Review: Splatoon (Wii U) – A Surprisingly Great Shooter from Nintendo

… Sorry the site was down for a couple of days. Fixed. And here’s a new review too, finally, of a game I have been playing a lot of for the past month or two.

Introduction

Splatoon is an online multiplayer-focused third-person shooter developed and published by Nintendo in 2015 for the Nintendo Wii U. A big hit, at least for its relatively unsuccessful system, Splatoon still has an active online player base; I got the game last month, not too long after I finally, at long last, got a Wii U in April, and have almost never waited more than a minute or two for a match, and usually it is much less than that. Considering that the game is several years old and on the Wii U that is pretty impressive.

As for me, When I got this game I was hoping to like it, but I wasn’t sure. While I have liked some of them here and there, I am far from a big fan of first or third person shooters. It’s never been a favorite genre of mine, and my interest in online shooters is even lower; I played a few online shooters back in the late ’90s to early ’00s, but have never really been hooked to one like I was to Blizzard’s RTSes, for example. Splatoon is supposed to be great, yes, but that doesn’t mean I’d like it. Making things worse, while many popular games drop in price over time, this one hasn’t really. I paid $40 for the game, and that was actually less than Gamestop, say, charges for the game. Nintendo has decided to keep their game prices high for most of their games, not dropping prices like other publishers do, and Splatoon is no exception — $40, for a three year old game? Well, it better be good…

And it is! Splatoon, in both single and multi player modes, is a great and surprisingly addictive game. It takes the basic form of a shooter and changes things up with completely unique gameplay: Splatoon is all about painting the world. The game has a charmingly weird sense of style, as you play as humanoid squid-children who can switch back and forth between a squid form and a human form, and that affects the gameplay in some pretty cool ways, but the painting is Splatoon’s most unique feature, and it is at the core of why I like this game so much. I love maps in games, and particularly ones which you fill in as you go. This game is all about quite literally filling in the map to win, and that is amazing.


Controls and Gameplay

Splatoon is, again, a shooter with a twist. You play as a form-shifting squid child called an Inkling armed with an ink weapon, and go around painting the world or ‘splatting’ other Inkling squid-children by covering them with ink. In all modes there are two sides, each of whom has a different ink color they use. It can be red and blue, orange and purple, or more. While the single player campaign is a solo affair, online multiplayer is a four-versus-four game exclusively, so this is largely a team game. That design works well, as I will explain later. The basic controls allow you to use your main weapon, use your sub-weapon and superweapon, move around, switch to squid form while you hold down a button, and jump. You can also aim several ways, as described below. Many weapons allow you to either fire normally, by holding down the trigger, or use the weapon an alternate way by tapping it. With rollers or brushes for instance, if you tap the trigger you splatter paint around, but if you hold the button you paint the ground. Other weapons charge instead, so the longer you hold the button the stronger the attack. It’s quite varied. Each attack type is useful in different situations. You can only use one weapon at a time, which you choose from the main menu before entering a match. You use up ink as you use your main or secondary weapon, and an ink meter on screen shows how much ammo you have left.

As for that ink though, well, the game calls it ink to fit with the sea-life theme, but it’s basically paint, except with a waterey twist. While in squid form you move more quickly and are nearly invisible within the ink, but both of those only work within your color of ink. Additionally, while in your color of ink in squid form your ink-tank ammo meter will refill, so you will need to switch back and forth to recharge. I like it better when shooters don’t make you recharge, Doom-style, as it’s annoying and frustrating to run out, but it does add some strategy to the game. Squid form may sound great, but you cannot attack while you are a squid, only when you are a kid, so you will probably spend most of your time as a humanoid. Squid form is mostly useful for refilling ammo, faster movement through the level through areas already inked or for when you want to try to hide from your opponents, then. Those functions are all key to this game though, and the balance between squid and kid, movement and attack, is very well thought through and is done just right. The wall and floor-painting-focused gameplay may be Splatoon’s most unique feature, but the squid/humanoid dichotomy is nearly as important and it is just as unique. It’s a key behind what makes this game so interesting and fun, as zooming around as a squid can be great fun, but you’ll need to pop out sometime to ink the world or try to get your opponents… but can you do that safely? It’s great design, both fun and challenging.

Now, there is one more element to Splatoon’s controls that I need to cover in more detail, and that is aiming. There are two ways to look around in this game, either with the right analog stick on the Gamepad, or with tilt motion controls, as your view will move around as you move or tilt the gamepad. With motion controls on you can still use the right stick to change your view on a horizontal axis, but not a vertical one; that is motion-only. If you turn off motion controls then only the right stick controls you view. Some people like motion aiming and some do not, but I think it gives you much better and more precise control over your aim, particularly your vertical aim, than just an analog stick would. The motion controls are fantastic for looking up and down or a little bit to either side, and it’s definitely the best way to do those things. It is great that they left the right stick enabled for horizontally turning the camera, though, because the stick is better for quickly rotating the camera. This is because the Gamepad is large and bulky, and turning all the way around to see behind you is not always feasible while sitting holding the thing. Despite that though, the motion control element to the game is great and works very well. I’ve found myself trying to aim by moving the gamepad around in other Wii U games that don’t have support for this… heh.

Another important part of the game are your armaments, and there are many types of weapons available for online play. In single player you have only one main weapon, a basic machine gun style splatter gun, a couple of sub-weapons to choose from, and limited-use superweapons. You don’t have options here, but works well for the kind of campaign they made. For online play however you can choose between many weapons, including sniper rifles, machine or Gatling guns, giant rollers, brushes, buckets, charge guns, splatter guns, and more; there is a wide variety, with something for everyone. Each weapon type feels quite different as well, so trying out a lot of them is rewarding. As I love inking the ground the rollers are definitely my favorite though, they are the best at thoroughly covering surfaces with ink. In addition to your main weapon the game also has many sub-abilities available. In single player you can select between three or so that you can purchase with points you collect in the levels, but in multiplayer each weapon has two preset sub-abilities. There are many weapons available, including similar weapons that only vary in which sub-weapons they come with, so you should be able to find a weapon with sub-abilities you like. The first kind of sub abilities include grenades of several types, sensors to detect where your opponents are, and more. These can be used at will, but use a lot of ink for each use. The second type of subweapon is a more powerful attack that takes time to charge. As you ink ground a meter fills up, and once you fill up the meter your super ability can be activated. Super abilities include waves of bombs you can throw out, giant ink-strikes that hit a point you target on the map, a Kraken mode where you turn into an invincible Kraken squid for a little while, leaving a trail of ink and hopefully opponents behind, and more.

When you get hit you take damage, though there isn’t a damage meter. Instead, ink of the other sides’ color starts filling up your screen. If this damage gets too bad your are splatted and you get sent back. How this works is different in single and multi player; in single player there are checkpoints you go back to, but in multiplayer you go back to your start point on that map. In multiplayer, you will also have to wait a few seconds after being splatted before you respawn and can start out again, so there is a penalty for being knocked out. Single player has a penalty as well, though I will discuss that later. Inklings cannot take much damage before they get splatted, so staying away from enemy attacks is important. The quick splats and respawns keep the game moving at a good pace, and for the most part the health system works well. Sometimes it can be hard to know how much damage you can take before you get splatted, though; it all varies depending on what your and your opponents’ equipment and abilities are, so as the game does not display any damage numbers, much less have health bars, it can be vague sometimes. Still, again, the combat and pacing are done very well.

Additionally, unlike many games on the Wii U, Splatoon makes great use of the screen on the Wii U Gamepad, its main tablet-like controller with a large screen in it. Ingame in multiplayer games, the screen is used for an incredibly useful ingame minimap which doesn’t only show you which areas each team has inked at the moment, critical information to have, but also allows you to super-jump straight to the location of any of your teammates anytime you want. This is usually marked with a circle on the ground, so astute enemies can wait for you to land and splat you, but when used right these jumps are a key to victory. Note that because of this you do need to use the Gamepad itself with this game in everything other than the single-system multiplayer mode, you cannot use a Wiimote or Wii U Pro Controller. That’s fine though, that map display is great. As a result of this the game also doesn’t have off-TV play support, unlike most games on this system, but with how central the second screen is to the game it is understandable. Unfortunate, but understandable.

All of that may sound interesting and unique, but perhaps the most impressive thing about Splatoon is how well it all comes together. This game has extremely responsive controls, unique gameplay that fits together incredibly well despite how different so many elements of the game are from genre norms, a great control scheme laid out just right on the Gamepad, good use of the Gamepad’s second screen, a good sense of speed as you zoom around as a squid, satisfying action with a variety of weapons, lots of ground to have fun covering with ink, and so much more. Once you’ve played it a lot the game can get repetitive, as there is only so much to see, but it stays fun despite that.


Characters and Features

When you first start up Splatoon, you start by creating a squid character who you will play as in the game. You can customize your character, but the only options are your gender and skin color so customization is limited, though the games’ many clothing options allow you to look more unique. Even so, it’s great that they have those options at all, because Nintendo games usually have male-only protagonists and very, very rarely let you play as a non-white or light-skinned Asian character. This game is different. You can’t name your player, though; instead, once in-game the name displayed is the name of whatever the Mii linked to your Nintendo account is. If you change which Mii is representing your account your Splatoon username will change along with it, so it is not set from the start, thankfully. This works, though it means that nobody has a set username you can actually look up. I presume that this was done as a part of Nintendo’s near-paranoid efforts to hamstring their online services in the name of protecting children, as if you just reveal Nintendo account names online or something someone would have a much easier time finding someone than as it is, where it’s just whatever Mii you are currently linking to it.

Anyway, with your character set you can start the game. The main menu is not just a list of options, but is a moderate-sized plaza that you can move around in. You will see other squid-kids there, representing other people who were in matches you competed in recently I believe, though it is not actually an online space. Here you can walk to the various places on the map, or, much more conveniently, you can just touch those points on the on-screen minimap on the Wii U’s Gamepad screen. This use of the Gamepad screen continues ingame, as described above, and it’s great. Thanks to the quick links on the pad there isn’t much reason to wander around the plaza, unless you want to find some person you fought recently and buy a copy of an item they have equipped, but it can be fun anyway.

The places you can go include entrances for the Single Player or Multiplayer areas; a guy who will sell you clothing items you see on people on the plaza, for a high price; a minigame area where you can play the Squid Jump 8-bit-style minigame; and entrances to the shops that sell equipment. The equipment items that you can buy come in four varieties: weapons, shirts, shoes, and headgear, and a different shop sells each type. Oddly, you cannot change your pants; all Splatoon kids wear regulation black shorts, no other options are available. That’s odd, considering how different everything else can look, but I guess it works. I think the sequel will have more options though, and that’s nice.

Now, equipment is not only visual. Each weapon, shirt, head, or foot gear item has several attached enhancements, between two and four each. More expensive ones are more likely to have four, as you might expect. When you buy an item from one of the stores you won’t know what its enhancements are, either; they unlock after you use that item for a while. Item enhancements in the game include ones which increase your attack power, hide the bubbles that usually give away your location when in ink as a squid (but with a penalty), decrease ink usage, speed up ink recharge time, and more. Which you get will depend on the luck of the draw, so this is another random element in the game. These modifiers only slightly alter your stats but they do matter, so you need to consider function as well as form when you choose what to wear.

Minigame: Squid Jump

Either from the main plaza or while waiting for a multiplayer game, you can play a simple little minigame with 2d, NES-style graphics called Squid Jump. In this game you play as a squid, and have to try to get to the top of what I believe is an infinite number of stages. Making things tricky, you cannot move left and right on a platform; instead, all you can do is jump, and adjust your trajectory in the air by tilting the Gamepad left or right. You also can alter your jump height based on how long you hold the jump button down for before you release it. That’s it for the controls, though. The game plays well, but because you cannot move around while on a platform, you need to plan your jumps carefully. Don’t go too slow, though, because the water is slowly rising behind you, and you need to jump to the top of each stage to escape! It’s a fun little minigame to play while waiting, and the game keeps track of your best score.


Modes: The Basics

Most of your time playing will be in the two main modes, though, either the single player campaign or online multiplayer. The single player story mode is short, estimated at five hours at most, but it’s a lot of fun while it lasts. It’s an only moderately challenging campaign that both goes through a story and prepares the player for some of the basics of the main multiplayer game. In the multiplayer menu, you choose between four options: Turf War, Ranked, or Team versions of each of those two modes. Turf War is the main mode, where you ink terrain. There are three modes in Ranked, though, which the game will switch between day to day; more on that later. I’ve never tried the Team modes, but while more options would be great, having only two main player lists admittedly does help keep the player base up, and it is still very easy to find a game.

While there are only maybe ten multiplayer maps and a couple of modes, Splatoon does several things to keep you playing online. First, there are two ranking systems in multiplayer, a level-based one that only increases until you reach a cap of 50, and a ranking-based one for the Ranked mode only which will go up or down depending on your performance in that mode. The ranking system can be frustrating as you need consistent wins to advance and it is never clear why you gain or lose as many points as you do, but it works. The game does one more thing on top of those to keep you coming back, though, and for me at least it’s more controversial.

That is, multiplayer-mode Splatoon locks what you can access each day. This is one of the games’ defining elements, and it is both good and bad. At any given time, you can only play two maps in Turf War, and only two maps in Ranked, both locked to one of the three Ranked modes. Every time you turn on the game, or when the rotation changes, teen Inkling idol hosts Callie and Marie introduce the four maps currently in rotation and give some jokes about each one. That’s amusing, but do you want to play a different map or Ranked mode? Sorry, you can’t, you’ll need to come back later to do that. Similarly, the shirt, shoe, and headgear shops only display five items per day. If you want something else you don’t have, come back tomorrow to see the new random selection of five items each. You can, however, buy any weapon that you have unlocked at any time; that’s nice at least, and I wish the other shops worked similarly. Put together these limitations do a great job of encouraging longer-term repeat play, for a shorter session per day, and that is probably the intent. However, I really dislike that you are locked out of so much of the game at any time. When I want to play but am stuck with only some of the least interesting maps available and the least-good Ranked mode, it encourages you to just stop playing for now and that wouldn’t be a problem most shooters have since most have more options than this. But on the other hand it keeps you playing and focuses everyone on only two multiplayer queues, helping make it easier to find a game, so it’s not all bad. Overall though, the time-based limitations work, but I wish they’d been a bit less restrictive.

But anyway, on to more detail about the modes, single player first.


Modes: Single Player – Hero Mode

I covered many of the important details about single player earlier, but I should sum it up here. Single player mode in Splatoon mostly plays and controls similarly to multiplayer, but in a very different game structure. Here levels are mostly linear instead of being open areas, they have almost as many platforming elements as shooting, you are following a story, and the game has a traditional level-and-boss structure, to name the most important differences. Your armaments differ as well, as again you have only one main weapon here, a machine-gun type weapon. You also have only three sub-weapons available, and can choose between them once you buy them. Superweapons are even more restricted, as you cannot just normally equip them; instead they drop as one-time-use powerups in boxes in the levels, so you can only use superweapons when the game allows it. This works well for the kind of game they have made, as limiting their use helps with the difficulty balance I am sure. I never really missed them, your main gun and squid and jumping abilities are usually all you need.

The single player mode’s story is simple, but it’s good enough. The Inkling squids’ enemies, the Octolings, have attacked and taken some creatures that provide power to the squids’ city, and you need to stop the villains and get back the electric-bulb things they stole. There is one at the end of each level. That sounds basic, but the writing is amusing and the conversations during this short campaign are fun stuff. Anyway, ‘save the day from the bad guys’ is all the plot most games need, and it’s fine here. The humor is decent, and there is some good, interesting backstory in the hidden collectibles in the stages (details below).

The single player game is accessed from the main plaza, and has its own overworld map to explore. The campaign consists of five areas, with five levels and a boss in each one. The overworld map has no enemies on it, but there is something to do, as you need to actually find the levels. Levels are marked with hatches, but they do not appear until you ink the area, so you’ll explore around each area, inking everything you can find until you uncover the locations of the stages. You can play the levels in each world in any order, an can quick-warp to any stage by touching it on the minimap on the Gamepad, but you do have to beat all of the levels in an area before you can face that worlds’ boss, and must beat each boss to move on to the next area. The game was never hard enough to make me want to give up on a stage and go try a different one instead, but still this is a nice idea and it does work. The game has a decent difficulty curve as you go along and while mostly easy, it does get tougher later on.

One thing making this mode harder that I have some issues with, however, is the continue system within a stage. Now, as mentioned previously, when you get splatted in single player mode, you return to the last checkpoint you reached. However, there is an indicator on screen, and if you are splatted three times without making it to the next checkpoint or the end of the level, you lose, are kicked out to the overworld, and will need to start the level over from scratch. If you do reach the next checkpoint, though, one mark is added back on to the “lives” indicator, giving you an additional chance from that point. As a result of this, there were a few times that I had to repeatedly restart a level over from the beginning because of a hard part near the end, and that is not much fun. I’d much rather see it kick you back to the previous checkpoint, for example, instead of forcing you to replay the whole level. I understand the need for some challenge here, but this is a somewhat frustrating way to do it.

Despite that though, very few parts of this game are hard. Perhaps the main reason for this is one of the games’ few significant flaws: it doesn’t really have competent enemy AI. There are, sadly, no bots available in multiplayer (so far as I know), and most opponents in the single player mode are very basic ones that stand in place and shoot you or just move back and forth and such. The few times you do fight against Octoling opponents moving around in small arenas or versions of the single player levels, the fights are very easy and end in seconds almost every time. This is a great game, but it would be better with good enemy AI and bot options. FPSes had those things the better part of two decades ago, why doesn’t this one now?

Apart from that though, Splatoon’s single player mode is really good. It is short at maybe five hours long, but they do a good job of covering for the seriously lacking AI because of the level designs and nature of the challenges you face along these compeltely linear stages. You will need to jump over gaps by inking areas and then getting past the obstacle before the ink is erased, avoid sniper-type enemies long enough to get close to them so you can take them out, navigate narrow platforms while under attack from obstacles you may or may not be able to fight back against, and more. It’s fun stuff. Each of the five bosses is completely different too, and all five of those fights are well designed and quite satisfying. In classic Nintendo style you need to figure out how to hit the boss three times. The single player isn’t just good on its own, though, it does also begin to prepare the player for multiplayer. Indeed, people unfamiliar with shooters definitely should play through the single player mode first. Without good AI opponents it won’t prepare players for everything they will face in multiplayer, but it does introduce the basics of how to play the game pretty well, and it’s fun and rewarding along the way.

Oh, and if you want something more to do after finishing the game, there are two additional challenges. First, each level has a hidden page in it. These research note pages show various things, such as the history of this world, sketches of weapons, and more. They’re interesting stuff, and finding some will unlock new weapons in multiplayer as well. That’s good, but the other added mode is more annoying: as I mentioned earlier, there are a second set of challenges, one per level, that require the Splatoon Amiibos in order to be accessed. I believe you need all three of them to play the full set, of course. I don’t have those (yet anyway) but may have to buy them sometime… bah, I’d rather not.


Modes: Multiplayer

The single player mode is fun, but the core of Splatoon is its multiplayer. Single player is a solo experience, but both public online multiplayer modes, Turf War and Ranked, are four-on-four team battle fights. The only way to play with less than four people per side is Private Match mode, which I mentioned earlier but have never tried, and the Battle Dojo, a decent but not amazing two player single-system mode. That latter mode is interesting, but the main focus here is on online play, so that is my main focus. I will cover each mode separately below. There are about ten multiplayer maps, but again you will only be able to play four at a time, two per mode. First, though, I want to say a bit about a few things all of the multiplayer modes have in common.

First, while the single player levels are linear stages, multiplayer levels are large arenas. Each of the approximately ten levels is unique, and most feel very different from each other. Interestingly, all maps are almost exactly mirrored along a line somewhere in the middle of the stage. On the minimap you always start on the “same” side of the map, though this is impossible of course, and in most maps there is no way to tell which side is which. I did notice some very small differences on the sides of a few maps, so maybe they all have hints, but for the most part each map is the same on each side. This makes things fair, as one team will not have an advantage over the other based on their starting position, so it was a good level design idea.

One thing that all modes in this fast-paced game have in common is a timer. Matches are kept short, as you have only three minutes for Turf War or five for Ranked modes. As previously mentioned, unlike single player you can get splatted as much as you want in multiplayer, you are just punished with a few seconds’ delay before you can start out again. Splatoon is the perfect game to play for a few minutes, but it is also very possible to look up and realize you have been playing for an hour.

Another similarity between the modes are your armaments. I mentioned some weapons in brief earlier in the Gameplay section, but they have a large impact on the multiplayer in particular since this is where you will see most of them. During matches there are a lot of ways to play, and your choice of weapon will differ depending on your playstyle. Sniper weapons are great for long-range attacks; rollers for maximum inking — they’re my favorite, but are terrible at range; gatling guns are powerful and shoot a lot of ink, but only shoot in bursts and drain ammo fast, so you’ll need to press the fire button repeatedly and fill your ink up even more than otherwise; brushes make a very narrow trail but spread a lot of ink around if you splatter it around, which is fun but drains ink fast; and many more. Both for you and your opponents, the weapon variety is a key to the game. Knowing the difference between weapon types is a great skill to learn.

Next, details about each mode in turn.

Battle Dojo: Offline Multiplayer in Balloon Battle

The Battle Dojo in the plaza houses the aforementioned offline multiplayer mode. In this two-player mode, one player plays on the TV with a Wii Classic Controller or CC Pro, or a Wii U Pro Controller. This isn’t a mini Turf War game, though; instead, you play Balloon Battle, a mode where both players compete to see who can shoot the most balloons within a three minute time limit. You can shoot the other player of course, to splat them and send them back to their spawn point after a delay, and you can ink the ground for faster movement, but your goal is shooting those balloons. The match starts with a few, and more will spawn as time progresses. That’s all there is to it.

Balloon Battle mode is alright and can be fun, but it’s definitely not one of the best things about this game. For one, there is no map in this mode; an onscreen minimap would be nice, but no, you just have to know the stages. Worse there are only five maps available here, all cut-down versions of some of the main maps, and only eight weapons are available, covering most of the basics but that’s it. Weapons only have their main attacks and primary (grenade or what have you) sub-ability, too; super abilities are not attached to the weapons, but instead are pickups in crates here, much like they are in single player. You cannot even play as your regular Inkling here either, or customize either character; one is a generic Inkling Boy, and the other a generic Inkling Girl. I know not all maps would fit well with only two people, but even so it’s weird that this mode is so restrictive. It’s nice that they have this TV-and-Gamepad multiplayer option, for a local multiplayer mode where each player cannot see what the other is doing, but traditional splitscreen support for four players for 2-on-2 Turf War matches would have been fantastic and better overall. This is an amusing mode to try sometime, but Turf War below is the main draw.

Multiplayer Mode: Standard Online Play – Turf War

Turf War is Splatoon’s main single player mode. All of the multiplayer maps are available in this mode, cycled through two at a time of course. I mentioned it already, but this is a simple but fantastically fun four-on-four-only game where you try to cover the whole level with your teams’ color of ink. There is a three-minute time limit for each game, and when time runs out, the team whose color covers more of the stage wins. Only ink on the floor of the level counts, it is important to say. You can paint the walls, but it’s only useful for moving around to an area up that wall, not painting the map. There isn’t a percent indicator on screen during the match, though, so if it’s close you’ll need to keep trying right up to the end, when the games’ mascot cat Judd will show the final map, say what percent of the field each team covered and thus who won. Turf War is Splatoon’s most unique and iconic mode, as it makes perfect use of the painting mechanic. Sure, you can and will target and splat the other players, but that isn’t how you win; indeed, you can make a major contribution to victory with few or no splats if you are effective with your inking. This is awesome stuff because, again, I love maps, and particularly filling in an ingame map, so the core gameplay here is incredibly satisfying. This less violent form of first / third-person shooter gameplay is simple, innovative, and great.

When the match ends, after Judd shows the winner and finishing stats, you get ranking points for the games’ level system, and money which you can use to buy equipment with. You get both ranking points and money regardless of if you win or lose, though you will get more ranking points if you win as there is a +1000 point bonus for being on the winning team. Turf War’s stat screen shows three things for each player: their finishing point total, which I believe is based on turf inked, plus a thousand for the winners; how many times you splatted other players; and how many times you were splatted. Those last two do not affect your score, they’re just to see how well you did.

Multiplayer Mode: Ranked Mode – Tower Control, Splat Zones, and Rainmaker

Ranked mode is different from Turf War in two ways. First, your objectives are a bit more complex, and more directly confrontational than Turf War is. And second, there are higher stakes because of the ranking system and penalty for losing. While in Turf War there is no penalty for losing other than just getting fewer points, in Ranked mode you lose ranking points when you lose and, if the other team wins with a Knockout, you also don’t get any money either; you will have a score on the results screen, but won’t get anything for it. The ranking system starts you at grade C-, and each hundred points of rank moves you up a grade mark until you max out at, presumably, A+. I’m currently at B- at the moment, which is as high as I’ve been so far. It takes time to build up rank, and you need to win consistently in order to rank up because once you get out of C- you will lose as many ranking points for a loss as you will get for a win. I haven’t played much of online FPSes with win-or-lose online ranking systems like this before, but I don’t know that I like it — it’s much more stressful than normal Turf War mode is because of the risk of losing rank, and it often feels like my overall record doesn’t matter, only my current streak. Unfortunately however you have to face the ranking system, because I really like two of the ranked modes. They’re a lot of fun and add some nice variety to the main Turf War game.

There are a few other similarities between the three Ranked modes. First, scoring, Again, in all three modes here, unlike Turf War, an indicator is on the center top of the screen showing how close each side is to winning. This works as a countdown timer, as each side starts at 100 and will win if their indicator reaches 0. Additionally, while Turf War has a flat three-minute timer, Ranked is different. You can win with a Knockout if you achieve your main objective in the match, but there is one other way to win a ranked match: if a team is behind, but is controlling the modes’ object of contention — either the tower, splat zone(s), or rainmaker — when time expires, the game goes into Overtime. If that team can then win without losing control of the aforementioned object of contention, then they win. If, however, the other team stops them even for an instant, then they lose. Comeback overtime wins against the odds are unlikely, but they are possible, and can feel great, or not good, depending on which side you turn out. In one recent match of Splat Zones my team managed to lose despite having a huge 3-to-53 lead with under a minute remaining; somehow we just completely fell apart and they won in overtime without us regaining control. Other times things go the other way though, so Overtime is a nice feature.

One other interesting thing are the maps. While Ranked mode plays on the same maps as Turf War, they are modified here for each mode, and not all maps are in all modes. Some maps just would not work well for the design styles of some of the modes, so they have understandably been removed. More interesting, though, are the level design changes. There are some obvious additions to meet with the ways each mode plays, but some maps actually have altered level layouts as well. Some stages have additional pathways open that don’t exist in Turf War, for example, and others close some paths. I think I like the Rainmaker version of Camp Triggerfish more than the Turf War version, for instance, because it opens a connecting path in the center.

Now I will say a bit about each of the three Ranked modes and how they play.

Tower Control – In Tower Control, you have to get a tower, which starts in the center, to a goal on the other teams’ end of the map. The small, rectangular tower moves along a track marked on the ground, and you have to stand on top of it to make it move forward. It will only move when one side has more players than the other on top of the tower. If you get the tower all the way to the other teams’ goal within the five minute time limit, you win automatically. If you don’t, then the team which got farther wins, based on scores that are displayed on the top center of the screen during play. That’s Tower Control; it’s simple, but challenging and a lot of fun. This is a fantastic mode, and it is my favorite of the three Ranked play modes. You will quickly learn the route on each map and where the choke points are, but every match is different because of the games’ myriad play styles. I like how the moving tower doesn’t allow one side to just sit in place and win, you need to constantly be on the move with the tower. It’s great stuff.

Splat Zones
– My least favorite of the three Ranked modes, Splat Zones is an area-control mode. In each map in this mode there is a rectangular zone marked out somewhere on the map, and you need to control it for 100 count on the countdown counter on the screen. This mode is all about camping, which is probably why I find it much less fun than the others; it’s not really about going around inking, or trying to bring something to a goal, but sitting on a central point and defending it. I like inking, not sniping, so I don’t like this mode that much. It can be fun at times though, and I do like the one map which has two Splat Zones instead of one. You need to control both at the same time to make the counter decrease, so it’s a tricky one to win but that added complexity is great. As for the other maps, though… one Splat Zone really is just a camping sniperfest. Blah.

Rainmaker – Rainmaker is a bit like Tower Control, but more freeform. At the center of the map is the Rainmaker, a special hat that you need to bring to a goal pillar on the other side of the map somewhere not far from the other sides’ base. The Rainmaker has a shield on it when no one is wearing it, though, and you need to shoot it enough with your color to make the shield pop. This sends out a wave of ink that will splat nearby opponent Inklings. When wearing the Rainmaker you are marked on both players’ maps so long as you are in humanoid form, so it’s hard to hide, but you have a special weapon. Instead of your normal gun, you use the Rainmaker instead, which shoots tornados of ink straight ahead. The weapon charges, so the longer you hold the button the larger the tornado. The Rainmaker is powerful, but holding it you are a magnet for attacks from the other team so it mostly balances out. Rainmaker’s a fun mode, but I think I like Tower Control a bit more; you can lose track of where the Rainmaker is, and it can be overpowered. Still, it’s a pretty good mode.

Multiplayer Mode: Team Modes and Private Match

The Team modes, for either Turf War or Ranked, are the same as the regular modes described above, except instead of playing with random teammates, you play with teammates from your Wii U Friends List, against other similarly not-random teams. I don’t know how easy it is to find matches in these modes because I’ven ever tried it, but I imagine it’s tougher than regular random matches are. Please note that Splatoon has no voice chat support at all, even in a friends match, so if you want to chat with people you’ll need some external app. I’ve never used voice chat in any online game so this is just fine with me.

Private Match mode is a little different. In this mode, you and people on your Wii U Friends list can play any mixture of maps and modes, only with yourselves and not anyone else — so you’ll need enough people to fill up both sides of a match. As I have nobody on my Wii U (or even Wii) friends lists, I’ve never used this. It’s pretty annoying, honestly, that the only mode that actually lets you play all of the maps is locked to a friends-list-only thing! There should at minimum have been a single match mode for you and AI opponents. That’d have required competent AI bots of course, but the game should have that too. Still, for people with Wii U Friends set up, friends codes and all, it’s a nice option.


Graphics, Style, and Sound

Splatoon has a strongly unique visual style and it looks great. The art design is somewhat anime-inspired, but the squid and sea-life aesthetic is taken in an original direction here. The game is all about inking ground and looking stylish, and visually it does both really well. Thankfully, unlike far too much anime there is nothing creepy about this game, too; it’s sad that I have to say it, but with anime you never know. There is nothing like that here. The Inklings do all look the same apart from gender, skin color, and clothing, but there are so many clothing options that there are surely thousands of possibilities for how you can look. The clothing has variety. Looks include various ‘brands’ and themes, different types of clothing from t-shirts with symbols to various button-up shirts, special weirder items, and more. Headgear includes everything from many types of hats to other things like headphones, as well. That’s just aesthetics, but again the most impressive thing here is how seamlessly the game merges gameplay and design. The whole squid/kid thing is weird but the game makes it work, both stylistically and in gameplay as you seamlessly switch between both forms in ways that make this game unlike any other. “Are you a squid, or are you a kid?” Both, of course, and the gameplay relies on it.

Technically Splatoon runs really well. Ever since the Gamecube Nintendo has cared a lot about framerates, and apparently Splatoon runs at about 720p at an always-smooth 60 frames per second. As I can barely tell the difference I don’t know if I would be able to tell if the game was 30fps or 60 on my own, but it is important that the framerate is so stable, that matters a lot in a game like this. The game doesn’t have anti-aliasing, unfortunately, in order to keep the framerate up, and that does hurt it, but otherwise Splatoon shows off the Wii U’s power.

Aurally, Splatoon has a weird but catchy soundtrack of faux “squid music” and “squid pop”. There are some voice lines in a fake squid-language, and lots of odd sounds throughout the songs. It’s hard to describe, but as a result Splatoon’s audio is easy to recognize. It’s not my favorite game soundtrack, but the music is good and is somewhat unique sounding. The games’ odd sounds and pop-styled vibe fit the games’ theme very well.

Conclusion

Splatoon is a great game which took an established genre and did something unique with it. It also asks questions, only some of which it answers — how did the world come to be this way? Are the characters juvenile delinquents, or is all this inking actually state-sanctioned? And while you can only play as a squid-kid, otherwise you can create the character you want, still a somewhat uncommon thing in Nintendo games. The game looks good and runs great, too. The reason the game is so memorable and popular isn’t because of any of that, though. It is because of the fantastic, very well polished gameplay. Many games are unique and original within their genres, but uniqueness and quality are by no means connected; many times games which try new things don’t quite work in some way. And while I may make some minor quibbles about Splatoon — about my dislike for the ‘come back tomorrow to play other maps, only two for today’ system, for Splat Zones, about how short and easy the single player game is, the absence of good AI opponents, and such — they are just that, minor. Splatoon is an extremely well-polished gem and it is one of the most addictive first or third person multiplayer shooters I have ever played. I’m glad to have gotten it while it is still easy to find a game online, that’s for sure. Once Splatoon 2 for the Switch releases Splatoon 1 numbers will surely decrease as they move over to the sequel, and being on much more popular hardware than the Wii U is I expect that game to be a hit, but the original Splatoon is also a great game that should be played. I give it an A rating. Splatoon is very highly recommended, try this game whether or not you like shooters.

About Brian

Computer and video game lover
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