The common slur against Nintendo is that it’s a company for kids. There is no blood in Zelda or tire degradation in Mario Kart or sex in Animal Crossing. Unfortunately, this accusation mostly sticks as Nintendo is much more kid-friendly compared to other publishers. But that doesn’t necessitate a lack of rewarding gameplay or aesthetic innovation. The brilliance of Nintendo is that it makes games that are enjoyable for all ages and skillsets.
Enter Splatoon 2, the sequel to the small-time hit for the Wii U. The first game, while excellent in its own right, suffered from a content-limited launch on a too-small platform. But it did reach prominence as a rare thing—a family friendly multiplayer shooter from Nintendo. Gameplay centered around covering the map with a variety of paint-based weapons and, if needed, splatting your enemy in the process. The team with the most territory painted won the round. It was a novel mechanic that mixed up a stale genre, allowing for both passive and combative play.
Splatoon 2 is much the same as its predecessor. For most sequels, that would lead to judgments of mediocrity or stagnancy, and that is a valid concern as the core mechanic, overarching aesthetic, and hub structure are identical to the first game. But where Splatoon felt like a well-executed test run, Splatoon 2 plays like a full-blown, triple-A release. It hits with an overwhelming amount of charm saturating multiple game modes and backed by extensive community support. Add to that the portable versatility of the Nintendo Switch and you have a bonafide console hit.
What makes the whole thing really work, besides the back-of-the-box features list, is the endless amount of charm. Splatoon 2 is the continuation of Nintendo’s belief that games should be fun. F-U-N. FUN. An easy premise, but an absolute outlier in an era dominated by brown and grey pixel perfect graphics and characters that endlessly mope about. Forget about the “cinematic gameplay” of The Order: 1866, the pubescent edginess of Gears of War, the endless jump scares of Five Nights at Freddy’s—Nintendo is out to prove that games can be cute, colorful, and compelling. Splatoon 2 is, unsurprisingly, all three to a tee.
90s Nickelodeon is the easiest inspiration analogy for the Splatoon art style: paint that moves like slime, levels that look like Guts. Add to it the TRL-like Inkopolis Square broadcasts and a saccharine Hatsune Miku toy commercial soundtrack and you end up with an oddly familiar setting, one that is populated by quirky anthropomorphic aquatics dropping puns and “dad jokes.” It’s hard to explore such a light, fun, and playful atmosphere without sporting a smile.
Thankfully, the gameplay satisfies as much as the style. Multiplayer is the main focus with several modes offered, including the usual unranked territory mode and king of the hill/capture the flag ranked modes. However, the tentpole addition for Splatoon 2 is the new co-op mode called Salmon Run. It offers what is arguably the best implementation of the wave-based staple of modern shooters. Players work together as a team of four with randomized loadouts to collect golden eggs from invading mini-bosses, each with their own special attacks and weaknesses. Matches last three rounds at 100 seconds per and feature spontaneous events with escalating difficulty. It’s brilliantly quick and maddening without the long-term commitment of most other games.
And yes, Splatoon 2 does have a single player campaign, one that is surprisingly good. The story, though rather simplistic, is told through witty dialogue and cutesy cutscenes. The levels are varied and iterative, introducing new gimmicks and then modifying them, again and again, in a way that makes every single one of the game’s 25-plus missions feel unique. But perhaps the best part of the campaign is that it feels like the world’s longest tutorial… in a good way.
Much like how Titanfall 2’s single player story introduced the player to each of the game’s varied titan types, Splatoon 2 uses its many missions to force the player to adapt. Most have a mandatory weapon for the initial playthrough that are coupled with how the level is designed. It’s a great design technique that the best games include—give the player a new tool or weapon, teach them how to use it, and then force them to experiment with every complexity of the mechanic.
Splatoon 2 is full of that same surprising depth. Weapon variety is the best example, providing all sorts of approaches to painting the turf and/or splatting the enemy. There are the expected projectile weapons that are paint simulacra of machine guns, sniper rifles, and dual-wielded SMGs. But there are even more unique weapons, from the paint roller that kills on contact to the bucket full of paint that drenches large patches with a single toss. The plethora of weapon types and subsets make it impossible for any single match to feel boring or dull given the variety that you can wield and/or face.
There are also gear-based abilities that play an increasing role in multiplayer matches. Each trendy shoe, shirt, or hat has one to three ability slots that unlock with play. The abilities provide small benefits, such as a slightly quicker respawn or better ink efficiency with your main weapon. Properly building-up your gear abilities and pairing it with the right weapon sets up an almost endless amount of play styles. Prefer stealth melee combat? Equip abilities that remove your swim trail and radar trace and dash right up to the enemy with the deadly octobrush. Love to paint? Increase your ink refill rate and run speed and carbon roller your way to victory. It’s the kind of depth that is rewarding without being limiting.
Unfortunately, Splatoon 2 is not a perfect game. Most of the weapon and gear choices are burdened by an unnecessary complexity of systems. Changing weapons requires backing-out of matchmaking entirely. Favorite loadouts can only be saved to physical Amiibo, and gaining/upgrading/customizing your gear requires meddling with a half-dozen different currencies. It’s the sort of requisite fiddling that only serves to complicate a player’s intended actions even after they have become intimately familiar with the game.
Nintendo’s lack of multiplayer experience painfully shows through in Splatoon 2. Partying up with friends is a Byzantine nightmare of menus and multiple devices, and if you want to add voice chat, be prepared to use a sister smartphone app with battery-killing restrictions. For a game whose two main emphasis are “fun” and “multiplayer,” playing with friends is anything but. Splatoon 2 is an incredibly fun game to play, but only if you are by yourself.
While the hub area does have it’s own reincarnation of the Wii U’s ill-fated Miiverse, a vast majority of the posts are machine-sketched by online influencers and “memers” advertising their brand. Or, even worse, sexualized drawings of animals courtesy of fur fandom. The appeal of in-game user drawings is weakened when plastered with obscure references and psuedo-celebrity portraits.
Splatoon 2 is a fantastic game marred by half-assed systems. There is plenty to enjoy, both online and off, but be prepared for a handful of design choices that are painful and, in some cases, downright limiting. Thankfully the good outweighs the bad; if you own a Switch or love multiplayer shooters, you should be playing Splatoon 2.
PUBLISHER – Nintendo | DEVELOPER – Nintendo EPD | ESRB – E10 | PLATFORMS – Nintendo Switch
Recommend – Splatoon 2 is the best and brightest of modern multiplayer shooters. It offers colorful charm, deep gameplay, and compelling online/offline content in a wonderfully portable package.