It’s not often that Nintendo introduces a major new IP to stand side-by-side with its legendary Mario, Zelda and Pokémon franchises; the last time it did so was with a delightfully different take on real-time strategy called Pikmin, released on the GameCube back in 2001. Over the past decade, the company has played it way too safe with its offerings, rehashing the gameplay and characters of past projects rather than paving the way like the born leader it once was. But with Splatoon, a surprisingly fresh take on multiplayer shooters, Nintendo has shown the world that it’s still capable of magic.
If you’ve somehow avoided the marketing of Splatoon since its release a few weeks ago, let me spill some ink for you. In Nintendo’s new online third-person shooter, you take on the role of an Inkling — a fashionable creature that resembles a human tween but can transform into a squid on demand — and team up with three other squid-kids to take down a team of four rival Inklings. The beautiful twist here is that is that you’re not really going for kills or a high KDR (kill-to-death ratio) like most other multiplayer shooters; instead, each player is equipped with an ink tank and tasked with coating as much of the battlefield as possible in a three minute round. You’re still welcome to splat your enemies into oblivion, and it’s required as often as not to keep the balance in your team’s favor, but it doesn’t really count for anything, since victory is awarded to whichever team has more ink on the field. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen teams absolutely destroy their opponents in kills, yet still lose in the post-match ink tally.
It takes time and practice to master the intricacies and strategies of Splatoon, and a month after the game’s launch, I’m still amazed by the variety of weapons, sub weapons and abilities you can use to tailor your Inkling to your preferred play style. Most shooters nowadays are basically just a run and gun fest with the same basic weapon types recycled from game to game, but Splatoon inks in the face of that trend. Just when I think I’ve found my favorite weapon, I see someone performing some straight-up magic with piece I’ve never even seen before, and I discover a whole new play style to master. But it’s not just about the individual; Rollers are a fun, unique way to paint massive surface areas quickly, but a team with four of those is going to get whooped by a single enemy with a short range blaster. Some weapon classes work best in specific levels, too: Port Mackerel is perfect for long range sniping, while Urchin Underpass is better suited to rapid-fire short range blasters. You truly have to understand every weapon in play, or you’ll quickly find yourself sinking to the bottom of the losing team.
Besides being Nintendo’s first major new IP in ages, Splatoon is also the first Nintendo game ever to focused primarily on online play. In the last 7-8 years, the company has developed a reputation for being a bit daft when it comes to online anything, and most Nintendo faithful still cringe with memories of Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s awful online modes or the hack-fest that was pretty much any online DS game. But within the last year or two Nintendo has established a world-class online infrastructure for its Wii U and 3DS offerings, and Splatoon is a shining example. I’ve played the game constantly on my fairly underwhelming home Wi-Fi network, and 99% of the time I’ve experienced zero latency issues and extremely fast matchmaking–it usually takes about 30 seconds to get a match started. Splatoon’s network stability is definitely impressive, especially right at launch, but the game does need a couple tweaks to its online features. First: once you join a lobby, there’s no way to leave without shutting down the Wii U, and there’s absolutely no reason for that. Secondly, while playing with friends is as satisfying as any multiplayer Nintendo game, actually teaming up with them is extremely difficult. You can join a friend’s game, but due to the random team lineups in each match, there’s no way of knowing whether you’re going to play with them or against them. Nintendo has promised a future update that will allow friend parties, but until then, playing with your buddies is an exercise in frustration. On the flip side, Nintendo’s rollout of DLC for Splatoon has been fantastic, so I’ve no doubt they’ll deliver on their promise.
Even though online multiplayer is the focus of Splatoon, it does feature a surprisingly fun single player mode. It’s a weird amalgamation of Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy, with level design and boss battles that are easily on par with those classic titles. It’s also hiding a number of collectible scrolls which add some world building and replayability to the experience. You’ll also unlock exclusive weapons and clothing for multiplayer by beating levels in single player. Without going into any specific detail, I’ll just say that everyone who owns Splatoon should definitely take the time to finish the single player.
Over the course of four weeks, I’ve leveled my Inkling up to 19, have consistently ranked among the top scoring players on my teams, and have spent way too much on awesome shoes, hats and shirts to make my squid kid look fresher than fresh. And I’m absolutely in love with Splatoon. The premise is incredibly simple, yet exceedingly deep, and the difference between an amateur and a pro is night and day. Some players might dismiss Splatoon as a kid’s because of its tween aesthetic, but even the staunchest naysayers will find it difficult to put down once they’ve tried it out. But beyond all that, Splatoon is a reminder of just how much that old Nintendo polish can bring to even the slimmest offerings. In this modern age of post-launch patches and annualized, broken sequels, Nintendo has shipped a product that is flawlessly executed and as addicting as their greatest multiplayer classics. It already has the tentacles to outlast most contemporary shooters, and it’s gotten better every week since launch. Splatoon is indeed the fantastic new Nintendo IP I’d hoped it would be, and I have absolutely no doubt we’ll be seeing a Spla-two-n in the next 2-3 years. See you out there, Inklings!