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Nintendo’s most important new games have nothing to do with Mario

Splatoon and Arms represent a big effort for the company

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Splatoon 2
Splatoon 2.

Each time Nintendo releases a new console, it’s safe to assume the usual suspects will follow: a new Mario Kart and Super Mario Bros. are all but guaranteed; new Smash Bros. and Zelda games are likely to make appearances at some point; and maybe another Metroid launches before the next console makes it to market, and restarts the cycle.

In its first few months of existence, the Nintendo Switch has made good on that nascent promise. It debuted alongside the stunning Zelda adventure Breath of the Wild, and its holiday will be propped up by Super Mario Odyssey. At E3 2017, Nintendo teased new Pokémon and Metroid Prime adventures, establishing a release calendar punctuated with familiar faces. But sandwiched among those major releases is a handful of something far less common: new Nintendo franchises.

On Switch, some of the most important games come from comparatively new and unknown series. That includes the just-launched competitive fighter Arms, and the upcoming sequel to Splatoon, a breakout competitive shooter that debuted on the Wii U in 2015. Both games represent Nintendo expanding in a new game genre, and creating a fictional world to match. Arms and Splatoon are the company’s attempt to reach new players and introduce new types of play — ones out of reach for Mario and Link.

According to Shinya Takahashi, general manager of Nintendo’s software division, Nintendo EPD, those two aspects of a new game — the gameplay and the characters — work in tandem. “It’s not just about new characters,” he explains. “It’s also about thinking about how people will accept new systems and gameplay. Sometimes new intellectual property is the best way to introduce that.”

Splatoon 2
Splatoon 2.

Over the years, the company has semi-regularly created new franchises around new game ideas. Often these have proved incredibly successful. Wii Sports and its sequel have sold more than 100 million units globally, while the Brain Age and Nintendogs series became some of the top-selling titles for the original Nintendo DS. But while those games sold well, they didn’t exactly inspire a dedicated following. Arms and Splatoon are something slightly different.

Nintendo isn’t just a company known for its games, it’s a company that has thrived in large part due to its enviable roster of globally recognized characters like Mario and Pikachu. These iconic characters and settings have allowed Nintendo to branch out from its traditional line of games, expanding into everything from apps to clothing lines to theme parks. For its newest potential breakout hits, Nintendo is utilizing some of its top talent to bring them to life. Arms was created by largely the same team behind Mario Kart 8, while Splatoon is helmed by the longtime director of the Animal Crossing series.

“That wouldn’t be enough if the gameplay wasn’t there to back it up.”

Like the games Nintendo is best known for, Arms and Splatoon are couched heavily on their characters. In the case of Splatoon, it's a cute race of squid / teen hybrids called inklings. Players are able to create and customize their own inkling, dressing them up in all manner of stylish gear and outfitting them with weapons ranging from Super Soaker-style guns to giant paint rollers. The game features a vibrant skate punk aesthetic that feels unlike anything Nintendo has made previously. Fans have reacted strongly to the project, steadily pumping out fan art and delving deep into the game’s lore. “We continue to be surprised at how much emotion people feel toward these characters, and the fan art and stories they’ve created,” says Hisashi Nogami, producer on both the original Splatoon and its sequel.

According to Nogami, the key to the first game’s success — Splatoon is the Wii U’s sixth best-selling title, moving 4.8 million copies — is that the distinct, colorful world was built on the foundation of a very fun game. “I don’t think it’s actually one particular element — like story or characters — that makes it stand apart, and creates that dedication [amongst fans],” he explains. “If it were just the looks, if it was just because this weapon looked particularly cute, that wouldn’t be enough if the gameplay wasn’t there to back it up.”

The first Splatoon was well-received in large part for its distinctly Nintendo take on multiplayer shooters. In the game, teams of four players battle against each other and attempt to paint an arena in their team’s color. It featured the depth and excitement you’d expect from a shooter, but without the grisly violence typically associated with the genre. Splatoon not only spawned a sequel that launches next month on Switch, but its inkling characters also joined the roster of the most recent Mario Kart, alongside beloved names like Donkey Kong and Princess Peach.

For the sequel, the team at Nintendo are largely expanding on what players gravitated toward with the original Splatoon. The core of the game is still its four-on-four competitive multiplayer, but Splatoon 2 also features a more robust single-player campaign, a more detailed look at the series’s growing lore, and new characters and weapons for players to get attached to. “We had so many ideas, so many things that we wanted to put in the first game,” says lead programmer Shintaro Sato. “But it really ended up being a distillation of those ideas. And we had many ideas leftover that we were able to bring over to Splatoon 2.”


The success of Splatoon in 2015 also likely had a hand in the direction of Arms. “With Splatoon, we created new characters, and the fanbase responded well to those,” says Nogami. “That may have paved the way for more of that type of new game experience.” Like SplatoonArms is a game centered around competitive multiplayer. But instead of a team-based shooter, it’s a fighting game that blends together elements of boxing and arcade experiences like Street Fighter. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Arms is the fighters themselves. They’re not normal people, but instead fighters with long, springy arms that let them punch across long distances.

“We created new characters, and the fanbase responded well.”

It’s a gameplay conceit that helps make the game stand out in a crowded fighting game genre, but it’s also one that necessitated a new roster of characters. It didn’t make much sense to have Mario and Luigi with Slinkies for arms. “We thought the best fit for it was to make it all new,” Arms producer Kosuke Yabuki told me earlier this monthArms’ eclectic cast of fighters includes an amoebic blob with DNA strands for arms, a ramen connoisseur with noodle appendages, and a tea-drinking movie star who punches with her long, luxurious hair.

Like with Splatoon, fans have had a strong reaction to the cast of Arms. Even before the game launched, social networks like Twitter and Tumblr were filled with fan art, and new character reveals were accompanied by very loud and excited voices. “We actually had no idea what to expect in terms of reactions from the fans,” says Yabuki. “But the designers, and the Arms team as a whole, were confident in our character designs.”

Both franchises are still in their formative stages. Splatoon debuted two years ago, while Arms just came out this month. But the potential for both — especially given Nintendo’s long history of creating successful characters — is obvious. They help Nintendo reach new players with new types of games, while also adding to its sizable roster of beloved characters.

And these kinds of new franchises and fictional worlds are something Nintendo considers whenever it works on a new gameplay concept. “Whenever we see a new, really fun prototype, there’s always going to be a moment where we think: ‘How do we give the most people the opportunity to play this? Is it something that needs to be in a Mario game, or is this something that feels like it should go in a new direction?’ And that’s a debate that happens every single time,” explains Takahashi.

For a game like Splatoon, the question is where the franchise goes from here. Producer Nogami says that he can envision a future in which Splatoon continues to grow not just as a shooter, but potentially into other types of games and entertainment experiences as well. In the years to come, the inklings could very well become mainstays alongside Kirby and Yoshi. “You can’t help but think of all types of scenarios,” he says.