Splatoon is an atypical game for Nintendo. It's a third-person shooter. It's heavily focused on online play. It doesn't have any traditional Nintendo characters — in fact, it's the first time in well over a decade that Nintendo has started from scratch for a major new game.
But at the same time, Splatoon feels like it could only have been made by Nintendo. It's a shooter that swaps colorful ink for bullets, and most of the time you're not even firing at people. The online system is ultra-simple, with little regard for hardcore gaming convention. And while Mario and co. are nowhere to be found, Splatoon's bizarre world and vibrant aesthetic feel like a '90s cartoon-inspired take on Nintendo's library.
Most importantly, Splatoon's tight design echoes the best Nintendo games by combining a few simple ideas into a catchy whole. It's a team-based shooter where the basic aim is to paint as much of the environment in your color as possible; you can slow your opponents' progress by taking them out and sending them back to their start point; you reload your weapon by turning into a squid and swimming through your team's pools of ink at high speed. Of course.
It feels like kicking a ball around in a park with your friends
There's more to it than that — extra weapons, special moves, and so on — but anyone can play Splatoon knowing nothing more than the above. People talk of "e-sports" these days, often referring to ultra-complex, ultra-competitive games like Dota and StarCraft, but Splatoon feels more like my personal experience of sports than any other game I've played this year, barring the fantastic car-soccer hybrid Rocket League. That's to say, it feels more like kicking a ball around in a park with your friends than calling the plays for an NFL team.
And, just like everyone can contribute to a park kickabout in their own way, no one feels left out in Splatoon. It's easy to shoot ink at floors, and if you don't feel confident taking on players directly you can still help your team out by coloring the safer areas in pink or green or purple. There are even weapons like the giant paint roller that make the game feel more like home decoration than Halo for anyone who doesn't want to shoot opponents — and the genius of Splatoon is that these players can be just as vital to success as those who use more advanced techniques. Are there pro-level strategies to dominate Splatoon maps in seconds? Probably, but I never felt like I encountered any in my time with the game.
A different kind of competitive game
And that's really the point — Splatoon eschews standard features for online shooters like voice chat, which limits its potential as a serious competitive game but makes it far easier for casual players to jump in. Splatoon also only lets you play a couple of maps a day from a rotating list, giving another way to make sure that players are on the same page. There's almost no friction at all in deciding to jump online and play a game or five.
Make these changes to Halo or Call of Duty and there'd be uproar across the planet; these are decisions that seem to deliberately limit the scope for high-level play. But they feel like the right choice for Splatoon, a game that — like all of Nintendo's best work — has been designed from the ground up to be accessible for everyone without limiting its appeal to more advanced players. Sure, this isn't Destiny — you're not going to be hopping online every day for months. Splatoon is a different kind of competitive game to other shooters, though, and not just because you control a weird hybrid squid-kid shooting liquid instead of lasers. It rewards instinct and improvisation rather than experience and execution; it drops you in the moment and expects you to make do. Will it be for everyone? Of course not. But I think the hardcore first-person shooter crowd is quite a bit smaller than "everyone."
And, like a feather to an inkwell, I've found myself returning to Splatoon throughout the year whenever my reserves of colorful, raucous joy run dry. It's my personal favorite game of 2015, an unqualified success for Nintendo, and an encouraging sign for the company's future.