Nintendo makes lots of fantastic games, but it’s often criticized for relying too heavily on its established franchises. Each generation of consoles gets a new Mario, a new Zelda, and maybe a new Metroid, if we’re lucky. Where’s the new blood? Where are the new franchises? On Wii U, Splatoon is the answer.
Splatoon is a brand new IP from Nintendo that stars new characters in a new world. It bears many of the hallmarks of a Nintendo game, but in many ways it’s unlike anything the company has made before.
I went hands-on with the game as part of the “Global Test Fire” Nintendo hosted over the weekend (a fancy phrase meaning a public beta). Based on my two one-hour play sessions, I can say Splatoon looks like one of the most interesting online shooters in years.
That’s right, Nintendo has made an online shooter — an odd thing for a company known for colorful, family friendly games like Mario Party and Captain Toad. However, you can rest assured that Splatoon isn’t your average shooter.
What is an average shooter in 2015? Games of global warfare come to mind: games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, Counter-Strike GO, Destiny, Titanfall, and on and on. If you’re looking for muscular soldiers riddling each other with bullets, you’ll have to keep looking, because Splatoon isn’t that. Instead, Splatoon takes some of the best ideas from those games and mixes them with fresh new concepts to create something colorful and fun that stands out from the crowd.
In Splatoon, two teams of four players face off against each other for a round of shooting and splattering. A round is three minutes, during which each team tries its hardest to paint the terrain with its color of ink. As you go about this task, you can shoot your opponents if you so choose. Killing someone knocks them out of the action for a few seconds and kicks them back to their base.
To win a round in nearly all other shooters, your team must rack up the most kills. Not so in Splatoon. At the end of each round here, the winning team is determined by who has coated the largest portion of the map in their color of ink. To zero in on that idea, Splatoon is a shooter that’s not all about killing.
Plenty of shooter tropes are accounted for here, however. Before each match, you choose which weapon to equip. There’s a pistol, a gun that looks like a Super Soaker, a sniper rifle, and a giant paint roller.
Each weapon has different ink-coating and combat abilities. For instance, the Super Soaker (called a “Splattershot”) is a well-rounded weapon, with average ink-coating and enemy-shooting capabilities. The sniper weapon is much better at eliminating enemies than at coating the terrain. The paint roller is great at coating the ground, but it can’t shoot at all. Instead, you have to roll over enemies to eliminate them.
The weapon variety makes it a strategic game, because you have to choose how much energy you want to devote to eliminating enemies and how much to spend coating the level with ink.
The ink the two teams deploy plays a key role in navigating the map. That’s because you can press a button to turn into a squid that can swim quickly over ground covered in your team’s ink. When you enter enemy ink territory, however, you slow way down, whether you’re swimming or walking.
For all the strategy baked into the game, there’s one big issue holding teams back from working together: Nintendo has chosen not to include voice chat in Splatoon.
Now, voice chat channels in online shooters are notorious for being swamps of awful, vitriolic, racist, sexist, homophobic speech. Clearly, if that were to occur in Splatoon, it would be at odds with Nintendo’s family friendly reputation. However, Splatoon is a team-based game, and the lack of voice chat makes it much more challenging to strategize with your teammates. I understand why Nintendo doesn’t offer voice chat in the game, but it’s hard to deny that the game suffers as a result.
Another problem is that the game doesn’t control as tightly as some other popular shooters. The default control scheme has you tilt the GamePad to aim your weapon, which I found to be extremely kludgy. You can toggle off tilt aiming in the options menu, but even without it, Splatoon doesn’t feel as precise as any recent Call of Duty game. I’m sure I’ll get better with practice, but don’t expect to land easy headshots early on. (Headshots, by the way, don’t seem any more powerful than any other hit in this game).
I also found it frustrating to go up against opponents who used the paint roller weapon. They were able to kill me in about one hit, while I struggled to aim my ink gun at them. The tables were turned when I played with the paint roller, which makes me think the weapon is overpowered.
Splatoon isn’t the only game bucking the trends of modern shooters, but it’s probably the cutest. Valve cranked up the cartoon quotient with its (still very violent) Team Fortress 2, and PopCap has a colorful shooter called Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare. But so far, Splatoon seems more open-hearted than either of those games.
Overall, I really enjoyed the two hours I spent with Splatoon. The question is whether the game has the depth to keep players coming back for weeks or months after release. There’s no doubt Nintendo would like to add Splatoon to its list of IPs it can dip into time and again over the years, but first Splatoon has to make a splash in the market. It seems up to Nintendo’s typical high standards so far, so don’t count it out.