Enter Splatoon, a new third-person, online multiplayer shooter, and a first for Nintendo. Developed by Nintendo Entertainment Analysis & Development Division (of Mario and Zelda fame), it is this division’s first new IP since Pikmin launched in 2001. As the player, you take control of either a male or female “Inkling”, a race of squid-like humanoids who walk on land with two legs like you and I, but with the ability to transform into a squid and swim when needed (more on that later). The sport of choice in this world is a “Turf War”, where two teams of four players each compete to ink (think paint) the most ground in their colour within a battle arena before the three minute time limit expires.
This is accomplished by equipping one of three types of ink-filled main weapons. Shooters bear a striking resemblance to Super Soaker water guns, shooting a quick and intermittent burst of ink over short and medium distances. Chargers are akin to sniper rifles, and after a brief charging time shoot a solid line of ink over a long distance. Rollers look as they sound, giant paint rollers pushed in front that ink the ground as you run. Each main weapon also has an associated sub weapon and special weapon, offering active and passive abilities that round our your arsenal. Sub weapons such as the splat bombs act as ink-filled grenades that can be thrown near enemies, exploding shortly after impact. Whereas a disruptor actives a temporary shield, protecting you from enemy fire. Specials are powerful weapons that can only be used after inking enough ground to fill up the special gauge. Once of my personal favourites is the Inkstrike, that unleashes a tornado made of ink on an area of the map you select by tapping on the Wii U GamePad. In addition to weapons, gear lets your inkling don shoes, shirts, and headwear that provide abilities such as swimming faster or doing higher damage with your weapon. Additional abilities are unlocked by levelling up your gear with the experience points earned in battle.
A basic Turf War match proceeds as follows. Each team of fours starts a match at opposite ends of a battle arena, which is mirrored so each team’s half is identical to the other’s. Once the timer starts, each team rushes out from their home base to paint as much as the ground as possible. As you ink the ground, the GamePad touch screen shows the progress of both teams on the map, as well as the location of your team members. What’s unique about Splatoon is the options for movement. You can run, shoot, and perform small jumps while in humanoid form. Press and hold the ZL button while standing in ink of your own colour, however, and you transform into squid form. As a squid, you can swim in ink of your own colour twice as fast as running to cover ground quickly. While swimming you are submerged in the ink, making a much more difficult target for enemy fire. Walls covered with your ink can be swam up in squid form, allowing you to reach ledges and higher terrain. And the momentum gained from swimming allows squids to jump farther and cross large gaps.
The interplay between human and squid form takes place adds fluidity to the gameplay. Alternate between shooting the ground ahead with ink in human form, and switching to Squid to swim ahead quickly. Or swim-strafe as a squid to avoid enemy fire, popping up in human form to take well timed shots for the kill. Using weapons drains the ink canister on your back, forcing you to switch and swim in squid mode to refill it. The key is that squid form only works while in your own coloured ink. Standing in enemy ink will grind your movement to a near-halt, making for easy pickings. If you are hit and killed by enemy ink, you re-spawn back at your home base after a very brief cool down. From your home base you can use the GamePad to tap on one of your own players and perform a super jump that launches you directly to their location. Once the timer is up, the match is over and the results are tallied. The team with the most ground covered in their own ink wins the match. Experience points for levelling your character and money for purchasing weapons and gear are awarded, with a bonus amount going to the winning team.Turf War is currently the only mode in what is known as a Regular Battle. Reach level 10, however, and you open up Ranked Battle matches, with new modes played on the same set of battle arenas. Splat Zone mode sees teams vie for control of one or two regions in the middle of the map. The winning team is the first to control the splat zone for 100 seconds wins (a “knock out”), or if the time runs out, whichever team held control the longest. A second mode called Tower Control sees teams fight for control over a moving, mid-air platform. Standing on the tower moves the tower on a preset path towards the other team’s end zone. Reaching their end zone wins the match by knock out, or if time expires, whichever team moved the platform closest wins. Unlike Turf War, inking the entire map has no direct benefit, and so play is much more heavily concentrated on the target region, with a greater emphasis on head-to-head combat. This difference encourages experimentation with different weapon and gear combinations. Matches usually see-saw back and forth between teams, with a sense of thrilling urgency, serving only to magnify the euphoria of victory and the spirt-crushing of defeat. In Ranked Mode, the stakes for winning or losing are higher. Experience points for winning are roughly double that of Regular Battle Turf War, whereas losing by knock out yields no points whatsoever. A letter grade rank, starting at C-, also levels up or down, and is used during matchmaking to pit similarly skilled teams against each other.
Splatoon lacks voice chat, but to its benefit. As Hearthstone proved, you can have spirited and intense competition without harassment and abuse. The goals of each mode are clear, and effective strategies for the different weapon roles are readily learned through observation. Options for out-of-match communication are offered in Splatoon’s hub world, Inkopolis, where other online players are represented in the plaza outside the weapon and gear shops. I say represented because unlike most traditional online hubs, you don’t see the avatars actually being controlled live by the players. Rather they hang out in randomized locations and poses, seemingly taking in the sights or chatting casually in small groups. Oddly, it feels more “real” than live lobbies, where typically you see avatars madly dashing to and fro in-game shops, or awkwardly staring, unmoving, at blank walls as they sort through inventory, or perhaps having left the room on a bathroom break. Interacting with another player allows you to check out their gear to order for yourself, and read any Miiverse text or drawing post. Many of the drawings are inventive and show some real skill on display. You can “Yeah” a post (equivalent of a thumbs up) and there’s no thumbs down option. It’s a delight. I try to give someone a “Yeah” at least once before ending my game session. Who knows, perhaps it made their day? I leave the game on a good vibe, no matter how many points I dropped in ranked mode that day.In fact, good vibes best describes Splatoon all around. Online competitive games can often be inhospitable for the uninitiated, but Nintendo has found a way to make the game a welcoming experience for the inexperienced. Not good at shooting other players? In Turf War, avoid direct combat and focus on inking the ground – it contributes to your team winning and you’re rewarded with greater experience points the more you ink. Setup beakons on the map and help your team members jump straight to strategic locations. Or create swimming paths for your team by inking paths ahead of them. Like Mario Kart and Smash Brothers, however, there are plenty of opportunities for experienced players to strut their stuff. Advanced tactics and strategy are more likely to produce wins, and in particular Ranked Battles up the intensity and have a greater emphasis on head-to-head combat.
Either way, the game’s vibe puts and keeps a smile on your face. Nintendo promised many free post-launch updates, and they’ve managed to deliver a steady stream for two months as of this review. The number of available maps have almost doubled, and many new weapons have made their way to the shop, including a new type, the giant Inkbrush. Special events called Splatfests have also debuted, transforming Inkopolis for one day in a nighttime festival where two teams compete for better rewards, and more importantly Internet bragging rights. In an era of season passes and retail store-specific DLC, Splatoon is instead designed to delight. The result is a polished and fun experience, with a bit of depth if you choose to dig. It may be missing a few genre norms, but with Splatoon perhaps that’s the point. It’s the Nintendo way.