Last year, I saw a sarcastic tweet directed at the E3 Splatoon reveal from a pretty prominent geek journalist. "4-on-4 multiplayer? I bet those servers are going to be jumping!" Of course, if that guy had played Mario Kart 8 online, which was already out at that point, he would have known that things were already looking up on Nintendo's online front. But I digress.
After dozens of online rounds and several dozens of Miiverse interactions, not to mention the excitement of checking out daily gear and map refreshes, I can officially say that, yes, these servers are jumping. Not only that, but I can say that with Splatoon, Nintendo has confidently asserted their dominance over most of their peers when it comes to online gaming.
I say this as a seasoned veteran of all the major online shooters. Halo, Call of Duty, Battlefield, and a ton of other, less prominent games are all tucked safely under my belt. A good portion of my life has been spent in some form of online arena, pumping anonymous people full of virtual lead. But games that have provided the constant stream of dopamine like Splatoon does have been few and far in between. In fact, I might contend that none of them have managed to excite and surprise as much as this one. Which is funny, because for starters, it's barely even a shooter.
See, as you might have heard by now, in Nintendo's first blatant pitch at the online set, you take the role of both a kid and a squid. They're called Inklings. Now, on top of being squid-kids, Inklings are both aggressive and fashionable in equal amounts . You deck yourself out in hip clothes, then buy guns that shoot obscene amounts of ink and try to lay claim over different areas of turf by painting them. If anyone gets in your way? You take them out. By inking them to death. Yep.
While, on the surface, this sounds like nothing but a kiddified version of a typical shooter, it's anything but. Players get put in teams of four and thrown into an arena. From there, they're tasked with inking every surface possible in order to claim the turf for their team. Along the way, they blow enemy Inklings into smithereens and assume a more squid-ish form to swim underneath their ink so they can traverse the varying surfaces of a given level.
It's all a bit hard to describe, but can be summed up in a succinct label: shooter/platformer. You shoot things, jump on/swim up them, then shoot more things. Rinse, repeat. Those are the basic mechanics, and they work just about as well as you'd expect a platformer from the company that practically invented them to. That is to say, very. Certainly, it takes a little bit of getting used to. There's nothing else like this on the market, and it plays like a strict hybrid of the two types of gameplay I mentioned. If you play it like a traditional shooter, your territory is going to get laid waste to. If you just focus on inking the ground and jumping on everything, you're going to get blown up constantly. This is a new type of gameplay, and as such, it demands players acquire a new set of skills in order to stand a fighting chance at it.
And really, "different" is the operative word to describe Splatoon. Sure, you can trace elements of it back to other games. Its influences seem to range from Super Mario Sunshine to Jet Set Radio to maybe even the Blinx 2 multiplayer. But is there really anything else like it? I'd say "no," with full confidence. Maybe Nintendo hasn't created a new genre or anything quite that dramatic, but they've definitely struck on something that hasn't been touched before.
Not only that, but they've polished it to a glistening, inky shine with other trimmings. Miiverse has never been better in a game, playing both a large role in the hub world and in online matches. The ability to play a lengthy Doodle Jump-esque mini-game while waiting in lobbies is a neat touch. And the gamepad integration is brilliant, delivering the type of seamless "using the menu while playing" mechanic that Nintendo promised when they debuted the Wii U in 2011. The core gameplay is already great, and all of the extra, thoughtful touches added just make it that much more sweet.
But what about the amount of content in this 60 dollar, online-focused game? Pre-release, a particularly vocal batch of people were worried that Nintendo was skimping on stuff with Splatoon, that the gameplay would be fun, but there wouldn't be enough of it to go around. Admittedly, I was marginally concerned that Nintendo would follow the "pay 60 dollars, then pay for the rest" model that so many companies have for the past few years. But, lo and behold, all of those fears were unfounded. Not only is there a decent amount of content already here, but as of this writing, all of the future modes and maps will come in the form of free updates. Thank you, based Nintendo.
Speaking seriously, though, that's a huge boon, and one of the many reasons I'm 100% on board with Splatoon right now. Its five maps are all pretty sizable, and don't really get stale, but the fact that Nintendo is going to supplement the core package, which is already well worth sixty dollars, with free content is not only benevolent, but smart. People like me, burned by most AAA titles, will gravitate towards this game, wanting to master what's already there, and anticipating an entire slew of content updates, free of charge. On the other side of coin, people who don't want to adopt early will come to this a few months from now with a whole stash of content ready to download, including weapons, outfits, maps and modes. It's a win-win, all around, and both a practical business decision and a merciful act towards consumer wallets.
And when that latter party of players, the ones who pick it up a few months down the line, come to it, they won't get immediately ganked by a community of know-it-alls. That's because, in all my years of gaming online, shooters or no, Splatoon is perhaps the most balanced experience I've ever had. That's a big claim, and I back it up with the fact that every weapon, piece of armor and gadget has a practically even split of risk and reward. For example, snipers are powerful and can end somebody in one well-placed hit, but require being charged in order to be shot and can't be used to effectively cover turf. Assault weapons are lethal at close-to-mid range and can cover a huge chunk of land in seconds, but their lack of pinpoint accuracy and quick ammo depletion mean having to be up close, personal and smart.
There really are no definitively "bad" guns or equipment sets, only sets that don't work for some people. Some weapons that I lost brutally with were later used to take me out effectively several, several times in a different match. It all depends on the players, and to me, that's the mark of a truly great game.
Everything I've mentioned up until now pertains exclusively to the online component, but don't think for a second that Nintendo skimped out on single-player material. The campaign, required to unlock certain things and a good way to get your bearings, is one of their more ambitious attempts at platforming in quite a while. It adds puzzles into the addictive blend of shooting and platforming, and mixes it up with some interesting level designs that get switched up constantly. While it's a bit light in the story department, the writing is cute and funny enough, and the enemy designs are pretty adorable and unique. While the gameplay is essentially the same as the multiplayer component, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Splatoon's campaign isn't of the quality of, say, a Super Mario 3D World, but it doesn't feel like it's trying to be. Instead, it offers up a lengthy series of imaginative worlds and bosses, spiced up with a heaping helping of collectibles. Nothing more, nothing less.
But while the campaign is excellent and brimming with content, don't take that to mean that Splatoon is something you should buy if you don't plan on going online. Frankly, this is a game that is built for online play, along the lines of Team Fortress 2 or Loadout, and if you're not into that, then this isn't the game for you. The split-screen content is, sadly, lackluster, with only the two-player Battle Dojo to speak of. It's pretty frustrating that Nintendo, whose games usually have great local multiplayer, dropped the ball in this department. While, yes, I understand that this is meant to be an online-focused game, I can't help but feel that the whole package could have benefited from at least the ability to take a buddy online, a la Call of Duty, Halo, or even Mario Kart 8. It definitely hurts the overall package in my eyes.
That's about my only major complaint with Splatoon as a whole, though. I barely have another ill word to speak of it, or should I say, ill words to spill ink over. As a cohesive online package, Nintendo's new IP hits the sweet spot between accessible and competitive. The gameplay is novel but not impenetrable. The weapons are satisfying but never overpowered. The maps have a sense of cohesion but never run the risk of running together. Everything here, coupled with a stellar art direction and soundtrack, is the perfect online package. Oh, and there's a pretty neat campaign, which is a plus.
To me, this is the game that cements my long-standing suspicion about Nintendo when it comes to online-oriented games. Over the years, naysayers have sneered and said that the monolithic developer simply couldn't "get with the times." This proves that those people are patently wrong. This is the type of game that, I feel, Nintendo could have probably made whenever they wanted to, if they wanted to. But they didn't want to. It wasn't their focus. And now that they finally feel like actually doing it, they do it leaps and bounds better than people who have been doing it for years. With one game. Their first game of this variety, no less. This isn't a case of, "oh, Nintendo's finally doing something right," and trust me, I'm somebody who's definitely picked a bone with their practices in the past.
But this? This is a case of, "Nintendo finally decided that an online-focused game was worth their time, then blew it out of the water." And they did. This is a perfect marriage of competitive gaming sensibilities and Nintendo's signature creativity, all rolled up into a stellar package. Splatoon is, all at once, a brilliant new IP, another fantastic Wii U title, and the most fun I've had online since the last generation of consoles.