It's hard to work up much excitement over the announcement of yet another online multiplayer-focused, team-based competitive shooter. These days it's the kind of thing that's best to willfully ignore, like that one coworker who won't shut up about their cat’s worm problem. "But I'm different!" each one proclaims, only to stammer when asked to explain itself without using the words "grim" or "military." Then Splatoon comes along, proudly declaring itself about transforming mutant squid people with tentacle hair, armed to their creepy little teeth and hell bent on covering the planet in their own neon colored fluids, and you turn your head out of morbid curiosity to see what kind of perversion Japan has let slip this time. At which point you find out it's made by Nintendo and feel that twinge of relief tainted with buried disappointment that the entire thing is somehow G rated.
Yes, Splatoon is a rare unicorn on the modern gaming landscape; it being a wholly original IP from Nintendo is enough to make you question your perception of reality. But that's just where the weirdness starts. After quickly creating your personal squid-kid-thing, you're set loose in a modern city filled with squid clones in order to shoot your way though both single and multiplayer modes, coating enemies and scenery in your own colorful ink. The whole thing is so consistently bizarre that it's as if Nintendo looked at the bowel movements from EA and Activision soiling our stockings every holiday season, shook its head, and decided to violently kidnap the genre before dragging it kicking and screaming to the island of Dr. Moreau.
Just one look at the game can tell you it's something entirely different; it's bright, it's colorful, and it looks like it belongs on the cartoon channel. It manages to be messy without being gory, and in doing so provides a clear contrast to the dirt, blood, and gunmetal that's become the norm. Not to say those are automatically detriments to a game, but when something truly different comes along that is able to stand on the stage, mouth shiny with chrome and screaming "WITNESS ME," it's difficult not to feel some respect for it.
Even so, a neon color palette and tentacle hair wouldn't mean much were that Splatoon's only distinction, but fortunately much of its gameplay stands out as well. Functioning as both a weapon and resource, ink is the central focus of the game. Every pull of the trigger, throw of a grenade or launch of a missile splashes more bodily fluid across the land than Courtney Love. But the ink does more than just strip enemies and the environment of their dignity; at the push of a button your kid-squid goes full calamari, vanishing into the ink and allowing quick and stealthy travel across any coated surface. This creates plenty of opportunities for ambushes and quick repositioning, meaning there's an actual joy to movement here that, Titanfall excepted, hasn't really been present in the genre. The fact that every multiplayer mode centers around marking more territory than a dog with an overactive bladder furthers pushes the concept, allowing players to contribute even if they can't fight the enemy head on. It gets to the point that by the end of most matches the stage ends up looking like Jackson Pollock's nightmares.
Meanwhile, the single player campaign makes no attempt to bring sanity to the proceedings. After a bug-eyed, sewer dwelling hobo spews conspiracy theories at you until you agree to help just so he quiets down, your teenage mutant squid soldier is sent off through vast underground caverns linked by tea kettles in order to rescue a bunch of fish from the evil octopus hordes. It makes just as little sense as it sounds, and after grabbing a few collectables to fill in backstory, it becomes clear that the whole thing is a deliberate middle finger towards popular western game stories. Although it is a pity they didn't put any more effort into the plot beyond that, as it ends up being almost as thoughtless as Mario's daily princess rescue.
While it's clear Nintendo could still learn a few things from other companies, particularly how to run their network on something other than Morse code, they've managed to do far more good than bad here. The free regular map releases are just the final poke in the eye to standard industry practice, making it another refreshing change from the games that prefer to section off parts of the community until they've wrung every last dime from player's wallets. And at least when Nintendo steals your lunch money they leave you a happy meal toy in its place.
In case you missed it, you can read our Splatoon review here.