Splatoon finally came out this past Friday! Cue excitement from me and many others, I presume. The hype around this game has been building for essentially a year now, since last year’s E3, so I jumped at the chance to write something about it. However, I’m not in big press. So although I played both available demos, I hadn’t received a review copy. This puts me in an awkward position: if you wanted to read a review about Splatoon, you’ve probably done so by now. You would know the major pros and cons (which, don’t worry, I’ll still go over) the game has. While I wasn’t lucky enough to get a review copy, I still got to spend a good number of hours with it, and I love it! Plus, this has given me the unique opportunity to discuss some of the more intriguing points that have been missed along with the traditional game review points.
Before you even start playing, the game has committed to a faux-nostalgic aesthetic from the get-go. The advertising and commercials all have a very 90’s Nickelodeon feel (the ink splats feel comfortingly familiar) while still being obviously modern. There are bright contrasting colors, drums, and heavy sampled music with an announcer that reminds me of the lead singer of The Muffs. This aesthetic is carried into the game from the start up screen on the Wii U and it is maintained throughout the experience—it’s obviously what kind of flavor they’re giving this game. Many characters and select screens speak in an informal lingo that seems to be reminiscent of old-school slang, such as “fresh”, “chill”, or saying “nah” or “yeah”. It feels that they wanted to make a kid-friendly game, but possibly for 90’s kids, rather than current kids; however, kid-friendly is universal, so it works.
And this transfers to the gameplay, in my estimation, in a very natural way. The first thing the game does (after a character creator, but more on that later) is drop you into a tutorial. It’s straightforward, teaching you every function you’ll need. You’ll learn how to aim by tilting the gamepad, move around, spray ink, and use squid functions. Additionally, there is no time limit or enemies, so it is incredibly low stress. This helps increase the inclusivity of the game, as do the previously mentioned motional control-based aiming. There’s been theorizing that motion controls may be more intuitive to gamers who have yet to use and/or master using both joysticks for aiming and movement. Either way, it’s nice to have the option! It seems like an inventive concept, as it technically frees the player’s thumbs up for other actions. But I digress. To increase accessibility, there is also a “Color Lock” mode which locks the ink colors into high contrast colors to aid those with levels of colorblindness.
After you’ve completed the tutorial, the game drops you into the Inkopolis Plaza, the game’s hub world, to show you around. There, a big screen above the city presents a broadcast featuring the Squid Sisters (they’re pop idols, it’s adorable and awesome) who get you acquainted with the game’s world. After this quick intro, the player is shown the clothing and weapons shops. In Splatoon, various clothing, or gear, can give the player character different stat boosts and abilities. Weapons are straightforward: you’ll be using these to put ink on the map in online battles. Each store has a different sea creature as a salesperson with a distinct personality and speech pattern. Along with the shops, this is where the player can access the single player story mode via a manhole with an old cuttlefish war vet in it — although this isn’t the star of the show, as the game even urges you directly to use online multiplayer. The plaza is also where you’ll see other players’ characters milling around. You can inspect their gear to order it, and see their Miiverse picture or quote. So far, in just a few days, it’s mostly memes with a focus on Spongebob Squarepants. Go figure, but it’s still humorous to me.
Beyond that is the online multiplayer: the real meat of the game. Every few hours, the previously mentioned Squid Sisters will announce the two maps available. Each match is randomly assigned to one, so the players won’t know where they are going until they’re there. The main mode available is Turf War, where teams of four compete to cover more of the map with their color ink than the opposing team. Although the goal is simple, the execution isn’t. Once your team’s ink is on the ground or walls, you can use it to hide and swim, which is faster than running. Opposing teams ink will damage and impede your movement. If you sustain enough damage, either from sitting in theirs, or getting shot or rolled over directly, you explode into a puddle of ink and return to the spawn point. While you don’t get any additional points for “splatting” opponents, it does prevent them from inking territory for a while; so it is strategic, but not the goal. Additionally, the player can super jump from wherever they are to a teammate or the spawn point at anytime by tapping on the game pad. (This is also where you’ll find the map, and see where both teams’ ink is). This makes travel fairly easy.
This is where the various stat-boosted gear and weapons come into play. There are three classes of weapons, which are essentially rapid-fire guns (versatile for players of all skill levels), long range guns (built for attacking foes and spreading ink at long distances), and paint rollers (good for spreading a lot of ink quickly, but vulnerable to ranged attacks). Each of these weapons comes with a sub-item, such as paint grenades, and a special weapon (such as a shield) that is gained by inking territory. All this variation creates diverse, high paced matches. Comebacks and one-sided matches are just as common as matches decided by 0.1% difference, so it never feels hopeless.And this is where skill inclusivity comes into play: skilled players can be off developing new strategies and going head-to-head with opponents, while players that might not be at that level can hang back and ink turf away from the fray. Both strategies are actually very useful. As I said, a battle can come down to a tenth of a difference in turf covered, so every little bit counts. Never feeling “useless” is a good way to keep players encouraged and coming back.
While the online multiplayer is loads of fun, there are a few issues with it. The most controversial topic with it is its lack of voice chat. To be honest, I am torn on the matter. On the one hand, vulgarity and harassment is still rampant in online games. With children, women, and people of color playing, this would most likely come up, and it really ruins the experience for everyone not doing the harassing. But on the other hand, the occasional voice chat would help in strategizing. While the map on the gamepad helps, instant communication could make a few things more helpful. I would have liked to at least see voice chat available between Friends like in Smash Bros. lobbies. Speaking of Friend Modes, it’s unfortunate that players cannot create private lobbies to start matches with as many friends as possible. Also, there is no way to know what weapons your team has before starting. This can create some really unbalanced teams, which gets mildly annoying.
These are more gripes than actual flaws, though. One gripe that’s approaching being a flaw is the inability to leave a lobby if you enter one. For example, if you choose to join a match, but have to wait for more players or change your mind, you can’t leave unless you turn off your console. The fact that makes these missing features frustrating isn’t so much their absence, but moreso that some of these convenience features have been in other games for so long. Games shouldn’t include features just because others do, but sometimes features are in a game for a reason. (But I totally understand the idea behind the lack of voice chat. Gamers as a collective unit have kind of proven why that’s a bad idea… so I get it.)And that’s Splatoon in a quick nutshell, as I don’t want to ramble longer than I have. But I’d be remiss to avoid mentioning the cultural weight it carries. As I mentioned before, you’ll create a character when you first start. You choose either a girl or a boy, their skin color, and their eye color. The game assures you that you can change all of these at anytime. (Hair color isn’t a choice because that changes from match to match the ink.) While the gender binary and lack of varied body types is disappointing, I still think there is some good material here. First, the girl character is the default selection (and focus of the promotional material from Day 1, really) rather than the boy. Next, there are a decent array of skin tones available, even though there are only a few. But there’s enough for me, because I’m just happy to play a cute little Black squid boy. Just as well, all these options are purely aesthetic anyway, it doesn’t matter which gender or colors you pick, everyone is equal; which is a great message to portray to children, and a lot of adults to be honest. I was happily surprised, since I’m cynical, to see so many dark complected characters and female characters running around the matches and the plaza. I know some of my friends are playing the squid girls as well. Maybe they prefer her hair, the only real difference. Personally, I’m a fan of the boy’s squid-ponytail. But this is important because it means one of two things: either 1) there are a lot more ladies and/or people of color playing games than online critics of diversity want to admit, or 2) white dudes don’t have as much of a problem playing as ladies and/or characters of color as critics of diversity say. Possibly both. Either way, this should be a sign to all game developers and studios that diversity across gender and race lines isn’t something to be afraid of—the consumers want it!
Splatoon is a definitely very fun game with a lot of potential. Its quasi-nostalgic aesthetic and meta-detail really makes it stand out in a sea of homogenity in the game industry. Further, its accessibility to newcomers and casual gamers makes it an obvious purchase for those with the means to purchase it. Although at first the content seems a little more lacking than some hardcore fans, myself included, may have wanted at launch, the game never feels empty or incomplete. It sort of feels like a free-to-play game that isn’t going to try to wring money from its players. But, with the promised content coming (as of yesterday, there is already an additional weapon and map) the game will only become more populated. However there are a few gripes in the online experience that make the game feel slightly dated. Overall, it’s a great experience that I recommend anyone pick up, both seasoned players and especially newcomers. I give Splatoon an 8/10—good, some gripes, but nothing experience-ruining.