Come for the ink gun fights but stay for the stylish fashion, awesome music, and thriving fandom.
A few weeks before Splatoon 2 was launched, my friend asked me: “why am I being flooded with squid fan art on my Twitter feed??”
“Oh, everyone’s excited about Splatoon 2,” I explained, “it’s an online competitive team-based shooter for the Nintendo Switch, but instead of shooting to kill, you have ink guns to paint territory. Also, everyone is a kid who is also a squid who is also a kid.”
After staring at me blankly for a full minute, she replied, “That’s dumb, I hate stressful games where you fight other players, and I’m blocking #Splatoon tweets forever.” Ah well. It’s a shame my friend stopped my explanation prematurely, because I had so many great things to say about this game: its stylish youthful fashion aesthetics, the catchy music, the deceptively intuitive gameplay, the vibrant online community, and so much more.
But I’m getting ahead of myself – let’s start this review of Nintendo’s quirky and colourful game with a proper introduction.
Splatoon 2 is primarily an online game where two teams of four players face each other in “Turf Wars”. Instead of wielding deadly guns and shooting to kill, everyone has colourful weapons that splatter ink, and the goal is to paint the arena so it has more of your team’s colours than the enemy’s.
To add to this unconventional setup, your character is an Inkling – a kid who in battle can transform into a squid to swim through ink, and who outside of Turf Wars spends their time hanging out in the Shibuya-esque centre of fashion that is Inkopolis Square, listening to the music of the city’s hottest pop idols.
If you’ve played the original Splatoon on the Wii U, then there’s not much new here to surprise you. However, given how rare Wii U owners are, it’s worth explaining a baseline for Nintendo’s eccentric premise that so casually upends common competitive shooter tropes.
The most important thing I need to point out about Splatoon 2 – more so than its stylish aesthetics and slick shooter/painter mechanics – is that it’s an incredible introduction to the competitive team-based game genre. You can be a casual gamer, a genre newbie, or – like myself – completely averse to online PvP games, yet still have gallons of fun. Take my aforementioned friend as an example: after watching me play, she decided to try a few rounds of Turf War. Not only did she have fun, she actually won quite a few rounds despite being an absolute newbie.
New Squids on the Block
There are two main reasons for this easy introduction: first, the rules for the game are pretty simple to intuit. My friend just painted ink wherever she didn’t see her team’s colours and avoided any direct confrontation with enemy players, and this is just as valid a strategy as rushing into enemy territory with a Splat Roller (a comically huge paint roller) or carefully coordinating a safe advance for your team as you snipe enemy Inklings with a Splat Charger.
Sure, deeper strategies, trained reflexes, and team communication matter when you’re going for the advanced Ranked or League battles, where the standard rules are replaced with variants like Splat Zones (point control). However, for a casual player like my friend, she didn’t need to worry about mastering an optimal weapon loadout; the synergies between her gear’s abilities and her Sub Weapons/Special Weapons; or the crazy map-traversing stunts she can pull off on some of the more eclectically-designed maps.
(Heck, the most difficult decision a casual gamer needs to worry about is choosing which kickass hat/shirt/shoes makes her Inkling stand out from the crowd – in this game, fashion and looking cool matters.)
Second, Splatoon 2 is one of the least stressful PvP games I’ve ever played. Regular matches only last for about three minutes, so even if you lose a game, it won’t take too long to jump back in and try again. More importantly, the distinct lack of built-in voice chat* means you’ll never need to worry about the depressingly common situations where insane opponents scream expletives at you, or toxic teammates yell at you about how you “should” play the game.
(*If you do want voice chat – erm, maybe you like yelling at teammates? – you’ll need to download the free Nintendo Switch Online app for Android/iOS, and even then, you can only chat with friends.)
Running with salmons
If you want a break from Splatoon 2’s main course of multiplayer PvP combat, the game also offers two alternative modes. The cooperative Salmon Run – newly introduced in Splatoon 2 – is a frantic “horde mode” where you work together in a team of four to fend off swarms of AI-controlled salmon- mutants while you simultaneously try to harvest their eggs.
Like regular Turf War battles, you’ll find that most players instinctively gravitate towards the tasks they need to perform, and a great deal of teamwork happens without anyone explicitly communicating. Strangely, this mode is only available on an erratic schedule, so don’t expect to play this all the time.
Meanwhile, Splatoon 2’s single player mode is perhaps its most undersold and understated feature of the game. It’s basically Super Mario 3D, if Mario had an ink gun. The “story” per se sees your character helping out Marie (one of the two pop idols/battle hosts of the original Splatoon) secretly fight off an army of Octarians (mutant octopodes), rescue the kidnapped Great Zapfish that powers Inkopolis, and find out what happened to her cousin/co-host Callie.
Yeah, the plot is Nintendo-levels of crazy, but the level designs are Nintendo-levels of creative. Each stage is an imaginative obstacle course full of neat little twists (and secrets to unlock), so one stage will see you sniping enemies while you grind on rails, while another has you dodging enemy fire while bouncing off inflatables.
While the various game modes are superbly enjoyable and show off Nintendo’s ability to finely polish gameplay until the fun shines through, they aren’t why I love Splatoon. Instead, the best thing about Splatoon is the fan culture that forms around it – while other games have stories that get you immersed in their world, Splatoon’s energetic culture is so colourful and delightfully messy that it splatters itself into our real world.
The epitome of this culture is the regular “battle festivals” known as Splatfests: every now and then, Inkopolis’ favourite pop idols and event announcers – the sassy Pearl and the cool Marina – will declare duelling themes, and each player must choose a side between Cake vs Ice Cream, or Cats vs Dogs, or Pirates vs Ninjas, or whatnot.
As the festival draws near, anticipation builds both in-game and out. In Inkopolis Square, crowds of Inklings gather as a performance stage and neon signs begin to be set up. Your screen will be full of excited graffiti shared by other players. Outside, in the real world, expect eager fans to post their artwork which extols the awesomeness of their side.
Then, on the day of the Splatfest itself, everything explodes in a glorious crescendo of neon colours: the game’s lobby turns into a virtual party with singing pop idols, while in the Turf Wars, the two sides duke it out to determine which team’s the best. It’s an exhilarating whirlwind of competitive energy, and yet after everything’s done, everyone goes back to being friends again. It was a genuine fight, definitely, but it’s really just for fun.
This is the spirit of friendly competition that forms the heart of Splatoon, and the reason I’d happily recommend the game to anyone, not just hardcore PvP gamers.
Fresh and off the hook
Splatoon 2 is another unique – and extremely enjoyable – achievement from Nintendo. Just like how Mario Kart 8 is a friendly, everyone-can-play introduction to what’s actually an expertly designed competitive racing experience, Splatoon 2 is a great way for new players to try out competitive team shooters.
Then, once those players have gotten their feet wet with the splatting mechanics, it’s easy for them to get hooked by the game’s colourful world that’s just bursting with character and style, becoming huge fans of Splatoon’s awesome pop idols, impeccable fashion sense, fantastic-yet-indecipherable music, and, heck, even the endless squiddy puns. It’s just inkredible.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go check on my friend – I think I saw her tweeting some new squid art.
Pros: A great introduction to competitive team games; it’s bursting at the seams with youthful energy and flair.
Cons: Not really a con, but be aware that while the Switch’s online service is free right now, you’ll need to pay for access starting next year.
Competitive team-based shooter for the Nintendo Switch
Rating: 4.5 stars
Price: USD$59.99 (RM256)