There’s something almost therapeutic about Splatoon. Blithely covering urban arenas with vibrant ink is immensely satisfying, making Nintendo’s latest IP an expressive experience unlike many others. It’s a lively, fresh and lighthearted package with real staying power, but it also suffers from a lack of content at launch that might scare away some prospective players. Once you give it a try, however, it’s plain to see that Nintendo’s online shooter is far too special to be held back by its lack of variety.
Splatoon is absolutely loaded with the ingenuity, charm, and confidence in concept of Nintendo’s greatest games, but it’s also an entirely different creature from the Japanese developer’s traditional creations. It’s astoundingly unique, mixing Nintendo’s uncanny ability to produce fresh experiences and spectacular gameplay with a decidedly hip and modern vibe that feels perfectly tuned in to popular culture. The inklings, humanoid creatures that can transform into squids at will, are fantastic additions to Nintendo’s illustrious roster of characters, and prove without a doubt that the Japanese company’s still got it. Splatoon‘s urban, often industrial aesthetic is soaked in Japanese flair, creating a familiar yet foreign universe brimming with brilliantly written NPCs and vivacious colors. The graffiti and stickers spread throughout the world give it a raw, rebellious feel that’s perfectly complemented by the eclectic squid-pop soundtrack, and ultimately the very premise of the game. It all just feels so masterfully crafted, and I was constantly impressed by the tiny touches of personality that pervade Nintendo’s colorful shooter
The meat of Splatoon lies in its online multiplayer, which at launch features only one mode: Regular Battle. It’s a 4v4 Turf War played in just three minutes, where players compete to cover the most ground with their team’s color of ink. The action is brisk despite its brevity, and it’s endlessly surprising how much can occur in such a brief period. Because success doesn’t hinge on your termination of opposing players, the action begins immediately and doesn’t end until the final second ticks away. The simplicity of the goal also means there’s always a way for each player to contribute, whether it’s by pushing forward into enemy turf or staying back to cover the spots other plays may have missed, and thanks to the Super Jump mechanic, which lets players fly to the side of their allies by touching their icon on the GamePad, there’s rarely ever a break in the action. The ebb and flow of each Turf War is perpetual, and because they’re so brief and closely contested there’s real motivation to keep playing round after round.
Splatoon doesn’t let players customize traditional “loadouts,” instead offering pre-determined weapon sets comprised of a main, sub and special weapon. There are only a handful of main weapon types, but by offering different combinations of sub and special weapons, each set feels tangibly distinct. There are weapons to suit just about every style of play, from the bulldozing Zen of the Roller to the sloppy speed of the Splattershot Jr., and along with an array of trendy clothing options, there’s a ton of opportunity for self expression. Those clothes aren’t just stylish, though; each piece of gear bears at least one ability, like boosting your defense or increasing your swimming speed, and picking an outfit for battle is as much about looking fresh as it is complementing your own particular style of play. Like splatting enemies? A combination of attack and defense buffs might be a good idea. Enjoy sneaking behind enemy lines and making a mess? The Ninja Squid ability, which makes your movements invisible while submerged in ink, might be up your alley. With a huge array of weapons, clothes, and abilities, there’s a ton of room for customization — the epitome of functional fashion.
Players can also unlock powerful new weapons and gear by playing through Splatoon’s single player campaign, a wholly worthwhile collection of levels that take visible inspiration from Super Mario Galaxy. While its muses may be clear, Splatoon‘s campaign once again feels completely original, an experience not only unlike other games but also unlike its own online multiplayer. By shifting the focus from the team-based, competitive chaos of Turf Wars to linear, solo level progression, Splatoon‘s campaign feels happily distinct, much more than a rehash of its multiplayer component. Like modern Mario games, each level of Splatoon‘s single player is built around a unique concept or mechanic, thoroughly exploring it in sets of challenging sequences. The level design actively teaches players skills and techniques that can be directly implemented in the online modes, providing yet another reason to dive into the 5 hour campaign.
Splatoon’s leveling and gear systems are designed to keep you playing, and both complement each other admirably to achieve just that. Your Turf War performance snags you experience points which eventually level you up, giving you access to better weapons and gear; wearing clothing during Turf Wars levels it up, unlocking additional abilities; better abilities mean better Turf War performance, which means more experience, which means faster leveling, which means better gear, and on and on and on. The quest for supremacy runs deep in Splatoon.
Of course, one of Splatoon‘s most significant points of contention is its omission of online voice chat. The designers obviously had their reasons, but in an age when team chat has become a standard of the genre, Splatoon‘s stubborn indifference will unfortunately turn many potential players away. While it’s true that voice chat between party members should have at least been an option for players, however, the designers’ self-imposed limitation actually produced an ingenious emphasis on visual communication. Thanks to the presence of the real-time map on the GamePad screen, players are forced to take fleeting glances at their team’s progress at regular intervals throughout a match, making for a rare but welcome and intelligent use of the Wii U’s lamented tablet controller. The nature of Splatoon‘s colorful skirmishes also makes judging your team’s status quite easy, as you can clearly see on both screens just how much turf each team has claimed and which areas need attention. I didn’t particularly miss voice chat, but there were a few instances when it really would have helped to have been able to warn my teammates about an enemy hiding in the ink or a sniper camping in a corner.
The inherent fun of Splatoon in undeniable, but with only five maps and one multiplayer mode at launch, there’s not a ton of gameplay variety. Yet somehow, despite that almost barren selection, it manages to remain just as enjoyable each time you line up to paint your turf. That unexpected longevity is largely due to the unpredictability of the Turf Wars themselves; because teams are shuffled after each round and the balance of power is constantly shifting, each match feels completely different than the last. Each of the five maps is unique enough from its peers to warrant frequent revisits, and if Nintendo’s post-launch content strategy is as substantial and frequent as it’s promised, Splatoon should only grow better with age.
Nintendo’s newest IP is still lacking some basic online functions, though. Players are locked into their weapon set and group once the matchmaking process begins, only free to leave or change their gear after the round is over. There’s also no way to play exclusively with friends online, or form consistent teams with other players, and while many of those issues will be fixed with content updates throughout the summer, for the time being they’re glaring absences that greatly limit the customization of the experience. Two players can always compete locally in the Battle Dojo, but those are dull duels in comparison to the frantic action of Splatoon’s online play. In fairness, though, those 4v4 battles are some of the most fun I’ve had with any game in ages.
Splatoon is all about staying fresh, and despite its lack of content somehow manages to remain just as appealing after twenty hours as it was in its first. Its core gameplay is so unwaveringly solid that it’s bound to only become better as more maps, weapons and modes are released in the months after launch, but even now Splatoon might just be Wii U’s long-awaited killer app.