Multiplayer online shooters are notorious for being incredibly popular, but not particularly welcoming to newcomers.
Doubtless most of you reading have experienced at least one occasion where, while attempting to learn a new game, you were berated for being a “noob”, or utterly dominated by an experienced player taking advantage of the “fresh meat” on the map. With determination, you can push beyond this, of course, but it’s not something that everybody finds particularly palatable or fun.
Which is why Splatoon is such a wonderful piece of game design from Nintendo. By shifting the focus away from attacking other players directly while simultaneously removing the most common ways for people to be jerks to one another — i.e. voice and text chat — it created one of the most accessible, enjoyable takes on the multiplayer shooter ever created, and a game that even people who typically dislike multiplayer shooters can enjoy.
Splatoon is actually split into two main components: a single-player puzzle-platform adventure, and what most people perceive as its “main attraction”: the online multiplayer action. Let’s look at both of these components, beginning with the multiplayer aspect.
When you first start playing Splatoon online, the only mode of play you have access to is Turf War, in which two teams square off against one another in an attempt to cover the greatest proportion of the map’s floor with ink of their team’s colour. There are only ever two maps in the rotation at any one time — though said rotation changes at regular, predictable intervals, and has expanded since the game’s original launch. This gives everyone the opportunity to spend a decent amount of time with the maps in question and learn the things they need to know: good vantage points, areas people often forget to ink, useful hiding spots and good places to set off special weaponry.
De-emphasising direct attacks on other players was a particularly good decision, because it encourages you to make full use of the level and even actively avoid confrontation in some cases. Victory in a Turf War match is a matter of inking places you feel your enemies are unlikely to go, then trying to push the “front line” forward in your advantage when you think you’ve covered everything you can without encroaching on enemy territory. It’s a really interesting twist on the usual formula, and the fact that even the most cack-handed of players will be able to cover the floor with ink means it’s easy to pick up but hard to master.
After a while, you unlock Ranked mode in multiplayer, which provides a greater variety of objectives, but still only a rotation of two at once. This makes things more challenging, but still allows newcomers time to adjust rather than being thrown straight in at the deep end and expected to know everything. Ranked mode also takes care to match players according to their rating, which goes up or down with won or lost games, theoretically stabilising at a point that is representative of your overall skill level. This keeps matchups fair, but also provides incentive to try and improve: it’s immensely satisfying to finally reach a new rating, and exciting to try and hold on to it.
Splatoon’s multiplayer is kept interesting by a gradual progression system that unlocks new weapons and customisation options as you play more games and increase in level. The new weapons aren’t necessarily “better” than the ones you start with; they simply provide alternative loadouts of primary weapons and special abilities and allow more experienced players greater control over the options they have available to them in a match. In other words, there’s no guarantee that a high-level player is necessarily going to dominate a newcomer; it simply means that person has been playing a lot longer, and thus have more options to choose from.
The part of Splatoon that is often completely forgotten about is its single-player campaign. And this is a crying shame, because it’s one of Nintendo’s most interesting and enjoyable games for a long time — the only downside to it all is that it’s a little bit short, especially when compared to sprawling monstrosities like Super Mario 3D World, which just keeps going and going and going every time you think it’s finished.
Rather than simply providing the opportunity to “practice” against computer-controlled bots, as with most multiplayer shooters, Splatoon’s single-player campaign is a discrete experience in its own right. While it uses the same basic controls and techniques as the multiplayer, the focus is very different: rather than battling for dominance of an open-plan map, you are instead working your way through a series of linear levels with a definite “goal point” to reach in case. There are also several hidden objects scattered throughout each stage, requiring you to make creative use of the techniques available to you to fully explore your environments.
The rather abstract nature of Splatoon’s single-player stages — typically strange structures floating in the sky — calls to mind various Super Mario games, and indeed there’s a lot in common with Nintendo’s flagship series. Additions to the formula such as the ability to cover a wall in ink and then “swim” up it mean it’s much more than a simple clone of the ageing plumber’s adventures, however, and some highly creative boss fights challenge you to make full use of all the techniques you’ve learned along the way.
Like most of Nintendo’s first-party games, Splatoon’s single-player is designed to introduce you to things gently and one at a time, with the final stages becoming a formidable challenge where you’re expected to demonstrate complete mastery of everything you’ve been taught prior to this point. It’s well-paced and never gets bogged down too much in a single “trick”; in this sense, it’s probably not necessarily too much of a bad thing that it’s a little on the short side. And, perhaps best of all, without realising it, while you’re mastering the techniques required to conquer the single-player campaign, you’re actually developing a variety of skills that will be of great use to you in multiplayer.
Splatoon is accessible, charming and immensely stylish. Its characters, entirely original creations for the franchise, are absolutely wonderful, effortlessly blending “cool” and “cute” in a way that means they’re never quite crossing that invisible line in either direction that would make them “annoying”. It’s a distinctive, original work as a whole — still recognisably Nintendo, but with a thoroughly modern feel about it that will make both newcomers to this type of game and seasoned veterans all feel very much at home.
More than anything, though, it’s just damn fun.
Wii U Essentials is a series of articles that each focus on a single retail game from the Wii U’s library. These articles aim to build a comprehensive record of this turbulent period in Nintendo’s history: a time when the company released some of its very finest games, yet it struggled to recapture popular attention and commercial success in the same way as the original Wii did.
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