Ah, Splatoon. With this one game Nintendo has done the unthinkable, at least for them. They’ve gone full steam ahead with a competitive online multiplayer shooter, something we haven’t seen them do since the underrated Metroid Prime Hunters on the DS, and it’s the first time we’ve seen them do it on a home console. They’ve also gone full-tilt media tie-in blitz with this one—there are Splatoon t-shirts, water guns, and even frozen yogurt. It’s obvious why they are pushing this game so hard; the new Zelda has slipped to 2016 and the status of the new Star Fox is still very much up in the air, so Nintendo doesn’t really have anything huge coming to Wii U this summer. E3 might give us some good news, but for now Splatoon is their Hail Mary pass.
And man, is it weird. I’ve always said that if Nintendo actually made a competitive shooter it would be both adorable and bizarre, and Splatoon certainly fills both categories. If you haven’t gotten caught up in the Splatoon media sensation yet, here’s the gist. You play as an Inkling, a member of a race of undersea squid-human creatures who inhabit the city of Inkopolis. The Inklings dress like skater punks and mallrats, put a strong emphasis on fashion and style, and are all addicted to Inkopolis’s headlining team sport, Ink Wars.
About a hundred years previous the Inklings had an epic turf war with the squishy Octarian race. Unbeknownst to most Inklings the tentacular menace has returned and stolen the Zapfish from Ikopolis, rendering it powerless. The conspiracy-minded Captain Cuttlefish recruits your character, a neophyte Inkling, to take the fight to the Octarians and retrieve the Zapfish scattered across various levels.
Confused yet? Don’t worry. The sea life puns may fly as fast and thick as the ink in this game, but it’s all fairly straightforward. The world of Splatoon doesn’t make a whole lot of sense but it’s at least internally consistent, and it’s one of the strangest, most endearing worlds Nintendo has created. Make no mistake, in terms of aesthetics this is a new brand that will stand up there with Mario, Samus and Star Fox in terms of originality and recognition. It’s just a shame then that the single player portion of Splatoon isn’t as memorable.
In the game’s story mode Captain Cuttlefish sends your freshly created Inkling—you can pick the gender, skin tone and general style of your character—on a series of highly linear missions to wipe out Octarians and retrieve Zapfish like so many Mario 64 Power Stars. The early levels teach you the basics of the game pretty well. All of your weapons lay down ink, whether by firing continuously with a primary gun like the Splattershot, or through explosive grenades. By holding the left trigger on the GamePad you instantly transform from a kid into a squid, and as the squid you can swim seamlessly through the ink you’ve laid down. Swimming is about twice as fast as walking and makes you invisible to enemies, but you are defenseless and slow way down when you leave your ink.
Swimming also refills your ink ammo and lets you scale sheer surfaces like walls and cliffs or pass under fences, but only as far as your ink trail goes. Conversely, walking or swimming on enemy ink brings you to a crawl and damages you, so painting as much as the environment in your color ink is essential. You will spend most of the single player game traversing these highly linear levels, zipping between platforms, painting everything in sight and blasting Octarians. There are also boss fights at the end of each hub world, and these are fairly entertaining and original.
Sadly the story mode, which lasts 3 to 5 hours, starts to feel rather flat and repetitive. This is mainly because of the Amiibo functionality. See, the only way to unlock more weapons and loadouts in the single player mode is by scanning Amiibo. Splatoon is host to a wide arsenal of creative ink-based implements of destruction but unless you shelled out for those Amiibo figurines when you bought the game, you’re stuck with the basic Splattershot-grenade combo for the whole story campaign. This means that beyond the tutorials these levels can’t get very creative; don’t expect clever lessons on how to use the ink roller or sniper rifle in the single player mode.
Thankfully the multiplayer is the real meat of the game and all of the launch-day weapons and items are eventually unlockable there. On day one Splatoon has a decently feature-rich online multiplayer mode and barring any serious server overload, you should be able to have a fun time with it for a month or two. I say that because at launch, Splatoon is clearly a bit unfinished. Free DLC is on the way for August but like most online shooters, Splatoon is something of a work in progress. Few multiplayer games emerge fully formed and perfectly balanced like Team Fortress 2 (and get progressively cluttered and gentrified later) but for now Splatoon is serviceable and quite a lot of fun.
The online lobby is pretty simple, consisting of standard matches for early level players and, once you hit level 10, ranked battles. These battles consist of two modes: Turf War and Splat Zone. Turf War is the bread and butter of the game and puts the focus on painting as much of a map in your team’s color as possible. The battles are always 4v4 and the maps, which cycle randomly, are well sized and balanced for this team size. Nintendo has clearly playtested the daylights out of this launch window map set because the action always stayed fast and frantic. The downside is that a match will cancel and drop you back to the lobby if it can’t wrangle eight people together, but in the launch window I doubt getting eight random players together will be a problem. Of course you could always set up a private game with friends, assuming you know eight people who all own Wii U’s and Splatoon.
Splat Zone is more of a King of the Hill match and involves inking a set area and then holding the line against the opposing team until time runs out. This can be pretty difficult, especially without good team coordination, and herein lies Splatoon’s biggest weakness: there is no way to communicate with your team, even among friends. Splatoon lacks any kind of voice or text chat and this can be a huge problem, especially in random online battles. While you can warp to any team-painted area from the spawn point, it’s impossible to let your team know where to converge, who should use what weapon specialty, or where the enemy team is encroaching.
This leads to matches that are, no pun intended, a complete mess. In these early weeks expect to encounter players who are used to Call of Duty and think going Rambo is the object of the game, when really it’s acting as a team to paint the map your color and drive the enemy team into a corner. I ran into several players who kept charging into enemy territory and getting wasted repeatedly, while the rest of the team was on the other side of the map taking territory. Having one dud player on a tiny team of four is problematic enough, but when everyone is running in random directions playing hero, your team is going to lose no matter how skilled you are.
The most frustrating part is that winning nets you a ton of bonus XP, and like in any modern shooter you absolutely need to level up to access the best weapons and equipment. The Inkopolis plaza is home to several eccentric vendors who will sell you new goodies in exchange for the cash you earn in ranked matches. The weapons are the most obvious perks and they change your play style considerably. The basic Splattershot SMG can be upgraded or replaces with a sniper rifle, a bazooka, or more esoteric fare like the paint roller. This weapon was a lot of fun—it slows you down quite a bit but you can ink huge swaths of a level in short order, and utterly steamroll unaware enemy players in seconds, even in their squid form. I also like how the SMG weapons act more like squirtguns than actual guns; their range is only about 50 feet, so they lend themselves better to painting maps than racking up frags.
Other vendors have new outfits that grant perk/drawback balances, a lot like the hats and custom weapons in Team Fortress 2. There’s a surprisingly deep collection of leveled upgrades to buy and they all fit with the Inklings’ obsession with fresh fashion. Once again however, it would be better to have some kind of team communication to coordinate these upgrades. A slow ink roller player is easy pickings on their own, but flanked by a couple Splattershot escorts wearing damage-reducing hoodies and covered by an accuracy-buffed sniper? A well-coordinated team like this would completely dominate a scattered, confused team of amateurs.
Overall Splatoon’s multiplayer has a very strong foundation but it also has a lot of room to grow, at least if Nintendo wants this game to live up to the marketing push they’ve unleashed. In terms of technical prowess though, Splatoon definitely impresses. I never saw the framerate dip below 60fps my entire time playing, and I encountered virtually no lag in any of the online matches I’ve played. That on its own is impressive, though I expect some lag to creep in when the servers get swamped in the coming weeks. It certainly happened to Smash Bros last November.
The game’s aesthetic style is translated perfectly into graphics and sound. Splatoon is one of the prettiest games on Wii U, right up there with Mario Kart 8 and Bayonetta 2. The huge variety of clothes means that every Inkling can have their own unique style, and it helps that other players will drop by your Inkopolis square to show off their fashion sense, kind of like the crowd of Miis that congregate on your Wii U plaza. This gives you incentive to keep grinding those levels to unlock all of the cool clothes and weapons, which have their own variety of colors and styles.
The whole presentation is literally bathed in a shower of multicolored ink that flows and splatters with satisfying effect. Like Jet Set Radio before it, Splatoon taps into that inherent vandalizing instinct to tag and mess up everything, and amazingly the Wii U’s modest hardware keeps up. Even when a map is utterly plastered with reflective, pixel-shaded ink, the framerate doesn’t even break a sweat.
The sound aspect will probably divide players. The sound effects are suitably splatty and messy, from the machinegun patter of the Splattershot to the juicy detonation of an ink grenade. The music however is an otherworldly mix of driving guitar riffs and the Inklings’ jumbled, gurgling language that could equally amp you up or grate on your nerves. It never really distracted me—I enjoyed the alien aspect that the music lent to the game—but I can easily see how it could get on your nerves.
In the end I had a hard time giving Splatoon a final score. It’s a game with a huge amount of potential and an equal quantity of charm and style. That said it probably won’t really arrive as it were until the first free DLC drops a few extra mods and maps, and the decision to lock single player content behind Amiibo is disappointing. Most of all though, Nintendo really needs to get over their phobia of voice chat and implement that feature ASAP. The utter lack of in-game communication severely hinders what could be an amazing team multiplayer experience. Splatoon falls short of its initial potential, but has a lot of promising growth ahead of it. As it stands there’s enough of a launch-day offering here to encourage amateur Inklings to jump in and make a mess.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.
I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Columbus, Ohio with my fiancee and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do.View Profile