The very first image you see on your television after starting up Splatoon is not the sharp-toothed grin of the main character, or a big chunky logo, but what looks like the inside of an apartment. This is the “splash screen,” an image to pique your interest while the software loads. The decision to show a spare, near-abstract version of a room exemplifies the angle which Nintendo and its developers are taking with their first attempt at a squad-based— make that a squid-based—shooter: Like much in this game, what you get is not what you expected.
We see a room—could be in a residence hall, or a child’s house, or a bachelor pad. The inhabitant’s desk is littered with detritus, flyers are pinned to the wall, the walls covered with art drawn in a moment of inspiration. A chair-back shaped in the distinctive curving point of a squid’s head hints at the protagonist’s species. Look carefully and an iPod-like device (iCephalopod?) sits on the bed, earbuds dangling. Our first glimpse of this place personifies the action to come: Splatoon is not about Kill/Death ratios and the incessant load-out possibilities of the modern shooter; this is about territory, the ground on which we stand (or swim), and the importance of claiming it as our own.
Many modern blockbuster games plant their flag in an earth sodden with blood. Maturity is somehow based on the spouting of words first giggled aloud in grade school. Human beings become anonymous targets: torsos yield to the spurting fire of chainguns; necks are a fleshy nuisance to be stabbed; heads pop, the ultimate water balloon of grey matter and gristle. It should have been obvious: that a genre treating the human brain as the ultimate bulls-eye would become so lifeless and dumb.
Into this loud amphitheater of testosterone swims Splatoon. The tenets of a third-person shooter are here, but squirted upon with a rainbow of paint then smeared outside the established lines. You do run and jump and shoot, but you do so as an Inkling, a half-human / half-squid monstrosity that is, against all common sense, adorable. Choose a Girl character and two head-tentacles dangle like pigtails. Both Boy or Girl have normal human hands, the better to grip an array of Super Soaker-like weaponry, but upon smiling they show off a trio of razor-sharp squid teeth. They should be the stuff of nightmares. Instead, the duo has inspired instant fan art and loving parodies.
The main attraction at least initially is an online mode called “Turf War.” As the name implies, your goal is to cover a majority of the ground with your team’s colored ink. Each round is a four-on-four sprint around an industrial setting like a warehouse or the inside of a shopping mall. At the end of the timed match, an obese cat named Judd whose chest-fur resembles a bowtie calculates the percentage of coverage and anoints a winner.
During battle, you transform between your human and squid forms. The trick is that your ammunition is your cover and your transit. Shoot a line of ink up a wall then morph into a squid; you dive below the surface, replenishing your ink reservoir and making you invisible from enemies. Not only that, you can now swim quickly up the steep incline and revert to human form, ready to spray the surroundings below.
Splatoon’s suite of possibilities, be it during online competitions or a surprisingly robust single-player excursion, is a campaign to squeeze every last drop of creativity out of a single idea: “You don’t shoot bullets; you shoot ink. Because you are part squid.”
Ink oozes. So how about an enemy that’s a giant rubber stamp and when it jumps and lands, the area effect isn’t some abstract wave of energy or shrapnel but a wet blossom of goo?
Ink is a liquid. So what if you can shoot through metal grates, and your “bullets” drip down walls?
Ink can be different colors. So instead of running through one big grey-brown morass of dirt clods and rusted oil drums, why not have the action itself (shooting colored ink) reconfigure your environment? As the enemies’ dark purple and your vibrant orange splatter your surroundings, the squid equivalent of G.I.Joe laser guns or Star Wars’ color-coded lightsabers, the arena changes: what once was a safe haven is now a poisonous pool; that steep incline is now a traversable path up to higher ground, the better to snipe some Octolings (your half-human / half-octopus nemeses).
There is a tongue-in-beak story about a thousand-year war and how all this fighting began. In a series of escalating solo missions you uncover clues to the past: no voice-acting needed here to pretend these digital actors matter; instead, have some found pamphlets or unearthed photography, hints at why all this ink is being squirted in the first place. But the reason matters little. The doing feels so good. Like all of Nintendo’s best games, simply moving through the world is enticement enough. Whether you win or lose is immaterial. Online matches are scored with typical shoulder-shrugging whimsy: Whichever team you are on is labeled, “The Good Guys.” But on the TV screen of your opponent? You and your nefarious squad are The Bad Guys. There’s a pretty powerful lesson there, the same one kids know when playing pretend on blacktop during recess: the same one adults forget when clouded by ethnocentrism and patriotic fervor.
As you earn money you can upgrade your weapons and, seemingly more important to the game, your fashion sense. You don’t navigate sterile menus but instead drop into stores with sliding doors. The shop owners are characterized better than most other games’ story companions. The hat seller is shy, her burbling voice trailing off in anxiety, but a clown fish that lives in her hair is a loud-mouth jerk. The shoe salesman is a shrimp with dozens of shoes on each tiny foot; he also wears a tempura vest. The clothing shopkeeper is a jellyfish who speaks like a non-native English speaker brought up by Frank Oz. The weapon dealer has coke-bottle glasses and wears a helmet that’s actually his shell; he’s a helmet crab, you see.
I could go on, talking about the bright holographic veneer of the main hub plaza where you see other Inklings lollygagging about, the thumping music that ebbs and fades with proximity, the far-off airplanes and skyscrapers that don’t provide stilted narrative answers but instead prompt something much more valuable: curiosity and wonder. More than anything, Splatoon offers up a non-confrontational challenge to the industry. This is what we can do, it says, before sinking into its own fluid and skittering away.
Games in the ubiquitous shooter genre heralded as fresh or innovative now feel like old wounds stickered over with glitter tape. Far Cry: Blood Dragon was embraced for its wit and verve; all I remember is the tutorial and the self-aware protagonist who, upon realizing he was stuck in a tutorial, remarks, “Fuck.”
The closest thing to a shake-up in the third-person shooter field has been Sunset Overdrive. Yet even that oozed with festering, pus-bloated zombie things blasted by a hero straight out of central casting for a Mountain Dew commercial circa 1993.
The reigning champion of shooters and mass-market gaming, Call of Duty, invokes a dead-serious war for greed and power, its annual landscape seeded by the bodies of innocents. Gears of War was arguably the last shooter to ignite a wave of copycats and herald a new generation of visual fidelity; its best idea, attaching a chainsaw to a gun, is a microcosm of the genre’s stagnancy over the last decade. With today’s high-powered machines, we can do anything. Over and over we choose to make, in the elegant words of Reggie Watts, a fuck shit stack.
Splatoon is not trying to corral unearned cool points with obscenity. Splatoon does not push us to accept its weirdness. Splatoon merely opens its suction-cupped palms to the sky and says, “Here,” and we graciously accept, parched by the years of dusty, war-torn, bone-dry purveyors of damage masquerading as games. Each waterfall was in fact an oasis. Instead, Splatoon showers us with a heavy goop that feels amniotic. We emerge, new and refreshed. We are all squids now.
Splatoon was developed and published by Nintendo. It is available for the Wii U.
Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.