Nintendo as a company tends to lead the pack when it comes to innovation. The Wii’s unique motion control scheme, for instance, led to me-too knockoffs from both Sony and Microsoft, but even before then Nintendo pioneered the use of analog controls and force-feedback on consoles with the Nintendo 64. Mario and co. don’t usually need to follow the pack, which is why Splatoon – a team-based multiplayer shooter of the sort that’s been saturating the industry in recent years – came as a surprise when it was announced. Don’t get me wrong, though; this shooter still has the big N’s signature all over it, resulting in a unique spin on the genre that really merits a serious look.
In Splatoon, players control an Inkling – basically a hip-hop anthropomorphic squid fresh from both the freezer section and the streets. Inklings wield a variety of ink-spewing weaponry and ink-splosives in combat, spewing color all over the ground; they’re then able to switch into a small squid form to swim through like-colored ink, avoiding enemy attacks and even swimming around on splattered walls. Both online and local multiplayer are available, as is a lengthy single-player campaign, but what most people will be buying this one for is the online multiplayer aspect.
A lot has been written examining Splatoon as a shooter and as a Nintendo game. Armchair analysts have produced page after page talking about how Splatoon compares to Call of Duty or Battlefield from a gameplay mechanics standpoint. I think this has all gotten a little tiresome and I’d prefer to talk about Splatoon’s use of social manipulation in online multiplayer, which is really what lies at the heart of the game.
Put simply, Splatoon’s design is clearly focused around making a shooter that you can’t stay mad at. There might be the odd irritation here and there – that’s unavoidable. What Nintendo has done, though, is take the typical multiplayer shooter experience and strip out all of the genre’s toxic aspects. In particular, four changes to the usual shooter paradigm play an integral role in setting Splatoon apart: matches last three minutes; when one is done, win or lose, you can choose to be in another in seconds; nobody can chat with anyone else; and even people who can’t aim can still contribute.
The abridged length of the average multiplayer match is key to keeping Splatoon fun. Win or lose, you’re done in three minutes, and that’s not a very long time. If you’re wrecking face, you’ve got at most three minutes to lord it over your opponents, and if you’re getting crushed you’ve got at most three minutes to wallow in it – and the initial buildup to where teams clash in the middle of a match will take around a minute, most likely. The experience is quick and ephemeral, and the worst match in the world where nothing goes wrong for your team is over in a flash. Contrast this with something like Call of Duty or Battlefield, where a match might last fifteen minutes. That’s a lot of time to spend losing if things aren’t going your way. For an even better example, look at your average MOBA, where hourlong matches aren’t uncommon – is it any wonder people are so toxic towards their teammates when a poor player could mean wasting an hour on an inevitable loss?
This combines with the second point: Splatoon’s matchmaking is handled incredibly quickly. The length of time from the end of one match to the start of another was, in my experience, less than twenty seconds. The short, painful defeat you just endured is washed away; now it’s time for another chance to dominate. You aren’t stuck sitting at a queue to stew over what might have been – grab the controller, you’re playing right now! All that negativity is wiped away in the push of a button and it’s time to get back to business.
The much-debated lack of voice chat is perhaps the most central aspect of how Splatoon remains an enjoyable experience. It’s not just about a toxic atmosphere created by hateful comments. It’s about not having to listen to someone’s music playing through their speakers. It’s about not being forced to endure any nasal nerdvoices. It’s about being able to focus on the game rather than on the people playing the game. The silence – such as it were – lends a purity to the goings-on that a lot of more traditional shooters lack. You don’t have to deal with jerks, intentional or otherwise, in Splatoon. Ever. Why have we come to expect anything less?
Finally, the fundamental basics of how the game is played help reduce the degree of negativity inherent to the genre. Put simply: if you suck at shooting in your average shooter, you’re fodder. Your role becomes score-padding for other players. There’s nothing fun about that, but it’s a difficult concept to divorce from a competitive game.
Splatoon, on the other hand, isn’t about fighting. It’s about painting. You typically fight with someone when they get in your way. Defeat results in a splash of the winner’s color and a very short respawn time for the loser, who can promptly jump to a teammate and get back into the action once they’ve revived. Kills, deaths and assists aren’t even tracked as far as I could tell, and victory is based on how much of a stage is covered in paint when a match is over.
Skilled combatants can get a lot done through those victory splashes, but even players who haven’t touched a virtual gun in their lives can support their team by making sure the ground is the right color. There’s even a set of giant paint roller weapons that are great for exactly this purpose – and that can provide a challenge for advanced users by offering instant kills for surprising and squashing foes. It’s an elegant solution to the skill divide and it ensures that anyone who plays Splatoon can enjoy themselves.
Taken altogether, Splatoon flaunts modern shooter conventions and becomes a game based on having a good time. Up until the past couple of console generations, that was what games were usually about. This isn’t even an online-only title, as there’s a content-rich single-player campaign with its own mechanics, enemies and plot to follow as well. There’s also stat-boosting gear to collect and throw on, including the ability to mix up the stats if there’s a look you particularly like but that’s lacking the boosts you want.
Aesthetically, Splatoon is as much of a treat as we’ve come to expect from Nintendo. The Inklings, their squid forms and the sea creatures that share their home of Inkopolis are adorable, the aquatic-themed puns that comprise most of the game are groan-inducing and the overall urban aesthetic brings to mind something like the classic The World Ends With You. Even the background music – featuring vocals in the Inklings’ garbled language – is catchy enough to stick in your head long after a session.
It’s not perfect, of course. Nintendo’s refusal to follow the pack has meant that they’re seriously behind the times when it comes to online multiplayer implementation and Splatoon doesn’t do much to change that. While it’s possible to join friends and queue for matches together, for instance, it’s not possible to create private friends-only matches. What’s more, it could be argued that the game launched a little sparse on content, with relatively few multiplayer maps available on an hourly rotation. While Nintendo has said that future content updates will add in more maps and game modes, right now it’s possible you’ll get sick of playing the same levels repeatedly.
Regardless, the best way I can describe while I like Splatoon is this: I can hand the controller to my non-gaming significant other, explain how to play in easy-to-understand terms (cover everything in paint and run if a bad guy tries to shoot you!) and put her in an actual honest-to-god multiplayer match knowing that I won’t be ashamed of what other people who share my hobby will say or do. I cannot remember the last time that was possible. It’s brilliant. Who else but Nintendo would make a game like this?