Splatoon has come a long way from when it was initially conceived as tofu spraying ink at one another, and in the year since it was first shown at E3 2014. It had been a highlight for many at the show not only for the kaleidoscopic visuals and the addictive gameplay that underpinned them but because Nintendo were braving entirely new waters by reimagining the components that make a competitive online shooter.
Often unfairly criticised that they don’t make enough new IP, the Wii U’s adversity seemingly forced Nintendo’s hand in turning to familiar territory to spur interest. We saw that with the Mushroom Kingdom in Super Mario 3D World and Mario Kart 8, scurrying around Pikmin 3‘s curious undergrowth, and in the resoundingly successful mascot brawler Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. But, for a company that readily relishes experimenting outside of predefined genres, their latest creative spurt treats us to the most remarkably refreshing experience we’ve seen in recent years.
Breaking away from tradition, Splatoon simply tasking players with marking their turf by spraying ink on their surroundings. That’s second nature to the humanoid Inklings that you play as, who, more uniquely, can freely switch to their squid form to submerge themselves in your team’s coloured ink for faster traversal.
The result is simply astounding, and an even more commendable achievement when you consider that the Wii U exclusive was only 10 percent complete at E3 last year. The fluidity in moving through your environments is not only necessary to swim quickly toward areas to ink, but can also be used evasively to hide from advancing enemies and strike with an element of mischievous surprise. This submersion also lets you refill the ink tank that your Inkling carries on their back, slowly being drained as you unleash inky goodness everywhere.
Turf War, Splatoon’s main online mode, is absolutely riotous four-on-four ink-based warfare that only ever grants players time to think when they’re respawning. Three minutes are all that’s on the clock in which you have to coat your surrounding environment faster than the opposing team, a relentless tussle that will see you each furiously splattering over each other’s ink to cover the highest percentage of territory. Those with OCD (like me!) will painstakingly coat every available inch of the map only for it to be invaded by the opposing colour, while others will heroically charge toward the middle ground splurging their way to inky glory.
Splatoon evens the playing field by mainly scoring you on the area that you splatter. This is a suitably accessible move, regardless of whether you’re a seasoned Inkling or are only just wrapping your tentacles around the Wii U GamePad for the first time. Sure, you can focus your efforts on making life hard for the opposing team, but that won’t as easily let you earn points that are necessary to increase your level and unlock a greater weapon selection.
Rise through the ranks to Level 10 and you can enter Ranked Battle, taking to the arena in Splat Zones. This far meaner mode is Nintendo’s take on King of the Hill, seeing opposing teams compete to hold two designated zones on the stage. These are claimed by inking them entirely in your team’s colour, and, once both are held, your counter will begin ticking down from 100. Hit zero and you win, although I found this a far tougher scenario than Turf War with well-trained teams playing effectively in defence.
The Wii U GamePad comes into its own across both modes, awaiting your new respawn lending you the time necessary to evaluate precisely where you need to go next. Whether a teammate is sneaking around the back of the opposing team or if there’s an enemy making an attack on your base, it’s easy to make snap decisions to respond. Players can also tap on a teammate to launch to their location, making you feel more connected to your Inkling comrades as you work together to seize victory. Nintendo’s controversial decision to completely omit voice chat was a disappointing one, players left to use preset messages to call for help or congratulate a fellow Inkling’s efforts by using the D-Pad. It’s not what most had hoped for, but at least helps to keep the chat clean.
While some may prefer Left and Right stick input to move and control the camera, the GamePad also leverages motion control to allow more freedom over where you’re aiming your ink splatters. I personally found this far more preferable, although experiment to see which suits you.
Regardless of which mode you spend your time playing, you will be rewarded with currency based on your performance with a bonus waiting to be claimed for a team victory. You’ll return to the Inkopolis plaza between matches, a hub world that connects everything on offer in Splatoon. This is where you will appear when you load up the game, greeted by an Inkopolis News bulletin from Squid Sisters Callie and Marie that confirm the stages that are playable that day – rotating on a daily basis.
Once you reach Level 4 you will be ‘fresh’ enough to wander inside Booyah Base to browse and purchase new weapons, headgear, clothes and shoes. The store owners – Sheldon, Annie, Jelonzo and Crusty Sean – are all particularly well characterised, and I especially found it easy to chuckle at the remarks made by Annie’s cheeky goldfish Moe. Their item selection changes each day, and you unlock a new weapon every time you level up online, so be sure to make repeated visits to buy the best gear!
Main weapons themselves are a diverse mixture, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. It’ll take time to find your favourite, whether that be the .52 Gal’s steady ink chug, the silent but deadly Splat Roller or the more ink-splosive Blaster. I eventually settled on the Aerospray MG, which has a shorter range but covers turf more quickly.
Each forms part of a loadout that also comprises of a sub-weapon and a special weapon, whether that be bombs, mines, the Inkzooka or defensive Bubbler. These are all pre-determined and can’t be changed, but have been carefully balanced to ensure that they aren’t overpowered. Whereas your headgear, clothes and shoes will add stat bonuses such as quicker respawn times, faster ink recovery or increased damage. Gears are marked by rarity, with rarer items having more abilities on them.
With Nintendo making such a song and dance about Splatoon being a multiplayer offering, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that it has other modes to occupy your time.
It’s apt then that the single-player component, Hero Mode, is accessed by a sewage drain that takes you beneath Inkopolis plaza’s surface to Octo Valley. Here, Cap’n Cuttlefish will recruit you to the legendary Squidbeak Splatoon, tasking you with leading the fight against the invading Octarians who have stolen the Great Zapfish. I worried that this would have distinctly felt like an afterthought, but, while limiting you to an upgradable if pre-selected loadout, it’s an absolute blast.
Helping to introduce players the game’s movement and inky gunplay, invisible stage entrances must first be uncovered with ink before diving in to see what they hold. Stages are particularly creative in their demands on the player, matching the ingenuity largely attributed to Mario’s 3D adventures in recent years. With imaginative ways to defeat the Octarian forces, each area ends with a particularly memorable boss fight and, while I can’t discuss it in any more detail, this eventually leads to one of the most memorable final showdowns that Nintendo have cooked up for some time.
Those that prefer offline multiplayer can take on a friend in Battle Dojo, one player using the TV screen while the other plays on the Wii U GamePad. Each player competes to pop the most balloons, and, while online is where the real fun is at, this is a welcome chance to familiarise yourself with each weapon type and stage.
Splatoon emanates childlike wonder from every kaleidoscopic pixel, with attention to detail that allows the thriving metropolis to come alive. Slickly presented, the soundtrack packs plenty of rocky razzmatazz whereas there’s notably attentive detail given to the sound effects – from the playfully rapid ink splatter through to the music muffling slightly as you swim through ink.
The only question mark that remains is how far Splatoon’s tentacles will take it, but Nintendo has been clear in outlining their plans to support the Wii U exclusive post-release. New stages, modes, weapons and gear are to be steadily rolled out, with interest to be regularly sparked by hosting special Splatfest events that see players answer a themed question to take sides against their Inkling rivals online. A major update in August will expand on this all even further, promising to cover a few shortcomings such as allowing four players to form up as a team online and the chance to create private matches. Naturally, it’ll be the players that ultimately decide Splatoon’s longevity, and I certainly hope that they stick with it.
But if anything’s clear at this point, Nintendo has done it again. Splatoon feels incredibly different to anything that you’ve played before and is all the more refreshing for it. Accessible in a way that has allowed mainstays such as the Mario Kart series to be readily enjoyed by all ages over the years, it’s addictive by design. With sleepy feline Judd waking to reveal scores at the end of each match, this can be marked down as an undeniable victory for Nintendo.
Version Tested: Wii U
Review copy provided by Nintendo