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If you’re one of those who complained about Nintendo only making sequels and casual games for years, you’re a bit obligated to pay attention to Splatoon.
This third-person shooter is the first major franchise (not counting minigame collections like Wii Sports and quality-of-life titles like Wii Fit or Brain Age) that the Japanese publisher has created since Pikmin, which came out for the GameCube back in 2001. In a lot of ways, it’s a big departure for Nintendo. Splatoon’s main focus is an online, competitive experience, and it’s mostly about shooting things, even if you are firing ink instead of bullets.
Yet even if this the publisher’s first shooter, Nintendo’s famous quality and knack for design are as present here as it is any Mario or Zelda game.
What you’ll like
A fun twist on the shooter
The main meat of Splatoon is a team-based shooter, similar to Call of Duty, Gears of War, Halo, or a bunch of other team deathmatch experiences. But players in Splatoon shoot ink, and while they can kill people on the other team, the real objective is to cover the level in as much of your team’s color as possible. Not only will this let you travel the map faster (you can turn into a squid and quickly swim through your team’s ink, even on walls), but the team that covers most of the level also wins the match. It’s an interesting twist, and it definitely helps Splatoon feel different.
Turning into a squid and swimming through a level feels speedy but fluid. You can jump from platforms to walls, quickly zipping through a map and traveling to hard-to-reach places that give you a tactical advantage (typically, the higher the better, since those areas make it easy to quickly cover the ground below you in ink). Swimming through your ink also hides you from the enemy, so you can sneak behind the other team and surprise them.
The single-player campaign
If you’ve been following Nintendo’s announcements and build-up for Splatoon, you may have forgotten that it has a single-player mode. In fact, the campaign is almost hidden in the hub world. You access it by jumping through a small gate in the ground. It’s hardly as grand an entrance as the lobby for multiplayer.
However, this single-player campaign is Splatoon’s biggest surprise. It doesn’t merely pit you in multiplayer-style matches with bots. Instead, you must complete a series of special levels, each with new platforming tricks, gimmicks, and enemies.
The design reminded me a lot of 3D Mario games. A level will introduce something new (like an enemy that can shoot grenades or a sponge-like platform that grows as you shoot ink at it) and then expand on the idea until the end of the stage. Then, those concepts will begin to stack on each other in future, more complicated levels. It’s just as fun here as it is in Mario.
This mode is still about shooting, but the platforming is just as important. You need to use your ink to climb walls, jump long distances, and hide from enemies. The bosses are also great, once again reminding me of Mario with their cleverness (and their knack for having to be hit three times before dying). The final boss is fantastic, but I won’t spoil it for you. However, it feels surprisingly epic and challenging for a game that barely advertised its campaign.
Even the hub world, which you have to explore to access the levels, is fun. It offers its own platforming challenges that you need to conquer if you want to reach new stages. Also, while you can’t customize what weapons you use like you can in multiplayer, you can upgrade your gun and grenades with items that you collect during the campaign.
This single-player campaign is probably the best thing in Splatoon, and it’s another masterful platforming adventure from Nintendo.
A distinct style
I’m not sure what you would call Splatoon’s style, but it’s very distinct, colorful, and what I imagine might be considered “hip” by people who don’t have a closet full of Star Trek and Iron Maiden shirts. I guess you could call it “liquid neon mall punk.” It reminds me of Jet Set Radio, a Dreamcast game that also had a fun, rebellious style with catchy music.
Customizing weapons and outfits
Like in Call of Duty, you earn levels by competing in multiplayer matches. You also earn money that you can spend on new items, like guns and clothes. Guns come in three main types: a standard splatter that’s like a semi-automatic rifle, a roller that can cover the ground quickly in ink and kill any enemy it touches, and a sniper-like gun that covers a straight, thin line in ink. However, guns come with different grenades and special abilities (which unlock after you cover a certain amount of ground in ink). They also have different stats, like firing rate and damage.
You can also buy new clothes. Not only do they let you customize your look, but each one has bonuses for your character that can give you a small edge in battle.
What you won’t like
A lack of variety
Splatoon’s multiplayer is fun, but it feels restrictive. For some reason, only two maps are in the matchmaking rotation at a time. So, if you want to play for an hour, you’ll be stuck switching back between the same two maps over and over, sometimes repeating the same level a few times. I have no idea what the point of this is, especially when the game only has six maps anyway. Why not just put them all in the rotation all the time?
You also don’t have that many multiplayer modes. The one I’ve been talking about is Turf War, where you have to cover the most ground in your ink, and it’s the standard. There’s also a King of the Hill-type mode where you have control a small area by keeping it covered in your ink, but you can only access it Ranked Mode (which won’t be unlocked right when the game launches).
Nintendo is going to add more modes to Splatoon post-launch, so this might not be as bad a problem in a few months. Still, at least at first, you better enjoy Turf War.
It sucks when people quit
In a regular team deathmatch game, it’s not the end of the world if your team has one less player than the other. Yeah, you’ll lose some kills, but it also gives the other guys one less target. However, in Splatoon, missing a guy means you’ll quickly fall behind in the task of covering a level in ink. You need an even number of players.
Luckily, the game won’t start until it has eight players ready, but it can’t do anything if someone decides to quit. When this happens, you’ll likely lose and have a frustrating game, and there isn’t much you can do about it.
Splatoon is clever, creative, and fun. The multiplayer is a fun twist on the team-based shooter. However, the single-player campaign is surprisingly the best thing in the game. It offers the kind of quality level design you’d expect from a Mario title, but with a healthy dose of shooter mechanics.
The campaign isn’t as long as one you’d find in a modern Mario game, and the multiplayer can get stale thanks to a current lack of modes and a bizarre restriction on maps. You might not play Splatoon for months, but you’ll definitely enjoy it.
Splatoon comes out on May 29 for the Wii U. Nintendo provided GamesBeat with a digital code for the purposes of this review.