Nintendo plays it safe too often.
The company has become known almost exclusively for a small list of franchises. When you buy a new piece of Nintendo hardware, you do it because you'll get to play a new Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros., and (eventually) The Legend of Zelda. Those games are great, but you already know what to expect: it's pretty rare when Nintendo releases a game that's genuinely surprising. But when it does, the results can be incredible, like the wacky life sim Tomodachi Life or small experiments like the black-and-white puzzle game Boxboy.
Splatoon is the most surprising release from Nintendo in years. It's an online-focused, competitive shooter where groups of players team up to fight each other across a series of battle arenas. But at the same time, it's a bright, colorful game about strange creatures who are part squid, part human, and can alternate between the two at will. It's essentially Call of Duty with a Nintendo makeover, and it's proof that Nintendo needs to experiment more often.
Those odd squid creatures — called inklings — are the heart of the experience. What makes Splatoon so distinct, and so distinctly Nintendo, is how its characters feel totally different from any other shooter. For starters, you aren't firing bullets, you're shooting paint-like ink. In multiplayer, the goal isn't to decimate your opponents, but to cover the stage with as much satisfyingly goopy ink as possible (each four-person team has a color, and you want to cover the level in more of your colorful ink than that of your opponent). It’s less about finding and shooting your opponents, and more about constantly moving and firing at everything, even the floor.
This opens up an otherwise intimidating genre to new players. You don't have to be a particularly good shot to enjoy — or contribute to — a multiplayer match in Splatoon. It doesn't take a whole lot of skill to shoot paint at the floor. In fact, there's even an option for those who don't want to play the game as a shooter at all; eventually you'll unlock a giant roller that lets you paint the level and steamroll opponents without pulling a trigger. It's become my non-weapon of choice.
This focus on accessibility doesn't mean there isn't room for skill in the game; you can still "splat" opponents, forcing them to respawn back at their base. And I found myself on the receiving end of more than a few quick, sneaky kills at the hands of more talented players. But it's not frustrating the way it is in more traditional shooters, because it's not just a cycle of die, respawn, repeat. If you're no good at sniping opponents, you can contribute in other ways, finding hidden areas in need of a good paint job. And for the time-constrained, the matches are only a few minutes long, making it easy to squeeze some Splatoon into a busy schedule.
Splatoon is also a game that just feels good to move around in. Just like Titanfall, the emphasis is on speed and never standing in one spot for too long. While you're in humanoid form, the game feels like a fairly traditional third-person shooter, but when you switch to a squid, it becomes something altogether different. As a squid you can swim through your color of ink (going through your opponents’ ink is like swimming through glue), which not only makes you move faster, but also refills your ink supply for when you get back to shooting. It feels a bit like skateboarding; you can slide up ramps and walls, and make big jumps across gaps. Not coincidentally, most of the stages are set-up like skateparks, letting you grind along as if you’re playing a squid-themed Tony Hawk.
The game features a few different modes to play, but the core of the experience is online. The local multiplayer options are limited to a disappointing one-on-one game, and the single-player campaign is fun and occasionally really clever, but pretty light. I've played the game for around 15 hours and the vast majority of that was spent in four-on-four battles online. Nintendo doesn't have the greatest track record with online games, but, at least for the pre-launch version I played, Splatoon works remarkably well. I didn't experience any lag or disconnects, and while features like voice chat are missing — a controversial decision by Nintendo — I found I didn't really mind. Just like in the voice chat-less Hearthstone, it was actually kind of pleasant not to have to listen to strangers jabber away. Meanwhile, Splatoon really nails the progress loop, offering new weapons as you level up and new gear to buy every day. Even the stages rotate every few hours to keep things fresh.
Splatoon isn't just refreshing for the way it plays, but also for how it looks. Online shooters are dominated by realistic, grim, and grey war games like Call of Duty and Battlefield. Splatoon's paint-splattered, skate punk vibe feels different. It's sort of like a kid-friendly version of Sunset Overdrive, with plenty of bright colors and lots of visual customization options for your character.
The inklings themselves are well-designed. The female inkling, for example, has long, flowing hair that on second glance you will notice is actually made of tentacles. Throw on a backwards hat and some slick sneakers and she becomes a pretty badass paintball warrior. (The great new characters also result in what are possibly the best amiibos yet.) It's a lot of fun just to check out the shops — there's an in-game mall full of clothes — and try on different outfits. I probably wasted far too much time picking out the perfect hat.
What's perhaps most remarkable about Splatoon is how it is both a game that's completely different from anything Nintendo has made before, yet a game that still feels incredibly Nintendo-like. It includes features that just seem like they couldn't come from any other developer. For example, when you're waiting for a match you can play a retro arcade game on the Gamepad to kill time. In the game’s social hub you can check out other players’ outfits, and the game actually gives you the option to order anything that catches your eye.
Like with any online game, the question is whether Splatoon will hold up over the long run. Nintendo is planning on adding new content to the game every few weeks, including new weapons and stages, which should help. In August the game will get a new battle mode and some additional, team-focused matchmaking options, and all of the extra content will be free to download. That's no guarantee that the game will garner the community needed to keep it interesting for months or longer, but Nintendo has created a fantastic base to build off of.
Splatoon is a game that takes one of the most intimidating genres and reimagines it as something anyone can play. And it proves that Nintendo can still surprise.
Splatoon is available May 29th on the Wii U.