Splatoon, Nintendo’s first real foray into the online shooter market, is the most important game the company has made since Wii Sports.
It’s a game that matters. I don’t believe this to be true just because I think it’s a fantastically made game, which I do. I think it matters because it’s a game that, through excellent design, actively teaches the player how to play shooters in a competitive fashion. It is very much a kid’s game, but it never dumbs itself down. Rather, it constantly pushes the player to strategize and collaborate. It’s a game made to be grown into.
In Splatoon, you and 3 teammates have 3 minutes per match to cover a map in as much of your team’s color as possible. Your guns shoot ink rather than bullets, but you can still “splat” opposing players by hitting them with your shots. You can also turn into a squid and swim through any areas covered in your team’s color, and doing so replenishes your ink supply. Kills and deaths have no real effect on the game other than to take players out of the action for a couple seconds; the winning team is whichever one has painted more of the map at the end of the round.
This prioritization of map control is novel from a gameplay perspective, but I think its true importance is that it pushes players out of bad habits. When I first jumped into the game, I wanted to play it like Call of Duty. I wanted to grab the giant paint roller weapon and steamroll some squids. Very very quickly, I realized that Splatoon is not that kind of game. It becomes immediately clear that the roller is a weapon centered around ambushes. You’re meant to drop down on opponents, or swim up behind them and strike. Running directly at someone is a surefire way to get splatted every single time.
This in itself is different from the standard shooter, but it also ties into the game’s primary goal in a way that encourages teamwork above all else. Using the roller, you create lanes of ink that your teammates can use. If I paint a hallway off to the side, I benefit by getting more experience points. At the same time, it enables my team to get to the center of the battle quicker and gives them another area to hide in or refill their ink. Teamwork happens almost as if by accident, but it feels purposeful when you’re actually playing the game. It helps that, if you get splatted, you can jump to any of your teammates almost instantly. If I get splatted at the end of a hallway, I still benefit if my teammates use that hallway to dig deeper into the other side’s territory because it allows me to jump back to where I was. It’s a beautiful system that makes you dependent on your team for reasons other than the norm.
Other weapons benefit from the same ingenuity. The game’s sniper rifle equivalent, the charger, drops ink in a line with every shot. If I headshot another player 200 feet away, I also create a lane for my team to use. It’s not as useful as the roller for covering broad areas, but it can turn a hallway into a highway in seconds. It even encourages charger players to seek the high ground so that they cover a larger area with each shot. And, ultimately, even if you miss a shot, you’re still helping your team. You end up helping your team just by playing solo, but you reap all the benefits. Most importantly, this is all made clear visually during the game.
In a more general sense, fighting for control of territory teaches a variety of skills that have benefits in any shooter. One of the most important ones is map awareness: though you get a visual of the play area on the Wii U gamepad, it’s hugely beneficial to learn to internalize the level itself rather than waste time glancing at your lap. It’s especially important to learn to track enemies; because camping is a complete waste of time in Splatoon, everyone is constantly on the move. It’s vital to keep enemy players out of your side of the map, lest they squid swim their way behind your lines and steal half the map out from under you.
On a smaller scale, the game pushes situational awareness to the fore through your ability to swim up vertical surfaces. Every map in Splatoon operates on at least two different elevations, and, though painting walls doesn’t contribute to your team’s score, it does allow you and your teammates to gain higher ground. Because the ink you shoot travels in an arc, shooting from high ground grants you easier coverage on top of making it easier to shoot enemies.
These tactics translate to other shooters, but none of the ones I’ve played have ever taught them to me so intuitively. It’s such a great system that I wish other genres would get the same treatment. A fighting game that actively taught me how to be better at the game instead of relying on trial and error or a mechanically dense tutorial mode would be a godsend. One of the few analogues I can think of is the racing line in games like Forza and Gran Turismo, but a color-coded line is such an inelegant solution compared to the constant gameplay pressure that makes Splatoon special.
Here’s the thing though: none of that might matter.
For all of its insidious ability to get inside young players’ heads and teach them a thing or two, the game doesn’t really seem like it will win over the demographic that it’s targeted at. The fact is, kids play Call of Duty. And that’s fine by me. But Splatoon, I think, will not end up biting into Call of Duty’s main audience on any grand scale. I think it will do well by appealing to a wide swath of the population, but one demographic I don’t think will get into it will be people who already play competitive shooters online. It’s not meant to compete directly with those games even though it does certain things better than any of them.
One of the factors playing into this prediction is the mediocre online infrastructure. It’s needlessly difficult to party up with friends online, and it’s frustratingly impossible to edit loadouts while waiting for a match to begin. These seem like nitpicks, but the game deserves better systems for getting into and out of its main attraction. A refusal to fix these problems could cut off the long tail that games like this thrive on. Nintendo are banking on people staying invested in the game long-term and have held back maps and features so that they can dole them out over time. It’s a daring system, but not one that the game in its current state may be able to weather.
So yes, I say Splatoon matters. It’s a wonderfully fresh new IP from a company not known for its originality, and it makes a strong first impression. It’s more complex and interesting than people may have expected, and its core gameplay is strong enough that I think it will last. It’s the best introduction to online competitive shooters that anyone could hope for. It’s just a question of if Nintendo can capitalize on that fact, or if the people who could most benefit from playing it will take note of it. I sure hope so.