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Review: Nintendo’s Splatoon Is the Best Kind of Mess

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Splatoon for Wii U - Inkopolis

Talk to the squid girls and guys loafing around Inkopolis plaza, and you’re bound to find at least one person on the Miiverse praising Splatoon over Call of Duty. Where so many “serious” shooters are declaring headshots in a gravelly voice, Splatoon is graffiting a smiley face in the corner.

A year ago, PopCap made its own friendly shooter with Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, but Splatoon (a new independent property for Nintendo’s Wii U console) does it even better. It’s cute with attitude—punk colors everywhere, baseball caps on backward, and guns to the air—and you have as much fun painting the walls and floors blue (or pink, or yellow, etc.) as you do blasting the opposing team. Plus, no voice chat means no trash talking (thank you).

Splatoon offers both multiplayer and single-player modes. Its basic online matches are quick affairs that leave you wanting more ink-on-ink action. The mode available at launch, “Turf Wars,” lasts in three-minute bursts and has you spraying as much surface as you can in your team color to win. The single-player mode sends you zipping through levels a la Mirror’s Edge on a smaller scale (if Mirror’s Edge involved a slip-and-slide of fresh ink) to rescue the kidnapped Great Zapfish that belongs to the city. This is where Splatoon makes me crave old platformers with cartoon mascots: Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Ape Escape, and the like. As I saw someone on Miiverse put it, Splatoon is like Ratchet & Clank, “but messier.”

Splatoon for Wii U - Octarians

You’re a kid, armed with a paintgun and cool threads and kicks. You’re also a squid. Anytime you coat a surface with your color (the shade that matches your hair), you can submerge into it to move faster. You can dive in and out to refuel your ink tank and disappear from enemy sight. It’s like a cover shooter without the boring hiding behind walls that we’re all used to.

You soon learn from some “old creepy guy” named Cap’n Cuttlefish, the leader of the Squidbeak Splatoon, that the nefarious Octarians (ugly-cute octopuses with paintguns) are responsible for stealing Inkopolis’s Great Zapfish. Naturally, you suit up as Agent 3 and get your hands wet.

It’s a rare thing for a platformer to be so well-designed and charming that you consume rather than complete new levels, but Splatoon is one of those games. Swimming through ink and jumping out of it like a dolphin (err, squid?) is like going airborne—you feel like you’re speedrunning. Enemy splatter hurts you and slows you down like mud, so you learn to achieve a state of flow, always paving the path ahead so you can jettison through paint, reemerging to surprise and overtake enemies. In squid form, you can pass under grates or even climb walls and ramps. Anywhere your paint goes, you can too.

Splatoon for Wii U - Octo Valley

The point is to get you playing with pigment in different ways, whether that’s introducing you to the warfare of exploding pufferfish filled with ink all over your enemies or soaking tiny sponges to five times their size so you can climb them (using them as lifts, barriers, or vantage points). Sometimes, it’s that you have to contend with a new enemy, like Octoling girls who are as smart and tactical as real players, or Octostrikers that unleash cyclones on the ground to decimate you. Other times, you’re faced with a more cognitive trial: How can I paint my way along rotating propellers or around invisible walkways? These levels take place in a playground of blocks and platforms hanging in the sky. It’s paint parkour, and you’ve got some sweet moves.

The challenge shifts as much as your hair color, which is to say all the time. The bosses keep you playing a constant tug-of-war as you try to leave your mark on the arena more than they can. More ink to wade in means you can dodge and close the distance to strike. No spoilers, but the final boss is so bonkers you’ll be fighting with every ounce of paint and sweat you’ve got.

If you’re not keen on the gyro tilt controls for aiming with the GamePad, that’s fine—you can turn them off and use the Right Stick for the camera instead. I happened to like them. They’re not as precise as other shooters, but again, this isn’t Call of Duty. You don’t need an insane level of accuracy, and the lower bar for everyone arguably makes it easier for new players to compete with veteran squids.

Splatoon for Wii U - Splatfest

Splatoon is so enjoyable to play that, unfortunately, its strengths expose its weaknesses. Because I loved the single-player, I want to see it fleshed out in a full-blown sequel. The levels are more focused on delivering exciting and fast-paced gameplay than presenting eclectic stage designs. A carnival or circus backdrop is nice, but I want thriving hub worlds and themed areas of all kinds—anything to stretch the imagination. Splatoon’s cityscape is only the beginning.

Online multiplayer is limited, but Nintendo has plans to release new stages, extra weapons, and more modes, all as free downloadable content. Monday night’s update added one of each, including the first “Ranked Battle” online mode, “Splat Zones,” where your team competes to dominate and maintain control of a small square of territory.

To show off, you can personalize your character’s appearance and style with headgear, clothes, shoes, and weapons for the online modes, where you level up and earn coins to spend in the shops. But if you’re without an Internet connection, you have no means to customize your character.

Splatoon for Wii U - Turf War

Each piece of gear has unique abilities that boost your stats, but you have to select predetermined loadouts. Primary weapons include a subweapon and a special weapon (from bombs to sprinklers to tiny homing robots), but you can’t mix and match as you choose, and you can’t swap abilities in or out, either. You might prefer a loadout for one reason but hate it for another.

Like in any shooter, different weapons influence how you play, and some are better suited to the rapid, close-quarters competitive play than others. Splattershot weapons have a capable rate of fire, so you can take opponents down fast. Another good choice are the Splat Rollers, a giant paint roller that covers a lot of ground (advancing with broad strokes) and allows you to splash other players. The Charger weapons were my least favorite. They’re powerful, but they take time to charge, and their basic (quicker) shot is narrow. In a mode like “Turf Wars,” where winning is about gaining the most area, that means you’re stuck manning the high ground and sniping opponents rather than helping to claim valuable strips of land.

Six multiplayer stages are available, but you can play only two at a time—whatever pair is on rotation. A short news flash alerts you to which two are on offer, but you have to watch it every time you start up the game (no skipping it). And since it changes every four hours, the game will kick you out of the multiplayer lobby to show it. Another minor annoyance is that you can’t switch equipment between matches unless you exit.

Splatoon for Wii U - Ranked Battles

Splatoon features local multiplayer as well, but it’s lackluster. The “Battle Dojo” for local 1-on-1 matches is about popping the most balloons rather than securing the most turf. This was the first thing I tried when I got the game, and I grew tired of it after a few rounds. If your opponent is more skilled than you (or just has a better weapon loadout equipped), you’re going to lose big time. The gap in experience is less of an issue in online matches, where you have eight players running around.

Splatoon isn’t the deepest shooter. It has some balancing and customization issues that Nintendo would do well to address, and it might do so as it continues to support the game. If anything, what Splatoon lacks now I can see it doing better in a sequel. Definitely more platforming, please. More multiplayer modes, for both local and online. And throw in co-op online like in Mario Kart 8.

Nintendo is dutiful about sticking to the whole squid theme, especially in the story mode, which brought back a lot of happy memories for me of breaking crates, capturing renegade monkeys, and collecting eco in my favorite cartoon platformers. Splatoon could be equally as immersive if it were a little bigger. It’s certainly bold enough.

It’s got staying power. I didn’t know you could make so many jokes and memes about squid, but all the Spongebob Squarepants, Tentacruel, and Octodad drawings on the Miiverse have proven me wrong.

Being a squid kid? Pretty cool.

Splatoon is available now for Wii U.

Stephanie Carmichael writes about video games, comics, and books when she’s not helping teachers and students have fun together with Classcraft, an educational RPG. Find her on her blog or on Twitter.

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