E3 Hands on: Splatoon, Nintendo’s twistedly fun take on shooters

Metroid Prime aside, Nintendo has a history of notoriously ignoring shooting games, which are probably the most popular genre these days. Not anymore … sort of.

Splatoon is a bit of a white flag from Nintendo, but without any actual killing or true violence of any kind — and a roster full of girl players — it’s clear that Nintendo is still drumming to its own beat.

Story/Concept

About as much story as Mario. Like most Nintendo games, the story of Splatoon is about as deep and meaningful as its name, which combines the words Splat, Squid, and Platoon. It’s a perfect name for the game and describes the entire concept: who can cover the walls in the most ink. Splatoon (so far) is a perfect example of Nintendo’s approach to games, built around one fundamental gameplay idea: Whichever team has the highest percentage of ink at the end of a match, wins.

4 vs. 4. The E3 demo has only one mode, two competing teams of four players (each a girl that look like Pixar meets Jet Grind Radio). Each player is equipped with a Super Soaker full of a particular color of ink and must shoot the walls, floors, trees, objects, and ceilings (though this level had no ceilings) with ink. You can also shoot ink grenades to cover large areas at once, and charge up to shoot super blasts of ink with the equivalent of an ink rocket launcher.

Squid mode. The other big concept oddity is that your character looks like a person but can turn into an ink-swimming squid with the push of a button. In this mode, you can’t shoot anyone but can travel very quickly through your own ink, through objects and on walls, wherever your ink is (the other team’s ink really slows you down on foot and while swimming). You have to turn into a squid to recharge your ink gun.

Gameplay

Combining motion and traditional controls. The controls of Splatoon are the first I’ve seen that combine the GamePad’s gyro motion control with traditional dual-stick shooting. You can manage to play without using both control sticks, or without using the motion control, but the best players were those who figured out how to combine both at the same time, moving the control sticks while moving the controller too. We hope more games implement this dual-control setup, though it does take a minute to adjust to it.

Your GamePad is your map. Knowing where enemy ink is will win the game for you. Nintendo has put a real-time map of the stage on the GamePad’s screen. This lets you see exactly where you’re weak, where enemies have penetrated your defenses, or let you helplessly watch as everything you’ve inked is repainted by the opposing team. 

Splatoon 3

Shooting other players isn’t the goal. Splatoon is a shooter and you definitely need to shoot other players, but it’s not your primary goal. You can only win the E3 demo by having the most ink on the most gameplay space, so both teams end up trying to shoot over each other’s ink, kill each other, and invade each other’s territory in the name of repainting (or “inking”) the place.

Teamwork wins. Winning teams on the E3 show floor seem to be groups of friends who figure out how to delegate responsibilities. We saw teams who had a person dedicated to killing the other team, one who defended the homeland and inked all the walls thoroughly, and others who concentrated on re-inking rooms covered by enemy ink. The best teams created ink paths that allowed teammates to quickly swim around to the front line. There’s also a cool feature that lets you jump to where any of your players are, as soon as you respawn. (normally, you spawn at your team’s base).

Presentation

Art style and theme needs work. The cartoony style may remind you of a twisted version of Super Mario Sunshine or De Blob, but the art style of Splatoon isn’t on par with either of those games. Right now, the gameplay is amazingly tight and interesting, but the settings and characters (a part of presentation!) need a little work if the game is going to become a hit. Casting women is awesome, but they need a little more personality. Currently, every character looks the same, and the level in the E3 demo is urban and lifeless.

Online chat solution needed. For a team-based game like this to work, Nintendo needs to implement a good chatting system like the one present in the PS4. The Wii U GamePad has a microphone and speaker in it, but Nintendo hasn’t revealed any way for players online to communicate during matches. Readers, if you know how Nintendo plans to implement voice chat in this or other games, let us know in the comments.

Takeaway

Splatoon is a fantastic E3 demo and is off to a good start. Nintendo has until mid 2015 to sort out the rest of the game’s modes, and we’re hopeful that it has a few more creative ideas up its sleeve. Though the theme and art style leaves something to be desired, it’s really refreshing to see a new take on team-based shooting. The genre is tired, but trying to cover the ground in paint  is a simple idea that changes everything. Here’s to hoping Nintendo nails the online experience and chatting so that this is a game that attracts new players to the Wii U, not just caters to a few hardcore Nintendo fans.

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