A shooter is a game where you run around shooting guys. Lots of games have played with the “guys” part, distinguishing themselves only by having you kill Nazis, aliens, or Nazi aliens. But in Splatoon, the amiable deconstructionists of Nintendo fiddled with “running around” and “shooting” until they created the first fresh take on the genre since Portal.
Like Team Fortress 2, Call of Duty, and a million other arena shooters, Splatoon is a game where you go online, get placed onto dueling teams, and battle for gear and glory. But that’s where the similarity ends. In this game, you’re not a grim-faced soldier toting a machine gun, you’re a fashion-conscious humanoid squid, armed with weapons that fire brightly colored ink. And while shooting other players slows them down, it doesn’t give you a single victory point. The winning team is the one that has more of the ground covered in their color at the end of the game; kills don’t affect your victory, don’t give you XP, and don’t even show up in your endgame statistics.
Making an online shooter that deprecates killing is a neat idea, but it’s also what you’d expect of a Nintendo game. The unexpected masterstroke of Splatoon is how the ink affects movement. Normally, your character runs around at a midtempo jog. But if a section of floor is painted in your color, you can swim through it in squid form; while you swim, your ink tank refills, you move much faster, and you’re invisible to enemies. Much like Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, the result is a game where you can create the play space, making gameplay feel dynamic and creative.
The virtue of shooters is a simple set of parameters creating interesting decisions, and the game’s greatness is how it expands that matrix.
The virtue of shooters has always been how a simple set of parameters—weapons, position, landscape, and health—create an array of interesting decisions, and Splatoon’s greatness is how it expands that matrix. Because your shots don’t just affect other players, but also create possibilities for movement and stealth, you’re constantly debating whether an area should be hit for points, carved up for fast travel, or selectively covered to create a hiding place. And subtle design choices reinforce the richness of your options: For example, painting on walls gives you no points, but it’s a tremendously effective way to lurk in wait for passing enemies, even as it cuts off your options for escape if something goes wrong.
It’s a shame that Nintendo didn’t include a proper split-screen mode, but understandable given the slight, but terrific, Gamepad integration. During a match, the Gamepad displays a dynamically updated map of the level, showing the color of the floors and the position of your allies. Touching any of your teammates on the map catapults you to them, with a smooth descent that provides just a few seconds to see what you’re getting into. Like in ZombiU, the need to pull your eyes away from the TV makes checking the map enjoyably stressful, and the jump means players can leap to wherever the action’s happening. The Gamepad is also delightful to look at: As both teams splash colors across the arena, it becomes a groovy action painting, which the player can parse with a glance.
More controversial is the Gamepad-based view controls, with the right stick used for horizontal panning and the motion sensor used for vertical tilt and slight horizontal corrections. Like everything in the game, this is weird, but it’s also arbitrary. Why split one action between two inputs? It doesn’t help that the single-player campaign, designed to acclimate new players, is tucked off to the side of the hub world. But much to my surprise, the controls eventually felt great, combining the efficiency of the joystick and the satisfaction of having my instinctive hand movements translated into a game space. It’s not quite the revelation that Metroid Prime’s pointer controls were on the Wii, but the more I played it, the more it seemed to suit Splatoon’s fast-paced gameplay by picking up on what I wanted almost before I asked for it. Many players will probably take the option of standard right-stick view, but those willing to adjust will appreciate Nintendo’s willingness to treat console shooter controls as a question not settled forever by Halo.
With any online game, it’s hard to make a final judgment until players have had a few months of thumbs-on time, and it’s even harder with a game as unique as Splatoon. While it’s fascinating to play an arena shooter in which hunting down other players is counterproductive, it remains to be seen whether the gameplay, over the long haul, can create equally interesting alternatives to that old standard. But whatever the answer, it’s easy to be impressed by a game that can raise such unique questions.