getting you that much closer to level 10, the arbitrary number Nintendo chose to lock their second and only other online mode behind (for now).
This mode, called “Ranked Battles” is advertised as “hardcore;” it requires more strategy and depth, so n00bs need not apply. In one of a few strange design decisions, not only must you reach level 10, but an undisclosed number of Splatoon players must also reach level 10 as well before this mode is unlocked in the retail version of the game. Ranked Battles has only one mode, but will presumably gain a few more in free patches planned throughout the summer. The one you get at launch is called “Splat Zones” and you essentially have to control (or cover in your ink) one specific portion for 100 seconds. Because of the small “Splat Zone” you end up interacting with your opponents a lot more — in Turf Wars you can easily hide and paint some corners to earn yourself some points. In Splat Zones, it is kill or be killed. I appreciate the higher focus on combat in Splat Zones, while still involving the core mechanic of painting the arena —unfortunately due to a lack of players on the pre-launch servers, I didn’t get a huge amount of time with this mode.
Both Splat Zones and Turf Wars offer a ton of depth and insanely fast-paced gameplay. It just makes you feel like a kid, all the way down to the “JUST ONE MORE GAME, MOMMMM” feeling. Each match is so quick and chaotic, yet you really feel like you’ve earned it when you win, or screwed up when you lose. The combination of chaos and strategy hits a perfect note that in many ways mirrors Nintendo’s other hits franchises like Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros.
But unlike Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros., Splatoon focuses on team battles and your victory is also influenced by three teammates. In another strange design choice, Nintendo doesn’t offer any voice chat whatsoever, not even with friends. Voice chat could really elevate the strategy to a whole new level, especially in Ranked Battles. Without it, Nintendo is cutting off a good portion of gamers who like to take their matches a little more seriously. Matchmaking is also arbitrarily strange: you can join friends in online battles, but between each match teams are randomized — so even if you want to team up with a friend, you have a 50/50 chance that they’ll be on the other team. (As a side note, true matchmaking and the ability to create permanent teams of your friends will be coming in one of many promised updates this summer).
Another barrier to strategy is the unfriendly lobby system. You pick your gear and weapon load-out before going online, and any time you want to switch it up or test out a new weapon, the game requires you to back all the way out of online matchmaking. This wouldn’t be a huge issue if Nintendo didn’t lock you in to Matchmaking once you entered. You must either wait until you enter a match and it ends (where you are given the option to return to the main menu) or for the timer to run out in the lobby (because eight players didn’t join in time). Otherwise, you can’t click the home button on the gamepad or return to Splatoon’s main menu without also turning off your Wii U.
My last grievance with Splatoon is a slight lack of content. For a game that’s an arena shooter, there is a notorious lack of arenas. The game comes with five stages at launch, but there are more promised in the aforementioned summer patches. I don’t know if it’s a choice to keep players coming back to Splatoon with regular updates, or a result of the developers rushing to hit a deadline, but five maps feels lacking, even if I surprisingly never found myself growing tired of them.
Finally, I just wanted to quickly mention Splatoon’s single player experience. If you are buying this game for single player, you’re going to have a bad time (unless you enjoyed The Order: 1886, if so, by all means buy Splatoon.) At 4-6 hours of content, it sometimes feels like an extended tutorial. Despite its length, the developers really created a weird, new experience that combines platforming and shooting while slowly introducing you to all of Splatoon’s core mechanics. Each level plays really quickly, most can be beat in around 5 minutes or less. The stages are addicting and fast paced in the same way that multiplayer is — I couldn’t help but finish the single player in one long gaming session. The single player does not water down its difficulty either, later stages and bosses really kept me challenged. Although Splatoon is clearly a multiplayer-first experience, Nintendo really created a tight single-player experience that ultimately left me wanting even more.
Splatoon’s core gameplay is chaotic and addicting, and packs way more depth than I expected. Despite Nintendo’s inability to fully adapt with the times — and give fans the online features like voice chat and robust matchmaking that we expect in modern online games — I anticipate playing Splatoon for many weeks and months to come. I already put in over 19 hours in just over a week of gameplay — and even with concerns that the game wouldn’t offer enough to justify its full retail price – if you enjoy online multiplayer, “Splatoon” is well worth it. More content and modes at launch would have been nice, but what’s here on day one will keep you distracted long enough to justify a purchase. And with a ton of free content promised in the coming months, Splatoon could really become another flagship Nintendo title, even if it is held back by its lack of online features and strange Nintendo design quirks.
Final Score TBD after testing launch-version servers
· Fun, addicting gameplay
· Challenging and quirky single player campaign
· Did I mention how much fun and addicting the gameplay is?
· Actually packs a lot of strategy and depth into both online and offline modes
· Single player is short at 4-6 hours of gameplay
· Online modes lack voice chat and proper matchmaking
· Slight lack of content, only 5 multiplayer stages at launch (more promised in free updates)